Introduction to Anthropology



If you live in a large city in the United States or if you visit one, you will not be able to avoid noticing the diverse array of people. Some may speak different languages and there is little doubt that they will engage in a wide range of behaviors and hold an even wider range of beliefs, from the kinds of things they think are edible to religious views to what they consider art. Given our exposure to this diversity through the various media outlets, you probably will not find anything too shocking, although you certainly will not be aware of all the differences between people. Your lack of surprise is due, in part, to a dedicated group of researchers who have traveled to all points of our planet to discover the similarities and differences among and between societies over the last century or so. We call these individuals anthropologists.

So, what is anthropology? As is the case with the names of many scientific disciplines, the term “anthropology” is derived from two Greek words. “Anthropo” refers to humans or people, while “logia” refers to the study of something. Put together, anthropology means the study of people. Now, I will tell you that this definition is not set in stone. You might hear others refer to anthropology as the study of humanity or the study of human beings.
The study of people
Both of these definitions are correct as well. I simply prefer my definition. As you will soon learn, anthropologists study people in a variety of different ways.
Exactly when anthropology began is difficult to pinpoint. One could make a case that the discipline is quite ancient. For example, the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived about 2,500 years ago, wrote about people from different societies. Over the following millennia many explorers and scholars followed suit, recording their thoughts and observations of cultures from around the world.
For example, Marco Polo (pictured at the left), the famous explorer who lived about 750 years ago, travelled far and wide and recorded his stories. Many of these explorers made important contributions to our understanding of how others lived their lives. Nonetheless, most would agree that these were just precursors to a much more systematic approach to studying the diversity displayed by our species.

The field of anthropology really started to develop in the middle to late 1800s, when several factors merged together. For centuries, travel around the world, especially by European explorers, had brought people from different cultures into contact with one another. This trend began to inspire thought about how to categorize the differing beliefs and practices. Were those, for example, who did not possess written language more primitive, perhaps “savages”? Was simple gardening as a means of obtaining food better or worse than raising cattle as a way of making a living? Actually, another important factor influencing the emergence of anthropology was the theory of evolution, which gave social thinkers a way to categorize the different cultural practices from less to more sophisticated. The systematic thinking about the world was also a trend that had been developing for centuries. From disciplines ranging from astronomy to zoology and chemistry to psychology, people had been engaging in inquiries into the Earth and its inhabitants. The study of people, otherwise known as anthropology, was a natural outgrowth of such patterns.

You may have heard about the origins of some of the sciences and some of the important figures associated with the development of the disciplines. For example, students taking introductory sociology classes learn about Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. Those studying chemistry might learn about Antoine Lavoisier. Anthropology, however, does not really have a “key” founding figure. There were, of course, many significant contributors to the development of the field and you will be hearing about some of these individuals later on. For now, let me situate anthropology into the broader group of social sciences.

Anthropology and the Other Sciences

As described above, anthropology is the study of people. Of course, there are many disciplines that involve such studies. Sociology, psychology, history, biology, and many others involve the examination of people. What, then, is the use of anthropology? Why is another discipline required? Could the questions posed by anthropologists just as easily be addressed by those in other fields of study? The answer to this last question is, to some extent, yes, there can be overlap between the various fields. For example, the area known as "evolutionary psychology" spans across both psychology and anthropology. History and archaeology share common pursuits as well, and I could go on for quite some time listing the relationships between many different areas of inquiry. There really is no problem with such overlap. Researchers end up associated with one discipline or another due to their specific interests, but can often easily move from one discipline to another.

There is, however, a feature of anthropology that is somewhat different than other disciplines, or at least more pronounced. Specifically, anthropology is more comparative in scope. Those working within the discipline are always making comparisons to others. This is not something that is typically emphasized in most other fields of study. For example, those taking introductory sociology classes spend little time learning about other cultures (besides brief vignettes that sometimes come at the introductory parts of textbook chapters).
However, a key feature of cultural anthropology is to understand the diversity of societies across the world. Comparisons are always being made to other groups. Noteworthy behaviors and practices of others are not merely included to shock or stimulate interest, but are the focus of inquiry. Physical anthropologists rely on information from other creatures and from our human ancestors. So the key distinction between anthropology and the other sciences is the level of comparison that takes place.

A further factor that makes anthropology special among the academic disciplines is that inquiries within the field are exceptionally broad. Later on, I will be describing the various subdisciplines within anthropology and how they bridge the natural sciences, the social sciences, and humanities.

Note, however, that anthropologists do not work in isolation. Due to the overlapping interests of many fields, there is a great deal of information sharing that goes on. Yes, anthropology is a distinct discipline, but there is a lot of crossover work that goes on. For example, sociologists might engage in very similar studies as some anthropologists since they both look at behavior of people. As you will see in a bit, some areas of anthropology are closely linked to history. One cannot easily identify the particular discipline involved with research in many instances. Indeed, whether someone is a psychologist or an anthropologist is less relevant than the information obtained from the research done.

Given that anthropology tends to be more comparative, what specific benefits does inquiry in the field provide? During our time together, you will learn a lot of ways that anthropology contributes to our understanding of people and the world we inhabit. For now, let me provide you with some general insights that can be gained by anthropologists.

A key contribution that our field makes is that it provides insight into ourselves. Anthropologists look at people across time and space, and by comparing ourselves to other creatures. By engaging in this type of inquiry, we can learn a great deal about humanity. For example, only recently have we accepted the notion that we are related to the great apes such as chimpanzees. Also, we now have a good deal of information about the factors that contribute to the rise and fall of civilizations. These and many other insights propel anthropology in importance.

