What is Anthropology? | Department of Anthropology

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What is Anthropology?

Anthropology is the study of human diversity around the world. Anthropologists look at cross-cultural differences in social institutions, cultural beliefs, and communication styles. They often seek to promote understanding between groups by "translating" each culture to the other, for instance by spelling out common, taken-for-granted assumptions.

An anthropology class can be useful for students in a variety of majors, such as education, business, medicine, and law. Knowledge about human diversity is helpful in many careers. It is often an advantage to have developed an approach for learning about and interacting with people who are different.

Because the study of human diversity is such a broad topic, anthropology is made up of four subfields:

  • Sociocultural anthropology - the study of present-day cultures around the world
  • Linguistic anthropology - the study of communication practices in present-day cultures around the world
  • Archeology - learning about earlier cultures by examining the artifacts that they left behind
  • Physical anthropology - learning about humans' biological aspects by examining their skeletal and other physical remains; it includes research on human evolution as well as forensic studies

The majority of anthropologists across the United States belong to the sociocultural subfield, and so sometimes people say "anthropology" to refer only to sociocultural anthropology.

Sociocultural anthropology has a unique approach to collecting and analyzing data. Anthropologists go out into the communities they study and spend long periods of time observing people, talking to them, and participating in their activities. While they may do some statistical analysis, their most important contributions usually come from qualitative analysis. This approach is called "ethnography." Because of its inductive, exploratory character, it is particularly suited to understanding complex, dynamic situations where changes are happening on several levels at once.

While it is hard to come up with a clear personality profile for sociocultural anthropologists, quite a number of them do have something in common: they had significant exposure to more than one culture as children. Perhaps they were raised in bicultural/bilingual families. Perhaps their parents had jobs that required their family to move from country to country, for instance in the diplomatic service. Perhaps their families migrated from one country to another. However, this is not true for all anthropologists. There can be many reasons for becoming fascinated by the diversity that we see around us every day.

The main professional association for anthropologists in the United States is the American Anthropological Association.

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