What is Anthropology?

an·thro·pol·o·gy (n.)

Anthropology is the study of past and present humankind.  Utilizing knowledge from the biological, social, and behavioral sciences, anthropology represents a holistic and humanistic discipline, bringing together a variety of perspectives to learn about ancient peoples and to solve modern problems.  Anthropologists take both a comparative and evolutionary perspective to more fully understand what it means to be human, and to explore human similarities and differences across geographic space and time.

American anthropology is commonly divided into four fields: cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, archaeology, and biological anthropology.  To learn more about each of these, click on “Fields of Study” link above.


Fields of Study

Anthropology is the study of humankind, past and present. Anthropologists work in one of four fields: cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, archaeology, and biological anthropology.

Cultural anthropologists study societies in the contemporary world using the method of participant observation, in which researchers reside in a community, learn its language, observe social behavior, and conduct interviews of community members. Traditionally, anthropologists studied mostly small-scale indigenous societies, where they examined religion, kinship, production and exchange, political beliefs, food practices, and other aspects of social life. These remain an important focus of research, but increasingly cultural anthropologists have turned their attention to larger-scale developed societies.  Participant observation in modern settings offers insights into many problems of contemporary social life, including religious and ethnic conflict, the effects of climate change, globalization, social inequality, health disparities, and addiction.

Language – the ability to represent meaning through symbols and to communicate those meanings to other people – is a hallmark of all human societies. Linguistic anthropologists study the social and cultural contexts of human communication.  How does language symbolically represent our natural, supernatural, and social worlds?  How does our day-to-day use of language reflect our social identities of region, social class, gender, and ethnicity?  In addition, the comparison of distinct languages can offer evidence of their historical evolution and illuminate past and contemporary relationships between their speakers.  By documenting indigenous vocabularies and grammars, linguistic anthropologists also contribute to the revitalization of endangered languages in the modern world.

Biological (or physical) anthropologists study human biological variation and adaptation in response to the natural and cultural environments of the past and present. They seek to understand what it means to be human by taking into account our unique evolutionary and individual life histories, in all their diversity. This broad discipline encompasses approaches ranging from comparative observations of non-human primates (primatology), physical variation and population genetics (human biology), hominid evolution (paleoanthropology), and the study of ancient human skeletal remains from the archaeological record (bioarchaeology).  More recently, these methods have been applied to assist law enforcement with the forensic identification of modern human remains (forensic anthropology).  By utilizing a biological perspective, these anthropologists seek to explore the dynamics of the human condition and our continued evolution into the future. 

Archaeologists study our ancestors through material remains (artifacts) in order to reconstruct the past, inform our present, and look to the future.  Fieldwork involves an array of sophisticated methods and careful excavation techniques to identify archaeological sites and recover traces of a past human presence.  An archaeologist will often specialize in the analysis of certain artifact types, such as animal bones (zooarchaeology), pottery, plant remains (paleoethnobotany), or stone tools.  From two million-year-old stone tools in Africa, to early 20th-century houselots in downtown Mobile, Alabama, archaeologists analyze the physical evidence of the past in pursuit of a broad and comprehensive understanding of human culture.


Careers in Anthropology

What can I do with a degree in anthropology?

An undergraduate degree in anthropology can prepare you for a number of exciting career paths.  While traditionally, anthropologists have been employed in university settings, many other opportunities are available in today’s world for trained anthropologists with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, including work in government, corporate centers, museums, non-profit organizations, and cultural resource management. 

 According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Employment of anthropologists and archaeologists is expected to grow 19% from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations.”  In 2012, anthropologists in the United States earned a median salary of over $57,000 per year.1

At a glance…

  • Archaeology: Most professional archaeologists work in cultural resource management (CRM) - they mitigate the effects of federal undertakings on archaeological sites. Other archaeologists are employed by museums, universities, and government agencies.
  • Cultural Anthropology: Cultural anthropologists are increasingly being employed by corporations, non-profit and advocacy groups, and government agencies.
  • Biological Anthropology: While some biological anthropologists may work in an academic setting, others work in forensic labs or with law enforcement, zoos, pharmaceutical firms, museums, or in industry.
  • Linguistic Anthropology: In addition to working in academic settings, linguistic anthropologists are often employed by government agencies and corporations.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition.

Useful Career Links: 

American Anthropological Association

This is Anthropology

American Association of Physical Anthropologists