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What is Anthropology?

Anthropology is the systematic study of humanity, with the goal of understanding the origins and distinctiveness of our species and the great diversity in our forms of social existence through space and time. Toward this goal, anthropologists explore such topics as evolutionary biology, linguistics, cultural studies, history, economics, and political organization, to name but a few. Anthropology’s subject matter can include that which is commonplace (like the anatomy of the foot) to that which is completely unfamiliar to most of us (like the star lore of the Australian aborigines). Its focus is both sweeping (e.g. the evolution of skin color) and intimately focused (e.g. the use-wear of pottery in the Andean highlands of Peru). The diverse areas of research may include everything from ancient Mayan hieroglyphics, to the music of African Pygmies, to the corporate culture of a U.S. car manufacturer. Although traditionally associated with the study of small-scale societies, Anthropologists today have increasingly turned their attention to the problems of complex industrial societies and the processes of globalization.

The Four Subfields

American anthropology is generally divided into four subfields. Each of the subfields teaches distinctive skills. However, the subfields also have a number of similarities. For example, each subfield applies theories, employs systematic research methodologies, formulates and tests hypotheses, and develops extensive sets of data.


Archaeologists study human culture by analyzing the objects people have made. They carefully remove from the ground such things as pottery and tools, and they map the locations of houses, trash pits, and burials in order to learn about the daily lives of a people. They also analyze human bones and teeth to gain information on a people’s diet and the diseases they suffered. Archaeologists collect the remains of plants, animals, and soils from the places where people have lived in order to understand how people used and changed their natural environments. The time range for archaeological research begins with the earliest human ancestors millions of years ago and extends all the way up to the present day. Like other areas of anthropology, archaeologists are concerned with explaining differences and similarities in human societies across space and time.


Biological anthropologists seek to understand how humans adapt to different environments, what causes disease and early death, and how humans evolved from other animals. To do this, they study humans (living and dead), other primates such as monkeys and apes, and human ancestors (fossils). They are also interested in how biology and culture work together to shape our lives. They are interested in explaining the similarities and differences that are found among humans across the world. Through this work, biological anthropologists have shown that, while humans do vary in their biology and behavior, they are more similar to one another than different.


Sociocultural anthropologists explore how people in different places live and understand the world around them. They want to know what people think is important and the rules they make about how they should interact with one another. Even within one country or society, people may disagree about how they should speak, dress, eat, or treat others. Anthropologists want to listen to all voices and viewpoints in order to understand how societies vary and what they have in common. Sociocultural anthropologists often find that the best way to learn about diverse peoples and cultures is to spend time living among them. They try to understand the perspectives, practices, and social organization of other groups whose values and lifeways may be very different from their own. The knowledge they gain can enrich human understanding on a broader level.


Linguistic anthropologists study the many ways people communicate across the globe. They are interested in how language is linked to how we see the world and how we relate to each other. This can mean looking at how language works in all its different forms, and how it changes over time. It also means looking at what we believe about language and communication, and how we use language in our lives. This includes the ways we use language to build and share meaning, to form or change identities, and to make or change relations of power. For linguistic anthropologists, language and communication are keys to how we make society and culture.

Applied and Practicing Anthropology

Applied or practicing anthropologists are an important part of anthropology. Each of the four subfields of anthropology can be applied. Applied anthropologists work to solve real world problems by using anthropological methods and ideas. For example, they may work in local communities helping to solve problems related to health, education or the environment. They might also work for museums or national or state parks helping to interpret history. They might work for local, state or federal governments or for non-profit organizations. Others may work for businesses, like retail stores or software and technology companies, to learn more about how people use products or technology in their daily lives. Some work in the USA while others work internationally. Jobs for applied anthropologists have shown strong growth in the recent past with more and more opportunities becoming available as demand grows for their valuable skill sets.