How Anthropology Works

Anthropologists spend a lot of time getting up close and personal with their subjects -- other people and cultures.
Anthropologists spend a lot of time getting up close and personal with their subjects -- other people and cultures.
Comstock/©Getty Images/Thinkstock

Of all the organisms roaming Earth, one of the most fascinating creatures happens to be, well, us. Perhaps it's because we human beings are a narcissistic bunch, but we do expend a lot of energy on anthropology, which is the study of human cultures and peoples.

All kidding aside, anthropology is perhaps one the most important academic pursuits humans undertake. That's because with anthropology, we not only gain a better understanding of where we came from, but we also develop a clearer picture of exactly what human nature is all about -- and maybe even gain insight into the future of our species.

Anthropology is a far-reaching field that bridges a lot of academic disciplines. But suffice it to say that anthropologists (also sometimes called social scientists) don't spend all of their time poring over dusty history books in a dark corner of a university library. Rather, anthropologists are among the most adventurous of researchers. They may travel all over the globe in search of answers to the toughest anthropological puzzles.

Anthropology's ultimate aim, simply, is to comprehend human nature in all of its intricacy and diversity. Additionally, anthropologists explain the inner workings of really big social problems, such as disease epidemics, overpopulation and poverty.

For example, anthropologists specializing in medical anthropology might research maternal mortality in Africa. By highlighting factors such as a lack of health care, poverty, a shortage of health workers, religious beliefs and educational shortfalls, these researchers build a picture of maternal mortality and its causes. With that understanding, they can propose solutions that may improve the lives of a lot of mothers and their families.

Anthropologists work in nearly every segment of both the for-profit and non-profit marketplace. Both sectors need employees who can analyze and understand other people, either to increase revenue or to come up with theories and practical means for resolving pressing social problems.

Whatever the specific end goal might be, anthropology is special in its long-term, cross-cultural perspective. It truly sets out to compare and study all aspects of the human experience. As you'll see next, it took us humans a while even to conceive of this kind of reflective analysis.