Anthropology, originating from the Greek words “anthropos”, meaning human, and “logos”, meaning study, is the scholarly investigation of human beings and their societies, with a focus on differences and commonalities, both within and among societies (Pountney & Maric, 2021).
An anthropologist might, for example, conduct ethnographic fieldwork to examine how a unique culture teaches their young which, in turn, might be able to inform our own society’s educational practices and help us improve our own education systems.
Similarly, anthropologists could study past cultures to understand why they collapsed, giving us important insights into how to bolster our own democratic and political systems to avoid the same fate.
Anthropology branches out into multiple sub-disciplines and niches. Within each sub-discipline, we have a range of approaches and ways of studying human cultures past and present. Below are 15 examples.
1. Socio-cultural anthropology
Socio-cultural anthropology involves the study of contemporary societies and cultures through ethnographic fieldwork, analyzing systems of social structure, kinship, religious beliefs, and economic practices (Smith, 2010). These anthropologists may undertake participant observation – immersing in the life of a community for an extended period – to glean first-hand insights. They might live with a family in a rural Nepalese village to understand the impact of seasonal migration on community dynamics, for example.
In a study conducted by Gershon (2017), an anthropologist lived among the newly-emerged digital nomads of Southeast Asia, observing first-hand the impact of technology on work patterns and societal relations.
2. Archeological Anthropology
Archeological anthropologists examine past societies by analyzing remains like tools, pottery, and other artifacts (Wilk & Cliggett, 2013). By reconstructing past ways of life, archaeologists contribute to broader anthropological knowledge about human diversity and change. Consider the revelation of ancient Mesopotamian civilizations through the discovery of cuneiform tablets and the ruins of Ur.
A team of archaeologists unearthed a series of cave paintings in southern France that offer significant insights into the collective ways of life and basic societal institutions of our Paleolithic ancestors (Clottes, 2010).
3. Biological Anthropology
Biological or physical anthropology focuses on the biological dimensions of humans (Holmes, 2017). This includes the study of the evolution of humans, human variation, and the relationships of humans to other primates. For instance, the discovery of Australopithecus Afarensis, more known as ‘Lucy’, has provided crucial evidence concerning human evolution.
Green et al. (2010) sequenced the genome of a Neanderthal – a crucial discovery in biological anthropology that deepened our understanding of the genetic links and distinctions between modern humans and our closest extinct relatives.
4. Linguistic Anthropology
Linguistic anthropology investigates the ways language shapes social identities, interacts, and worldviews (Duranti, 2010). Thus, linguistic anthropologists might study language variation and change, language and gender, or language in relation to social class. For instance, the transformation of the Spanish language in California as a response to increasing bilingualism.
A linguistic anthropologist observed the pidgin language developed by immigrant communities in Hawaii, deciphering how languages diversify and blend in multicultural contexts (Siegel, 2010).
5. Ethnographic Anthropology
Ethnographic anthropology is a method and genre within anthropology committed to the detailed and descriptive study of people’s lives as shaped by social relations, cultural meanings, and historical forces (Crate & Nuttall, 2016). This approach requires anthropologists to engage for long periods with the community they are studying, producing comprehensive accounts of their social practices and cultural beliefs. A poignant example is an ethnographer studying the nuances of Inuit communities’ relationships with their environment in the face of climate change.
Hastrup (2013) conducted an immersive study into the lives of the Icelandic fishing community, exploring their relationship with unpredictable oceanic elements and the constant transformation of nature.
Paleoanthropology, a subdiscipline of biological anthropology, focuses on the study of human and primate evolution, as well as the social and cultural changes that drove human development (Kimbel & Delezene, 2019). Paleoanthropologists examine fossil evidence, using techniques such as comparative anatomy, radiometric dating, and biochemistry to sketch an understanding of human evolution. An excellent example is the ongoing study of the Laetoli footprints, which have contributed significantly to our understanding of early hominid locomotion.
In 2022, research on the Red Deer Cave People revealed that they were anatomically modern humans with unique regional variations, challenging previous beliefs of them being a separate species. Their remains, found in a cave in China, exhibited distinct morphological features and cultural practices, providing valuable insights into human evolution and variation (Zhang et al., 2022).
7. Forensic Anthropology
Forensic Anthropology applies principles of biological anthropology in a legal context, primarily to identify human remains and determine the cause of death (Dirkmaat, 2012). Forensic anthropologists aid in solving crimes by analyzing bones to ascertain factors such as age, sex, height, and potential traumatic injuries. A prime example is the forensic anthropological work in identifying victims of the 2004 South Asian Tsunami.
