What is Anthropology?

While working a school fair and representing “Anthropology” as a whole and as a major, I met many students who did not know what anthropology was and what it meant. I feel it is important for people to understand exactly what it entails and the potential it has for better understanding the human condition and what makes us who we are.

Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present.

  • It draws and builds upon knowledge from the social, biological, and physical sciences, as well as the humanities
  • A central concern is the application of knowledge to solving human problems
  • There are four subfields: cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics
  • These four subfields are most often integrated into the research and teaching of many anthropologists in many different ways

Cultural Anthropology focuses on social patterns/practices across cultures, how they live, and how they create meaning.

  • It analyzes the similarities and differences between cultures
  • It emphasizes participant observation in which the researcher places themselves within the context of the research to get a first-hand look at and experience of local knowledge
  • There are many topics focused on, but to name a few – education, ecology, work, health, power, social change, economy, and many others

Physical (Biological) Anthropology focuses on human biological origins, evolution and variation, how biological and cultural processes interact, and development and behavior.

  • Most current attention is given to evolutionary theory, our place as humans, and biological variation
  • These topics can be studied through:
    • Primatology (the study of primates – living or dead)
    • Fossils (paleoanthropology)
    • Prehistoric People (Bioarchaeology)
    • Biology (health, cognition, hormones, growth and development)
    • Genetics

Archaeology focuses on past people and cultures through the analysis of material remains.

  • Material remains can include items like pottery, stone tools, and structures (and more!)
  • These remains give archaeologists ideas of social patterns, ideology, subsistence, and environmental interaction through theoretical analysis
  • It assumes continuity over time, but understand each society has its own particular history

Linguistics focuses on language and how it reflects and influences social life.

  • In many schools linguistics is lumped together with cultural anthropology, but has differences in many ways
  • It explores how language defines patterns of communication, formulates social identity, organizes cultural beliefs, and connects people
  • It is also concerned with power, inequality and social change through language and discourse.


It is easy to see how each of these subfields can interact with each other. While anthropology already has these four areas of focus, they often draw on other disciplines to strengthen their knowledge and better understand aspects of their research. Anthropology is important for understand the human condition: who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

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Sources: Overview, Photo

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