“Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” - Margaret Mead
Anthropology is the study of humanity through the lens of culture. Anthropologists seek to understand and describe all the elements of our behavior that distinguish us as a species. Like all of the social sciences, anthropology has evolved considerably over the past two-hundred years. The origins of anthropology are disconcertingly tied to Western colonialism - early anthropological efforts were often financed by imperial powers to exploit indigenous cultures for narrow political ends. Today, however, the discipline aims to push forth an inclusive view of human cultures that defines populations in their own terms. Among those that propelled anthropology out of these ignominious beginnings were late 19th century and early 20th century social theorists such as Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, Franz Boas, and Margaret Mead. Further expanding the scope of anthropology, beginning in the 1960s, were French writers such as Claude Levi-Strauss and Michel Foucault.
In traditional U.S. universities, the study of anthropology is broken down into four fields: cultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistics and physical (biological) anthropology. By incorporating each of these specialist disciplines, the broader field of anthropology seeks to manifest a holistic understanding of the human universe. Cultural anthropology is the study of contemporary populations and cultural practices, ranging from remote Amazonian tribes to online communities such as World of Warcraft users. Archaeology examines archaic populations through material cultural remains, aiming to better appreciate where we come from and how we have arrived here as a society. Linguistics encompasses the study of all forms of human communication, as understanding our patterns of interaction is critical to appreciating our capacities as a species. Finally, physical anthropology is the study of human beings as a biological organism, and includes how we evolved as well as our place within the larger Hominid family. It is not uncommon for researchers to blend various aspects of these four sub-fields in an effort to improve understanding, as demonstrated by the interdisciplinary field of linguistic archaeology.
Historically, anthropology has been distinguished from sociology as being the study of the “other.” That is, western anthropologists sought to understand humanity by looking out from itself into other cultures, whereas sociology sought to understand humanity by looking inward and examining its constituents. Today, this line has become blurred as our global society expands its breadth but narrows its depth.
The foremost anthropological organization today is the American Anthropological Association. For the latest information on conferences around the world, as well current publications in the field, visit their website by clicking on the link above.
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