Anthropology is the act of studying humans, human behaviors, and societies both in the past and in the present. It is a broad discipline that covers virtually all the fields of life including social sciences and natural sciences. In fact, such broad diversity is one of the main concerns of the various fields of anthropology. Humans are complex beings whose biology, society, and culture all interact in many ways. Identifying and understanding these interactions can help us to improve our interactions with one another. By increasing mutual understanding of our differences, it leads to more peaceful relationships and successful economies. Before looking into the different fields of anthropology itself, the following is brief look at the history of the field and its impacts on society.
Table of Contents
History of Anthropology
The modern study of anthropology came into being in the 1860’s in Europe. Advances in biology, philology, and prehistoric archaeology spurred its creation. Another factor encouraging its birth was the interaction of European explorers with diverse groups of people in Asia and America.
Scientific discoveries also contributed to rise of anthropology. For example, the observations of Charles Darwin were crucial. In his book, The Origin of Species (1859), he stated that all forms of life share a common ancestry. People began to associate fossils with particular geologic strata, leading to the discovery of fossils of recent human ancestors. Of particular importance was the first Neanderthal specimen discovered in 1856.
In 1871, Darwin also published the The Descent of Man. It argued that human beings have a common ancestor specifically with the giant African apes. He also identified the defining characteristic of the human species as their relatively large brain size, and deduced that the evolutionary advantage of the human species is intelligence. This intelligence then gave rise to the language and technology of today.
Understanding of anthropology and its fields has changed over time and not always been uniform across the world. You can imagine how colonists from Europe looking to dominate the world might have a biased view of the discoveries they were making. And the same is true of any isolated group looking at information for their own gain. The source of discoveries is important, and itself must be taken into consideration.
With this in mind, the following sections discuss the four main fields of anthropology that continue to develop today. They include sociocultural, biological, archaeological, and linguistic. There is also an additional section on general anthropology. It is common in university classes, and gives an overview of the main branches and how they work together.
General Anthropology Fields and Sub-Fields
General anthropology refers to the entirety of anthropology without narrowing it down to certain social or natural sciences. It provides students with a theoretical foundation into the significant sub-fields of anthropology, namely: linguistic, biological, archaeological, and cultural anthropology. General anthropology focuses mainly on the holistic nature and introductory training for the various fields above.
At its core, anthropology builds upon knowledge from natural sciences. For example, it looks at biological variations among different groups of people, discoveries about the origin and evolution of homo sapiens, and how evolution has affected social organizations and culture. In the area of social sciences, it looks at the organization of human social and cultural relationships and institutions. Additionally, anthropology contributes to the development of new interdisciplinary fields such as international relations.
There are several distinct branches of anthropology that the remainder of this article discusses. Social and cultural anthropology deal with societal norms and values. Linguistic anthropology looks at how a language can affect social lives and norms. Biological or physical anthropology deals with the development of humans through time. Lastly, archaeological anthropology looks away from the modern and into the past through finding and examining buried or abandoned physical records. In Europe, his last branch is considered its own field apart from anthropology.
While each of these fields looks at distinct areas of research and knowledge, they all rely heavily on fieldwork. Archaeology and biological anthropology often involve digging in the ground, while sociocultural and linguistic anthropology mean interacting with different social groups of people to understand them.
The Field of Sociocultural Anthropology
This branch of anthropology is based on the intersection of both social and cultural studies in the context of human development and interactions. The broader field can even be considered two sub-fields of social and cultural anthropology.
Cultural anthropology has to do with the comparative study of how people make sense of the world around them while social anthropology is the study of the relationships among people. Social anthropology is seeks to understand the lives of people in society and how people make their lives meaningful. It can also be defined as the comparative study of the different ways people live in societies and all their cultural settings.
As opposed to social anthropology which sees the cultural difference as an outcome of the common anthropological factor, cultural anthropology is interested in the different types of cultures and their variation, ranging from modern industrial states to primitive hunting bands. It is more inclined towards philosophy, literature, and the arts while social anthropology is more inclined towards sociology and history. But the two fields are often put together due to their similarities. This method is dominant throughout the United Kingdom and most of Europe.
You might see that there is often no clear distinction between the two terms and they overlap to a considerable degree. Hence the combined term “sociocultural.” Cultural anthropology is the discipline of anthropology that studies the human way of life and the cultural variations between humans. It aims to explore life from the broadest possible comparative point of view.
As a whole, the studies of kinship and social organization are major aspects of sociocultural anthropology. It also covers economic and political organization, law and conflict resolution, and patterns of consumption. The most important methods for achieving these studies include observing participants, conducting interviews, and making surveys.