Besides generally providing insight into people, I can point to many specific areas where anthropology is useful. For example, anthropology helps us put modern society into perspective. I am a bit older than the typical college student, but just a few short decades has led to tremendous changes in our culture since I was in college. The sheer fact that you are in college tells us something interesting. In 1950, only about 6 in 100 Americans had a college degree. Today the level is about five times that, 30 in 100.

More importantly, from the perspective of cultural anthropology, going to college is very strange indeed. Let me explain this is a bit more detail. You probably do not consider yourself particularly wealthy, although I would argue that you are living a lifestyle like a rich person in many other parts of the world.
Think about what you are doing in college. Essentially, you are limiting your ability to earn a living by either skipping a job completely (and perhaps surviving with the help of parents and/or student loans) or working at a reduced level. This continues for several years! Only rich people can suspend their ability to make money for any significant period of time, yet that is exactly what you are doing in college. So, compared to many people around the world and to people who were living a half-century ago, you are pretty well off. In addition to your “wealth”, your ability to communicate instantly via cellphones and other devices has been around for only a brief period. These factors and others illustrate how our lives in modern society are quite different from all other times and places.

Anthropology can also be useful for facilitating change. Consider the example of Marcus Griffin, a college professor who spent a year in Iraq to help the efforts there. He was particularly interested in economic development, something important to the overall mood of the country. Griffin was able to assess how things were going by examining the quality of the foods, such as produce and fish, in local markets. One factor that could improve economic conditions was the presence of a bakery. The problem was that it was hard to keep such businesses running because of the need for money to buy supplies like flour and fuel for cooking. After identifying this need, Griffin helped secure grant moneys to get bakeries up and running, thereby leading to greater economic success in the area. When people are more successful, they are less likely to engage in actions that might be damaging to society. Therefore, Griffin’s small efforts helped change the environment in Iraq and shows how anthropologists can contribute to improving the lives of people around the world.

Another military operation commenced by the United States illustrates a further benefit of anthropology. The discipline is important for helping us appreciate diversity. After the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States began preparations for the invasion of Afghanistan. As is typically the case with such planning, the operation was given a name. I still remember where I was when I first heard the name, Infinite Justice. Although by no means an expert in Islam, I sat in my car dumbfounded since I believed the name was going to be a problem. Here was the United States, planning to attack a Muslim country, while trying to seek the support of other Muslim countries in the area. The problem, as was soon confirmed, was that only Allah was capable of exacting infinite justice.
By so naming the operation, the United States was in essence declaring themselves God, something that would surely not gain favor in the Muslim world. Within a week or so, someone figured out that the name was going to cause difficulty and quickly came up Enduring Freedom instead. Had an anthropologist been consulted initially, the problem would have never arisen. The smallest actions can be very significant, requiring us to appreciate the diverse viewpoints from around the world.

One final area where that I would like to discuss where anthropology can be a help is in the world of business. Today, our economy is truly global with goods being constantly shipped all around the world. Successful businesses cannot be content simply finding buyers in their own countries, but must expand to other areas as well. This often leads to exposure to different customs and practices, ones that can trip up a deal, literally with the touch of a hand. Consider the practices in some regions of the world, particularly those with Islamic traditions. Imagine that you were on the brink of closing a big business deal in Istanbul, Turkey. As you get up, you happened to touch your counterpart, the buyer, with your left hand. That is where things started to go wrong. You see, many consider the left hand dirty because that is the hand used when cleaning up after oneself when going to the bathroom. In essence you have touched your potential client in an unclear manner, something that could hurt your chances of securing the business.

Careers in Anthropology

Before finishing my description of anthropology, I want to address a question that you may have been considering. What on earth would someone do with a degree in anthropology? Yes, one can work in a museum or teach in higher education. Someone can work as an applied anthropologist as well (something that you will be learning about later on). The problem, of course, is that typically a Master’s degree or doctorate would be required for such positions. Indeed, PhDs in anthropology are relatively rare, with about one degree in the discipline for every two hundred or more MBAs. Nonetheless, anthropologists are sought in the business arena. For example, Hallmark, the company that makes greeting cards, has sought help from anthropologists to help develop new designs.
They were interested in someone to conduct an ethnography (a detailed study) of how their cards were used. Other companies have shown similar desires, demonstrating the applicability of anthropological knowledge beyond the halls of higher education.

But what about getting an undergraduate degree in anthropology? After all, most people do not go on to graduate school after college. Getting a degree in anthropology would appear to put someone at a disadvantage when seeking employment. Actually, the opposite is probably the case. Consider the fact that many college degrees do not offer immediate applicability. Majors in history, psychology, math, English, sociology, physics, and others usually cannot immediately get a job in their field of study. In other words, there is typically not a direct link between a job one gets and his or her undergraduate degree.  Even those who go on to get an advanced degree in their discipline or in some other (such as law or dentistry), are not required to have a particular major. For example, one does not have to be pre-law or a political science major to go to law school.

For those who enter the work force after college, having a degree in anthropology is as good or better than any other.  In fact, employers today consider anthropology majors as assets. Knowledge about other cultures and ways of doing things is quite valuable in our multi-cultural society and business environment. Anthropology students are also trained in observation, something that is an asset for companies. The discipline emphasizes breadth on a cultural, biological, historical, and linguistic scale. Companies would be well served to have individuals trained to identify and understand such complexity. For these reasons, majoring in anthropology is a great idea and could lead to a range of interesting careers.

Now that you are an expert on the basics of anthropology, you can now move on to learn a bit more detail. Follow the links on the top of the page to access the information.

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