We are curious about ourselves, other people around us, and what it means to be alive or dead. We ask questions and find answers that help assure us we have a good foundation of understanding about who we are. Anthropology is a social science that attempts to provide us with a better understanding of our humanness - what it means to be human. In order to understand this, we need to explore what we mean by culture because we rely on culture for our values, ways we think, ways we view the world around, ways to act properly. We also need to understand that to be human means that we have a biological as well as a social side to us. We need a grasp of what both of these mean to us.

What is Anthropology?

Are you as interested as I am in knowing how, when, and where human life arose, what the first human societies and languages were like, why cultures have evolved along diverse but often remarkably convergent pathways, why distinctions of rank came into being, and how small bands and villages gave way to chiefdoms and chiefdoms to mighty states and empires?" ....Marvin Harris, Our Kind This is what is anthropology. It is not just an attempt to discover what it is that humans do with their cultures but what it really means to be human in a sense of culture, biology, and relatedness. Anthropology is an effort to understand this broad sense of humanness has been divided into four major disciplines, each focusing on different aspects of what makes us human.

These are:

  • Social/Cultural Anthropology: understand social and cultural behavior;
  • Linguistics: study of human language, its construction, and how it is used in societies;
  • Physical or Biological: the study of human biological diversity, primate behavior, and evolution of humans over time (human paleontology);
  • Archaeology: the study of the human past through materials remains with the aim of reconstructing, ordering and describing daily life, customs and events of past people.

The nature of each of these is defined by a focus; social/cultural anthropology focuses on observed human behavior (what it is that we do), linguistics on language (how it is used as a reflection of culture and how it has evolved), physical anthropology on biological, primate observation, and fossil evidence (what we are genetically, primate behavior, and how we evolved), and archaeology on the material remains of what people used to survive or adapt (what we create and why and how societies have changed over time). Collectively these disciplines provide anthropology with a background of information that helps us build a broad understanding of humanness itself. It would not be possible to fully appreciate what makes us human without such a broad perspective.

Anthropologists also tend to look for similarities and differences between people and their cultures. For example, we know that every culture is ethnocentric - that is they believe their way of life, their values, their worldview is superior to all others. This is true over every culture in the world. The question is why? Why do cultures take this perspective? The answer appears relatively simple. If we believe our way of life is better, then we simply reject anything foreign that comes along. We feel okay by protecting what we think is important. Think of it this way. What happens when someone comes along and shatters your way of seeing “something”. If this “something” is important to you, then you begin to question what else you might have to change in the manner you think about things. It has the potential to create doubts about your way of seeing the world.