A Taste of Anthropology


The Four Subfields of Anthropology

In America the field of anthropology is broken down into four basic subfields that highlight the vastness of anthropological study and inquiry.  Franz Boas (“The father of American anthropology”) is the first anthropologist to order the field in this way.  Since he also created the first anthropology department in America at Columbia University one hundred years ago his version has endured.  American anthropologists are trained in all four subfields even if they only specialize in one or two.

Archaeology is the subfield of anthropology that studies human history – in particular unwritten or prehistoric human history.  Archaeologists dig through the remaining sites of ancient cultures to gather artifacts that will be analyzed to see what they reveal about the way that people lived, what they valued, etc. in that culture.  Like all anthropologists, archaeologists compare and contrast similarities and differences between cultures to bring greater insight into their findings.

Linguistics is the subfield of anthropology that studies human language.  Linguists are interested in looking at how culture is revealed in the words, grammar and understanding of human language.  Linguists are also interested in studying how and why languages change or become “dead” languages.  Like all anthropologists, linguists compare and contrast similarities and differences between languages spoken in different cultures to bring further insight into their research.

Physical anthropology is the subfield of anthropology that studies human evolution and the biology of human and non-human primates.  Physical anthropologists are interested in gaining a better handle on how humans became biologically human and what insight non-human primates – both living and extinct – can bring to an evolutionary understanding of humans.  Like all anthropologists, physical anthropologists compare and contrast similarities and differences.  However, they tend to compare and contrast less between humans and more between humans and non-human primates.

Cultural anthropology is the subfield of anthropology that studies human culture.  Cultural anthropologists are interested in studying cultural similarities (or universals) as a way to better understand cultural differences.  This comparison is at the heart of what cultural anthropologists do when they conduct research.

 

 

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