Derived from Greek, the word anthropos means “human” and “logy” refers to the “study of.” Quite literally, anthropology is the study of humanity. It is the study of everything and anything that makes us human. From cultures, to languages, to material remains and human evolution, anthropologists examine every dimension of humanity by asking compelling questions like: How did we come to be human and who are our ancestors? Why do people look and act so differently throughout the world? What do we all have in common? How have we changed culturally and biologically over time? What factors influence diverse human beliefs and behaviors throughout the world?
You may notice that these questions are very broad. Indeed, anthropology is an expansive field of study. It is comprised of four subfields that in the United States include cultural anthropology, archaeology, biological (or physical) anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. Together, the subfields provide a multi-faceted picture of the human condition. Applied anthropology is another area of specialization within or between the anthropological subfields. It aims to solve specific practical problems in collaboration with governmental, non-profit, and community organizations as well as businesses and corporations.
It is important to note that in other parts of the world, anthropology is structured differently. For instance, in the United Kingdom and many European countries, the subfield of cultural anthropology is referred to as social (or socio-cultural) anthropology. Archaeology, biological anthropology, and linguistic anthropology are frequently considered to be part of different disciplines. In some countries, like Mexico, anthropology tends to focus on the cultural and indigenous heritage of groups within the country rather than on comparative research. In Canada, some university anthropology departments mirror the British social anthropology model by combining sociology and anthropology. As noted above, in the United States and most commonly in Canada, anthropology is organized as a four-field discipline.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ANTHROPOLOGICAL THINKING
Imagine you are living several thousand years ago. Maybe you are a wife and mother of three children. Maybe you are a young man eager to start your own family. Maybe you are a prominent religious leader, or maybe you are a respected healer. Your family has, for as long as people can remember, lived the way you do. You learned to act, eat, hunt, talk, pray, and live the way you do from your parents, your extended family, and your small community. Suddenly, you encounter a new group of people who have a different way of living, speak strangely, and eat in an unusual manner. They have a different way of addressing the supernatural and caring for their sick. What do you make of these differences? These are the questions that have faced people for tens of thousands of years as human groups have moved around and settled in different parts of the world.
One of the first examples of someone who attempted to systematically study and document cultural differences is Zhang Qian (164 BC – 113 BC). Born in the second century BCE in Hanzhong, China, Zhang was a military officer who was assigned by Emperor Wu of Han to travel through Central Asia, going as far as what is today Uzbekistan. He spent more than twenty-five years traveling and recording his observations of the peoples and cultures of Central Asia (Wood 2004). The Emperor used this information to establish new relationships and cultural connections with China’s neighbors to the West. Zhang discovered many of the trade routes used in the Silk Road and introduced several new cultural ideas, including Buddhism, into Chinese culture. Zhang Qian is still celebrated today in China as an important diplomat and pioneer of the silk road.
Another early traveler of note was Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta, known most widely as Ibn Battuta, (1304-1369). Ibn Battuta was an Amazigh (Berber) Moroccan Muslim scholar. During the fourteenth century, he traveled for a period of nearly thirty years, covering almost the whole of the Islamic world, including parts of Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, India, and China. Upon his return to the Kingdom of Morocco, he documented the customs and traditions of the people he encountered in a book called Tuhfat al-anzar fi gharaaib al-amsar wa ajaaib al-asfar (A Gift to those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling), a book commonly known as Al Rihla, which means “travels” in Arabic (Mackintosh-Smith 2003: ix). This book became part of a genre of Arabic literature that included descriptions of the people and places visited along with commentary about the cultures encountered. Some scholars consider Al Rihla to be among the first examples of early pre-anthropological writing.
Later, from the 1400s through the1700s, during the so-called “Age of Discovery,” Europeans began to explore the world, and then colonize it. Europeans exploited natural resources and human labor in other parts of the world, exerting social and political control over the people they encountered. New trade routes along with the slave trade fueled a growing European empire while forever disrupting previously independent cultures in the Old World. European ethnocentrism—the belief that one’s own culture is better than others—was used to justify the subjugation of non-European societies on the alleged basis that these groups were socially and even biologically inferior. Indeed, the emerging anthropological practices of this time were ethnocentric and often supported colonial projects.
As European empires expanded, new ways of understanding the world and its people arose. Beginning in the eighteenth century in Europe, the Age of the Enlightenment was a social and philosophical movement that privileged science, rationality, and experience, while critiquing religious authority. This crucial period of intellectual development planted the seeds for many academic disciplines, including anthropology. It gave ordinary people the capacity to learn the “truth” through observation and experience: anyone could ask questions and use rational thought to discover things about the natural and social world.
For example, geologist Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) observed layers of rock and argued that the earth’s surface must have changed gradually over long periods of time. He disputed the Young Earth theory, which was popular at the time and used Biblical information to date the earth as only 6,000 years old, Charles Darwin (1809-1882), a naturalist and biologist, observed similarities between fossils and living specimens, leading him to argue that all life is descended from a common ancestor. Philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) contemplated the origins of society itself, proposing that people historically had lived in relative isolation until they agreed to form a society in which the government would protect their personal property.
These radical ideas about the earth, evolution, and society influenced early social scientists into the nineteenth century. Philosopher and anthropologist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), inspired by scientific principles, used biological evolution as a model to understand social evolution. Just as biological life evolved from simple to complex multicellular organisms, he postulated that societies “evolve” to become larger and more complex. Anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) argued that all societies “progress” through the same stages of development: savagery—barbarism—civilization. Societies were classified into these stages based on their family structure, technologies, and methods for acquiring food. So-called “savage” societies, ones that used stone tools and foraged for food, were said to be stalled in their social, mental, and even moral development.
Ethnocentric ideas like Morgan’s were challenged by anthropologists in the early twentieth century in both Europe and the United States. During World War I, Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), a Polish anthropologist, became stranded on the Trobriand Islands located north of Australia and Papua New Guinea. While there, he started to develop participant-observation fieldwork: the method of immersive, long-term research that cultural anthropologists use today. By living with and observing the Trobriand Islanders, he realized that their culture was not “savage,” but was well-suited to fulfill the needs of the people. He developed a theory to explain human cultural diversity: each culture functions to satisfy the specific biological and psychological needs of its people. While this theory has been critiqued as biological reductionism, it was an early attempt to view other cultures in more open-minded ways.
Around the same time in the United States, Franz Boas (1858-1942), widely regarded as the founder of American anthropology, developed cultural relativism, the view that while cultures differ, they are not better or worse than one another. In his critique of ethnocentric views, Boas insisted that physical and behavioral differences among racial and ethnic groups in the United States were shaped by environmental and social conditions, not biology. In fact, he argued that culture and biology are distinct realms of experience: human behaviors are socially learned, contextual, and flexible, not innate. Further, Boas worked to transform anthropology into a professional and empirical academic discipline that integrated the four subdisciplines of cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, archaeology, and biological anthropology.
Mackintosh-Smith, Tim, ed. The Travels of Ibn Battutah. London: Picador, 2003.
Wood, Frances. The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
- Some of this chapter is adapted from the introduction to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology: www.explorations.americananthro.org↵
- See: https://www.americananthro.org/LearnAndTeach/ResourceDetail.aspx?ItemNumber=1499). ↵
- See chapter two, The Culture Concept, for a history of the culture concept in anthropology. ↵
- Lahcen Mourad (Arabic scholar) in discussion with Katie Nelson, December, 2018. ↵
"Introduction to Anthropology" by Lara Braff, Grossmont College and Kaie Nelson, Inver Hills Community College. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.