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When I began my training as an anthropologist, I wanted answers to large, sweeping questions.  I grew up in a community and at a time when people attributed different intrinsic abilities, natures and rights to black people, women, and various ethnic groups. I wanted to know if these sweeping generalizations were true. Were these supposed differences universal-were they found everywhere? If not, then they couldn't be innate-something else explained them. What? And why the differences? 

Anthropology is comparative-it looks at cultures everywhere, including our own. It's holistic-it looks at all parts of the social and cultural whole. Anthropologists do this through fieldwork, usually drawing on qualitative methods. The resulting ethnographies, produced by generations of anthropologists, have created a massive database for getting insights into the questions I wanted to answer.


In Trickster, I say


Anthropology has a heroic, breathtaking scope. We cross disciplines between science and the humanities. We look for the universal and ask "Why?" Is a practice rooted in biology? No? Well, does it meet some human societal need? We examine the particular and ask "Why is something done in this place and not another?"

To get our answers, we look at current societies and past ones through cultural anthropology and archeology. We draw on linguistics and physical anthropology. Each of these subfields uses a wide range of methods, both qualitative and quantitative. In my own subfield, cultural anthropology, methods are designed to keep options open, responsive, and expanding as we work in unfamiliar societies. Sometimes, all we can ask is simply "What should I be asking you?" What is grander than that?


So what is anthropology?

The American Anthropological Association's definition:

Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. To understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, Anthropology draws upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences. Historically, in the US, anthropologists usually have been trained in one of four areas, socio-cultural anthropology, biological/physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. Often, however, anthropologists integrate the perspectives of several of these areas into their work.



The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (RAI) offers this definition:


Anthropology [is] the study of what it means to be human across different societies, cultures and histories... the discipline of anthropology has a distinctive, and vital, contribution to make to understanding the world today. Anthropology offers a deep understanding of how different societies work, how people live, their beliefs, customs, ideas, prejudices and aspirations. In an era when global understanding and recognition of diverse ways of seeing the world are of critical social, political and economic importance, anthropology has a central role to play in education.



And a group of British institutions celebrating "London Anthropology Day" in 2007 said


Anthropology is the study of people, where they came from, how they live differently in different societies across the world, how they interact with their environment.

Anthropologists are interested in people everywhere - in factory workers in Burnley, Muslims in Bradford, tribal Indians in the Amazon, government officials in Papua New Guinea. In all these cases, anthropologists are interested in how society works, how people live, what are their beliefs, customs, ideas, religions, myths, prejudices and aspirations. Anthropologists are also interested in how humans evolved, in the whole history of human development and in the more biological aspects of human society today, for example nutrition, genetic variation, resistance to diseases and adaptation to the environment (this is sometimes called 'biological' anthropology as compared to 'social' anthropology).

Studying anthropology teaches people to think critically about their own society - to see it in relation to the many other cultures and societies there are in the world and to understand how it has come to be the way it is. It gives people a broad knowledge about the world, about global politics, economic development, cultures and beliefs and an understanding of the realities of life in many countries. This isn't just useful for becoming a professional anthropologist! People with anthropology degrees have gone on to work in education, in government, advertising, NGOs, charities, museums, TV, art....


Each of the websites listed here will tell you more about the subject, the subfields, and what anthropologists do. From time to time, I plan to post a provocative article on the subject. This one, the first, is from Peter W. Woods. 'What is Anthropology?' - Click here for article.