You are on page 1of 9

What is anthropology?

Anthropology is the study of people throughout the world, their evolutionary


history, how they behave, adapt to different environments, communicate and
socialise with one another. The study of anthropology is concerned both with
the biological features that make us human (such as physiology, genetic
makeup, nutritional history and evolution) and with social aspects (such as
language, culture, politics, family and religion). Whether studying a religious
community in London, or human evolutionary fossils in the UAE,
anthropologists are concerned with many aspects of peoples lives: the
everyday practices as well as the more dramatic rituals, ceremonies and
processes which define us as human beings. A few common questions posed
by anthropology are: how are societies different and how are they the same?
how has evolution shaped how we think? what is culture? are there human
universals? By taking the time to study peoples lives in detail,
anthropologists explore what makes us uniquely human. In doing so,
anthropologists aim to increase our understanding of ourselves and of each
other.

a. Four fields of Anthropology


1. Biological (or physical) anthropologists carry out systematic
studies of the non-cultural aspects of humans and near-humans. Noncultural refers to all of those biological characteristics that are
genetically inherited in contrast to learned. Near-human is a category
that includes monkeys, apes, and the other primates as well as our
fossil ancestors.
The primary interest of most biological
anthropologists today is human evolution--they want to learn how our
ancestors changed through time to become what we are today.
Biological anthropologists also are interested in understanding the
mechanisms of evolution and genetic inheritance as well as human
variation and adaptations to different environmental stresses, such as
those found at high altitudes and in environments that have
temperature extremes.
Biological anthropologists are usually involved in one of three different
areas
of
research:
human
biology,
primatology,
or
paleoanthropology. Human biology is concerned with learning about
human diversity, genetic inheritance patterns, non-cultural adaptations
to environmental stresses, and other biological characteristics of our
species, Homo
sapiens. Primatologists carry
out
non-human
primate studies. This is usually done in a natural setting among wild
apes, monkeys, and related animals. They are principally interested in
learning about the capabilities and behavior patterns of primates--our
closest living relatives. It is likely that the great apes in particular can
give us important clues to understanding the lives of our earliest
human
ancestors
over
2
million
years
ago. Paleoanthropologists recover the fossil record of early humans
and their primate ancestors in order to understand the path of our
evolution.
In doing this, they often work with geologists,
paleozoologists, and scientists with other specialties who help them
reconstruct ancient environments.

2. Cultural (or socio-cultural) anthropologists are interested in


learning about the cultural aspects of human societies all over the
world. They usually focus their research on such things as the social
and political organizations, marriage patterns and kinship systems,
subsistence and economic patterns, and religious beliefs of different
societies. Most cultural anthropologists study contemporary societies
rather than ancient ones. Through the 19th and most of the 20th
centuries, the peoples who primarily interested cultural anthropologists
were those who lived in small-scale, isolated societies with cultures
that were very different from those of Europeans and European
Americans. African, American Indian, and Pacific Island societies were
often the subject of their research. Today, they are equally likely to
study subcultures of modern, large-scale societies such as Southeast
Asian Hmong families now living in St. Paul, Minnesota, Mexican
neighborhoods in Southern California, or conservative Old Order Amish
communities in rural Pennsylvania.
We are living in a period of unprecedented social and cultural change
around the globe, and the rate of change is accelerating as a result of
our rapid population growth and technological invention, especially in
transportation and communication. All of the completely isolated
societies of the past have long since been drawn into the global
economy and heavily influenced by the dominant cultures of the large
nations. As a consequence, it is likely that 3/4 of the languages in the
world today will become extinct as spoken languages by the end of the
21st century. Many other cultural traditions will be lost as well.
Cultural and linguistic anthropologists have worked diligently to study
and understand this diversity that is being lost.
3. Linguistic anthropologists study the human communication
process. They focus their research on understanding such phenomena
as the physiology of speech, the structure and function of languages,
social and cultural influences on speech and writing, nonverbal
communication, how languages developed over time, and how they
differ from each other. This is very different from what goes on in an
English or a foreign language class. Linguists are not language
teachers or professional translators.
Most anthropological linguistic research has been focused on
unwritten, non-European languages. Linguists usually begin their
study of such a language by learning first hand from native speakers
what its rules are for making sounds and meaning from those sounds,
including the rules for sentence construction. Linguists also learn
about different regional and social dialects as well as the social
conventions of speaking the language in different situations.
A hotly debated question in linguistic anthropology since the early 20th
century centers on whether or not our languages predispose us to see
the environment in specific ways. In other words, are languages filters
for reality? For instance, if a language does not have a word for the

