Anthropology The study of human culture and society



Anthropology The study of human culture and society

Anthropology was introduced as an optional subject carrying 100 marks through Syllabi for Competitive Examination (CSS) 2016 & Onwards. It is a good subject to be opted for as it covers socio-cultural and biological aspects of man in terms of evolution and variation, is one subject in which aspirants with biology, history and sociology backgrounds will all have sound knowledge about. Engineers may also prefer anthropology as it is social science of scientific nature; and its approach is similar to that towards geography and psychology.


Anthropology is the study of people throughout the world, their evolutionary history, how they behave, adapt to different environments, communicate and socialise with one another. The study of anthropology is concerned both with the biological features that make us human (such as physiology, genetic makeup, nutritional history and evolution), and with social aspects (such as language, culture, politics, family and religion).


The word “anthropology” literally means “the science of humanity.” Here are some definitions of anthropology from anthropologists and other dedicated people describing what Alexander Pope (1688 to 1744) called the “proper study of mankind.”

  1. “Anthropology’ is less a subject matter than a bond between subject matters. It is part history, part literature; in part natural science, part social science; it strives to study men both from within and without; it represents both a manner of looking at man and a vision of man—the most scientific of the humanities, the most humanist of sciences.” — Eric Wolf
  2. “Anthropology has traditionally attempted to stake out a compromise position on this central issue by regarding itself as both the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences. That compromise has always looked peculiar to those outside anthropology but today it looks increasingly precarious to those within the discipline.” — James William Lett
  3. “Anthropology seeks to uncover principles of behaviour that apply to all human communities. To an anthropologist, diversity itself—seen in body shapes and sizes, customs, clothing, speech, religion and worldview—provides a frame of reference for understanding any single aspect of life in any given community.” American Anthropological Association
  4. “Anthropology is the only discipline that can access evidence about the entire human experience on this planet.” —Michael Brian Schiffer


The modern discourse of anthropology crystallized in the 1860s, fired by advances in biology, philology, and prehistoric archaeology. In The Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin affirmed that all forms of life share a common ancestry. Fossils began to be reliably associated with particular geologic strata, and fossils of recent human ancestors were discovered, most famously the first Neanderthal specimen, unearthed in 1856. In 1871, Darwin published The Descent of Man, which argued that human beings shared a recent common ancestor with the great African apes. He identified the defining characteristic of the human species as their relatively large brain size and deduced that the evolutionary advantage of the human species was intelligence, which yielded language and technology.

The pioneering anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor concluded that as intelligence increased, so civilization advanced. All past and present societies could be arranged in an evolutionary sequence. Archaeological findings were organized in a single universal series (Stone Age, Iron Age, Bronze Age, etc.) thought to correspond to stages of economic organization from hunting and gathering to pastoralism, agriculture and industry. Some contemporary peoples (hunter-gatherers, such as the Australian Aboriginals and the Kalahari San, or pastoralists such as the Bedouin) were regarded as “primitive,” laggards in evolutionary terms, representing stages of evolution through which all other societies had passed. They bore witness to early stages of human development, while the industrial societies of northern Europe and the United States represented the pinnacle of human achievement.

Darwin’s arguments were drawn upon to underwrite the universal history of the Enlightenment, according to which the progress of human institutions was inevitable, guaranteed by the development of rationality. It was assumed that technological progress was constant and that it was matched by developments in the understanding of the world and in social forms. Tylor advanced the view that all religions had a common origin, in the belief in spirits. The original religious rite was sacrifice, which was a way of feeding these spirits. Modern religions retained some of these primitive features, but as human beings became more intelligent, and so more rational, primitive superstitions were gradually refined and would eventually be abandoned. James George Frazer posited a progressive and universal progress from faith in magic through to belief in religion and, finally, to the understanding of science.

John Ferguson McLennan, Lewis Henry Morgan, and other writers argued that there was a parallel development of social institutions. The first humans were promiscuous (like, it was thought, the African apes), but at some stage, blood ties were recognized between mother and children and incest between mother and son was forbidden. In time, more restrictive forms of mating were introduced and paternity was recognized. Blood ties began to be distinguished from territorial relationships, and distinctive political structures developed beyond the family circle. At last monogamous marriage evolved. Paralleling these developments, technological advances produced increasing wealth, and arrangements guaranteeing property ownership and regulating inheritance became more significant. Eventually the modern institutions of private property and territorially-based political systems developed, together with the nuclear family.

An alternative to this, Anglo-American “evolutionist” anthropology established itself in the German-speaking countries. Its scientific roots were in geography and philology, and it was concerned with the study of cultural traditions and with adaptations to local ecological constraints rather than with universal human histories. This more particularistic and historical approach was spread to the United States at the end of the 19th century by the German-trained scholar Franz Boas. Sceptical of evolutionist generalizations, Boas advocated instead a “diffusionist” approach. Rather than graduating through a fixed series of intellectual, moral and technological stages, societies or cultures changed unpredictably, as a consequence of migration and borrowing.Anthropology1

The Four Subfields

Anthropology is generally divided into four subfields—archaeology, linguistic anthropology, physical anthropology, and socio-cultural anthropology. Each of the subfields teaches distinctive skills. However, the subfields also have a number of similarities. For example, each subfield applies theories, employs systematic research methodologies, formulates and tests hypotheses, and develops extensive sets of data.

