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1.2: The Subdisciplines

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    • Beth Shook, Lara Braff, Katie Nelson, & Kelsie Aguilera

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    In the United States, the discipline of anthropology includes four subdisciplines: cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, archaeology, and linguistic anthropology. In addition, applied anthropology is sometimes called the fifth subdiscipline (Figure 1.2). Each of the subdisciplines provides a distinct perspective on the human experience. Some (like biological anthropology) use the scientific method to develop theories about human origins, evolution, material remains, or behaviors. Others (like cultural anthropology) use humanistic and interpretive approaches to understand human beliefs, languages, behaviors, cultures, and societies. Findings from all subdisciplines, together, contribute to a multifaceted appreciation of human biocultural experiences, past and present.

    “anthropology” hovers over text boxes representing the subdisciplines.
    Figure 1.2: The discipline of anthropology has four subdisciplines: archaeology, cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, and linguistic anthropology, as well as an applied dimension. Credit: Subdisciplines of anthropology (Figure 1.8) original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Mary Nelson is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    Cultural Anthropology

    Cultural anthropologists focus on similarities and differences among living persons and societies. They suspend their sense of what is expected in their own culture in order to understand other perspectives without judging them (cultural relativism). They learn these perspectives through participant-observation fieldwork. Beyond describing another way of life, cultural anthropologists ask broader questions about humankind: Are human emotions universal or culturally distinct? Is maternal behavior learned or innate? How and why do groups migrate to new places? For cultural anthropologists, no aspect of human life is outside their purview: They study art, religion, medicine, migration, natural disasters, even video gaming. While many cultural anthropologists are intrigued by human diversity, they recognize that people around the world share much in common.

    One famous U.S. cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead (1901–1978, Figure 1.3), conducted cross-cultural studies of gender and socialization. In the early twentieth century, people in the U.S. wondered if the emotional turbulence exhibited by American adolescents was caused by the biology of puberty, and thus natural and universal. To find out, Mead went to the Samoan Islands, where she lived for several months getting to know Samoan teenagers. She learned that Samoan adolescence was relatively tranquil and happy. Based on her fieldwork, Mead wrote Coming of Age in Samoa, a best-selling book that was both sensational and scandalous (Mead 1928). In it, she critiqued U.S. parenting as restrictive in contrast to Samoan parenting, which allowed teenagers to freely explore their community and even their sexuality. Ultimately, she argued that nurture (i.e., socialization) more than nature (i.e., biology) shaped adolescent development. Despite her expressed relativism, she has been critiqued recently for exploiting the people she studied.

    Historic photo of a middle-aged woman in dark blouse.
    Figure 1.3: Margaret Mead, circa 1948. Credit: Margaret Mead by Internet Archive Book Images has been designated to the public domain (CC0). [Image from page 47 of “A brief expedition into science at the American Museum of Natural History” (1969).]

    Cultural anthropologists do not always travel far to learn about human experiences. In the 1980s, American anthropologist Philippe Bourgois (1956–) asked how pockets of extreme poverty persist in the United States, a country widely perceived as wealthy with an overall high quality of life compared to other countries. To answer this question, he lived with Puerto Rican drug dealers in East Harlem, contextualizing their experiences both historically and presently, in terms of ongoing social marginalization and institutional racism. Rather than blame drug dealers for their choices, Bourgois argued that both individual choices and social inequality can trap people in the overlapping worlds of drugs and poverty (Bourgois 2003).

    Linguistic Anthropology

    The study of people is incomplete without attending to language, a defining trait of human beings. While other animals have communication systems, only humans have complex symbolic languages—and more than 6,000 of them! Human language makes it possible to teach and learn, plan and think abstractly, coordinate our efforts, and contemplate our own demise. Linguistic anthropologists ask questions like: How did language first emerge? How has it evolved and diversified over time? How has language helped our species? How can linguistic style convey social identity? How does language influence our worldview? Some linguistic anthropologists track the emergence and diversification of languages, while others focus on language use in social context. Still others explore how language is crucial to socialization: children learn their culture and identities through language and nonverbal forms of communication (Ochs and Schieffelin 2017; Figure 1.4).

    Photo of mother and daughter speaking to a newborn baby.
    Figure 1.4: From the moment they are born, children learn through language and nonverbal forms of communication. Credit: Babytalk by Torbein Rønning is under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 License.

    One line of linguistic anthropological research focuses on the relationships among language, thought, and culture. For example, Benjamin Whorf (1897–1941) observed that whereas the English language has grammatical tenses to indicate past, present, and future, the Hopi language does not; instead, it indicates whether or not something has “manifested.” Whorf argued that this grammatical difference causes English and Hopi speakers to think about time in distinct ways: English speakers think about time in a linear way, while Hopi think about time in terms of a cycle of things or events that have manifested or are manifesting (Whorf 1956). Based on his research, Whorf developed a strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (also known as linguistic relativity), which states that language shapes thought. Some critics, like German American linguist Ekkehart Malotki (1938–), recognized that English and Hopi tenses differ but argued against Whorf by claiming that the Hopi language does, in fact, have linguistic terms for time and that a linear sense of time may be universal (Malotki 1983). Nevertheless, anthropological linguists tend to see human languages as a unique form of communication, linked to our ability to think and process our world.


