What is anthropology?

Anthropology, in its most general sense, is the study of human beings. So…if people do it, there’s probably an anthropologist somewhere who’ll want to study it.

My training is in what’s referred to as social anthropology in the UK and socio-cultural anthropology in the United States. As the names suggest, these fields emphasise the importance of social behavior and cultural processes in human affairs. Anthropologists study people all over the world, from the islands of Melanesia to the canyons of Wall Street, writing accounts of their experiences called ‘ethnographies’. Though the subject matter of ethnographies can vary greatly, they all share a common goal:  to connect the wider contexts of our world with the specific circumstances of people’s daily lives.

The following description of anthropology does a good job of summarizing the situation of anthropology today:

What is Social Anthropology?

Social Anthropology was born in the era when European societies still had colonial empires. Although there has been much polemical debate about the ways in which the colonial context might have compromised anthropological research, at least one of the major aims of the founders of the discipline remains central to anthropology today: the comparative study of the different forms of human social life and cultural experience.

Obviously the world we live in today has changed, and anthropology has changed with it. A communications and transport revolution has made the world a smaller place, and international migration has made ‘western’ societies multi-cultural. Yet ‘globalisation’ does not seem to be making the world we live in less culturally diverse. Whether we do our anthropology in Britain or in Papua New Guinea, Africa Asia, or Latin America, the study of different ways of living in and seeing the world seems just as important as it ever was. Indeed, it may actually have become more rather than less important.

Anthropology is sometimes seen as the study of the strange customs and beliefs of non-western peoples, but one of the principal goals of anthropology is, in fact, to make western beliefs and ways of doing things seem strange. People born in western societies, like anyone else, become accustomed to seeing their way of doing things as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’. What anthropologists try to show is that we all need to reflect on our taken-for-granted cultural assumptions, particularly if ‘we’ belong to a dominant group which may seek to impose its will on others.

Contemporary social anthropology is a critical discipline that tackles an enormous variety of topics, ranging from the social implications of the new reproductive and information technologies through the analysis of the social meanings of consumer behaviour to the study of violence, poverty and the means for resolving conflicts and alleviating human suffering. Although anthropological studies are now conducted everywhere, from middle class suburbs and inner cities, from boardrooms to migrant labour camps, and from Papua New Guinea to Peru, and from a European standpoint, what all our studies have in common is an awareness of human diversity. This is not simply an academic matter but also a practical one.”

Quoted from The School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester (accessed: 16 December 2010)

Culture, Networks, Knowledge

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