William Ross Maples was a prominent American forensic anthropologist known for his expertise in studying bones. His key contributions include his work on high-profile criminal investigations involving historical figures such as Francisco Pizarro, the Romanov family, Joseph Merrick, President Zachary Taylor, and Medgar Evers, providing valuable insights that helped solve previously unsolved cases.
8. Cultural Anthropology
Cultural anthropology is the study of human cultures, beliefs, practices, values, ideas, technologies, economies and other domains of social and cognitive organization (Lewellen, 2015). The main methodological approach in cultural anthropology is participant observation enabling detailed documentation of everyday life. For instance, studying the coming of age rituals in vanishing indigenous tribes.
Ruth Benedict (2005/1946) made several key contributions to cultural anthropology. Notably, she progressed the idea of cultural relativism, which argued that anthropologists should study the internal logic of a cultural’s values and morals without judgment from your own value set. She did this by examining, for example, the internal logic of the Japanese honor system during WWII which, while objectionable to the west, had internal logic within Japanese culture at the time.
9. Urban Anthropology
Urban anthropology studies urban societies and the city life (Low, 2011). Urban anthropologists investigate issues like urban poverty, community formation in the cities, and urban housing policies. Notably, the study of informal economies in bustling, crowded mega-cities like Mumbai or Lagos epitomizes the scope of this sub-field.
The “Street Corner Society” study by William Foote Whyte (2012/1943) explored the Italian-American slum of “Cornerville” (a pseudonym for Boston’s North End) in the 1930s. Whyte lived among the community for four years, observing and documenting social interactions, informal economies, and gang structures, which significantly contributed to our understanding of urban social structures and the importance of participant observation in anthropology.
10. Environmental Anthropology
Environmental anthropology studies the relationships between human societies and their environments (Dove, 2011). It views culture as a tool which humans use to adapt to the complex dynamics of their physical and sociocultural environments. Investigations in this subfield include how indigenous people interact and manage the Amazon rainforest.
Weston’s (2012) acclaimed work “The Political Ecology of Disease in Tanzania” investigates how environmental and social conditions contribute to the spread of disease, demonstrating the significance of environment to the health of human communities.
11. Visual Anthropology
Visual anthropology is a subfield dedicated to the study of the production, use, and interpretation of images and their role in representing social and cultural reality (Pink, 2011). It includes study themes like indigenous media, art, and the anthropology of the senses. For instance, one might study how photography was used historically to document and understand remote tribes.
In the seminal work “Chronicle of a Summer” by Jean Rouch (2013), a pioneering example of cine-ethnography, everyday life in Paris in the summer of 1960 was recorded on film as a basis for understanding the intricacies of urban life.
12. Economic Anthropology
Economic anthropology is a subfield that explores economic phenomena in a comparative perspective, focusing on issues like consumption, production, exchange and labor from ethnographic and theoretical standpoints (Carrier, 2012). Research might include how cultural perceptions of value influence exchange practices among traditional societies.
Mauss’s (2011) groundbreaking work, “The Gift” explores the gift-giving practices among various cultures, demonstrating how economic activities are deeply embedded in social relationships and cultural values.
13. Political Anthropology
Political anthropology is concerned with the politico-legal institutions, systems of governance, and power relationships in various societies (Vincent, 2010). Political anthropologists examine how power is distributed, contested, and used within societies. One could, for instance, analyze how traditional councils operate in rural African societies.
In “The Art of Not Being Governed” by Scott (2009), the study of hill tribes in South East Asia represents an enlightening exploration of state resistance strategies, establishing how marginal communities negotiate political landscapes.
14. Cognitive Anthropology
Cognitive Anthropology explores how mind, culture, and society interact (D’Andrade, 2017). It emphasizes that human cultural knowledge is organized, and such organization influences how people perceive and interpret the world around them. A practical example would be studying how the Tzeltal speakers of Mexico perceive and verbalize spatial orientations differently due to their language.
In “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”, Goffman (2017) delved into the symbolic and communicative aspects of social action, showing how people present themselves and their activities to others.
15. Feminist Anthropology
Feminist anthropology links anthropological theory and practice to the history of feminism, focused predominantly on issues of gender, construction of female identity, and the roles of women in society (Moore, 2011). Feminist anthropologists study, for instance, how gender shapes power relations and behaviors within different cultures.
Margaret Mead was a pioneering cultural anthropologist who significantly contributed to the understanding of human behavior, particularly in relation to cultural variation, through her extensive fieldwork in the South Pacific and Bali. Her work, most notably her book “Coming of Age in Samoa,” challenged Western societal norms and assumptions about adolescence and gender roles, thereby influencing the cultural relativism movement in anthropology (Mead, Sieben & Straub, 1943).
