What is Anthropology? Blog

Anthropology is the scientific study of humanity.  

From the Greek ánthrōpos (human) and lógos (study), the term Anthropology was first coined in the 16th century [1]. 

Anthropology is a huge spectrum of specialisms that encompasses the study of human biology, cultures, societies, languages and behaviours of the whole human species, both presently and historically [2].  

In this blog post we highlight a number of fields and research areas of anthropological study. 

Sociocultural Anthropology 

The primary focus of social anthropology is human behaviour and relationships, whereas cultural anthropology studies the philosophy, meaning, norms and values held within a human culture. Whilst social and cultural anthropology are themselves individual specialisms, sociocultural anthropology is often used as an umbrella term as the concepts researched within these topics are frequently intertwined.  

Culture dictates human behaviour, as human behaviour shapes culture. 

Some of the key topics of research in sociocultural anthropology include: 

Art, Media, Music, Dance and Film 

Art, media, music, dance and films are all forms of human expression that can provide insights into other aspects of human society and culture, such as the historical, political and economic context in which they were created. Art itself is a universal phenomenon, produced by humans from all cultural backgrounds [1].  

Economic and Political 

Although separate topics, the study of the economy and politics often comes hand-in-hand as each has implications upon the other. Economic anthropological studies focus on the economic behaviour of humans, which must be considered through the lens of geographical, historical and cultural factors of that time [1]Political anthropology concerns the structure of political systems formed within human societies, such as the formation of states, institutions and other complex social constructs.  

Photo Credit: Markus Spiske

Medical  

As with other anthropological topics, medical anthropology is a multi-disciplinary field that incorporates research into human health, disease, health-care systems and bio-cultural adaptation [3]. As medical and healthcare understanding changes, so does human behaviour. Similarly, changes in human behaviour can impact health-care. For example, the rapid worldwide transmission of COVID-19 was, in part, facilitated by the widespread use of international travel made possible by human technological advancement. In response to the pandemic we have all experienced changes in human behaviours, such as the use of face coverings and social distancing.  

Religion 

The anthropology of religion involves the study of religious institutions in relation to other social institutions, as well as the comparison of religious beliefs and practices across cultures [1]

Religion is a cultural product, created by a human community, which heavily influences other dimensions of sociocultural topics, such as art and politics [4]. 

Photo Credit: Levi Meir Clancy

Biological Anthropology 

Biological anthropology, sometimes referred to as physical anthropology, concerns the biological and behavioural aspects of human beings, their extinct ancestors, as well as human interaction with other biological organisms.  

Some of the key topics of research in biological and archaeological anthropology include: 

Anthrozoology 

Anthrozoology is a specialism that concerns the relationship and interactions between humans and animals of other species. Animals hold special roles in many human economies, religions and cultures, and there is now a great deal of research that demonstrates the positive psychological impact of human-animal relationships for both humans and the animal parties [5]. 

Photo Credit: Hikmet Çınar

Forensic 

“Forensic refers to the application of science in a court of law. Forensic anthropology is the application of the science of physical anthropology and human osteology (the study of bones) in a legal setting, most often in criminal cases where the victim’s remains are in the advanced stages of decomposition. A forensic anthropologist can assist in the identification of deceased individuals whose remains are decomposed, burned, or otherwise unrecognisable [1].  

Evolutionary 

Evolutionary anthropology is an interdisciplinary topic, studying the evolution of human physiology and behaviour as well as the relationships between hominins (animal family that includes humans and gorillas) and non-hominin primates. Combining archaeologicalbehavioural, ecological, psychological and genetic research, evolutionary anthropology draws on many lines of evidence to understand human biological and cultural evolution, past and present [1]. 

Photo Credit: Johnny Chen

Linguistic Anthropology 

Linguistic anthropology explores how language shapes communication, forms social identity and group membership, organises large-scale cultural beliefs and ideologies, and develops a common cultural representation [6]. Both verbal and non-verbal, human communication is infinitely variable, spanning languages, cultures, space and time, and therefore has a wide-reaching impact on the social and cultural features of humanity [2].  

If you want to find out more about the specialisms highlighted here, check out some of our topic-specific suggested blogs below! 

Blog links 

The Ethnobotanical Assembly (TEA) – research, writing, and thinking about people-plant relationships. [https://www.tea-assembly.com/issues] 

UCL Anthropolitan – student-run blog, articles, stories, poems, and reviews relating to anthropology in all its diversity. [https://anthropolitan.org/] 

UCL ASSA (Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing) [https://www.ucl.ac.uk/anthropology/assa/] 

University of Manchester – Category: Sociology, Social Anthropology and Social Statistics [https://sites.manchester.ac.uk/humanities-blog/category/sociology-social-anthropology-and-social-statistics/]

Political anthropology, borders, migration, citizenship [http://madeleinereeves.net/]

THINK.urban [http://thinkurban.org/blog/category/Anthropology]

This article was written by Katie Sadler on behalf of the LIVE with Scientists team. All views belong solely to the author. 

References 

  1. Wikipedia – Anthropology [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropology#cite_note-oed2-7] (Accessed Sep 2021) 
  2. American Anthropological Association: ‘What is Anthropology?’ [https://www.americananthro.org/AdvanceYourCareer/Content.aspx?ItemNumber=2150] (Accessed Sep 2021) 
  3. Medical Anthropology, A. McElroy [https://web.archive.org/web/20121001162708/http://www.univie.ac.at/ethnomedicine/PDF/Medical%20Anthropologie.pdf] (Accessed Sep 2021) 
  4. Guthrie (2000) Guide to the Study of Religion. Bloomsbury Academic. pp. 225–226 Archived 25 October 2015 at the Wayback Machine. ISBN 0-304-70176-9. 
  5. Mills, Daniel S (2010). “Anthrozoology” Archived 3 June 2016 at the Wayback Machine, The Encyclopedia of Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare. CABI, pp. 28–30. ISBN 0-85199-724-4. 
  6. Society for Linguistic Anthropology. n.d. About the Society for Linguistic Anthropology (accessed 7 July 2010).