Anthropology may be best viewed as the comparative scientific study of human societies and cultures throughout the world and throughout time. This seems to appropriately summarize the nature of anthropology and the depth of the ability of this discipline to provide a holistic approach to the study of humankind. Anthropology is comparative in that it attempts to understand both similarities and differences among human societies today and in the past. We study our species from its beginning several million years ago right up to the present. This is possible because anthropology has taken a holistic approach, dividing into several subdisciplines, each unique in their ability to address aspects of humanity and each contributing to each other in order to create a more complete picture of humans throughout time.
There are four subfields, or subdisciplines, in anthropology:
- cultural anthropology,
- physical (biological) anthropology, and
- linguistic anthropology.
These four subfields allow anthropologists to study the total variety present in our species. As a discipline, anthropology studies everything about being human and therefore better enables us to understand the origins and development of who we are today. For humans, it is very important to us to understand where we come from. Many societies have origins myths, and for anthropologists, studying ourselves is like writing the story of our origins.
Cultural anthropology deals with the origins, history, and development of human culture. Cultural anthropologists often, although not always, tend to study groups that have different goals, values, views of reality, and environmental adaptations that are very different from those of themselves. Cultural anthropologists note that culture is learned and that it is through culture that people adapt to their environments; therefore, populations living in different places with different environments will have different cultures. Much of anthropological theory has been motivated by an appreciation of and interest in the tension between the local (particular cultures) and the global (a universal human nature or the web of connections between people in distant places).This allows us to develop a concept of human nature very different from the research other disciplines provide.
Also called ethnographers, cultural anthropologists are known for producing ethnographic works (or holistic descriptions of human culture, based on extensive fieldwork). These works traditionally have focused on the broad description of the knowledge, customs, and institutions of a particular culture group. More recently, however, cultural anthropologists have also examined the ways in which culture can affect the individual and his or her experience. Cultural anthropologists stress that even though the behavior of people in different cultures may seem silly or meaningless, it has an underlying logic that makes sense in that culture. The goals of cultural anthropology, therefore, serve to make sense of seemingly bizarre behavior in terms of the people practicing the behavior. Cultural anthropologists are often thought of as studying people in faraway, exotic places. More often than not, cultural anthropologists tended to study non-Western groups, especially during the early development of this subdiscipline. Today, however, cultural anthropologists also focus on the subgroups (or subcultures) within Western culture. Each of these groups is a part of a larger culture and can help us to better understand the human condition. Even research on our own society attempts to uncover the logic behind how we behave.
Archaeology can be defined as the study and interpretation of past societies and cultures from the earliest of times to the present. By excavating sites created by humans in the past, archaeologists attempt to reconstruct the behavior of past cultures by collecting and studying the material culture remains of people in the past. Using these remains to understand the past can be a real challenge for archaeologists because they have to infer past lifeways from what is sometimes considered trash. Archaeologists have to look at what people left behind. Archaeologists are one step removed from people; they have access only to their “things.” The advantage of archaeology is time depth; archaeologists can go back millions of years, often studying cultures that are long gone and have no analog in the modern era. Using this diachronic approach, archaeologists can look at how cultures change over time.
In addition to its value as a scientific subdiscipline in anthropology, the knowledge gained through archaeology is important to cultures and individuals. The past surrounds us; the past defines individuals, as well as cultures. For some, it may seem of little consequence; for others, it is their very identity as a people. Every culture has symbols that it uses to remind itself of the past, and archaeology is a critical way of knowing about that past.
Physical (Biological) Anthropology
Physical, or biological, anthropology focuses on the study of biological aspects of human beings, past and present. Physical anthropology is essentially a biological science; it often seems to have more in common with biology than with the other subfields of anthropology. The importance of this subdiscipline in anthropology, however, is its contribution to the holistic understanding of humans. Physical anthropologists focus on both the biological nature of, as well as the evolution of, humans. By studying primates, physical anthropologists are able to contribute to our knowledge about the evolution of our own behavior. Examining fossil hominids allows physical anthropologists to study and understand the evolution of humans as a distinct species. Human variability is another major focus of physical anthropology; physical anthropologists are concerned with human variation, such as the differences in hair and skin color, the differences in blood types, the relationship between behavior and health, as well as the distribution of genetic traits. Using knowledge gained through such studies contributes to increased health and the decreased spread of diseases.
Linguistic Anthropology, or Linguistics
Linguistics is the study of language. Although linguistics is classified as a subdiscipline of anthropology, it often tends to be a discipline of its own, especially at large universities. The task of linguists is to try to understand the structure or rules of a language. They look for different grammar systems and different ways for producing sounds as a way to understand the language, which potentially sheds insight on cultural behavior. Because language is often used as a way of categorizing people and as the primary way through which culture is learned, linguists can help trace relations between people in the present and past. Linguistics also contributes to archaeology by helping to decipher ancient text through the rules of the modern language. The contributions of linguistics to anthropology are undisputed.
Each of these unique subdisciplines in anthropology contributes different aspects to the understanding of humans in the past and present. Rather than focusing on a single aspect of being human, such as history or biology, anthropology is distinct in its holism. These subdisciplines provide the basis for this holistic approach.
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