  1. Archaeology

Archaeologists study human culture by analyzing the objects people have made. They carefully remove from the ground such things as pottery and tools, and they map the locations of houses, trash pits, and burials in order to learn about the daily lives of a people. They also analyze human bones and teeth to gain information on a people’s diet and the diseases they suffered. Archaeologists collect the remains of plants, animals and soils from the places where people have lived in order to understand how people used and changed their natural environments. The time range for archaeological research begins with the earliest human ancestors millions of years ago and extends all the way up to the present day. Like other areas of anthropology, archaeologists are concerned with explaining differences and similarities in human societies across space and time.

  1. Linguistic Anthropology

Linguistic anthropology is a branch of anthropology that studies the role of language in the social lives of individuals and communities. Linguistic anthropology explores how language shapes communication. Language plays a huge role in social identity, group membership, and establishing cultural beliefs and ideologies. Linguistic anthropologists have ventured into the study of everyday encounters, language socialization, ritual and political events, scientific discourse, verbal art, language contact and language shift, literacy events, and media. So, unlike linguists, linguistic anthropologists do not look at language alone, language is viewed as interdependent with culture and social structures. According to Pier Paolo Giglioli in “Language and Social Context,” anthropologists study the relation between worldviews, grammatical categories and semantic fields, the influence of speech on socialization and personal relationships, and the interaction of linguistic and social communities. In this case, linguistic anthropology closely studies those societies where language defines a culture or society.Anthropology2

  1. Physical Anthropology

Physical anthropology is a branch of anthropology concerned with the origin, evolution and diversity of people. Physical anthropologists work broadly on three major sets of problems: human and non-human primate evolution, human variation and its significance, and the biological bases of human behaviour. The course that human evolution has taken and the processes that have brought it about are of equal concern. In order to explain the diversity within and between human populations, physical anthropologists must study past populations of fossil hominins as well as the non-human primates. Much light has been thrown upon the relation to other primates and upon the nature of the transformation to human anatomy and behaviour in the course of evolution from early hominins to modern people—a span of at least four million years. The processes responsible for the differentiation of people into geographic populations and for the overall unity of Homo sapiens include natural selection, mutation, genetic drift, migration and genetic recombination.

  1. Sociocultural Anthropology

Cultural anthropology, also known as sociocultural anthropology, is the study of cultures around the world. It is one of four subfields of the academic discipline of anthropology. While anthropology is the study of human diversity, cultural anthropology focuses on cultural systems, beliefs, practices and expressions. Cultural anthropologists use anthropological theories and methods to study culture. They study a wide variety of topics, including identity, religion, kinship, art, race, gender, class, immigration, diaspora, sexuality, globalization, social movements and many more. Regardless of their specific topic of study, however, cultural anthropologists focus on patterns and systems of belief, social organization and cultural practice.

Anthropology vs. SociologyAnthropology4

Anthropology is the study of humans and the ways they live. Sociology studies the ways groups of people interact with each other and how their behaviour is influenced by social structures, categories (race, gender, sexuality), and institutions. Anthropology examines culture more at the micro-level of the individual, which the anthropologist generally takes as an example of the larger culture. In addition, anthropology hones in on the cultural specificities of a given group or community. Sociology, on the other hand, tends to look at the bigger picture, often studying institutions (educational, political, religious), organizations, political movements, and the power relations of different groups with each other.

Other subfields

  1. Medical Anthropology

Medical anthropology is a field of anthropology focused on the relationship between health, illness and culture. Beliefs and practices about health vary across different cultures and are influenced by social, religious, political, historical and economic factors. Medical anthropologists use anthropological theories and methods to generate unique insights into how different cultural groups around the world experience, interpret and respond to questions of health, illness and wellness.

  1. Forensic Anthropology

Forensic anthropology is the scientific study of human skeletal remains in the context of crime or medico-legal contexts. It is a fairly new and growing discipline that is made up of several branches of academic disciplines brought together to assist in legal cases involving the death and/or identification of individual people. Forensic anthropology relies on comparative data housed in donated repositories and digital data banks of information.

Is Anthropology a Science?

In today’s world, research fields—certainly anthropology and likely other fields as well—are so cross-disciplinary, so nuanced and so interwoven as to be resistant to breaking down into neat categories. Each form of anthropology can be defined as a science or a humanity: linguistics that of language and its structure; cultural anthropology as that of human society and culture and its development; physical anthropology as that of humans as a biological species; and archaeology as the remains and monuments of the past.

All of these fields cross over and discuss cultural aspects that may be unprovable hypotheses: the questions addressed include how do humans use language and artefacts, how do humans adapt to climate and evolutionary changes.

The inescapable conclusion is that anthropology as a research field, perhaps just as acutely as any other field, stands at the intersection of the humanities and science. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes the other, sometimes, and maybe at the best of times, it’s both.

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