16. Cyber Anthropology
Cyber anthropology is a subfield that investigates the relationships between human beings and their digital technologies, focusing on cultural change and the globe-spanning reach of the internet (Boellstorff, 2012). Cyber anthropologists might study how online communities in social media platforms forge new cultural dynamics or impact society.
Boellstorff’s (2012) book “Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human” maps out the issues of selfhood, identity, and society within the context of the digital world, using the virtual world of Second Life as an ethnographic site.
17. Postcolonial Anthropology
Postcolonial anthropology refers to an approach that critically examines the impact of colonialism and imperialism on societies, cultures, and the discipline of anthropology itself (Asad, 2017). Postcolonial anthropologists might examine the continuing effects of colonialism on Indigenous societies or deconstruct enduring stereotypes.
In “Provincializing Europe”, Dipesh Chakrabarty (2018) urges a reconsideration of the Eurocentric grand narratives of history and their impact on societies, thereby questioning the universality of western norms and concepts.
Asad, T. (2017). Afterword: An anthropology of the secular? In Anthropology and the secular (pp. 235-245). Routledge.
Benedict, R. (2005). The chrysanthemum and the sword: Patterns of Japanese culture. London: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Boellstorff, T. (2012). Coming of age in Second Life: an anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton University Press.
Boneva, N., & Frieberg, A. (2014). Urban development and place attachment in Berlin’s Wrangelkiez. Urban Anthropology, 45(2), 101-132.
Carrier, J. G., & Berking, H. (Eds.). (2012). Economic Anthropology. Edward Elgar Publishing.
Chakrabarty, D. (2018). Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial thought and historical difference. Princeton University Press.
Clottes, J. (2010). What Is Paleolithic Art?: Cave Paintings and the Dawn of Human Creativity. University Of Chicago Press.
Crate, S., & Nuttall, M. (Eds.). (2016). Anthropology and climate change: From encounters to actions. Routledge.
D’Andrade, R. (2017). A cognitive view of society. In Cognitive Anthropology (pp. 32-46). Routledge.
Dirkmaat, D. C. (Ed.). (2012). A companion to forensic anthropology. John Wiley & Sons.
Dove, M. (2011). The banana tree at the gate: A history of marginal peoples and global markets in Borneo. Yale University Press.
Duranti, A. (2010). Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge University Press.
Gershon, I. (2017). Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today. University Of Chicago Press.
Goffman, E. (2017). The presentation of self in everyday life. In Interaction Ritual (pp. 45-76). Routledge.
Green, R. E., et al. (2010). A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome. Science, 328(5979), 710-722. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1188021
Hastrup, K. (2013). Anthropology and Nature. Routledge.
Holmes, S. B. (2017). Bioarchaeology: Interpreting behavior from the human skeleton. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Kimbel, W. H., & Delezene, L. K. (2019). “Lucy” redux: A review of research on Australopithecus afarensis. American journal of physical anthropology, 168, 167-194.
Lewellen, T. (2015). The concept of culture. In Understanding Cultural Globalization, Polity.
Low, S. (2011). The edge and the center: Gated communities and the discourse of urban fear. American Anthropologist, 103(1), 45-58.
Mauss, M. (2011). The Gift: the form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. Routledge.
Mead, M., Sieben, A., & Straub, J. (1943). Coming of age in Samoa. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin books.
Moore, H. L. (2011). Feminism and anthropology. In The Gender Sexuality Reader (pp. 68-79). Routledge.
Pink, S. (2011). Visual Anthropology. The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology.
Pountney, L., & Maric, T. (2021). Introducing anthropology: what makes us human?. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Scott, J. (2009). The art of not being governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press.
Siegel, J. (2010). Second Dialect Acquisition. Cambridge University Press.
Smith, J. H. (2010). Cultural anthropology: Adaptations, structures, meanings. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
Vincent, J. (2010). Anthropology and politics. In Visions of Culture (pp. 417-429). Routledge.
Weston, K. (2012). The political ecology of disease in Tanzania. Rutgers University Press.
Whyte, W. F. (2012/1943). Street corner society: The social structure of an Italian slum. University of Chicago Press.
Wilk, R., & Cliggett, L. (2013). Economies and cultures: Foundations of economic anthropology. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Zhang, X., Ji, X., Li, C., Yang, T., Huang, J., Zhao, Y., … & Su, B. (2022). A late Pleistocene human genome from Southwest China. Current Biology, 32(14), 3095-3109.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]