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An Introduction to Anthropology

Updated on June 27, 2011

The Genesis and Evolution of the Discipline

It wasn’t until after I had earned my degree in anthropology that I came to the horrid realization that only a small minority of individuals outside of my academic peers has any sense of what actually comprises this field of study and how it is effectively practiced.

In its simplest state, anthropology attempts to explain the origins and developments of mankind through studying the physical, cultural, and societal progress of humanity. The nature of humanity has been of interest since Antiquity, when theorists such as Plato and Aristotle praised the worth of natural observation, or empiricism, and suggested the critical relationship between natural and social objects. Yet, it was not until the advent of the Renaissance that humanity was considered in a more concrete and less philosophical matter. The Age of Exploration and the Scientific Revolution which followed expanded the narrow scope through which mankind had been viewed and served as the foundation upon which modern anthropology could firmly be built.

The core tenants of the field were formulated and elaborated upon throughout the 19th and 20th centuries by theorists such as Herbert Spencer, Franz Boas, and Clifford Geertz, who are responsible for the creation of three incredibly impacting anthropological orientations: evolutionism, historical particularism, and symbolic anthropology, respectively. It is through these and other intellectual contributions that anthropology can now be effectively applied to the human condition.

Bronislaw Malinowski, founder of the theoretical orientation known as functionalism, performing fieldwork on the Trobriand Islands.
Bronislaw Malinowski, founder of the theoretical orientation known as functionalism, performing fieldwork on the Trobriand Islands.
Margaret Mead, theorist of culture and personality, spending time with children on the island of Samoa.
Margaret Mead, theorist of culture and personality, spending time with children on the island of Samoa.
Alfred Kroeber, a historical particularist, who concentrated on Native American studies.
Alfred Kroeber, a historical particularist, who concentrated on Native American studies.

Theory and Practice

In theory, it strives to answer a number of impacting questions: What does it mean to be human? What role has the environment served in shaping the modern physical and cultural state of man? What can the fossil record reveal to us of our evolutionary past?

In practice, some anthropologists serve in the popular realms of industry, business, education, government or medicine, while others pursue undertakings that allow them to stand as advocates for disparaged populations or conservators of cultural diversity in the face of globalization.

Fields of Anthropology

Within anthropology there are many subfields that pursue specific aspects of humanity. Some of the most extensive subfields are as follows:

  • Physical anthropology- the study of human biology and evolution.
  • Archaeology- the study of people through physical and cultural remains.
  • Linguistics- study of the developments and variations of human language.
  • Cultural anthropology: study of the beliefs, practices, and institutions that comprise modern human societies.
  • Applied anthropology- anthropological involvement outside of the realm of academia.
  • Ethnology- the comparative analysis of multiple cultures of the present

Yet, regardless of an anthropologist’s concentration, the study of mankind should be pursued through the methodological ideal of holism, in which humanity is considered as a whole through unbiased analysis. It is only by this mean that one can “…record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess” (Margaret Mead).


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    • Lilith Eden profile imageAUTHOR

      Lilith Eden 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN


      You have really struck me with this! I am about to head over and read your hub in moments. I share a lot of your sentiments and will let you know more of my opinion on the matter once I have taken in what you have written in your own article. I'm looking forward to it.


    • Craig Suits profile image

      Craig Suits 

      7 years ago from Florida


      You might want to read a short hub I wrote about the effects of mankinds daily negative acts and how they effect our present state of evolution.

      I know little about anthropology unlike yourself but this concept of negative acts effecting humanities progress seems to me should be classified as a subfield at the least.

      Our daily acts effect every aspect of humanities past, present, and future but it's the present that's interesting. We may have regressed thousands of years from past negative acts and not even know it this very second. Most of us think our calander and certain levels of industrial achievment indicate humanities level of progression and advancement but I'm willing to bet that's not even close to reality.

      You probably have considered all this before but in the slim chance you haven't, try to grasp what I'm saying here. It effects every aspect of anthropology I would think.

      Let me give you one more quickie scenerio:

      Picture yourself living as a cave girl sitting at your cave entrance, and someone gave you a couple really cool, state of the art, rock chipping tools made out of other rocks of course and you were busy chipping away at a chunk of slate trying to make a trinket for your hair.

      As far as you know, you, your cave, your tools are the top of the line of modern day evolution but wait...300 years ago, your cave used to be Times Square, NYC but there was a nucliar war that killed most everyone and you have no way of knowing that do you? Your mind has also regressed to it's present level along with evidence of the incident and past societal achievments.

      I wonder where we today would have been today if it wasn't for our negative acts of the past.The literal trillions of positive incidences that could and would have occurred if it weren't for World War Two for instance is staggering in respect to humanities evolution. We could be that cave girl right this moment.

      Check it out at:


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