“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead, anthropologist (1901 – 1978)
What is anthropology?
Anthropology is part of the social sciences. It is the study of humanity in all its variety, in all places and throughout time. Anthropologists are interested in what makes people different as well as what they have in common. In trying to understand humanity in all of its complexity, anthropologists turn to the concept of culture.
What is culture?
The term culture used means many different things to people. Sometimes it means nationality (for example, Japanese culture), or race (black culture), or religion (Jewish culture), or taste, education and refinement (as in the statement, “She has culture because she goes to the opera.”) and even growing things (bacterial culture).
However, culture has a more precise definition in anthropology:
Culture is knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and behavior shared by a group of people that is socially transmitted and reproduced from one generation to the next.
Parts of Anthropology
This means that culture is a very broad concept and includes things we think or believe, things we value, things we do, and things we make and use. It can be as abstract as a belief in God or as concrete as a microwave oven. You need culture to satisfy your needs and keep your world predictable and orderly. You can think of culture as the “rules” of daily living. Anthropologists try to discover these patterns and understand what they mean and how they interrelate. Anthropology covers a lot of subject matter, and is divided into four sub-fields:
Cultural anthropology looks at contemporary peoples and their cultures. Although anthropology is commonly associated with the study of non-Western or “exotic” cultures, many anthropologists study people in industrialized nations or subcultures in our own society. Examples of subjects that can be investigated include Greek fishermen, market women in West Africa, First Nations communities, medical doctors working in emergency rooms, or biker gangs in Montréal. Anthropologists summarize their research by writing an ethnography – a description of a culture. Much has also been learned by comparing different cultures and discovering patterns in the data (ethnology). Because cultures can change rapidly, anthropologists must sometimes study historical records and oral accounts of the past to document traditions that have recently disappeared. This is called ethnohistory.
Physical anthropology is the study of human beings from a biological perspective. It investigates the origin and evolution of humans (paleoanthropology) and also accounts for modern human variation. It includes the study of bones that we popularly attribute to “cavemen” (or “cavewomen” such as the famous “Lucy” skeleton) but also the genetic study of modern human populations. It extends its scope to include the evolution, biology and behavior of non-human primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees (primatology).
Archaeology studies material remains of human societies, focusing on the past. Excavation is an important method that archaeologists use to obtain material culture called artifacts. Artifacts may include prehistoric stone tools that are millions of years old, to pottery from ancient civilizations that are thousands of years old, to more recent historic shipwrecks like the Titanic. Archaeology can therefore be divided into prehistoric and historic archaeology.
Linguistic anthropology studies the most distinctive feature of human cultures – language. Linguists may study the origins of human languages and how they change (historical linguistics), document existing languages that exist only in oral form (descriptive linguistics), or look at how language affects society (sociolinguistics)..
Applied anthropology is becoming more prominent and there are more applied anthropologists working today than their counterparts in pure academic settings. Applied anthropology is the application of anthropology to real-world problems and issues. Some examples include forensic anthropology (the examination of human skeletal remains derived from crime scenes), heritage resource management (dealing with material culture in settings like museums), and medical anthropology (the study of traditional or folk approaches to health and healing).
How Anthropologists do Anthropology
Fieldwork is the main method anthropologists use to collect data. This means visiting communities for extended periods of time to observe people and learn about their culture. The best way to learn about a culture is to live it, and so anthropologists use participant-observation when doing fieldwork. Anthropologists must participate as much as possible in the activities of a community while making observations and must often rely on informants that can explain things that are strange or unfamiliar. Participant-observation may mean that the anthropologist must learn the language, eat the food, wear the clothes, and adapt his or her behavior to the norms of that culture in order to be accepted by people. This is not always easy, and the disorientation that one feels when confronted with the unfamiliar is known as culture shock.Culture shock is experienced at one time or another by all of us, particularly when we travel to a foreign land. Understanding more about a culture helps reduce or mitigate culture shock and helps us accept other people. Anthropologists adopt the position of cultural relativism, which means that they describe but do not judge cultures. The goal of anthropology is not to label cultures as “good” or “bad,” but to understand them. And, if we are very lucky, we also get to understand ourselves a little more.