What is Anthropology?

It’s the most basic of questions, and the one I get most often.

Just what exactly is it that I do?  Here’s an overview of the basics of anthropology for some context.

ANTHROPO – from the Greek ánthrōpos meaning ‘human’

LOGY – denoting a subject of study

So anthropology literally means the study of humans.  Clearly this is a very broad concept and (as you might guess) anthropology is a broad discipline.  A common word used to describe anthropology is ‘holistic,’ which means that we research people from many angles including their cultures, languages, history, and biology.

Anthropology has gone through many shifts in how it has been practiced throughout its history, and anthropology is currently practiced slightly differently depending on the country.  In the United States, anthropology has four major subfields:

Cultural Anthropology – the study of cultures and societies

Linguistics – the study of language and its development  

Archaeology – the study of ancient material culture (artifacts, buildings etc)  

Biological Anthropology – the study of human biological development

All of these subfields also have subfields of their own and may interconnect to form new subfields.  For example, bioarchaeology is the study of human bones (biological anthropology) from archaeological sites (archaeology).  So instead of looking at what ancient communities created, we look at the people themselves to learn about their health, demography, migration and so on.  To make this even more complicated, this combined subfield then has its own subfields! Palaeopathology for example is the study of ancient diseases, trauma, and disability by looking at skeletal remains from archaeological sites, and is therefore a subfield of bioarchaeology.

In the United Kingdom, archaeology is in an independent department–although this separation is becoming less common even here.  Both the anthropology and the archaeology departments are housed in the same building in Durham, and will often work collaboratively.  For my MSc I studied palaeopathology in the Archaeology Department, now for my PhD I study biological anthropology in the Anthropology Department.

If any of you have watched TV lately, you will probably have heard of Forensic Anthropology.  This is a subfield of biological anthropology and my particular area of interest.  All this means is that we apply anthropological methods in a legal context.  We take those excavation techniques and our knowledge of the human skeleton, and we assist legal and investigative groups identify the long dead, establish cause of death, and prosecute perpetrators.

I’ll go into more detail about all of these fields and subfields in upcoming posts, but if you have any questions feel free to send me a message!




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