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An Introduction to Anthropology
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.
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).