color orange, can its speakers distinguish orange from red and yellow?
The answer to this question is not as simple as it initially seems.
4. Archaeologists are interested in recovering the prehistory and
early history of societies and their cultures. They systematically
uncover the evidence by excavating, dating, and analyzing the
material remains left by people in the past. Archaeologists are
essentially detectives who search through many thousands of pieces of
fragmentary pots and other artifacts as well as environmental data in
order to reconstruct ancient life ways. In a sense, this makes
archaeology the cultural anthropology of the past. Archaeology is also
related to biological anthropology in its use of the same methods in
excavating and analyzing human skeletal remains found in
archaeological sites.
No archaeologist is an expert on the antiquity of all regions of the world
and all time periods. Classical archaeologists concentrate on the
ancient civilizations of the Middle East and the Mediterranean world
(Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, and related peoples). Historical
archaeologists work on recovering the unrecorded aspects of life in
historically more modern societies such as colonial
America. Prehistoric archaeologists focus their attention on the
more ancient pre-literate societies around the world including those of
most early North American Indians. Underwater
archaeologists discover and excavate ancient shipwrecks and
submerged cities. Zooarchaeologists analyze and interpret the
animal remains found in archaeological sites. The training required for
each of these and other archeological specialties varies significantly,
but they all share an interest in elucidating the lost past.

b. Disciplines related to Anthropology


Anthropology and the Disciplines
Because of its attention to variation and complexity, anthropology is
related to almost every academic discipline. People trained in
anthropology contribute to a range of other academic perspectives.
Social Sciences and Humanities
The Arts
The expressive arts, including graphic art, music, dance, and literature,
have long had a major place in anthropology. Archaeologists and
cultural anthropologists study art for clues about the culture and social
organization of a given people, as well as for psychological analyses of
what art reveals about human thought. Archaeologists also seek the
origins of humans' capacity for creativity and symbolic expression.
Linguistic anthropologists look at artistic forms of speech, including
ritual, to study how thought and feeling vary by culture and time.

Economics
In the U.S., most Economics departments mainly study economic
patterns in developed market economies. By contrast, economic
anthropologists, although interested in such conventional topics as
production, consumption, and exchange, also examine economic
thought in non-market societies, ancient civilizations, and societies in
transition from one type of economy to another.
Political Science
Political science studies how public and private power is obtained,
used, and contested. Cultural anthropologists study power too, such as
leadership styles in societies of all types, from non-hierarchical ones
(e.g., the !Kung and other hunter-gatherers) to highly stratified states,
and from the contemporary world to ancient Mesoamerica and Greece.
Political anthropologists are studying important contemporary issues
such as ethnic violence and state disintegration in Ireland and the
former Soviet Union, and the way that global phenomena such as
Christianity, nationalism, and democracy vary in meaning and function
across cultures and historical periods.
Sociology
Sociologists study the organization of people into groups, from smaller
ones like the family to larger ones like the corporation. Cultural
anthropologists also study social organization, but place greater
emphasis on extensive fieldwork and the method of participantobservation. Anthropologists almost always work directly with the
people they study, speaking their native language, and often living in
their homes. Fieldwork is frequently, but not always, done in a culture
different from that of the anthropologist. By promoting multi- and
cross-cultural awareness, sociological generalizations based on
mainstream American culture can be evaluated and sometimes
challenged.
Linguistics
Linguists study the structure of language. By cracking the code through
which linguistic information is transmitted, they hope to learn more
about the structure of the human mind. Linguistic anthropologists
study the ways in which people use language in different cultures to
communicate. By investigating verbal behavior close-up and first-hand
through ethnographic fieldwork, they are often able to demonstrate not
only the variety of speech patterns, but the systematic ways in which
such activities as greetings, oratory, jokes, stories, advertisements,
baby-talk, and "women's language" vary with context and over time.
These skills have practical applications in the fields of educational
consulting, business communication, document design, and political
communication.
Religion
Students interested in religion will find anthropology especially
rewarding. Although anthropologists do study the major world religions,

