Understanding the Field of Anthropology

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  • 0:01 Anthropology Definition
  • 1:00 Comparative Method
  • 2:52 Charles Darwin and Franz Boas
  • 4:35 Anthropology Disicplines
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson offers a brief overview of the field of anthropology and explains terms like 'Homo sapien' as well as the works of Charles Darwin and Franz Boas.

Anthropology Definition

Anthropology is a fancy word for the study of humankind. Coming from the Greek words anthropos, meaning 'human,' and logia, meaning 'study,' it seeks to understand all things human.

Just like my grandma, whose favorite pastime was people watching at the mall, anthropologists observe the way we live and interact with each other and our environment. Everything from how we dress to how we eat to how we worship and show emotion, from where we came from to how we plan on getting there and to where we're going is of interest to the field of anthropology. It boils down to a fascination with Homo sapiens, which is the fancy, scientific name for the human species.

With this definition in mind, it's easy to see why some say we're all amateur anthropologists. However, for today, we'll dig a bit deeper than people watching at the mall as we try to understand the goals and origins of anthropology as a science.

Comparative Method

For starters, anthropology is based on the idea that human behavior can be best observed and explained by comparing it to other human behavior. As explained by Boston University's anthropology department, 'anthropology begins with a simple yet powerful idea: any detail of our behavior can be understood better when it is seen against the backdrop of the full range of human behavior.' Using what is known as the comparative method, anthropologists make attempts to explain similarities and differences among people holistically, in the context of humanity as a whole.

To simplify this, how about we give an example of the comparative method? Suppose a young girl in let's say a very fundamental Islamic Saudi Arabian family is given her very favorite toy for her birthday. I mean, it's the toy she's been waiting for her entire life! When she opens it, she will feel joy. However, because of the accepted rules of her culture, she will most likely not jump up and down and squeal in delight. Instead, she may give a polite, small nod and a smile. Yes, she will be joyful, but to the Western mind, she will look subdued.

Now, what an anthropologist would do is to take this Middle Eastern scene and compare it to its American counterpart. They'd seek to understand why an American girl would squeal and dance around the room when seeing her present, but the Middle Eastern girl would not. Both girls experienced happiness, but they expressed it quite differently. To an anthropologist using the comparative method, this sort of stuff is golden as they seek to understand the universal human emotion of joy as it plays out in different cultures. In other words, the comparative method helps an anthropologist understand how a person's environment affects how they act.

Charles Darwin and Franz Boas

Although humans have probably always compared and contrasted one another, some link the birth of anthropology to the early 19th century. It was then that scientists, like Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species, began creating theories on the evolution of man.

It was also during this time that anthropology began viewing cultures as on, or progressing up, an evolutionary ladder from savagery to civilized. Of course, this rather dated view seemed to place the modernized West above the primitive cultures of, say, Africa. Unfortunately, this anthropological paradigm served as a means to justify the exploitation of more primitive cultures at the hands of those who considered themselves more evolved.

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