Anthropology : Meaning, Definition, Introduction, Branches & Examples

The term “Anthropology” is derived from two Greek words, anthropos meaning human and logos meaning study. So, in the simplest terms, Anthropology is the study of human beings.  An anthropologist tries to study and understand everything that can be related to humans and not limited by time and space.

anthropology meaning branches

Thus, Anthropology can be defined as “The study of human populations where we holistically explore the biological, socio-cultural, archaeological and linguistic aspects of human existence.” An anthropologist must have sufficient knowledge of all these aspects to specialize in one.

The term holistic is an important feature of the discipline which means that while studying any population, all the characteristics of the population are studied in connection with each other. In general, an anthropologist may seek answers to the following questions:

  • Why some people are dark-skinned while some are light-skinned?
  • Why in European countries O blood group is the most prevalent whereas in India it’s B and in Central Asia it’s A?
  • Why some languages have more specific terms for colours while others do not?
  • What are the power distribution and resource-control pattern in any community?
  • Why people belonging to a particular community suffer more from a given disease than others?
  • What is the means of subsistence in a community and how it has changed with time?
  • Why in some cultures do children leave the house of their parents when they grow old while in some they do not?
  • How the birth, marriage, and death ceremony varies within communities?

These are very few examples of questions that an anthropologist may possibly want to know. Anthropologists are curious about the typical characteristics of populations around the globe.

Fieldwork is a research method specific to the field of Anthropology. It is considered as an important part of an anthropologist’s professional training. Fieldwork was developed by Polish Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski who conducted fieldwork for 6 years amongst the Trobrianders of Malensia which is considered as the best fieldwork to date. Malinowski is considered as the “Father of Social Anthropology” and is also known for his theory of functionalism. Fieldwork basically involves living with the people in a culture different from ours and studying and engaging in the daily activities of their lives. Fieldwork methodology is quite different from those of “arm-chair” anthropologists who study people within their comfort zones i.e. in the libraries.

Anthropology mainly has four major branches: Socio-cultural anthropology, Biological or physical anthropology, Archeological anthropology, and Linguistic Anthropology.

Socio-cultural anthropology is also known as cultural anthropology or social anthropology. It is the study of societies and cultures around the world. How the social structure, norms, economic and religious organizations, kinship system, marriage system, cultural practices, behavioral patterns, etc varies around the world.

The detailed study of a culture including the description of lives of people like family, religion, economic system, marriage, etc. through fieldwork is known as Ethnography. Ethnology is the comparative study and analysis of different cultures, including the differences and relationships within them.

Social Anthropology includes various sub-disciplines like medical anthropology, psychological anthropology, social institutions, kinship, family and marriage, visual anthropology, theories in social anthropology, fieldwork methodology, ethnography, ethnology, museology, etc.

Physical anthropology involves an evolutionary perspective towards the study of human populations and their diversity. To understand variations, they use the techniques and principles of genetics, biology, and epidemiology.

Paleoanthropologists analyze fossil records and reconstruct the past of humans to trace the direct ancestors and genetic and anatomical variation with evolution. They study the characteristics that are similar and different between humans and chimpanzees and to understand how evolution has resulted in many changes in humans including bipedalism, straight posture, opposable thumb, ability to grasp, loss of tail, increase in cranial capacity, etc.

Through epidemiology and nutritional studies, they study the variation in dietary patterns and health because of different bio-cultural factors like food taboo, local practitioners, faith healing, etc. Study of human genetics helps in categorizing various genetic disorders due to inheritance, mutations in genes/chromosomes, etc. Social anthropologists, for example, may study the implications of these diseases on the lives of the affected and their families. This is how both social and biological anthropology could be related and studied together. Physical anthropology can also be used in the field of forensics. For example forensic anthropologists recover bones from sites of mass excavations and use the studies of anthropometry to trace the identity of the dead ones.

Anthropometry is a science used to measure the physical attributes of humans. These could be hand length, skull width, etc. It is an important tool in physical anthropology.

Archaeological anthropology studies human societies and cultures from prehistory and how they have changed with evolution, changes in climatic conditions and advancements in tools and techniques. They collect material remains from various archeological sites and try to reconstruct the past. These artifacts could be tools, remains from human cultures like pottery, cave paintings, etc. They use different dating techniques like carbon dating, pollen dating, stratigraphy, etc. to arrange the findings in a chronological order and understand the cultural development in the past.

Linguistic anthropology studies the diversity of languages among the different cultures in the world and how they affect or are affected by cultures and societies around the world.

Edward Sapir is one of the prominent contributors in the discipline. He was a student of Franz Boas and he was interested in how language and culture influence each other.

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