Anthropology, as we know it today, is defined as the study of human societies and cultures and their development. In short, anthropology is the study of what makes us human, and how we evolved over thousands of years into the species we are today.
Anthropologists study the way our ancestors used to live and what was important to them so that they can see how we have evolved and what traits we have inherited from hominids and even the monkey family. Although everyone on this planet has the same needs, such as food, shelter, and water to survive, anthropologists examine how people obtain these things and how they use them as well.
You will find that anthropology is divided into four different subfields, each of which focuses on a very different aspect of life. Archaeology, biological anthropology, medical anthropology, and cultural anthropology are all part of the bigger whole and all play an important part in helping us learn about the world around us, although anthropology is most commonly broken down into physical anthropology and cultural anthropology.
What Is Anthropology?
Anthropology is the study of all the different people in the world. It takes a closer look at the way they evolved, how they behave, think and act, the way they adapt to different environments as well as the way they communicate and socialize. Anthropology also takes a look at the biological features that define us as human, including physiology, genetic makeup, nutritional history, and evolution; as well as different social aspects, including language, culture, politics, family, and religion.
You will see that the study of anthropology can go very in depth, not only examining everyday practices, but also the dramatic rituals, ceremonies, and processes that define all of us as human beings. Anthropologists spend a great deal of time comparing different communities of human beings to determine their similarities and differences so that they can learn more about humanity, especially a specific group of people. Since anthropology is broken up into physical and cultural divisions, different people study each.
What Is Archeology?
Archaeology is the study of things that people have made and often involves going on digs to unearth artifacts from civilizations past. People who study archaeology often unearth things, such as pottery and tools, that were once used as means of survival, but they also map out locations of where things, such as houses, garbage pits, and burial grounds, may have once been. These people analyze bones and teeth to see how people used to eat and what kind of diets they may have had in their time, or whether disease affected them.
What is Biological Anthropology?
Biological Anthropology is the study of how the humans we know today evolved from monkeys and other animals. It also focuses on how people adapt to different environments, as well as diseases and what may have caused them or early death. These researchers study humans, both living and dead, as well as monkeys, apes, and other animals to see what similarities they possess, when compared to humans.
What is Medical Anthropology?
Medical Anthropology is the subsection of anthropology that studies the spread of illness, the prevention and treatment of illness, and the healing processes involved with illness. Medical anthropologists take a closer look at the health of individuals, as well as larger social groups and consider how the environment affects these interrelationships.
Medical anthropology is one of the most in-depth subsections of anthropology. It is the in-depth study of human health and how illnesses are shaped and spread from person to person. It also focuses on how these illnesses are experienced from person to person.
People who choose to study medical anthropology will study preventative measures to avoid the spread of illness as well as how illness is treated, and how medicine affects the healing processes. Medical anthropology is a very scientific subsection of anthropology and applies research that is geared toward solving medical problems. It also works to improve health care systems and policies and implement public health programs that are culturally diverse.
What is Cultural Anthropology?
Cultural Anthropology is the study of how people live their lives now as compared to how they lived in the past. They study the tools that people used and the food they ate, as well as how they obtained it and how they ate it.
- American Anthropological Association: What is anthropology?
- Becoming Human: Home page
- National Park Service: What is cultural anthropology?
- University of Florida: About anthropology
There are a great many resources that people can read up on if they are interested in anthropology, including many wonderful and well-known books by famous authors, including Charles Darwin, Jane Goodall, Richard Dawkins, and E.O. Wilson.
Some great reads would include On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, In the Shadow of Man, The Selfish Gene, and The Social Conquest of Earth. In addition to these resources, there are many magazines, websites and organizations for anthropologists and wonderful museums to visit as well, including the American Museum of Natural History’s anthropological division.
- American Museum of Natural History: Anthropology
- European Association of Social Anthropologists: Why anthropology matters
- US Bureau of Reclamation: Cultural resources publications
Anthropology and Public Health
Anthropology is very important to public health, because it allows both fields to merge together to create better healthcare services for a culturally diverse world. Anthropology will allow those in the healthcare field to better understand diseases and how they have evolved over time, as well as factors such as genetics, environment and culture that could play a part in illness and how it is spread or treated.
Anthropologists that work in public health work to serve the people and create healthcare programs that will work with every culture and every person. For example, anthropologists that work with public health may take a closer look at the AIDS pandemic and how the disease spreads through different populations. They will examine who is most at risk and determine why the risk is higher within different populations. These anthropologists get to the root of the problem so that they can work to eliminate factors contributing to the health risks as well.
- PSI: Anthropology + public health = Culturally appropriate solutions
- ELRHA: A Game Changer: The importance of anthropology in public health interventions
- Veterans’ Affairs: Anthropologists provide unique perspective for VA studies
Most people who study anthropology will be familiar with all subsections of the field2, however will later go on to study one of two areas in depth. Universities are a great source of information when it comes to deciding which career path to select.
- Georgetown University: What can I do with my anthropology major?
- Adelphi University: Career paths in anthropology
- United States Department of Labor: Anthropologists and archeologists
Are you still interested in learning more about anthropology? There are many great resources on the internet if you know where to look. The University of Nevada in Reno gives a great basic overview of aspects of anthropology: Understanding anthropology. National Geographic goes more in-depth in their Anthropology section. The American Folklife Center is also a good place to start of you are looking for literary resources: Ethnographic resources related to folklore, anthropology, ethnomusicology, and the humanities.