Anthropology is a scholarly discipline that aspires to be the study of humankind, broadly defined. It has been classified at different times with the social sciences, the natural sciences, and the humanities. Any aspect of humanity may come under anthropological scrutiny. Although the discipline thus overlaps with many others, including sociology, psychology, and biology, the anthropological perspective remains unique by virtue of its methodology and approach. In its early days, anthropology emphasized the study of non-Western or pre-literate peoples (the so-called primitive) and comparative sociological description. Contemporary anthropology finds its subjects in all corners of society and all walks of life, including the urban, Western, and postmodern. There are currently five major subfields of anthropology: sociocultural anthropology, archaeology, physical or biological anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and applied anthropology. These subdisciplines, while remaining more or less separate, have innumerable tendencies or currents within them. Anthropological research methods and techniques vary widely by subdiscipline and intellectual orientation, ranging from quantitative to qualitative, from statistical analysis to participant-observation. For most of its history, anthropology has distinguished itself from other disciplines through its focus on humans not as individuals but as members of groups.

The concept of culture as an organizing principle sets anthropology apart from other social sciences such as psychology (which seeks to understand individual motivation and behavior rather than group identity). The enormous variety in human languages, customs, modes of socioeconomic life, beliefs, and ecological adaptation is subsumed under the general concept of culture. Sociocultural anthropology, the largest of the subfields, is a compound term incorporating the British stream of social anthropology, the American stream of cultural anthropology, and French structuralism. In the trajectory of American cultural anthropology, the twentieth-century Boasian school was linked to the nineteenth-century German intellectual tradition. Alternatively, for much of the twentieth century, a rival school, based in British social anthropology and known variously as structural-func-tionalism, increasingly held sway. Other schools have had considerable influence on Western anthropological thought as well, in particular the French lineage originating with the sociology of Durkheim and Mauss, extending to the structural anthropology of Levi-Strauss, and the poststructuralism of the late twentieth century.

Physical anthropology is the study of humans as biological organisms. Evolutionary anthropologists and primatologists compare human beings to their hominid predecessors and to other primates, including apes and lemurs. In the nineteenth century, the main school of physical anthropology was concerned with anthropometry, the measurement of skeletal and anatomical features, in order to classify people into racial categories called physical types. This method of categorizing relationships among people was gradually shown to be scientifically invalid. Forensic anthropologists assist in legal proceedings and humanitarian work by identifying human skeletal remains. Medical anthropology is an interdisciplinary branch of anthropology that studies cultural, physiological, and environmental factors in illness, disease, and healing.

Archaeology is the study of antiquity and the past through the excavation and analysis of buried settlements, graves, artifacts, and remains. The division between prehistory and history was not applied in Europe itself, where the past has been studied as a continuous epoch. The establishment of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846 accelerated the formation of American archaeology. Nineteenth-century archaeologists read cultural patterns from excavated artifacts in a kind of prehistoric ethnology. Geology has had a strong influence on archaeology, sharing techniques of surveying, mapping, excavation, dating finds, and reconstructing prehistory. In the twentieth century, stratigraphic techniques increased knowledge of cultural change in prehistory. After 1950, American archaeologists shifted their focus from reconstructing patterns of diffusion and migration to examining internal processes as a source of cultural change. Environmental factors and transformations within individual societies could be read through the distribution patterns of artifacts, houses, and settlements. Spatial archaeology focuses less on artifacts and more on habitation patterns as keys to ethnohistory and the ecological interactions of humans with their environment, with an emphasis on reconstructing household organization and social structure.

Linguistic anthropology focuses on the social aspects of language systems, speech acts, and communication behavior. Its forms include descriptive constituent analysis of language sound and structure, reconstructive historical linguistics and glottochronology, the soci-olinguistics of speech communities, language planning and policy, and the ethnography of communication. Applied anthropology investigates human relations and their application to practical matters. Applied anthropologists utilize methods of participant observation and ethnographic interviewing in projects that seek to assist clients and interest groups.

The human quest for self-awareness is documented at least as far back as the inscription "Know thyself," carved over the entrance to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi in the 6th century B.C.E. The Delphic ideal has proved to be an elusive one, in both the realms of individual psychology and group sociology. The reportage of Greek historians are counted among the earliest chronicles of a comparative or cross-cultural character. Tales of Africans in the Roman Pliny the Elder's Natural History blended observed ethnographic fact with fantastic fables drawn from voyagers' chronicles. During the eighteenth century, Enlightenment thinker Alexander Pope's Essay on Man modified the ancient injunction to individual self-knowledge, broadening its aspect to humanity in general with these words:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, The proper study of mankind is Man.