they also tend to study the whole range of human beliefs and rituals,
including shamanism and witchcraft. In recent years, anthropologists
have been at the forefront of scholarship examining the efflorescence
of religious movements in our contemporary world. These include
Hindutva in India, Pentecostal and Islamic reform movements, and
different forms of secularism and processes of secularization, for
example debates about headscarves and lacit in France and
creationism in the U.S.
Sciences and Medical Fields
Anatomy, Physiology, Developmental Biology, Neuroscience
Biological anthropologists use their training in anatomy, physiology,
developmental biology, and neuroscience to investigate how human
biology is distinct from other primates and to understand the basis of
modern human diversity. The discipline of biological anthropology
employs an evolutionary framework as the foundation to analyze the
human body and behavior. Students with this training gain useful
preparation for future careers in natural history museums, biological
laboratories, and biological education, as well as for medical school.
Biomedicine, Psychology, Psychiatry
Through the study of reproductive health, child survival, adolescent
psychology, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and drug abuse,
anthropology connects closely to the health sciences. Many
anthropologists are researching the cross-cultural impact of the AIDS
epidemic. Others are documenting the medical knowledge of
traditional healers, some of which may be of considerable value.
Genetics
Anthropological geneticists study how and why genetic traits vary with
populations. Their studies reconstruct the movements, separations,
and interminglings of peoples, as well as the selective forces (such as
disease) that have operated on populations in the past.
Public Health and Epidemiology
Public health programs designed by outside experts often fail to meet
their goals because of misunderstanding and resistance in the community. It may be vital to know how a particular group (e.g., say, Latino
adolescents) understand a particular issue (e.g., violence) before that
issue can be effectively addressed. Anthropological work on the
ground can provide this knowledge.
Geology
Archaeologists and paleoanthropologists work hand in hand with
geologists to identify the environments in which people lived and to
determine the times of occupation. The subfield of geoarchaeology
uses techniques from the earth sciences to shed light on the
archaeological record. For those studying the fossil record of human
evolution, it is critically important to understand the geological context

of the fossils, since the rocks contain information about dating the
fossils
(geochronology),
about
their
environmental
context
(paleoenvironments), and about the ecological conditions in which the
animals lived (paleoecology). Anthropologists specializing in
archaeology or paleoanthropology often teach in geology departments
and almost always collaborate with specialists from the geological
sciences.
Zoology
The comparative study of our closest relatives, the primates, is an
important part of anthropology. Anthropological field studies of these
animals have advanced both the science of ethology and the
understanding of human evolution. The acquisition and transmission of
learned behavior, the nature of intelligence, and the origins of primate
social systems are among the topics anthropologists address.
c. While a few anthropology postgraduates go on to work as lecturers or
researchers within academia, a significant number are increasingly finding
employment in a variety of sectors, ranging from education, charity and
international development, to medicine and health-related professions, film
and business. Often anthropologists do not follow linear career trajectories,
but become involved in various projects in frequently overlapping career
sectors. Take a look at ourcareer paths section for case studies, websites and
information on careers in anthropology.

MAJOR THEORIES IN CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY


What is a theory?
A theory suggests a relationship between different phenomenons. Theories allow us to reduce the
complexity of reality into an abstract set of principles, which serve as models to compare and contrasts
different types of realities.
Theories are based on hypotheses, which provide a proposition that needs to be tested through empirical
investigations. If what is found is consistent with what was expected, the theory will be strengthened; if not,
the theory will be either abandoned or some more time will be spent on it to revise it.
Anthropological theory changes constantly as new data comes forth. Anthropological theories attempt to
answer such questions as, why do people behave the way they do? And, how do we account for human
diversity? These questions guided the early nineteenth attempts to theorize and continue to be relevant
today. We will explore the in chorological order, the major theoretical schools of cultural anthropology that
have developed since the mid-nineteenth century. Some of the earlier theoretical orientations such as
diffusionism no longer attract much attention; however others such as evolutionism have been modified
and re-worked into something new.

