What is Anthropology?


Anthropology needs demystifying from time to time. Here is what it is and why it is extremely relevant today


Anthropology is the study of Humanity

Anthropology is basically the study of people. Languages, stories, pasts, fashion, art, myths, power structures, identities, music, architecture, dance, family, it covers an overwhelming amount of topics and is best understood as four branches of the same tree.


Social Anthropology is the study of current people.

Archaeology is the study of past people.

Linguistics study languages.

Biological Anthropologists study the body itself.

Anthropology best understood as four branches of the same tree

Here I am doing survey work in Anza Borrego


One of the core concepts used in all four branches is that of Cultural Relativism: the concept that you can only truly judge something about a culture using its own standards. Franz Boaz, the father of modern anthropology puts it this way:  

“Civilization is not something absolute, but relative… our ideas and conceptions are only true so far as our civilization goes”

Franz Boas

At the most basic level this can be seen comparing delicacies or traditional specialty foods. Delicious and hearty meals in one culture can be almost inedible or nauseating to another. This extends to all levels of culture. “Civilization” is not one universal set of ideals and practices.  

It is as variable as food or language is.

The second core concept, that particularly applies to Social Anthro, is Participant Observation. This idea is that you cannot observe human behavior without impacting the observed humans in some way. You can also never fully rid yourself of your own cultural biases to be a truly neutral observer.

By actively participating in the culture and becoming a community member rather than a cold outside observer allows anthropologists to gain deep insight into other cultures. You must be part of a community to begin to understand them. We are not unbiased observers and humans are not test tube subjects. Anthropology is the nuanced understanding that each human is unique but also deeply influenced by their culture. Anthropology knows we cannot fully shed our biases or remove our cultural lenses that we grew up with, but we can acknowledge they exist and try to see the biases, reasoning and lenses of other cultures. 

Anthropology overlaps with several other social sciences but it maintains important distinctions that help shape the discipline. 
Archeology and History overlap quite a bit but they are theoretically easy to distinguish. History is based on written words whereas Archaeology is based on physical objects. These experts often overlap and help inform each other’s research. 

Archaeology in Europe differs conceptually from that in America. Europeans are typically collecting artifacts and interacting with religions and worldviews from “themselves” to learn their own story, that of “us”. At least when they dig in Europe. Americans however are typically handling a different culture entirely and recreating someone else’s history, an “other” while handling Native American cultural material. This requires a different set of ethics and cooperation among academics, cultural leaders and the various worldviews involved. 

Archaeology in Europe differs conceptually from that in America. Europeans are typically collecting artifacts and interacting with religions and worldviews from “themselves” to learn their own story, that of “us”. At least when they dig in Europe.

Sociology and Anthropology both study current people and try to understand human behavior but the methodology is very different. Sociology will typically use qualitative and quantitative methods such as surveys and experiments. They focus on society as a whole and typically study Western cultures. Anthropologists will live with the people they study for decades using participant observation. They focus on individuals within a society via conversation and interview. They have historically focused on “exotic” societies and travelled far away to do research.

Anthropology is not limited to exotic “other” cultures even if that is how many in the discipline began. It also focuses on “us” in order to see the bizarre within the normal and examine our own cultural practices and myths. 

Anthropology is a human-centric study. Instead of looking in at a society and proscribing answers they are doing their best to integrate into cultures and see solutions from within. It also gives voice to non-Western, marginalized and misunderstood groups in ways that other social sciences cannot. 

Because of its unique methodology anthropology can be used to bridge the divide between many pressing popular political issues. This is done through seeing issues from the eyes of the multiple groups affected via a deep understanding of their worldviews, myths, hopes and fears. 

For example, environmentalism to some Southerners may resonate more if we talk about preserving the places they fished, hunted and camped with their family rather than preserving an algae species or saving an animal they consider a nuisance. Similar long term understandings  could be the answer to help heal the political divide in this nation.

Often times issues reframed another way can be agreed on by both sides once we understand the other person’s fears, hopes, myths and dreams. Anthro can help inform Political Science. 

Often times issues reframed another way can be agreed on by both sides once we understand the other person’s fears, hopes, myths and dreams.

Environmentalism can be enhanced through Archaeology as well. By looking at past fishing patterns and sizes we can better understand what a healthy ocean population looks like. It allows us to conduct research on the past to see how to live sustainably in the future.


Anthropology can also help conquer the racial and cultural supremacist movements currently on the rise throughout the Western world. Understanding more about humanity gets rid of the myths or “pure” or “superior” races cultures and ethnicities. Cultural Relativism counters racism. Participant Observation allows us to inform racists by understanding the roots of their misbeliefs. Methods such as these may be the only way left to heal such a divided nation. We cannot overcome what we do not understand. We cannot understand what we do not study. 

Methods such as these may be the only way left to heal such a divided nation. We cannot overcome what we do not understand. We cannot understand what we do not study.


The dangers of field work, cholla cactus!


Original Photos by Austin Clinkenbeard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s