Anthropology and sociology are both social sciences fields that focus on understanding human behavior, societies, and cultures.
While anthropology focuses on rich and detailed explorations of cultures in the past and present, sociology typically focuses specifically on the social structures of contemporary societies, with a modern emphasis on injustices and social stratification.
Here are two simple definitions:
- Anthropology is the study of human beings in relation to physical character, environmental and social relations, and culture (Bernard, 2017; Delaney, 2017). It’s often characterized by extremely detailed and nuanced fieldwork.
- Sociology is the scientific study of society, including patterns of social relationships, social interaction, and culture (Park & Burgess, 2019; Tomley et al., 2019).
While these two fields share many similarities, they also have unique elements as a result of their individual foci. However, because each field is so extensive, each of the following examples have obvious exceptions, and the overlaps are significant. In fact, the main difference between the two is their traditions and the central debates within the fields, as I’ll explain as we go.
Anthropology vs Sociology
Anthropology can be understood as the systematic and scientific study of humans, their evolution, culture, beliefs, and social interactions (Pountney & Maric, 2021).
The term is derived etymologically from Greek, ‘Anthropos’ representing ‘human’ and ‘logy’ implying ‘study’.
It can be viewed as the study of humans in totality, encompassing past, present, and future.
Anthropology is a discipline of extensive scope. It considers humankind from a variety of perspectives: biological, social, cultural, and linguistic, among others.
It believes that the intersection of varying elements of human experiences, including but not limited to society, biology, language, and culture, results in a complex interconnected network (Ingold, 2018).
The discipline not just limits itself to understanding human behavior or tracing their evolution, but expands to include cultural practices, beliefs, societal norms, and languages, amongst the numerous other facets of human societies and cultures (Nanda & Warms, 2019).
Sociology is the scientific examination of behavior, interactions, and collective phenomena within social groups (Little, 2016; Park & Burgess, 2019).
It primarily addresses the analysis of various societal elements such as social behavior, culture, and structure.
Early sociologists focused on social structures and institutions, ranging from the family unit to major institutions such as government bodies, education, and religion, and examined how they helped hold together cohesive societies. Later, conflict theorists pivoted to exploring the power structures inherent in social institutions. Their concern was with how societies distributed privileges and marginalized others (Park & Burgess, 2019; Tomley et al., 2019).
Subsequent sociologists like Max Weber introduced the sociological paradigm of symbolic interactionism, which studies the ways language, symbols, and everyday social interactions structured society and identities.
The main practical implication of sociology is that it gives policy makers a scientific view into how their policies impact their societies. At its best, it gives societies a scientific basis for developing equitable social policies (Plummer, 2021; Hickey & Thompson, 2016).
Sociology and Anthropology Similarities and Differences
Similarities Between Anthropology and Sociology:
- Study human societies and behavior: Both fields consider how societies form, function, and evolve over time (Panopio & Rolda, 2007). They explore how individuals and groups interact within these societies and the implications of these interactions. In addition, both anthropology and sociology scrutinize various societal roles, statuses, and shared behaviors, and the impact these have on human relations, societal dynamics, and social change (Park & Burgess, 2019).
- Use both qualitative and quantitative methods: These social sciences approach their subjects of study with a mix of methods. Qualitative research, involving detailed observations, interviews, and document analysis, allows anthropologists and sociologists to gain profound insights into human and social behavior. On the other hand, quantitative approaches, like surveys and statistical analyses, measure the breadth of social phenomena and patterns of human behavior (Panopio & Rolda, 2007).
- Analyze culture and social structures: Both anthropology and sociology delve deeply into the study of culture, examining customs, rituals, norms, and the social order that govern societies. Furthermore, they explore how these cultural factors shape, and are shaped by, the structures and systems of societies, with particular interest in power dynamics, role differentiation, and the development of social institutions (Pountney & Maric, 2021).
- Interested in norms, values, and beliefs: Anthropologists and sociologists show considerable interest in understanding norms (the accepted behaviors), values (what’s deemed important in a society), and beliefs (shared perspectives about the world). Through their lens, these social constructs are not rigid, but rather dynamic and adaptive, changing across time, space, and cultures (Panopio & Rolda, 2007).
- Both disciplines consider individual and collective behaviors: Anthropology and sociology offer unique insights into both the individual’s behavior and collective actions within societies (Panopio & Rolda, 2007). They endeavor to unravel the profound interconnections between personal choices and social contexts while examining the span from individual micro-level behavior to the behavior of larger social aggregates.
Differences Between Anthropology and Sociology:
- Sociology focuses on modern societies: Sociology predominantly centers around contemporary societies, exploring current societal structures, cultural practices, and social behaviors (Plummer, 2021). It also examines the impact of modern institutions like the government, education, and religion have on societies. Emphasis is given to finding solutions to modern-day social issues, such as inequality, discrimination, and conflict.