It is easy in hindsight, to demonstrate the inherit flaws in some of the early theoretical orientations.
However, we should keep in mind, however, that contempary anthropological theories that may appear
plausible today were built on what we learnt from those older theories.
Cultural Evolutionism
According to this theory, all cultures undergo the same development stages in the same order. To develop a
better understanding of these various development stages it is important to briefly review these various
stages and their sub stages. Savagery, barbarism and civilization were three classifications that classical
anthropologists used to divide culture.
However in 1877 Lewis Henry Morgan wrote a book titled Ancient Society, in it the three stages of cultural
anthropology were further classified into 7 stages, which are as follows:

Lower Savagery:

From the earliest forms of humanity subsisting on fruits and nuts.

Middle Savagery: Began with the discovery of fishing technology and the use of fire.

Upper Savagery: Began with the invention of bow and arrow.

Lower Barbarism: Began with the art of pottery making.

Middle Barbarism: Began with the domestication of plants and animals in the old world and
irrigation/ cultivation in the new world.
Upper Barbarism: Began with the smelting of iron and the use of iron tools.
Civilization: Began with the invention of the phonetic alphabet and writing (1877:12)
Evolution is unidirectional and leads to higher levels of culture. A deductive approach used to apply a
general theory to specific cases. Evolutionists were often ethnocentric as they put their own societies on top
of the evolutionary ladder. Yet, it did explain human behavior by rational instead of supernatural causes.
Diffusionism
Like evolutionism, diffusionism was deductive and rather theoretical, lacking evidence from the field. It
maintained that all societies change as a result of cultural borrowing from one another.
The theory highlighted the need to consider interaction between cultures but overemphasized the essentially
valid idea of diffusion.
Historicism
Any culture is partially composed of traits diffused from other cultures but this does not explain the existing

complexity of different cultures. Collection of ethnographic facts must precede development of cultural
theories (inductive approach).
Direct fieldwork is considered essential, which has provided the approach a solid methodological base
emphasizing the need for empirical evidence. Each culture is, to some degree, unique. So ethnographers
should try to get the view of those being studies, not only rely on their own views.
Historicists emphasized the need for training female anthropologists to gain access to information about
female behavior in traditional societies. Their anti-theoretical stance is criticized for retarding growth of the
anthropological discipline.
Psychological Anthropology
Anthropologists need to explore the relationships between psychological and cultural variables according to
this theory. Personality is largely seen to be the result of learning culture.
Universal temperaments associated
with males and females do not exist in practice, based on research conducted by psychological
anthropologists (for example, it was noticed that there are no universally consistent personality traits like
being hard working on the basis of being a male or a female).
Functionalism
Like historicism, functionalism focused on understanding culture from the viewpoint of the native. It stated
that empirical fieldwork is absolutely essential. Functionalists stressed that anthropologists should seek to
understand how different parts of contemporary cultures work for the well being of the individual and the
society, instead of focusing on how these parts evolved.
Society was thought to be like a biological organism with all of the parts interconnected. The theory argued
that change in one part of the system brings a change in another part of the system as well. Existing
institutional structures of any society are thought to perform indispensable functions, without which the
society could not continue.
Neo-Evolutionism
Neo-Evolution states that culture evolves in direct proportion to their capacity to harness energy. The
theory states that culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year increases or as the
efficiency of the means of putting energy to work increases" (Leslie White,1900-1975).
Culture = Energy x Technology
Culture is said to be shaped by environmental and technological conditions. Therefore, people facing similar
environmental challenges, are thought to develop similar technological solutions and parallel social and
political institutions.
Cultures evolve when people are able to increase the amount of energy under their control according to this

theory. Given this emphasis on energy, the role of values, ideas and beliefs is de-emphasized.
Useful Terms
Theory: a general statement about how two or more facts are related to one another.
Hypotheses: an educated hunch as to the relationship among certain variables that guides a research
project.
Evolutionism: the 19th century school of cultural anthropology, represented by Morgan and Tyler that
attempted to explain variations in cultures by the single deductive theory that they all pass through a series
of evolutionary stages
Savagery: the first amongst the three basic stages (savagery, barbarism and civilization) of cultural
evolution.
Barbarism: the middle of the three basic stages of the 19th century theory developed by Lewis Morgan that
all cultures evolve from simple to complex systems.
Civilization: a term used by anthropologists to describe any society with cities.