What is Anthropology?
Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. To understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences. A central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems. Historically, anthropologists in the United States have been trained in one of four areas: sociocultural anthropology, biological/physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. Anthropologists often integrate the perspectives of several of these areas into their research, teaching, and professional lives.
- Sociocultural Anthropology
Sociocultural anthropologists examine social patterns and practices across cultures, with a special interest in how people live in particular places and how they organize, govern, and create meaning. A hallmark of sociocultural anthropology is its concern with similarities and differences, both within and among societies, and its attention to race, sexuality, class, gender, and nationality. Research in sociocultural anthropology is distinguished by its emphasis on participant observation, which involves placing oneself in the research context for extended periods of time to gain a first-hand sense of how local knowledge is put to work in grappling with practical problems of everyday life and with basic philosophical problems of knowledge, truth, power, and justice. Topics of concern to sociocultural anthropologists include such areas as health, work, ecology and environment, education, agriculture and development, and social change.
- Biological (or Physical) Anthropology
Biological anthropologists seek to understand how humans adapt to diverse environments, how biological and cultural processes work together to shape growth, development and behavior, and what causes disease and early death. In addition, they are interested in human biological origins, evolution and variation. They give primary attention to investigating questions having to do with evolutionary theory, our place in nature, adaptation and human biological variation. To understand these processes, biological anthropologists study other primates (primatology), the fossil record (paleoanthropology), prehistoric people (bioarchaeology), and the biology (e.g., health, cognition, hormones, growth and development) and genetics of living populations.
Archaeologists study past peoples and cultures, from the deepest prehistory to the recent past, through the analysis of material remains, ranging from artifacts and evidence of past environments to architecture and landscapes. Material evidence, such as pottery, stone tools, animal bone, and remains of structures, is examined within the context of theoretical paradigms, to address such topics as the formation of social groupings, ideologies, subsistence patterns, and interaction with the environment. Like other areas of anthropology, archaeology is a comparative discipline; it assumes basic human continuities over time and place, but also recognizes that every society is the product of its own particular history and that within every society there are commonalities as well as variation.
- Linguistic Anthropology
Linguistic anthropology is the comparative study of ways in which language reflects and influences social life. It explores the many ways in which language practices define patterns of communication, formulate categories of social identity and group membership, organize large-scale cultural beliefs and ideologies, and, in conjunction with other forms of meaning-making, equip people with common cultural representations of their natural and social worlds. Linguistic anthropology shares with anthropology in general a concern to understand power, inequality, and social change, particularly as these are constructed and represented through language and discourse.
Addressing complex questions, such as human origins, the past and contemporary spread and treatment of infectious disease, or globalization, requires synthesizing information from all four subfields. Anthropologists are highly specialized in our research interests, yet we remain generalists in our observations of the human condition and we advocate for a public anthropology that is committed to bringing knowledge to broad audiences. Anthropologists collaborate closely with people whose cultural patterns and processes we seek to understand or whose living conditions require amelioration. Collaboration helps bridge social distances and gives greater voice to the people whose cultures and behaviors anthropologists study, enabling them to represent themselves in their own words. An engaged anthropology is committed to supporting social change efforts that arise from the interaction between community goals and anthropological research. Because the study of people, past and present, requires respect for the diversity of individuals, cultures, societies, and knowledge systems, anthropologists are expected to adhere to a strong code of professional ethics.
Anthropologists are employed in a number of different sectors, from colleges and universities to government agencies, NGOs, businesses, and health and human services. Within the university, they teach undergraduate and graduate anthropology, and many offer anthropology courses in other departments and professional schools such as business, education, design, and public health. Anthropologists contribute significantly to interdisciplinary fields such as international studies and ethnic and gender studies, and some work in academic research centers. Outside the university, anthropologists work in government agencies, private businesses, community organizations, museums, independent research institutes, service organizations, the media; and others work as independent consultants and research staff for agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control, UNESCO, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank. More than half of all anthropologists now work in organizations outside the university. Their work may involve building research partnerships, assessing economic needs, evaluating policies, developing new educational programs, recording little-known community histories, providing health services, and other socially relevant activities. You will find anthropologists addressing social and cultural consequences of natural disasters, equitable access to limited resources, and human rights at the global level.
As you can see from the extensive list of sections within the American Anthropological Association, anthropologists have research interests that cut across academic and applied domains of scholarship. These domains reflect the many significant issues and questions that anthropologists engage today, their areas of employment, the locations around the world where they do research, and their commitment to using research results to improve lives. We invite you to explore the diversity of topics and approaches in this exciting field.