According to Boas, Magnus Kunst in 1501 was probably the first to use the term anthropology to mean the study of man from the psychological point of view, as did Immanuel Kant in the late eighteenth century. Blumenbach first used the term anthropology to describe the study of man from a physical point of view. These two branches of anthropology in the modern sense were first brought together by W. Edwards in 1839. In France anthropology was defined as a branch of the natural sciences studying the human family in itself and in relation to nature. In Germany the term anthropology usually referred to physical anthropology only, while ethnology denoted the psychological side of the field. In the United States eighteenth-century philosophy had primarily meant practical science. Thomas Jefferson became the first anthropologist in the United States when he published Notes on the State of Virginia, detailing American Indian botany and languages, to prove to Europeans that the New World had a history and a civilization worthy of the name. Native America was the classic subject of U.S. anthropology in its formative years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Social Darwinism and racial anthropologies developed in Germany around the same time. The principal challenge to social evolutionism came in the form of diffusionism, as exemplified by the German kulturkreislehre, or culture-circle school. Diffusionists reasoned that similar traits found in widely dispersed societies—including material culture forms—could be traced back to earlier dispersal from centers of civilization. Objects, traditions, languages, and religions moved outward in radiating concentric circles from classical centers like Java and China into surrounding areas and ultimately to remote outposts. As fashions changed in the center, they sent out ripples of change in a wave effect that grew weaker toward the periphery. The most remote forms thus represented the oldest survivals and the earliest layers of culture. But no people is marginal to itself. The extreme form of diffusionism ruled out independent invention as an explanation for the resemblance of widely dispersed phenomena or material forms, attributing innovation to the so-called high civilizations such as China and India, and their colonizing missions to other parts of the world. In his studies of Northwest Coast material culture, however, Boas found that like effects often sprang from unlike causes, and that the meaning of an object lies in its function, not its form.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Boas was among the first to use the term cultures in the plural to signify the lifeways of specific groups rather than culture in the abstract, which at the time carried connotations of universal development along an evolutionary scale. His anthropometric studies of growth among European immigrants to the United States showed the inherited characteristics of biology and physical adaptations to environment and nutrition as interdependent variables that could influence each other over time (Boas, 1940). Boas's inductive method meant that grand theories could be built up only from a proliferation of fact and artifact, not derived from universal hypotheses. The background of this battle was rooted in two conflicting worldviews driving nineteenth-century scholarship: evolutionism and diffusionism. Cultural evolutionists, reasoning that Darwin's natural selection extended into the social realm, held that all societies went through comparable stages of development. So-called primitive peoples occupied a lower rung on the ladder of evolutionary progress, while Northern Europeans and Americans were at the top. Social evolutionists considered the cultures and social institutions of preliterate societies to reflect earlier stages of European history. Although the influence of Victorian British anthropologists such as Frazer and Tylor remained strong, U.S. scholar Lewis Henry Morgan, who studied the Iroquois in the 1870s, created a particularly influential evolutionary model according to which human societies passed through three stages: "savagery," characterized by hunter-gatherer subsistence and band-level organization; "barbarism," in which settled communities based on cultivation arose; and "civilization," marked by the introduction of writing. The inherent racism and eth-nocentrism of this view suited the imperial aspirations of European colonial powers admin istering native subjects about whose ways they knew little and understood less.

Any measurement of physiological difference within racial or cultural groupings was found consistently to be at least as great as that between groups, demonstrating that racial categories conceived as such are not fixed biological barriers but exist as socially defined boundaries on a continuum of characteristics, impressions, or measurements imposed by an observer rather than on strict divisions inherent in nature. In place of either an evolutionary ladder of social development or the none-too-human theories of polygenesis, Boas posited that physiological variation was the result of long and complex tribal histories of migration, intermarriage, and other events that could be reconstructed by careful collection of material and analysis of data ranging from human bones to pottery shards to folklore. Language and culture were shown to be acquired independently of racial "type" or national origin. Although the underlying psychic unity of mankind remained the wellspring of our most fundamentally human institutions, the social and psychological particularities of our customs, values, and behavior owe more to nurture than nature. Environmental constraints, climate and topography, energy and resources became increasingly important to anthropologists through the twentieth century, as fieldwork became the hallmark of the discipline and as successive generations of scholars developed empirically based theories of the forces shaping human cultures.

An ardent opponent of the pseudoscientific reductionism of social Darwinism, Boas was influenced by the German diffusionist school. Adolf Bastian was alone at the time in occupying a middle-ground position. Bastian, who traveled and collected widely, believed that similarities in the form of objects and customs reflected a basic underlying psychic unity of mankind. This theory partially agreed with evolutionists insofar as it posited monogenesis, the idea that humanity is a single species with a single origin. The opposing view, polygenesis, contended that nonwhite peoples were descended from different primeval ancestors and were actually members of a species different from and inferior to Northern Europeans—a widely held view among scientists in the nineteenth century. Boas and others, collecting anthropometric data, helped to disprove the pseudoscientific racism of polygenesis and the eugenics movement and to turn anthropology away from the rigid racial categorization of physical types toward a more complex and realistic understanding of human differences.