Biological Anthropology Fields
Biological anthropology, also referred to as physical anthropology, is a discipline that focuses on the behavioral and biological aspects of human beings. Since humans have changed greatly over time, this includes the study of their ancestors and related non-human primates. This field combines biological studies and social studies to evaluate the evolution of homo sapiens.
Ultimately, it aims to understand the reasons for physical and perhaps even cultural diversity among humans. This involves looking at how humans adapt to various environments around the globe and how that adaptation changes them biologically and culturally. Factors such as the causes of various diseases and death in general are also important as they effect both evolution and culture around death.
These interactions between culture and biology shape society and our lives, and can explain some of the differences between different groups of people across the world. But perhaps the most interesting finding that the field of biological anthropology has given us is that humans are much more similar to one another than we are different. This idea has changed the way we think about some important divisive concepts such as race.
The field has a focus on human differentiation blends five areas of interest in biological anthropology:
- hominid evolution according to the fossil record
- human genetics
- growth and development of humans
- biological flexibility of humans
- biology and social life of apes, big monkeys and other non-human hominids.
This leads to a division of the broader biological field into various branches. These include paleoanthropology, human biology, primatology, human behavior ecology, evolutionary psychology, and more. All of them share the goal of understanding human behavior and biology in the grand schemes of the world and time.
The Field of Archaeological Anthropology
Archeology is a way by which the past of humans is studied through its material remains. These material remains provide evidence of the culture and lives of past societies. Archeology is primarily the study of human activity in the past through analyzing and recovering these materials which include architecture, artifacts, biofacts, and cultural landscapes.
One day, the artifacts we leave behind for future societies to find will likely be tons of plastic and rock layers that show pollution and deforestation. But the remains of the past usually are more subtle. People always made and used objects in ways that don’t happen in nature from other animals. We look for these signs, which can sometimes be as big as temples, roads, trash pits, or burial grounds. But other times the signs are very small, like iron nails or charred animal bones. Animal remains can reveal the age of animals when they died, their domestication status, and whether humans ate them. Landscapes can also indicated alteration by humans based on soil composition, changes in fauna, or even landscape shapes.
Archeological anthropology helps to reconstruct human behavior through the study and interpretations of these remains. Much of the study in the field centers around prehistoric times when written records did not exist. By examining material remains, archaeologists can deduce patterns of human behavior and cultural practices. The earliest time period of study in the field is that of the earliest humans from millions of years ago. The latest time period includes modern day. In these modern studies, ethno-archeology studies the practices and material remains of living human groups in order to gain a better understanding of the proof left behind by past human groups. Because it is likely that they lived in similar ways, it can give insights into modern living.
While exploring this field, keep in mind that linguistic anthropology is different from anthropological linguistics. The latter is a sub-field of linguistics, while anthropology and is concerned with the place of language in a wider social and cultural context, as well as its role in making and maintaining societal structures and cultural practices. But, the two fields do have significant overlap. There is even some debate about whether anthropological linguistics maintains its own separate definition.
Linguistic anthropology helps to understand and explain the process of human verbal and non-verbal communications, variation in languages, and the relationship between language and culture. It uses linguistic methods to solve anthropological problems by linking the analysis of linguistic forms and processes to the interpretation of sociocultural processes.
Linguistic anthropology is an interdisciplinary study of the different ways by which language influences the social life of individuals and society as a whole. It can also be defined as a branch of anthropology that studies and understands the role of language in the social lives of communities and Individuals.
Language and the ways that people communicate help in social identity and establishing cultural ideologies and beliefs. It can have effects on our perception of the world and how we relate to both it and each other. Thus, as language changes, often our perceptions and behaviors do as well.
The effects of language can span from individual characteristics to large-scale group interactions. They shape our own personal identities as well as forming cultural beliefs, ideologies, and a sense of belonging in larger groups. The term for this is identity through linguistic means, and it is one of the primary studies of the field. Two other main areas of study are contextual language and documentation of language through time.
As you can see, anthropology is as diverse as the human subjects it studies. Like history, it looks back throughout time. But unlike history, it focuses only on humans and tries to understand them on many complex levels. It takes into consideration the most human characteristics and qualities that can be difficult to understand through pure science or historical events. It seizes the opportunity to dive into the complications and subtleties that come with being human in an attempt to help us all improve our lives in the present and future.
You can learn more about each of the above fields by checking out the various articles on Direct Knowledge. They explore the topics in more depth, giving examples of current events and important people in the field. Through anthropology, you’ll likely learn more about yourself and other people than you would have thought possible.