Interpreting Anthropological Data: Issues & Significance

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

When gathering and interpreting data, anthropologists face different challenges depending on their subfield. This lesson looks at two subfields, biological and cultural anthropology, and discusses their difficulties and how anthropologists combat them.

Different Fields, Different Challenges

Every field of research presents its own set of challenges, particularly in the collection and interpretation of data. For anthropology, these challenges are compounded by the diversity of specializations within the discipline. For this lesson, we will focus on the subfields of biological anthropology and cultural anthropology.

Biological Anthropology

Human Skull
Human Skull

Biological anthropology, also known as physical anthropology, explores the effects of biological processes on the human body, how those processes influence evolution, how they affect behavior, and how, in turn, culturally shaped behavior and social interaction influences biological processes. The complexity of this field will thus have numerous challenges for research; the three most common include issues with data collection, problems with competing and cooperating nature versus nurture, and the complex influences of environmental factors on both biology and culture.

Data Collection

Biological anthropologists perform some of the most rigorous testing, often because their research specimens are human remains incapable of communicating directly like a living person could. But this testing is not perfect. If a skeletal sample is incomplete, the researcher may not be able to determine enough relevant data. And tests, like carbon-dating, can result in skewed data when foreign, organic matter contaminates a sample. When the skeleton comes from a child, it's harder to determine the sex from bone measurements because sexual features are ambiguous before puberty. Finally, while certain facial features appear more commonly among members of a particular ethnicity, ancestry cannot be assumed exclusively by these characteristics alone.

Part of Australopithecus afarensis skeleton - brown casting represents found bone fossils while white are scientific reconstructions
Part of Australopithecus skeleton

Nature and Nurture

With advancements in biological research and mapping of the human genome, biological anthropologists can easily fall prey to prioritizing biological factors as the primary source of behavioral motivation. They must remain diligent to also account for the additional cultural factors involved. One example of the combination of biology and culture to explain an issue is obesity. While several genetic discoveries reveal an underlying predisposition to the condition, the manifestation of the problem also depends on a person's lifestyle and diet, both of which are culturally influenced factors. This complication of interacting forces holds true for other issues as well, including aging, reproduction, and developmental growth.

Environmental Influences

Finally, the environment also influences both the biological and cultural contributions to a person's body and behavior. The availability of food sources, both in quantity and nutritional variety, impacts child development, disease risk, and reproductive ability. It can also influence personal choices to reproduce, whether or not someone commits crimes to secure nutrition, and in extreme cases can result in cannibalism. Other environmental factors, like polluted air or water, have a societal cause with a biological result. Take the lead contamination in Flint, Michigan's water supply for example - this is a social problem with very severe biological effects.

Cultural Anthropology

Saami Family
Saami Family

Cultural anthropology studies how the social environment influences a person's behavior, beliefs, and interaction with others or the environment. While there are many research specializations within this subfield, research and data analysis across the spectrum face similar problems in the hardships of fieldwork, collection of accurate data, and the unbiased interpretation of data through a lens of cultural relativism.

Fieldwork Hardships

Fieldwork is often the most difficult experience for a cultural anthropologist. Their main research tool is participant observation, or actively involving oneself in the lives of the people studied in order to gain an insider perspective. This usually means the anthropologist leaves their own culture to live among unfamiliar people to study them for an extended period of time. For many, especially those in the field for the first time, culture shock can cause anxiety and depression. These problems risk complications to data gathering from inattention or bias caused by negative feelings toward the research situation and the people being studied.

Yanomami Village
Yanomami Village

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