Synopsis: Although the two domains are closely related to each other, Sociology and Anthropology are two distinct fields of study. Differences that exist between the two disciplines provide them such distinction from one another. At the same time, both the subjects have much in common. This article explores the two areas of Anthropology and Sociology, their differences and similarities, and possible careers in each sphere.

Differences and Similarities Between Anthropology and Sociology

Brief Introduction to Anthropology:

Often termed the ‘science of humanity’ (Feeley-Harnik et al., 2020), Anthropology is the discipline that engages in the study of humankind. In simple words, Anthropology studies every aspect of human life. To go into a little more detail, the study of Anthropology involves the study of biological science or life science of humans, the behaviors and actions of people, and all that their cultures and societies encompass. This analysis is not limited only to the present world–Anthropologists are also concerned with matters of the past i.e., the history and evolution of humanity and the life of human beings in the past. Anthropology falls under the broader domain of Social Sciences.

Anthropology was established as a field of study primarily in Europe and North America in 1950. The process of studying it, however, had already commenced and had been underway by the 1860s. Charles Darwin’s theories in his books ‘The Origin of Species’ published in 1859 and ‘The Descent of Man’ published in 1871, along with important discoveries of fossils and remnants of previous humans, fueled the interest in examining humanity. Richard Francis Burton, James Hunt, Edward Burnett Tylor, and Alfred Tylor emerged as the pioneers of the discipline, followed by James George Frazer, Rudolph Virchow, and later by Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Margaret Mead. Several associations concentrated on the development of the subject matter were also established.

Prominent in academia today, Anthropology encompasses several methodologies to study humankind: (i) ethnography (as found in descriptive anthropology), which entails examining a specific cultural group; (ii) observation, which involves joining the group which one wants to observe, and actively engaging in their activities to gain the knowledge of that group or activity directly from the source through personal experience (known as ‘participant observation’); (iii) disinterring or excavating specific sites to inspect certain material objects of humans from the past.

The comprehensiveness of anthropology i.e., the manner in which it incorporates within itself the several and varied aspects of human life renders it important to divide anthropology into specific branches which can focus on each feature of humankind separately. As a result, several subdivisions have emerged over the years within the area of study. They are: 

  1. Cultural or social (or Sociocultural) Anthropology; 
  2. Archaeology; 
  3. Psychological Anthropology; 
  4. Linguistic Anthropology; and 
  5. Physical or Biological Anthropology

Another type, World anthropology, can also be included in the mix.

Brief Introduction to Sociology:

Sociology also belongs to the larger groups of social sciences. It is the area of interest which focuses on the examination and analysis of the social life of human being and all that it entails. This includes human societies, human communication and interdependence, social behaviors and activities of humans, and the institutions that govern people. Different components of human societies, such as gender, age groups, race, communities, and populations, etc. are explored under this subject. Broader areas of discussion under Sociology include culture, socialization, social structure, and social interaction, bureaucracies and formal social institutions, social stratification (both in the local as well global context), economy, politics, education, ethnicity and race, sex & gender, education, religion, etc. Any aspect of human societies which renders humans different from animals and rather ‘social creatures’, thereby influencing their decisions, actions, behaviors, ideals, and lives, is studied under Sociology.

Analysis of societies and humankind dates far back in history. Some known people who engaged in such analysis were Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Although the word was coined by Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, French philosopher Auguste Comte was the first to use ‘Sociology’ and define it. Although Sociology as a discipline was established much after his death, Karl Marx is considered a pioneer figure and classical thinker of the field of study. Herbert Spencer, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Emile Durkheim, George Herbert Mead, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman are other early sociologists. Sociology as an academic discipline was developed between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Modern sociologists following these pioneers include C. Wright Mills, Michel Foucault, Anthony Giddens, Zygmunt Bauman, and Peter L. Berger.

There are three primary theories in Sociology that are used to examine societies and their different facets: Structural Functionalism, Conflict Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism. Accordingly, the levels of analysis in sociology are divided into two categories: micro and macro. Any aspect of human societies can be explored through either one or a mix of all three theoretical perspectives in Sociology.

Differences between Anthropology and Sociology:

The first fundamental feature which differentiates and distinguishes the two fields of Anthropology and Sociology is the subject matter which they cover, and which each of the disciplines focuses on. Anthropology studies human beings and human cultures. It is the science that concerns itself with the specific examination of human beings and everything that is associated with humans. Any aspect of humanity is of interest to anthropologists. The subject is mainly concerned with discovering and examining human evolution, which it does with the help of analyzing the past, the biological aspects of human beings, the effect that their environment and surroundings have, and the cultural and community factors which drive humankind. As such, anthropologists emphasize the need to study the human body, human cultures, human relations–in essence, all things human. Sociology, on the other hand, concentrates on the scientific study of human societies. In its essence, it is the study of how human societies have developed, how they facilitate and dictate human interactions and inter-relations, how institutions, social classes, and other various structures of societies over the history of humankind work, and what effects they have on human societies. In other words, Sociology is the investigation and examination of organized group behavior of people. Sociologists deal with the problems that arise within these groups, the significance of institutions within them, and how they operate in general. Anthropologists focus on human experiences. Sociologists deal with the overarching structures that determine these experiences and try to identify the deeper implications that each facet of human societies has.

