What is Anthropology?

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Physical or biological anthropologists study the remains of human beings and hominids to investigate human disease, diet, genetics and lifestyle. (Image credit: Photobank gallery | Shutterstock)

Anthropology is the study of humans, early hominids and primates, such as chimpanzees.

Anthropologists study human language, culture, societies, biological and material remains, the biology and behavior of primates, and even our own buying habits. It’s a broad discipline that constantly incorporates new technologies and ideas. As technologies are developed that allow exoplanets to be detected and studied in greater detail, anthropology may eventually expand to include the study of non-human civilizations.

“Historically, anthropologists in the United States have been trained in one of four areas: sociocultural anthropology, biological/physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics,” writes the American Anthropological Association on its website. “Anthropologists often integrate the perspectives of several of these areas into their research, teaching, and professional lives.”

To an anthropologist, “anything is available to inspection, including the most ordinary, mundane items and events such as a McDonald’s hamburger, a pair of blue jeans, a cell phone, a birthday or New Year’s Eve, and so forth,” writes Carol Delaney, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, in her book “An Experiential Introduction to Anthropology” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). “Each of them provides a window into a much larger set of beliefs, power relations, and values,” she writes.

In thinking about ordinary things from our culture, we can help understand those of others. “For example what would you make of a community that celebrates death days rather than birthdays? How might that fact relate to other facets of that society? What other kinds of questions would you need to ask to begin to understand not just that practice but also the culture in which it occurs?”

Sociocultural anthropology

“Sociocultural anthropologists examine social patterns and practices across cultures, with a special interest in how people live in particular places and how they organize, govern, and create meaning,” writes the American Anthropological Association.

It’s a broad discipline that explores human behavior in all its diversity, from hunter-gatherer societies to the habits of shopping mall visitors.

For instance, Richard Lee, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, is known for his studies of the !Kung people that live in several countries in southern Africa (the ! represents a sound). The !Kung are one of a small number of modern-day societies that live as hunter-gatherers, providing a window into how ancient hunter-gatherers lived.

On the other side of the coin is the growing field of business anthropology where anthropologists study consumer behavior, including how people act in shopping malls. It’s something that can help companies produce and market products to meet their needs and desires.

“Business anthropologists have influenced market research by pointing out that, to be successful, marketers must understand people — what they do and how they live,” writes Shirley Fedorak, of the University of Saskatchewan, in her book “Anthropology Matters” (University of Toronto Press, 2013).


Archaeology is the study of humanity through the materials — the stuff — we leave behind. This can be in the distant past, such as the pyramids at Giza, or very recent times, such as a 21st-century marriage proposal carved near a closed quarantine station

Many archaeologists do not call themselves anthropologists, and archaeology’s relationship to anthropology is a matter of debate. Archaeologists examine past societies using some of the methods and theories that sociocultural anthropologists work with. Additionally, physical anthropologists work closely with archaeologists to investigate human remains.

Physical anthropology

Physical or biological anthropologists study the remains of human beings and hominids using a variety of techniques to investigate human disease, diet, genetics and lifestyle.

Some, such as Jane Goodall, specialize in the study of primates, such as chimpanzees. By studying these creatures, which are closely related to us, we can learn much about ourselves and how we came to be.

Another important sub-branch is forensic anthropology, which tends to focus on helping authorities solve crimes and identify human remains found at crime and disaster scenes.

A 2008 article published in the magazine Chico Statements tells the story of Ben Figura, who “worked in the foul waters of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and in Thailand in the aftermath of the 2005 tsunami that killed some 230,000 people.” He also led “a small team of experts from New York City’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner working to put names to the thousands of human remains still being found at Ground Zero. Most of the remains at this stage are bone fragments, some very small.”

It’s a tough field to work in. “Working at the site of a historic tragedy and in such intimate contact with its victims, as well as its survivors — Figura often calls family members when his team identifies remains — can be emotionally wrenching,” the article notes.

Linguistic anthropology

In some ways, linguistic anthropology can be the hardest branch of anthropology to identify.

The American Anthropological Association states that it “is the comparative study of ways in which language reflects and influences social life. It explores the many ways in which language practices define patterns of communication, formulate categories of social identity and group membership, organize large-scale cultural beliefs and ideologies, and, in conjunction with other forms of meaning-making, equip people with common cultural representations of their natural and social worlds.”

Linguistic anthropologists can be found analyzing languages, both verbal and non-verbal, around the world. They do things like study American presidential debates to determine how candidates use non-verbal hand gestures to communicate with voters. They can also be found analyzing the books and movies read by young teenagers (the "Twilight" series, for instance) to determine how they affect the teenage mind.

By studying the usage of language, these anthropologists can determine what cultures value.

“The everyday language of North Americans, for example, includes a number of slang words, such as dough, greenback, dust, loot, cash, bucks, change and bread, to identify what an indigenous native of Papua-New Guinea would recognize only as money,” writes William Haviland, a professor emeritus at the University of Vermont, in his book “Anthropology” (Harcourt College Publishers, 2000).

“Such phenomena help identify things that are considered of special importance to a culture.”

How do you become an anthropologist?

Anthropologists tend to have either a master’s or doctoral degree. There are many universities in the United States, Canada and Europe that teach the discipline. Often those studying anthropology will specialize in a specific area.  Fieldwork is often required to complete a degree.

Where do anthropologists work?

Anthropologists can be found working for a wide variety of employers. These include museums, police departments, marketing companies, cultural resource management firms, government agencies and research institutes.

How much do anthropologists earn?

It is hard to give a salary range for anthropologists. A junior anthropologist doing fieldwork on contract may earn a low amount of money, perhaps not much more than minimum wage. On the higher end, a tenured professor at a large university may earn over $100,000, while those in senior positions at large private companies may earn considerably more.

How did anthropology get its start?

In some ways anthropology is in itself an ancient discipline. Writers in the ancient world often analyzed the cultures of various peoples in an attempt to understand their practices.

For instance, in A.D. 43, the writer Pomponius Mela examined the Druid religious beliefs of the Gauls and noted how it prepared them for the many wars they fought. “And yet, they have both their own eloquence and their own teachers of wisdom, the Druids. These men claim to know the size and shape of the Earth and of the universe, the movements of the sky and of the stars, and what the gods intend…” he wrote. “One of the precepts they teach — obviously to make them better for war — has [become] common knowledge, namely that their souls are eternal and there is a second life for the dead.” (Translation by E.F Romer)

As the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution spawned new technologies and ideas, anthropology grew as a discipline. For example, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution paved the way for the skeletal remains of hominids to be better understood, allowing for a new understanding of how humans came into existence.

Owen Jarus

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.