What Is Anthropology?

The broad field of anthropology studies “all things human” in ways that stand apart from sociology, psychology, history, and other areas of the humanities and sciences.

Ask SAPIENS is a series that offers a glimpse into the magazine’s inner workings.

Anthropologists study people,” I once told a curious 12-year-old about my chosen career. “Unlike psychologists,” I added, making a playful jab at his dad, who was an expert in that field.

The word “anthropology” literally means “the science of humanity.” Lots of disciplines could lay claim to the same highfalutin title, from anatomists to historians to psychologists like this boy’s father. Yet there is something about the anthropological study of “all things human” that makes anthropologists different and, in my opinion, gives us the primary right to the phrase “we study people.”

Perhaps the most obvious thing that distinguishes anthropologists from other scholars is the way we approach our task. Definitions of anthropology tend to focus on the methods we’re famous for: ethnography, involving immersion in a particular community; participant observation, which entails taking part in activities we want to understand; and excavation, the focused examination of materials humans and their ancestors have left behind.

Anthropologists use these and other approaches to study all aspects of human existence, past and present. We include in our numbers archaeologists, who study people (but not dinosaurs) from the material traces they leave; linguistic anthropologists, who understand humans from the ways they use language; and biological anthropologists and paleoanthropologists, who understand them from their long history and immense physical variety. We also include sociocultural anthropologists, who document the meanings humans make of the different worlds they inhabit.

Anthropologists do research in laboratorieson farmsin U.N. agencieson movie sets, and in virtual worlds. We dig, we count, we interview, and we map. We run experiments on pottery production and primate locomotion. We join groups, from religious sects to country-western bands. We study social movements—from #MeToo to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

In U.S. universities, we are housed in the same departments; elsewhere, we are scattered across campuses. Many more anthropologists escape disciplinary boundaries by working outside the academy in “applied” settings—documenting heritage sites before their destruction, advocating for humane immigration policies, improving space travel, or fighting an Ebola outbreak. We study many different human things, in stunningly different ways.

No one ever tells you, ‘That’s not an anthropological question,’” the U.S. sociocultural anthropologist Kathleen Stewart once told me.

Given this variety, there are some fuzzy lines surrounding the discipline: an anthropologist in one country or institution may be labeled a historian or sociologist in another. But there is another important thing that sets us apart from similar fields: Anthropologists typically sacrifice breadth for depth.

A psychologist might administer a survey involving hundreds of individuals in an attempt to learn something generalizable about the human mind. We are less interested in the mind in general than in specific minds, studied intensively, a few at a time. Anthropologists, like other social scientists, compare: We compare species, populations, and societies, past and present. But, as we compare, we insist on the importance of context—on the who, what, where, and when that shapes what we observe.

This is true for sociocultural anthropologists, who aren’t just interested in human cognition or volition (otherwise known as will or desire), but in how certain people think and what they value, given the circumstances in which they live. It also holds for linguistic anthropologists, who are less concerned with grammar than with the way particular people communicate and how language shapes their place in the world. Archaeologists not only try to describe past trends, they also attempt to re-create past lives. For biological anthropologists, the human is not a model organism like a fruit fly or a mouse. They’re not in search of the general principles of evolution; they want to know how humans became the kind of animals we are.  

Anthropologists know that our findings on the human condition are provisional. Because we insist on the distinct size and shape of the pieces we add to the puzzle of human existence, our conclusions are rarely one-size-fits-all. When we generalize, we do so modestly, with a sense of adventure. We are constantly looking for new ways to tell tales that ring true.  

Of course, there’s a lot more to say about our quirky discipline: about our penchant for poaching theories and methods from other fields; about our past, when anthropology gave a pseudoscientific veneer to colonialism and racism, and how we are grappling with this legacy; about the growing number of Indigenous anthropologists joining the ranks.

But I think I’ve hit upon what makes us special. Anthropologists study people—particular people, in particular times and places—and what makes them human in their own distinctive ways.