- Anthropology studies past and present: Anthropology is unique in its propensity to analyze human societies across different time-frames (Nanda & Warms, 2019). It encompasses studying early human societies to understand the evolution of cultural systems, alongside examining contemporary societies. Its focus is broader, spanning the breadth of human existence, offering a long-term perspective on cultural, social, and biological changes.
- Sociology often uses statistical analysis: Sociology frequently incorporates empirical methods and extensive statistical analysis in its research (Thompson, Hickey & Thompson, 2016). Using rigorous data analysis, sociology aims at extrapolating broader tendencies and generalizable patterns from individual cases to better understand social structures, norms, and behaviors on a macro scale.
- Anthropology relies heavily on fieldwork: Anthropology distinguishes itself through its strong emphasis on intensive fieldwork and participant observation (Delaney, 2017). Anthropologists often immerse themselves in cultures and societies under study, living with local communities to get an in-depth perspective and understanding of their customs, practices, and ways of life.
- Anthropology includes biological and archaeological subfields: Anthropology goes beyond just studying human societies and culture to include biological anthropology, focusing on the evolutionary aspects of humans and their ancestors, and archaeology, that uncovers past societies and their artifacts (Bernard, 2017; Delaney, 2017; Pountney & Maric, 2021). This broad reach, encompassing biology and the past, adds a unique dimension to anthropology.
|Definition||Sociology is the study of human social relationships and institutions. It seeks to understand the ways in which human actions and consciousness shape and are shaped by surrounding cultural and social structures.||Anthropology is the scientific study of humans, human behavior and societies in the past and present. It tends to focus on the culture, evolution, behavior, beliefs, and social system of humans (Bernard, 2017; Delaney, 2017; Ingold, 2018).|
|Scope||Sociology focuses more on modern societies, studying complex social structures such as governments, economies, and families (Little, 2016).||Anthropology has a broader scope, studying human societies across time and space. This includes not only modern human societies, but also ancient civilizations and even non-human primates (Pountney & Maric, 2021).|
|Methods||Sociology often relies on quantitative methods, such as surveys and statistical analysis (Plummer, 2021). However, qualitative methods like interviews, fieldwork, or textual analysis are also used.||Anthropology traditionally leans more towards qualitative methods like ethnography, participant observation, interviews, and artifact analysis. However, it can also use quantitative methods, particularly in areas like biological or archaeological anthropology (Ingold, 2018; Nanda & Warms, 2019).|
|Subfields||Major subfields of sociology include Social Organization, Sociological Social Psychology, Social Change, and Criminology (Park & Burgess, 2019).||Major subfields of anthropology include Cultural Anthropology, Linguistic Anthropology, Biological/Physical Anthropology, and Archaeology (Delaney, 2017).|
|Goal||Sociology’s main goal is to understand how societies work and how they can be improved (Plummer, 2021). It examines how individuals and groups interact within their social framework.||The goal of anthropology is to understand the full range of human cultural and biological diversity, past and present. It seeks to understand what it means to be human (Ingold, 2018).|
|Key Concepts||Key concepts in sociology include social structure, social function, conflict, social class, culture, and socialization (Little, 2016).||Key concepts in anthropology include culture, cultural relativism, ethnocentrism, cultural evolution, cultural adaptation, thick description, and ethnography (Bernard, 2017; Ingold, 2018).|
The main distinguishing difference between sociology and anthropology is in their traditions: anthropology has a rich tradition of detailed qualitative fieldwork, and the comparative study of cultures, past and present.
By contrast, sociology has a strong tradition of debating social structures, especially as demonstrated in the ongoing sociological debate about the role of social institutions (functionalism vs conflict theory) and between structure and agency (functionalism and conflict theory vs symbolic interactionism).
Bernard, H. R. (2017). Research methods in anthropology: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. London: Rowman & Littlefield.
Delaney, C. (2017). Investigating culture: An experiential introduction to anthropology. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Ingold, T. (2018). Anthropology: Why it matters. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Little, W. (2016). Introduction to sociology. Vancouver; BCcampus.
Nanda, S., & Warms, R. L. (2019). Cultural anthropology. London: Sage Publications.
Panopio, I. S., & Rolda, R. S. (2007). Society & Culture. Goodwill Trading Co., Inc..
Park, R. E., & Burgess, E. W. (2019). Introduction to the Science of Sociology. Los Angeles: Good Press.
Plummer, K. (2021). Sociology: the basics. New York: Routledge.
Pountney, L., & Marić, T. (2021). Introducing anthropology: what makes us human?. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Thompson, W. E., Hickey, J. V., & Thompson, M. L. (2016). Society in focus: An introduction to sociology. London: Rowman & Littlefield.
Tomley, S., Hobbs, M., Todd, M. & Weeks, M. (2019) The Sociology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. London: DK Publishing.
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]