    Archaeologists focus on material remains—tools, pottery, rock art, shelters, seeds, bones, and other objects—to better understand people and societies. Archaeologists ask specific questions like: How did people in a particular area live? How did they utilize their environment? What happened to their society? They also ask general questions about humankind: When did our ancestors begin to walk on two legs? How and why did they leave Africa? Why did humans first develop agriculture? How did the first cities develop?

    One critical method that archaeologists use to answer these questions is excavation, which involves carefully digging and removing sediment to uncover material remains while recording their context. Take the example of Kathleen Kenyon (1906–1978), a British archaeologist and one of few female archaeologists in the 1940s. While excavating at Jericho, which dates back to 10,000 BCE (Figure 1.5), she discovered city structures and cemeteries built during the Early Bronze Age (3,200 YBP in Europe). Based on her findings, she argued that Jericho is the oldest city continuously occupied by different groups of people for thousands of years (Kenyon 1979).

    An archaeological site with excavated structures in front of dry hills.
    Figure 1.5: Archaeologists, including Kathleen Kenyon, have helped unearth the foundations of ancient dwellings at Jericho. Credit: Jerycho8 by Abraham Sobkowski has been designated to the public domain (CC0).

    While most archaeologists study the past, some excavate at contemporary sites to gain new perspectives on present-day societies. For example, participants in the Garbage Project, which began in the 1970s in Tucson, Arizona, excavate modern landfills as if they were a conventional dig site. They have found that what people say they throw out differs from what is actually in the trash. The landfill holds large amounts of paper products (that people claim to recycle) as well as construction debris (Rathje and Murphy 1992). This finding indicates the need to create more environmentally conscious waste-disposal practices.

    Biological Anthropology

    Biological anthropology—the focus of this book—is the study of human evolution and biological variation. Some biological anthropologists study our closest living relatives—monkeys and apes—to learn how nonhuman and human primates are alike and how they differ both biologically and behaviorally (Figure 1.6). Other biological anthropologists focus on extinct human species and subspecies, asking questions like: What did they look like? What did they eat? When did they start to speak? How did they adapt to new environments? Still other biological anthropologists focus on modern human diversity, asking questions about the evolution of traits, like lactose tolerance or skin color, that differ between populations. Throughout this book, we will learn about biological anthropological research that explores our nonhuman primate cousins, the origins of hominins (i.e. humans and fossil human relatives), how they adapted over time, and how we – modern humans – continue to change.

    A group of chimpanzees in close proximity resting or grooming each other.
    Figure 1.6: Chimpanzees are the nonhuman primate that is most closely related to humans. Credit: Chimpanzees by Klaus Post is under a CC BY 2.0 License.

    Applied Anthropology

    Sometimes considered the fifth subdiscipline, applied anthropology involves the practical application of anthropological theories, methods, and findings to solve real-world problems. Applied anthropologists span the subdisciplines. An applied archaeologist might work in cultural resource management to assess a potentially significant archaeological site unearthed during a construction project. An applied cultural anthropologist could work for a technology company that seeks to understand how people interact with their products in order to design them better. Applied anthropologists are employed outside of academic settings, in public and private sectors, including business firms, advertising companies, city government, law enforcement, hospitals, nongovernmental organizations, and even the military.

    Doctor takes notes sitting next to a woman and a sick toddler.
    Figure 1.7: Paul Farmer in Haiti. Credit: PEF-with-mom-and-baby—Quy-Ton-12-2003 1-1-310 by Cjmadson is under a CC BY 3.0 License.

    Trained as both a physician and anthropologist, Paul Farmer (1959–2022, Figure 1.7) demonstrated the potential of applied anthropology to improve lives. As a college student in North Carolina, Farmer became interested in the Haitian migrants working on nearby farms. This led him to visit Haiti, the most resource-poor country in the Western Hemisphere, where he was struck by the deprived state of its health care facilities. Years later, he would return to Haiti, as a physician, to treat diseases that had been largely eradicated in the United States, such as tuberculosis and cholera. Drawing on his anthropological training, he also did fieldwork and wrote books that contextualize the suffering of Haitians in relation to historical, social, and political conditions (Farmer 2006). Finally, as an applied anthropologist, he took action by co-founding Partners in Health, a nonprofit organization that establishes health clinics in resource-poor countries and trains local staff to administer care.

    This page titled 1.2: The Subdisciplines is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Beth Shook, Lara Braff, Katie Nelson, Kelsie Aguilera, & Kelsie Aguilera (Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.