Anthropological Perspectives

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Anthropologists across the subfields use unique perspectives to conduct their research. These perspectives make anthropology distinct from related disciplines — like history, sociology, and psychology — that ask similar questions about the past, societies, and human nature. The key ant


Anthropologists are interested in the whole of humanity, in how various aspects of life interact. One cannot fully appreciate what it means to be human by studying a single aspect of our complex histories, languages, bodies, or societies. By using a holistic approach, anthropologists ask how different aspects of human life influence one another. For example, a cultural anthropologist studying the meaning of marriage in a small village in India might consider local gender norms, existing family networks, laws regarding marriage, religious rules, and economic factors. A biological anthropologist studying monkeys in South America might consider the species’ physical adaptations, foraging patterns, ecological conditions, and interactions with humans in order to answer questions about their social behaviors. By understanding how nonhuman primates behave, we discover more about ourselves (after all, humans are primates)! By using a holistic approach, anthropologists reveal the complexity of biological, social, or cultural phenomena.

Anthropology itself is a holistic discipline, comprised in the United States (and in some other nations) of four major subfields: cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and archaeology. While anthropologists often specialize in one subfield, their specific research contributes to a broader understanding of the human condition, which is made up of culture, language, biological and social adaptations, as well as human origins and evolution.


The guiding philosophy of modern anthropology is cultural relativism—the idea that we should seek to understand another person’s beliefs and behaviors from the perspective of their culture rather than our own. Anthropologists do not judge other cultures based on their values nor do they view other ways of doing things as inferior. Instead, anthropologists seek to understand people’s beliefs within the system they have for explaining things.

The opposite of cultural relativism is ethnocentrism, the tendency to view one’s own culture as the most important and correct and as a measuring stick by which to evaluate all other cultures that are largely seen as inferior and morally suspect. As it turns out, many people are ethnocentric to some degree; ethnocentrism is a common human experience. Why do we respond the way we do? Why do we behave the way we do? Why do we believe what we believe? Most people find these kinds of questions difficult to answer. Often the answer is simply “because that is how it is done.” People typically believe that their ways of thinking and acting are “normal”; but, at a more extreme level, some believe their ways are better than others.

Ethnocentrism is not a useful perspective in contexts in which people from different cultural backgrounds come into close contact with one another, as is the case in many cities and communities throughout the world. People increasingly find that they must adopt culturally relativistic perspectives in governing communities and as a guide for their interactions with members of the community. For anthropologists, cultural relativism is especially important. We must set aside our innate ethnocentric views in order to allow cultural relativism to guide our inquiries and interactions such that we can learn from others.


Anthropologists of all the subfields use comparison to learn what humans have in common, how we differ, and how we change. Anthropologists ask questions like: How do chimpanzees differ from humans? How do different languages adapt to new technologies? How do countries respond differently to immigration? In cultural anthropology, we compare ideas, morals, practices, and systems within or between cultures. We might compare the roles of men and women in different societies, or contrast how different religious groups conflict within a given society. Like other disciplines that use comparative approaches, such as sociology or psychology, anthropologists make comparisons between people in a given society. Unlike these other disciplines, anthropologists also compare across societies, and between humans and other primates. In essence, anthropological comparisons span societies, cultures, time, place, and species. It is through comparison that we learn more about the range of possible responses to varying contexts and problems.


Anthropologists conduct their research in the field with the species, civilization, or groups of people they are studying. In cultural anthropology, our fieldwork is referred to as ethnographywhich is both the process and result of cultural anthropological research. The Greek term “ethno” refers to people, and “graphy” refers to writing. The ethnographic process involves the research method of participant-observation fieldwork: you participate in people’s lives, while observing them and taking field notes that, along with interviews and surveys, constitute the research data. This research is inductive: based on day-to-day observations, the anthropologist asks increasingly specific questions about the group or about the human condition more broadly. Often times, informants actively participate in the research process, helping the anthropologist ask better questions and understand different perspectives.

The word ethnography also refers to the end result of our fieldwork. Cultural anthropologists do not write “novels,” rather they write ethnographies, descriptive accounts of culture that weave detailed observations with theory. After all, anthropologists are social scientists. While we study a particular culture to learn more about it and to answer specific research questions, we are also exploring fundamental questions about human society, behavior, or experiences.

In the course of conducting fieldwork with human subjects, anthropologists invariably encounter ethical dilemmas: Who might be harmed by conducting or publishing this research? What are the costs and benefits of identifying individuals involved in this study? How should one resolve the competing interests of the funding agency and the community? To address these questions, anthropologists are obligated to follow a professional code of ethics that guides us through ethical considerations in our research.


As you may have noticed from the above discussion of the anthropological sub-disciplines, anthropologists are not unified in what they study or how they conduct research. Some sub-disciplines, like biological anthropology and archaeology, use a deductive, scientific approach. Through hypothesis testing, they collect and analyze material data (e.g. bones, tools, seeds, etc.) to answer questions about human origins and evolution. Other subdisciplines, like cultural anthropology and linguistic anthropology, use humanistic and/or inductive approaches to their collection and analysis of nonmaterial data, like observations of everyday life or language in use.

At times, tension has arisen between the scientific subfields and the humanistic ones. For example, in 2010 some cultural anthropologists critiqued the American Anthropological Association’s mission statement, which stated that the discipline’s goal was “to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects.”[7] These scholars wanted to replace the word “science” with “public understanding.” They argued that some anthropologists do not use the scientific method of inquiry; instead, they rely more on narratives and interpretations of meaning. After much debate, the word “science” remains in the mission statement and, throughout the United States, anthropology is predominantly categorized as a social science.