“The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.”
“Anthropology is the only discipline that can access evidence about the entire human experience on this planet.”
-Michael B. Schiffer
What is Anthropology?
Anthropology is the study of humans – past and present. As a social science, it is interested in understanding human behavior, in all its diversity and complexity. Why do people do the things they do? Why are human societies so different from each other? In what ways are all humans similar to each other? To what extent does our cultural environment shape our behavior? Does culture interact with our biological and genetic elements to produce what we do and how we think? These are just a few of the questions and topics anthropologists all over the world are very much passionate about.
The Sub-disciplines of Anthropology
Anthropology studies humans of all times and places. Because this is no piece of cake, anthropology is sub-divided into specialties, or sub-disciplines:
It studies present-day cultural behavior in modern-day societies, in all parts of the world including our own. Some of the topics presented in our courses include the following: culture, marriage and family organizations, funerary practices, rites of passage, religious beliefs, games and sports, body art and non-verbal communication, symbolism and magic, criminal behavior, and ways of producing food.
It studies the origins of language and the roles of language in expressing and preserving a culture. We explore some aspects of linguistics by reading about language differences throughout the world and the creation of new languages in times of contact and colonialism.
It studies ancient human societies through the artifacts they have left behind. In our courses, you will discover that archaeology is not a hobby that collects treasures but rather, a scientific method used to reconstruct and understand past human societies with the help of material remains (tools, clothing, housing, etc.) and human remains. In the end, examining our ancestors allows us to better understand ourselves.
It studies the biological evolution of humans over the last 7 to 8 million years. In our courses, you will see that the entire human existence is just a drop in a gigantic ocean incorporating the evolution of the Universe, as well as the evolution of mammals and primates. You will discover that our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, make and use tools just as we do. You will also learn about the origins of hunting, stone tools, art, religion, agriculture, and writing.
The above are referred to as the “traditional” sub-disciplines of anthropology. These have been around ever since this social science was officially born in the 19th century. However, in more recent times, anthropology has seen an explosion of its specialized interests:
- There are now anthropologists who study and work in the world of international business and corporations. These business anthropologists work as consultants who conduct marketing research and provide multi-cultural training to employees increasingly faced with cultural diversity.
- Also, an increasing number of anthropologists are documenting the domain of cyberspace and the new behaviors, attitudes, dialects as well as legal and ethical controversies it is creating throughout the world.
- Finally, a growing trend in anthropology has been to turn inwards and study our own society, its urban aspect and its many problems such as drug abuse, poverty and homelessness. The ultimate intention here is not only to document these problems and the people who experience them, but, most importantly, to recommend viable and practical solutions to help improve our world.