Anthropology was distilled by Boas into the tripartite model of race, language, and culture seen as independent, interrelated variables. Boas, generally regarded as the "father of American anthropology," devoted considerable attention to physical anthropology and linguistic studies but considered the psychological aspects of the field to be of paramount interest. He emphasized that anthropology was distinct from other fields in its concern with the study of man in society, not as an individual. Material culture of the sort collected and displayed in museums was taken as evidence, either of historical patterns or of evolutionary stages of development, depending on the worldview of the investigator. Boas was instrumental in shifting the discipline from a museum-based approach to a university-centered one, paralleling his gradual shift from a search for universal laws of human behavior to the historical particularism that considered each culture to be a unique product of complex combinations of circumstances. At the same time, anthropological methodology moved away from the armchair approach of nineteenth-century scholars to the fieldwork model exemplified by Bronislaw Malinowski's participant-observation studies in the Trobriand Islands during World War I. At the close of his classic Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), Malinowski added a comparativist corollary to the ancient Delphic wisdom and defined the fieldwork paradigm that would be the distinguishing characteristic of anthropology. We cannot know ourselves, he wrote, "if we never leave the narrow confinement of the customs, beliefs and prejudices into which every man is born. Nothing can teach us a better lesson in this matter of ultimate importance than the habit of mind which allows us to treat the beliefs and values of another man from his point of view." Malinowski's treatise was a call for mutual understanding and tolerance issued in the context of the urgency of World War I. The perspective of self and other pertained to the West and the colonial world; cultural relativism was a lens through which to correct the habits of ethnocentric vision. As pragmatist philosopher Henry David Thoreau had advocated, the perhaps impossible precept "Know thyself' was translated into the more possible "Know what thou canst work at."

Much of modern anthropology was a reaction to and rejection of Boasian methodology. The schools of cultural evolution and cultural materialism, which had their heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, were derived from Marx's axiom that the mode of production determines a society's structure and superstructure. The principle of "infrastructural determinism" seeks first causes of human behavior and the social phenomena of consciousness in environmental circumstances. The basic model was borrowed from the earlier ethnographic works of Lowie, Kroeber, Wissler, and Steward, as in the ecological adaptation of Plains Indian cultures following the introduction of the horse to North America. One problem with the cultural materialist paradigm is its dis avowal of the role of thought, human agency being reduced to its interplay with the environment and divorced from the abstract reasoning, conceptual thinking, and ideational creativity that have enabled the human species to profoundly alter its own environment.

Postwar anthropology expanded its subject matter to include industrial and postindustrial societies and Western cultures. In the postcolonial era, anthropology critically examined its own colonial roots and underwent a radical self-evaluation. This reflexive turn, beginning in the 1960s, has become increasingly prominent since 1980. The fragmentation of the discipline has increased, as biological and culturalist orientations move further apart. Many anthropologists serve as activists for the interests of the people they study, as in the political struggle over land claims in the Amazon between the Yana-mamo Indians and centralized state governments. Anthropologists remain in the center of controversies surrounding the origins of the first Americans—as in the struggle among scientists, Indians, and the Army Corps of Engineers over the proper disposition of early human remains found in Washington state and known as Kennewick Man.

Anthropology continues to make contributions toward mutual human understanding, equality, and tolerance in a multicultural world. Anthropological knowledge and technique are increasingly used as tools in the assertion of territorial and human rights, as well as the politics and poetics of identity. The preservation and study of biological and cultural diversity is a disciplinary descendant of salvage ethnology, environmental studies, and ethnoscience. The emergence of new biocul-tural paradigms recalls Ralph Waldo Emerson's assessment of the evolution of the Delphic exhortation to knowledge: "And in fine, the ancient precept, 'Know thyself,' and the modern precept, 'Study nature,' become at last one maxim."

See also: Archaeology and Sustainable Development; Ethnology; Ethnoscience; Linguistic Diversity; Physical Anthropology


Boas, Franz. 1940. Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan; Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic; Hymes, Dell, ed. 1972. Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Pantheon; Kuper, Adam. 1996. Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School, 3d ed. London: Routledge; Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1963. Structural Anthropology. Vol. I. New York: Basic; Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland; Steward, Julian. 1955. Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution. Urbana: University of Illinois Press; Stocking, George W., Jr. 1968. Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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