We can now arrive at the scope of these subjects, or the level of study of each of the disciplines. Anthropology has a micro-level focus, i.e., it studies and addresses micro-level aspects of humankind. In other words, Anthropology studies individuals, and specific families, cultures, and communities. Anthropologists explore how individual units interact with the larger social aspects. Sociology, on the other hand, uses a macro-level approach to the study of humankind. It studies the broader concepts of societies and institutions. Sociologists examine how the wide-ranging society and various social facets within it affect the individual units. To put it otherwise, Sociology uses a top-down approach (from society to individual) while Anthropology uses a bottom-up approach (from individual to society).

Next, we can examine the basis of each field of study. Sociology originated from an interest in understanding the social phenomenon, and its focus on industrialized societies of the West was a key feature. These societies were the ones that were considered the so-called ‘modern’ societies. Hence, Sociology originated as an area of interest in Western societies, and the people who pursued it studied, in essence, the societies of their own. Contemporary sociological practice, however, has broadened its scope. Anthropology originated in Western countries, but the focus of the study was the ‘outside’ world. Anthropologists considered those societies which were not Western and were not affected by Western influences to be ‘primitive’. The subject, therefore, started from an interest to study the so-called ‘exotic species’ of human beings which had characteristics different from their own. Due to its origins and focus, the discipline of Anthropology has faced severe criticisms, and current anthropological undertakings have widened their base as well.

Due to its connection with the biology of humans, Anthropology serves as a bridge between the natural sciences and the social sciences. It includes within itself all the material and physical aspects of any human culture, which requires the aid of the natural sciences to enable a deeper understanding. Sociology, however, has little, if any, connection with the natural sciences. Instead, it brings together several other subjects under social sciences to the study of human societies. Because economics, politics, history, law, and geography are all important to humans and their interactions with each other, and Sociology finds its roots in the study of human societies, it is a given that it unites all these subjects.

The methodology applied by both disciplines in their respective domains of study also varies. Anthropology primarily uses a more qualitative approach because it focuses on the micro-level analysis. Anthropologists are usually deeply involved in the community and practices which they aim to study. It is more field-based, utilizing techniques such as participant observation, material collection directly from the sources (such as in archaeology), etc. The sample sizes are smaller and more local. Sociology, being a macro-level form of analysis, tends to look at the bigger picture, and therefore engages a more quantitative model. The information databases are larger and more widespread. Analysis of questionnaires, surveys, etc. is usually involved in Sociology. The sample sizes are much larger and more expansive.

One can also differentiate the two disciplines regarding their goals. Anthropology aims to understand the diversity of human nature and cultures. It often engages in a comparative study of individuals and single cultures. The main purpose of Sociology is to understand the problems as they occur in human societies and find policy solutions to resolve these social issues.

Similarities between Sociology and Anthropology:

At their core, Anthropology and Sociology are considered quite similar to one another. For both disciplines, an interest in understanding human beings – who they are and what they do – is integral, and it forms the basis for the origination and existence of both Sociology and Anthropology. As a result, both are closely related to one another. More specifically, that part of anthropology that deals with cultures and communities of people, i.e., social/cultural anthropology, has a close connection to Sociology. The study of History is also crucial to both Sociology and Anthropology. Although their extent and type of focus vary, people engaged with Sociology and Anthropology both use events of the human past to understand how human beings have come to exist as they do now. Because they are both concerned with humans and their lives, culture forms an integral part of Anthropology as well as Sociology. Norms, beliefs, customs, institutions, and all other social aspects within the cultural context are important areas of consideration under both disciplines. In contemporary practice, both Anthropology and Sociology use a mixture of science-based and humanistic approaches to the study of humankind. As they are undertaken now, the use of methodologies, area of focus, and practice of both Sociology and Anthropology have become much alike. The likes of E. Adamson Hoebel, James George Frazer, and Evans Pritchard have likened the two subjects, and the works of several anthropologists have been found useful in sociology as well.

Career Opportunities:

Despite the similarities between the two, Sociology and Anthropology are offered as different subjects of interest in educational institutions today. Both Sociology and Anthropology students have a broad range of career options from which they can choose. Even some career opportunities for students of Anthropology and Sociology are similar. Sociology students can go into Social Services (social work, administration), Teaching (any level), Publishing (writing, research), Law (criminal justice), Community Services (advocacy, non-profits), Business (public relations, human resources), and such. Anthropology students also have access to these careers, with additional prospects in those fields where knowledge in natural science (specifically life science or Biology) can be of importance (such as forensics).

Also Read: Relationship Between Sociology and Other Social Sciences


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Soumili is currently pursuing her studies in Social Sciences at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, focusing on core subjects such as Sociology, Psychology, and Economics. She possesses a deep passion for exploring various cultures, traditions, and languages, demonstrating a particular fascination with scholarship related to intersectional feminism and environmentalism, gender and sexuality, as well as clinical psychology and counseling. In addition to her academic pursuits, her interests extend to reading, fine arts, and engaging in volunteer work.