What is Anthropology?

Definition of Anthropology

Anthropology is the study of human behavior. That exploration of what it means to be human ranges from the study of culture and social relations, to human biology and evolution, to languages, to music, art and architecture, and to vestiges of human habitation. It considers such fascinating questions as how peoples' behavior changes over time, how people move about the world, why and how people from distant parts of the world and dissimilar cultures are different and the same, how the human species has evolved over millions of years, and how individuals understand and operate successfully in distinct cultural settings.

Anthropologists are careful observers of humans and their behavior, maintaining an intense curiosity: What does it mean to be human? Why do people behave in particular ways? What are the historical and environmental pressures that helped shape the experience and behavior of a specific group of people? What are universal facts of human life?

Fields of Anthropology

Anthropology includes four broad fields - cultural anthropology, linguistics, physical anthropology and archaeology. Each of the four fields teaches distinctive skills, such as applying theories, employing research methodologies, formulating and testing hypotheses, and developing extensive sets of data.

Anthropologists often specialize in one or more geographic areas of the world - for example, West Africa, Latin America, the British Isles, Eastern Europe, North America or Oceania. They may even focus on particular populations within a locale or region.

Some anthropologists study cultural practices, such as marriage rituals among Scots-Irish Americans in a suburban North Carolina community, Morris dancing on May Day among southwestern English village inhabitants, and aesthetic and linguistic aspects of Trinidadian calypso and "road songs."

Physical anthropologists observe biological behavior, attempting to understand ongoing human evolution and the human adaptations to particular environments, such as the effects of altitude on maternal and fetal well-being, perhaps performing comparative studies of physiological responses to short-term high altitude residence (e.g., Euro-Americans and African Americans in Colorado) versus longer-term high altitude residence (e.g., indigenous Quechua-speakers in Peru or Sherpas in Nepal).

Historical archaeologists help preserve aspects of the recent past, such as settlement patterns in the western U.S. plains. Archaeological studies generally involve teams of specialists who work with domesticated plant remains, indicators of animal life, and the manmade artifacts produced or imported into a particular area.

Adapted from the American Anthropological Association

Professor at an archeological dig site

"I gained valuable experience using research methods with archival materials in my internship opportunity arranged by Fisher's Anthropology Department."

Gina Hossen, Anthropology major


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