Anthropology Explained Part 2: The Four Fields of Anthropology

As I wrote in “Part 1: Definitions,” anthropologists study humankind. We attempt to answer questions about how humans have taken their basic instincts—to eat, drink, procreate, etc—and created meaningful behaviors, practices, and beliefs from them. Anthropology takes in the whole of human experience from the paleo to the neo; from the pre-historic past to the current day. The four primary fields of anthropology address humans at different times and places. Traditionally, the four fields of anthropology are Physical, Archeological, Linguistic, and Cultural.

Physical Anthropology concerns itself with humans as biological organisms. They study the migratory patterns of early humans and the evolution of homo sapien bodies and brains. Primatologists attempt to interpret human evolution by studying our near cousins, the primates. Forensic Anthropology has become an important subfield. “Bones” Brennan, the lead character of Fox TVs “Bones” is a forensic anthropologist. But right here in Santa Cruz, our own Allison Galloway was called in on the Laci and Scott Peterson murder case. (I visited her lab once and saw an open cadaver. Not for me.)

Archeologists study material remains of humans in order to describe and explain past human behavior. Indiana Jones was an archeologist, sort of. They study the enduring artifacts left by human activity: tools, pottery, bones, early writing, and buildings (oh, and golden arks). They excavate for artifacts and attempt to interpret their meaning. (When I was younger I fantasized about being an archeologist. I even had a subscription to Archeology Today.)

Linguistic Anthropologists study human languages, since our ability to create language is one of the most distinguishing features of the human species. They examine the structure of language, the sound system, communication patterns, change and innovation of languages, and the relationship between speech and cognition.

Cultural Anthropologists, known as Ethnologists in Europe, concentrate on culture in the present. I am a cultural anthropologist because I have a compelling need to figure out why people act like they do. Traditionally we examine religion, ritual, and myth, gender and class, child rearing and kinship patterns, and local ways of being in and knowing the world. We rely on local members of the society to help us interpret, explain, and evaluate our data. In this sense, our ethnologies (that is, the formal, written accounts of our findings) are a collaboration between the scholar-in-the-field and the native populations.

Cultural Anthropologists today have develop sub-specialties which derive from cultural phenomenon—like kinship, religion, or medicine—or from particular geographic areas of study, like Africa or Papua New Guinea. There are formal scholarly associations for political and legal anthropology, psychological and medical anthropology, anthropology of the environment, of education, of work, and even of consciousness itself. In the UCSC department, where I received my degree, we had specialists in language, religion, folklore, festival and public performance, gender, and race. My own sub-specialty is dance, a field that has developed very slowly due in part to the unique set of challenges it poses for ethnographers and to a long-standing Western disregard for dance itself.

This is Part 2 of a 3 Part Series
Look for Part 3: Methods and Perspectives

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