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1.3: Anthropological Approaches

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

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    Each of the four main anthropological subdisciplines contributes to our understanding of humankind by exploring cultures, languages, material remains, and biological adaptations. To study these phenomena, anthropologists draw upon distinct research approaches, including holism, comparison, dynamism, and fieldwork.


    Anthropologists are interested in the whole of humanity. We look at the interactions among several aspects of our complex bodies or societies, rather than focusing on a singular aspect (Figure 1.8). For example, a biological anthropologist studying the social behaviors of a monkey species in South America may not only observe how they interact with one another, but also how physical adaptations, foraging patterns, ecological conditions, and habitat changes also affect their behaviors. By focusing on only one factor, the anthropologist would attain an incomplete understanding of the species’ social life. A cultural anthropologist studying marriage in a small village in India would not only consider local gender norms but also family networks, laws regarding marriage, religious rules, and economic factors. All of these aspects can influence marital practices in a given context. In both examples, the anthropologist is using a holistic approach by considering the multiple interrelated and intersecting factors that comprise a given phenomena.

    Silhouette of a person with a web of dotted lines representing elements of humanity.
    Figure 1.8: By using a holistic approach, anthropologists learn how different aspects of humanity interact with and influence one another. Credit: Holism (Figure 1.2) original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Mary Nelson is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.


    Anthropologists use comparative approaches to compare and contrast data from different populations, from groups within a population, or from the same group over time. For example: How do humans today differ from prior Homo sapiens populations? How does Egyptian society today compare to ancient Egyptian society? How do male and female behaviors differ within a given human society or a particular primate group? Comparative analyses help us understand commonalities and differences within or across species, groups, or time.


    Comparative analysis is facilitated by the fact that humans are extremely dynamic. Our ability to change, both biologically and culturally, has enabled us to persist over millions of years and to thrive in different environments. Anthropologists ask about all kinds of changes: short-term and long-term, temporary and permanent, cultural and biological. For example, a cultural anthropologist might look at how people in a relatively isolated society are affected by globalization. A linguistic anthropologist might explore how a hybrid form of language, like Spanglish, emerged. An archaeologist might study how climate change influenced the emergence of agriculture. A biological anthropologist might consider how diseases affecting our ancestors led to physical changes that persist today. All of these examples highlight the dynamic nature of human bodies and societies.

    Woman interviewing a student.
    Figure 1.9: Anthropologist Katie Nelson conducting fieldwork with undocumented Mexican immigrant college students. Credit: Ethnographic interview by Luke Berhow is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.


    Throughout this book, you will read examples of anthropological research from around the world. Anthropologists do not only work in laboratories, libraries, or offices. To collect data, they travel to where their data lives, whether it is a city, village, cave, tropical forest, or desert. At their field sites, anthropologists collect data that, depending on subdiscipline, may include interviews with local peoples (Figure 1.9), examples of language in use, skeletal features, or cultural remains like stone tools. While anthropologists ask an array of questions and use diverse methods to answer their research questions, they share this commitment to conducting research in the field.

    This page titled 1.3: Anthropological Approaches 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.