What is Anthropology.
The common textbook (dictionary) definition of Anthropology usually looks something like this:
I feel this oversimplifies the complexity that is inherent to the field of anthropology, especially when you add the layers of the 4 major subfields. It gets the general gist across, but this doesn’t help those who are unfamiliar with the field grasp what it means to study anthropology or be an anthropologist. Common questions I get often fall in the range of : What does it mean to study humanity, and why would we even want to study our own species? Don’t we already know what it’s like to be human? We already study history, right? What’s the difference? What can you even do with a degree in anthropology?
Well, Anthropology at its core is the study of humanity. A cross of multiple disciplined that weave together human behavior, biology, the intricacies of cultures and the structures of societies into a complex, nuanced tapestry of the human species. Stretching back to before the dawn of homo erectus to modern day homo sapien sapien. Similar to history in the way that is tends to focus greatly on the past, but also studies the human species in the present. Where it differs from history is its wholly humanistic perspective, not just the timelines of civilizations and the events that occurred.
The Four Subfields of Anthropology.
Social anthropology studies patterns of behavior, while cultural anthropology studies cultural meaning, including norms and values. This includes the origins of culture and how they have evolved over time, and still evolving in the present through various influences like cultural shifts, trends, climate change, and the impact of modern day lifestyles.
Further specializations associated with Socio-Cultural Anthropology: political anthropology, urban anthropology, and visual anthropology.
Biological or physical anthropology studies the biological development of humans. Everything from the evolution of the human genome, anatomy, disease, nutrition, and even the study of non-human primates fall under this branch. Typically, this is what paleoanthropology, forensic anthropology, bioarchaeology, and primatology tend to concentrate in.
Archaeology, which studies human activity through the investigation of the physical evidence, is considered a branch of anthropology in the United States and Canada. In Europe, however, it is viewed as a discipline in its own right. It may sometimes be grouped under other fields or majors, such as history. The main focus of archaeology is on the analysis of material remains such as artifacts and features of ancient cities or prehistoric human settlements.
Interesting specialization include underwater or marine archaeology, environmental archaeology, and prehistoric archaeology.
Linguistic anthropology studies the origins, development and evolution of human language, and how language influences social life. Components of language, such as phonology (the sound of language), morphology (how words are formed), semantics (meaning), and syntax (structures of sentences) are just the tip of the iceberg that is linguistics.
Bonus: Applied anthropology. What exactly is “applied anthro”? It’s when an anthropologist applies of the methods and theories of anthropology to the analysis and solution of practical real-world problems. This is the more modern, praxis-based side of anthropological research that often involves immersive, interactive researcher involvement and activism within the participating communities in a way that serves practical needs. Usually, the applied anthropologist draws on several of the subfields at once to achieve this and can work in a near infinite number of fields and industries with a wide range of applications. The sky is the limit as an applied anthropologist and may be a better fit for the free spirits who don’t want to be pigeon-holed into traditional careers like academia or cultural resource management.
Careers & Vocations in Anthropology.
For some bizarre reason I’ve yet to comprehend, the general assumption about majoring in Anthropology is that there few options for careers, and expectations of those wishing to study this incredible field should have low or non-existent compared to other majors as far as income brackets and job titles.
This annoys me. It demonstrates the lack of research and the blatant spread of misinformation – seriously outdated misinformation. However, this can be easily remedied by creating a list of careers where anthropology can be applied both more traditionally, as well as more creative, diverse possibilities.
Professors and faculty, university staff and administrators, deans and department chairs, academic counselors or advisors, research lab technicians, academic/university-funded researchers, academic consultants, museums/curation, social studies or cultural teachers, foreign language teachers, archivist, historian, and more.
Forensic anthropologists for police departments, international development, cultural resource management, international affairs and diplomacy, law enforcement, campaign staff, legislative staff, public administration, defense and national security, interpreter
Healthcare management, healthcare administration, pathologist, epidemiologist, genetic counselor, health and social policy analyst, medical scientist
Market research, UX design, branding, management consulting, organizational development, equality/diversity/inclusion officer, human resources, public relations
Humanitarian efforts, human rights advocacy, social impact assessment, community outreach, community development, historic preservation, social services, charity officer, chaplain
Environmental activists, conservation, national park staff, forest services, environmental agencies
Social entrepreneur, writer, folk artist
Obviously, anthropology major can excel in a plethora of career paths, and in others there are transferrable skills that can be used in creative, innovative ways. I’m sure there are plenty I haven’t thought of or heard of to share, but that only proves the point. Anthropology is an innately interdisciplinary craft in its own right, and can’t be simplified or compartmentalized so easily. It’s truly worth pursuing the degree and few, if any, regret the experience and knowledge gained.