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Cedar Valley College > Future Students > Degrees and Certificate Programs > Academic Disciplines > Anthropology

What is Anthropology?

Register NowAnthropology is the study of humankind the world over and throughout time. Anthropologists seek to understand the biological, cultural, social and psychological nature of all human beings in order to understand what makes us similar and yet different from one another.

Anthropologists specialize in one of the major sub-fields of anthropology: biological anthropology, archaeology, cultural anthropology, linguistics or applied anthropology. All of these specialties, however, share a common set of perspectives the forms the basis for anthropology as a discipline.

Biological anthropology focuses on the origins, evolution and biological variation of humans. Where, how and why did humans originate as a species? How are the same and different from other primates? A special area of applied biological anthropology focuses on forensic anthropology, in which anthropologists may work with police departments and coroners' offices in investigative practices.

Archaeology is the study of the human past. Some archaeologists delve into the very earliest human past and, along with biological anthropologists, they study the early evolution of culture, language and tool use. This is called paleoanthropology. Other archaeologists study the way culture has changed through time. While some concentrate on ancient peoples of North America, others may investigate the rise and fall of civilization in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia, Polynesia or South America. Still others emphasize the role of archaeology, along with historic records, in gaining a better understanding of the contact between European and other societies in the past or the cultural history of frontier settlements.

Linguistics, as a part of anthropology, attempts to understand how language is both a reflection of and an influence on our culture. The study of language as a mode of communication based on the use of complex symbols, has led to the study of primate behavior and psychology as well as primate social organization. This, in turn, ties into the work of paleoanthropology, as comparisons with primate communication and social organization helps us to better understand what makes us unique, as well as similar to other species.

Cultural Anthropology is the study of people and cultures the world over throughout history as well as today. While cultural anthropology shares much in common with sociology and world history, it is also different. Whereas sociology and psychology have emphasized human behavior and social arrangements in western, industrial society, anthropology has traditionally been interested in non-western, pre-industrial peoples. In the latter part of the twentieth century, some anthropologists and their colleagues in the other social sciences have joined forces, becoming interdisciplinary in their work. Many anthropologists have brought their unique strategies and insights to bear on our own society while sociologists have become increasingly cross-cultural in their work. Likewise, traditional world history, focusing on western civilization has become more global, giving rise to the broader study of world civilizations. Cultural anthropologists study different dimensions of human culture, including kinship (marriage, family and genealogy), religion, art, economics, political organization, recreation, music and military institutions.

Anthropology is holistic. Humans are biological, psychological, cultural and social beings. For that reason, while an archaeologist may focus on the material remains of the past, s/he also understands that all material objects reflect the social practices of a group, a family, a village or a whole society. Biological anthropologists, studying human diversity understand that while humans vary in appearance, blood types, size, and so forth, they are similar in emotions, social needs, quests for the spiritual , and in other ways. Cultural practices such as preferred foods, child raising practices and language training may influence, as well as reflect, the ways in which human populations vary biologically. Linguists may explore the evolutionary past of humans as well as other primates in order to understand the complex way in human communication has developed. In sum, while anthropologists specialize in one sub-field, they all share the perspective that humans and their behavior must be studied in a total, holistic way.

Anthropology is systems oriented. By understanding that a change in one part of a society necessarily influences changes in all other areas of society, anthropologists focus on the patterns of interrelationships that exist between humans and their environments, different elements of society, different dimensions of cultural practices and between different social systems around the world.

Anthropology has been called "the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences." Anthropology employs the methods of scientific investigation and principles of scientific analysis and reasoning, while also embracing the artistic, expressive and symbolic dimensions of human behavior. While some anthropologists may utilize rigorous scientific controls in their research, others may seek to gain valuable insights that only come from shared human experience and observation. All anthropologists seek to gain wider appreciation and understanding of what it means to be "human."