Studying anthropology and why it is
different from the other humanities
Most of you know that anthropology is the study of
humans. If you didn't know, then I doubt if you would be here reading
Other disciplines also study humans. Sociology studies
humanity within societies, philosophy studies human thinking, medicine
studies human anatomy. Anthropology includes all of these things and a
lot more, but from a viewpoint which is unique. What makes that
viewpoint unique is that, anthropologists, no matter what the subject of
their research, must always remember that they are seeing only a single
possible way out of the nearly limitless ways humans can think and
perform in this world.
Anthropology studies the ways cultures differ from
each other. Anthropology also studies what makes humans differ from
other types of animals; and culture is always at the center of
When we study how humanity differs from the rest of
the animals, physical anthropology looks at how human evolution has led
us to our capacity for culture. Physical anthropology compares human
culture to that of non-human primates. Physical anthropologists also
study how culture is imprinted on the human body. Years of sitting at a
desk, just as years of field excavation under a desert sun, actually
leaves a physical mark which can be identified.
Cultures do change over time and from place to place.
Those of us who are archaeologists study human societies using things
they left behind or threw away instead of by the words they wrote down.
These artifacts may be thousands of years old or they may have been
discarded early this morning.
Those who engage in social anthropology look at
current human societies, whether tribal cultures in the Sudan or the
cultural dynamics of downtown Cleveland, Ohio.
Linguistic anthropologists are interested in how
culture and language interact. Linguistic anthropologists may also work
closely with archaeologists. While we as archaeologists may unearth an
inscribed object in Egypt, it is the linguistic anthropologist, or an
archaeologist trained in linguistics, who actually takes over the work
when it comes to reading and cataloging the inscription itself.
There are many who might confuse the disciplines of
cultural anthropology with sociology. While the two are related,
anthropology has a distinct focus and a much wider arena than does
sociology. Anthropology covers all past and present human cultures,
languages, forms of social interaction and organization, as well as the
social interactions of our nearest animal relatives such as the great
The closest branch of anthropology to sociology would
be social anthropology. However it is different than sociology in that
cross-cultural comparisons are central to any social anthropology study
while sociology generally deals with only one culture or society.
For most, anthropology is a very libertarian and
liberating type of discipline. We are not bound by established
parameters to study only one aspect of a culture or society or use only
a specified methodology. That alone makes anthropology different from
other disciplines which study humans.
However, anthropology is often not liberating for the
cultures studied, at least not by our mere presence. In as much as
social anthropologists are 'observers' it often means we need to sit
back and remain uninvolved even when watching what we would otherwise
consider the most reprehensible of actions or social injustices. It is
often not a discipline which would have much appeal for the altruist who
feels the urge to step in and offer immediate assistance or
intervention. Our best method of giving aid to those societies which we
feel need it is to remain dispassionate in our observations and then
make an accurate report to those who can give such help and make needed
While this may seem cold blooded and heartless, it is
only because of our willingness to make observations without
interference with those we observe that gains us admittance to many
cultures and communities. What benefits we bring to those communities,
we should do in an indirect manner. Unlike a physician, we should not intervene on the moment to bring healing. Unlike a social worker, we
should not intervene on the moment to end an injustice. And unlike clergy or
counselors, we should not even step in to bring comfort. If we do so, we
have defeated our mission as being "observers." We may not be
permitted to return to a specific culture and our actions may well mean
few other anthropologists are given the chance either. This too, makes
anthropology different than other disciplines involved with the study of
humans. Even a news reporter can get involved with his or her story. We
We must also realize that the general guidelines
mentioned above are usually necessary with only the most primitive and
isolated societies. For the study of more advanced cultures, where there
is increased interaction with the world, it is far easier to get
actively involved with the study subjects without breaking as many
social taboos. When going into an area of study, it is important to know
as much about the ethnological and cultural characteristics of the
subjects as possible before you arrive. You would not want to get off on
the wrong foot by breaking taboo within minutes of getting there.
That does not mean there is no room in anthropology
for those who would have an emotional involvement with the people or
primates they are studying. The situations encountered by many social
anthropologists are rather unique to that particular field. As
mentioned, anthropology is a liberating kind of discipline and its very
broadness gives scope for most any personality type.
For social anthropologists, this 'keeping a lid' on
the emotions, even when a situation may tear their hearts out, could be
one of the reasons anthropologists often have a highly developed
'mortician's sense of humor' and find humor where others see none,
and/or often become passionately involved with issues outside their
professional sphere, such as politics or other social agendas. What is
bottled up professionally emerges elsewhere.
The study of anthropology helps us question our
assumptions about, and relationships with, the rest of the world.
Anthropology helps us see the answers to life's mysteries and problems
from another point of view. And while we may get deeply involved in
these studies, we need to always be aware of one of the most common
dangers facing many anthropologists. That danger is in getting so
completely submerged in the subject of study that we forget who we are.
Some call it "going native." When we lose the perspective our
own society provides, we have also lost the ability to be objective
about the culture we are studying. When the subject's exclusive way of
thinking becomes our exclusive way of thinking, we have lost the ability
to comfortably move between worlds.