How Anthropology Works

Anthropology's Advent
Socrates and Plato helped to change the way people think about their lives and place in the world, giving rise to the kind of critical analysis that anthropology requires.
Socrates and Plato helped to change the way people think about their lives and place in the world, giving rise to the kind of critical analysis that anthropology requires.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina wrecked many parts of the Gulf Coast region, leaving many people to wonder why the disaster happened and why America struggled to help its people. In the aftermath, anthropologists evaluated governmental responses to the storm, developed plans for resettlement, and studied how catastrophes like this impact both individuals and groups. In the end, the knowledge these scientists gained may help people the next time calamity strikes.

Anthropology has been around for literally hundreds of years. The term first found its way into the English language around 1600. But Western-style anthropology has existed since before the advent of Christianity. Ancient Greeks and Romans created powerful intellectual styles of thought that greatly influenced humanity's perspective on its place in the world.

Socrates and Plato, for example, taught critical thinking skills and philosophy. They also had a vital influence on how people perceive themselves and their place in the world -- the kind of creative thinking that anthropologists (among many other types of thinkers) use constantly in their work. Around 1500, the development of philosophy began to rapidly accelerate, thanks to people like Rene Descartes, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant and many more, Suddenly, people everywhere were rethinking their perceptions of themselves and their world.

For a long time, a lot of anthropological thinking relied on speculation. But as anthropology evolved, it moved from "armchair anthropology," which relied heavily on academic, office-bound study and hypothetical scenario-building, into an interactive type of research in which scientists immerse themselves in the environment they are studying. In a minute, you'll see just how fully anthropologists plunge into their work.

For the moment, it's important to understand that in the United States, anthropology is divided into four different subfields: biological anthropology, archaeology, linguistic anthropology, and social/cultural anthropology. Other countries, such as those in Europe, consider these subfields too distinct to lump together and instead treat each subject as its own field of study. But the so-called "four-field" approach in the United States is used by many universities to structure curriculum and guide students in their education.

  • Biological anthropology (also sometimes called physical anthropology) analyzes groups of humans from an evolutionary perspective. In other words, it focuses on the changes and development of humanity.
  • Archaeology researches human material culture, including the excavation and study of many different types of artifacts, such as living structures, tools and more.
  • Linguistic anthropology studies the relationship between human culture and language. In this branch, research centers on the effect that language has on human communication, social group formation and interaction, and the development of ideologies and widespread cultural norms.
  • Social (or cultural) anthropology is considered the broadest and biggest in terms of numbers of working professional anthropologists. It studies human societies with an emphasis on intergroup and interpersonal relationships and communication.

Regardless of his or her specialty, an anthropologist has a lot of potential places to find work. In fact, you'll find anthropologists in places you may never have expected them to wander.

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