What is Anthropology?

One of the downsides to Anthropology being a less well known field in schools (and communities) means that not a lot of people know what it actually is about other than maybe knowing it has something to do with humans and bones. I say communities because for every person in the British Asian community that I have spoken to that knows what Anthropology is, there has been at least 50 with no idea, and according to some of my Anth friends, this is the same for others too.

So then I get asked by those who want to know, what is Anthropology?

And then there is silence. I still haven’t mastered a proper answer (I really should and memorise it), I just sort of say that it’s an interdisciplinary field that studies humans in a broad context ranging from sociology to genetics to geography. It is both an art and a humanity that involves nearly every field. And then I throw in a few examples that usually gets them interested. Then I realise that this is a terrible answer and I am not doing the subject any justice at all. I just searched around the internet and dictionary (for probably the hundredth time) looking for a better and more succinct definition and couldn’t find the right one. It’s kind of like the word Anthropology being just like one of its analytical categories such as marriage – impossible to define when you really look into it.

So now I get all sorrowful and sad, not just by the fact that I can’t really put into words a description of a subject I am so “passionate” about, but by the fact that I am feeling like I need to find a proper definition, arguably so as to prove to people that yes I am studying a very important academic field that rivals the likes of Chemistry.

A little bit of me now doesn’t really want to find a proper definition. Selfish I know, but I just feel that if I attempt to convince people (note the word convince) of Anthropology who have it imbrained that only the Sciences and Maths are real subjects, I am belittling such a wonderful field. Anthropology doesn’t deserve that.

In hopefully my first proper interactive post, I ask YOU, What is Anthropology? How would you define it? I was going to have a proper poll/answer input but realised that this is for everyone’s benefit/interest so please comment below instead.

I am genuinely interested to see how ‘ordinary’ people would define it. If possible, please also state your relationship to Anthropology, i.e. whether you are just interested by it, whether you are a lecturer etc. You may even just put your favourite definition of what it is as said by someone else.

My personal favourite definition of Anthropology that sadly other people just don’t seem understand so I rarely orally repeat it is by Daniel Miller (an Anthropologist at UCL and author of “Stuff” – a great book, review shall come soon!):

An anthropologist is someone who seeks to demonstrate the consequences of the universal for the particular and of the particular for the universal by equal devotion to the empathetic understanding and encompassment of both.

Thank you in advance!

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11 thoughts on “What is Anthropology?

  1. Jimmy says:

    I have sooo much trouble with this myself when people ask me what i mean by anthropology. I usually compare it to sociology but that i think gives people a somewhat skewed perspective.

  2. Gavin Weston says:

    Anthropology as a whole is too broad to define comprehensively (encompassing social/cultural, biological/evolutionary, medical, forensic, linguistic anthropology and many other parts merging into biology, sociology, archaeology and many other disciplines at its edges) so it’s best to keep it simple and just go with it being ‘the study of humanity’.

    For social anthropology (my chosen field within this), again – as you note, it’s complicated – but I like to keep this simple too. ‘It’s the study of culture – but we don’t agree what culture is or even if it exists’ is my standard answer. If people want to know a bit more – I mention our methodology – Geertz’s definition of it being ‘deep hanging out’ is very good for this. If people want to know more than that, you’ve found someone who’s genuinely curious and you don’t need to fall back on easy answers – you can have a proper conversation.

  3. As an anthropologist and a professor, instead of asking my students “what is anthropology” I like to ask them instead “Why Anthropology?” Here is how I answer that question:

    Why Study Anthropology?
    Anthropology is, in its essence, the study of the range and variety of the human condition through time and space. All cultures are unique in the expression of their identity, and yet as humans, all cultures share basic underlying similarities. Contemplating the similarities and differences within and between cultures helps students to understand and interact with other people in a diverse and interconnected world. Anthropology provides a perspective which fosters respect, tolerance, and appreciation for the diversity of cultural expression that allows us to live as informed and responsible citizens of the world. Anthropology is also a “mirror for humanity” (Kottak 2008) because only by understanding other cultures can we see our own more clearly.

  4. Shrima says:

    How do you explain “the study of people” when people themselves are difficult to explain? I think that is the main reason for difficulties in defining anthropology. It’s become almost a philosophical question — more vast than can be put into words. As such, here is my understanding of it (although definitely not how I explain it in laymans terms)

    Anthropology is asking questions, seeking answers, and accepting the fact that they may never be answered. In other words, it is about comprehensively studying the complicated thing known has culture and trying to understand it, not define it. Anthropologists seek similarities while also detailing the differences between cultures. For a fun aw to explain anthropology to someone, search for “The Anthropology Song” on YouTube!

  5. silveraindr0ps says:

    The study of people and every entity and phenomenon possibly related?

  6. […] has an interesting article on ‘What is Anthropology’, I recommend you check it out. https://teenthropologist.wordpress.com/2012/07/31/what-is-anthropology/ Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  7. jan says:

    I study social anthropology in norway and so far the easiest definition i have heard is: “Anthropologists object is to find an angle to make the ordinary – extraordinary, and vice versa. To study everyday situations and phenomenons and understand how and why.”
    It did not sound as catchy in english as it did in norwegian but i hope you get what im trying to say.
    Good work on the blog!

  8. Anthropology Nerd says:

    I’ve had some pretty funny responses when I answer the question “What do you study?” which inevitably follows “What do you do?” whenever I meet someone and I answer that I’m a student and they’re disappointed that I’m not a business person. One person in Canada was convinced that anthropology was the study of insects. When I was trying to explain it in French in a small town of southern France I was asked to name an anthropologist and received blank faces at the names of Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, Margaret Mead, Wade Davis, Ruth Benedict, etc., but when I mentioned Claude Levi-Strauss a sudden recognition exploded from the cheerful man: “Ah, Claude Levi-Strauss, of course, I know all about anthropology!” In a little teahouse in Beijing the traditional Chinese medicine practitioner who I was drinking with had to look up the Mandarin translation on his cell phone, and it didn’t help him much. Usually I simply describe it as the study of humans and tell them that there are four sub-disciplines (I’m from North America) and that mine specializes in the study of cultures. However, if I’m talking to someone who already knows basically what it is I further inform them that it is the discipline of having one’s mind blown daily.

  9. It seems like you’re not alone in your dilemma. I, too, get asked a lot about what anthropology is — especially taxi drivers who take me from the university (I used to live in the dorms) to the airport. None of them has any idea what it is. One of them even asked me if it is about ants.

    As I am very much awkward about these things, I used to tell them “we study people”. And they get confused so I tell them “it’s the study of culture” and hope that they stop talking to me at this moment (I couldn’t tell them about the human bones as that will meet me with suspicion and something in the line of “why are you studying that? it’s a total waste of money. you should study medicine or engineering or just go back to Physics” — something which I got a lot from conversations with friends every time I got excited and told them everything I learned in Anthropology). Of course, this IS improper as I am supposed to “educate” the public about the field. But how could anyone explain Anthropology in just a couple of sentences? We study humans as a whole and humans do just about everything. How can that be condensed?

    Now I teach Anthropology, but not to anthropology majors so I have to keep it as simple as I can. I got this quote from a friend and I find it very interesting: It is the job of the anthropologists to “make the familiar exotic, and the exotic familiar”. I think teaching Anthropology is more advantageous rather than just explaining the field in one sitting because the wide plethora of the field can be covered more in one semester.

    Anyway, good luck with your studies and your doing well in your blog. 🙂

  10. Sam says:

    the study of what it means to be human?

  11. continuously i used to read smaller posts which as well clear their motive,
    and that is also happening with this article which I am reading
    at this place.

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