About Anthropology

What is Anthropology

Anthropology is the study of humankind, of ancient and modern people and their ways of living. The word anthropology itself tells the basic story--from the Greek anthropos ("human") and logia ("study")--it is the study of humankind, from its beginnings millions of years ago to the present day.

Nothing human is alien to anthropology. Indeed, of the many disciplines that study our species, Homo sapiens, only anthropology seeks to understand the whole panorama--in geographic space and evolutionary time--of human existence.

Though easy to define, anthropology is difficult to describe. Its subject matter is both exotic (e.g., star lore of the Australian aborigines) and commonplace (anatomy of the foot). And its focus is both sweeping (the evolution of language) and microscopic (the use-wear of obsidian tools). Anthropologists may study ancient Mayan hieroglyphics, the music of indigenous Amazonians, and the corporate culture of a U.S. high-tech firm. 

But always, the common goal links these vastly different projects: to advance knowledge of who we are, how we came to be that way--and where we may go in the future.

Evolutionary Perspective

As a field, anthropology brings an explicit, evolutionary approach to the study of human behavior. Each of anthropology's four main subfields--sociocultural, biological, archaeology, and linguistic anthropology--acknowledges that Homo has a long evolutionary history that must be studied if one is to know what it means to be a human being.

Ethnology (Cultural Anthropology)

In North America the discipline's largest branch, cultural anthropology, applies the comparative method and evolutionary perspective to human culture. Culture represents the entire database of knowledge, values, and traditional ways of viewing the world, which we transmit from one generation ahead to the next--nongenetically, apart from DNA--through words, concepts, and symbols. People engage with the world and with one another by putting this cultural heritage into play, constantly changing culture as received ideas come into contact with ever-shifting realities, and as meanings and practices are contested among persons or groups with differential access to power.

Cultural anthropologists study humans through a descriptive lens called the ethnographic method, based on participant observation, in tandem with face-to-face interviews, normally conducted in the native tongue. Ethnographers compare what they see and hear themselves with the observations and findings of studies conducted in other societies. Originally, anthropologists pieced together a complete way of life for a culture, viewed as a whole. Today, the more likely focus is on a narrower aspect of cultural life, such as economics, politics, religion or art, and to focus on contemporary issues such as economics, politics, religion or art, and to focus on contemporary issues such as inequality and human rights. 

Cultural anthropologists seek to understand the internal logic of another society. Their work helps outsiders make sense of behaviors that, like face painting or scarification, may seem bizarre or senseless. Through the comparative method an anthropologist learns to avoid "ethnocentrism," the tendency to interpret strange customs on the basis of preconceptions derived from one's own cultural background. Moreover, this same process helps us see our own society through fresh eyes.

We can turn the principle around and see our everyday surroundings in a new light, with the same sense of wonder and discovery anthropologists experience when studying life in a Mexican village or an African city. Though many picture cultural anthropologists thousands of miles from home residing in thatched huts and interviewing "natives," growing numbers now study U.S. groups instead, applying anthropological perspectives to their own culture and society.

Linguistic Anthropology

One aspect of culture holds a special fascination for most anthropologists: language--hallmark of the human species. The organization of systems of sound into language has enabled Homo sapiens to transcend the limits of individual memory. Speech is the most efficient medium of communication since DNA for transmitting information across generations. It is upon language that culture itself depends--and within language that humanity's knowledge resides.


Fortunately, the human record is written not only in alphabets and books, but is preserved in other kinds of material remains--in cave paintings, pictographs, discarded stone tools, earthenware vessels, religious figurines, abandoned baskets--which is to say, in tattered shreds and patches of ancient societies. Archaeologists interpret this often fragmentary but fascinating record to reassemble long-ago cultures and forgotten ways of life. New techniques for recovering and analyzing traces of ancient environments and long-ago human actions are expanding the field far beyond the collection of pots and stone tools.

Archaeologists, long interested in the classical societies of Greece, Rome, and Egypt, have extended their studies in two directions--backward some 3 million years to the bones and stone tools of our protohuman ancestors, and forward to the reconstruction of lifeways and communities of 19th-century America. Regarding the latter, many archaeologists work in the growing field of cultural resource management, to help federal, state, and local governments preserve our nation's architectural, historical, and cultural heritage.

Biological Anthropology

Biological (or physical) anthropology looks at Homo sapiens as a genus and species, tracing its biological origins, evolutionary development, and genetic diversity. Biological anthropologists study the biocultural prehistory of Homo to understand human nature and, ultimately, the evolution of the brain and nervous system itself. Some biological anthropologists observe other primate species to better understand human history and the similarities and differences between us and our nearest relatives. Others reconstruct the history of human populations, such as changes over time in health, mortality, and reproductive behavior. Still others study living people, seeking solutions to contemporary problems such as obesity and diabetes, or unequal access to health care.