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Anthropology: Overview & Subfields

Natalie Perdue, Jessica Whittemore
  • Author
    Natalie Perdue

    Natalie has taught multiple topics for both children and adults for over two years. She earned her undergraduate degree in English with a concentration in writing, followed by her Masters in Humanities, from American Military University. She also holds a certificate in Instructional Design and Delivery.

  • Instructor
    Jessica Whittemore

    Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.

Explore what anthropology means and how anthropologists use the comparative method. Understand each subfield of anthropology, including cultural anthropology. Updated: 03/12/2022

Table of Contents


What Is Anthropology

The anthropology definition is described as the scientific study of humans or the study of people. The word has Greek roots, with anthropos, meaning ''human,'' and logia, meaning ''study.'' Anthropologia, or the ''study of humanity,'' was a New Latin word that appeared in the late 1500s, but was not first used in its modern scientific context until the 1800s.

Anthropology is a broad field that investigates every facet of human life, what makes humans unique as a species, and what makes groups of people or individuals different from others. Its focus ranges from the earliest ancestors of humans to the present-day. Some anthropologists even examine the potential future of humans. Anthropology is a broad area of study and it overlaps with many other academic areas, such as history, sociology, Humanities, evolutionary science, and biology.

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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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What Do Anthropologists Study?

Anthropologists study a variety of areas related to human life. They study fossils and bone and teeth fragments of early hominins, the branch of the primate family referring to human species, or Homo sapiens and their earlier ancestors (e.g., Ardipithecus kadabba, Australopithecus africanus, Homo neanderthalensis). They study humans as compared to other animals—usually in the primate family. They also study human cultures, structures, and communication. In short, anthropologists study everything related to human existence and life as it relates to the past, present, and future of humans.

Anthropologists use the comparative method in their work and research. The comparative method involves comparing sociocultural phenomena to understand and explain differences and similarities between groups of people within the context of humanity. The comparative method is used to study both past and present civilizations. Examples of the comparative method might include:

  • Comparing plant and animal remnants found in archaeological sites to understand the different diets of two groups within extinct civilizations.
  • Comparing and contrasting cultural norms related to gift-giving in different societies to understand why humans exchange gifts.
  • Examining voting turnout in rich vs. poor neighborhoods while researching methods to improve voter turnout during election seasons.

Early Anthropologists: Charles Darwin and Franz Boas

Charles Darwin is one of the most recognized names in science. He was a naturalist and is best known for discovering and writing about the Theory of Evolution. He wrote On the Origin of Species, his first major work, which introduced his concept of evolution through natural selection. This work was followed by The Descent of Man, which provided a detailed discussion of how humans were affected by evolution.

Although Darwin was a naturalist, he is also considered an anthropologist. He used his theories of natural and sexual selection and evolution to describe how humans became humans. His work began the anthropological discussion of the biological origin of the human species, and how humans are related to, yet are different from, other life on Earth. Darwin's work was also used (or, rather, misused) to explain cultural differences as well. For instance, his Theory of Evolution was used to support the idea that Africans were less evolved than whites, which, in turn, was used to justify slavery.

Franz Boas, often referred to as the "Father of American Anthropology," founded the subfield of cultural anthropology. In contrast to Darwin, he presented the idea that behavior and social structure were not dictated by biological evolution. His work focused predominantly on race and culture, and it centered on the concept that culture, rather than race, affected behavior. He argued that Africans were not more primitive than Europeans because they were less developed, but because their culture was more primitive. His work was met with harsh criticism by supporters of slavery and segregation.

Subfields of Anthropology

As it is such a diverse area of study, anthropology is generally broken down into four major subfields:

  1. Cultural Anthropology
  2. Biological Anthropology
  3. Archaeology
  4. Linguistic Anthropology

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main purpose of anthropology?

The main purpose of anthropology is to better understand every facet of humans. Anthropologists work to understand human evolution, social structure, culture, communication, adaptation, and emotions.

What is an example of anthropology?

Anthropology is a diverse branch of study. Examples could include studying differences in educational systems across cultures, researching the difference in diets between people living in China and people in the United States, or examining the site of an ancient civilization to understand their technology.

What is the simple definition of anthropology?

Put simply, anthropology is the study of people. Anthropologists study people from every aspect; from ancient human ancestors to the potential future of humankind.

What are the 4 major fields of anthropology?

The four major fields of anthropology are cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, archaeology, and linguistic anthropology. These anthropologists study culture across time and space, human biology (past and present), ancient humans in relation to modern people, and communication and language, respectively.

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