This lesson offers a brief overview of the field of anthropology and explains terms like ‘Homo sapien’ as well as the works of Charles Darwin and Franz Boas.

(video available February 2016)

Lesson Transcript

Anthropology Definition

Anthropology is a fancy word for the study of humankind. Coming from the Greek words anthropos, meaning ‘human,’ and logia, meaning ‘study,’ it seeks to understand all things human.

Just like my grandma, whose favorite pasttime was people watching at the mall, anthropologists observe the way we live and interact with each other and our environment. Everything from how we dress to how we eat to how we worship and show emotion, from where we came from to how we plan on getting there to where we’re going is of interest to the field of anthropology. It boils down to a fascination with Homo sapiens, which is the fancy, scientific name for the human species.

With this definition in mind, it’s easy to see why some say we’re all amateur anthropologists. However, for today, we’ll dig a bit deeper than people watching at the mall as we try to understand the goals and origins of anthropology as a science.

Comparative Method

For starters, anthropology is based on the idea that human behavior can be best observed and explained by comparing it to other human behavior. As explained by Boston University’s anthropology department, ‘anthropology begins with a simple yet powerful idea: any detail of our behavior can be understood better when it is seen against the backdrop of the full range of human behavior.’ Using what is known as the comparative method, anthropologists make attempts to explain similarities and differences among people holistically, in the context of humanity as a whole.

To simplify this, how about we give an example of the comparative method? Suppose a young girl in let’s say a very fundamental Islamic Saudi Arabian family is given her very favorite toy for her birthday. I mean, it’s the toy she’s been waiting for her entire life! When she opens it, she will feel joy. However, because of the accepted rules of her culture, she will most likely not jump up and down and squeal in delight. Instead, she may give a polite, small nod and a smile. Yes, she will be joyful, but to the Western mind, she will look subdued.

Now, what an anthropologist would do is to take this Middle Eastern scene and compare it to its American counterpart. They’d seek to understand why an American girl would squeal and dance around the room when seeing her present, but the Middle Eastern girl would not. Both girls experienced happiness, but they expressed it quite differently. To an anthropologist using the comparative method, this sort of stuff is golden as they seek to understand the universal human emotion of joy as it plays out in different cultures. In other words, the comparative method helps an anthropologist understand how a person’s environment affects how they act.

Charles Darwin and Franz Boas

Although humans have probably always compared and contrasted one another, some link the birth of anthropology to the early 19th century. It was then that scientists, like Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species, began creating theories on the evolution of man.

It was also during this time that anthropology began viewing cultures as on, or progressing up, an evolutionary ladder from savagery to civilized. Of course, this rather dated view seemed to place the modernized West above the primitive cultures of, say, Africa. Unfortunately, this anthropological paradigm served as a means to justify the exploitation of more primitive cultures at the hands of those who considered themselves more evolved.

While men like Darwin busied themselves coming up with theories on the physical evolution of man, another scientist, Franz Boas, turned anthropology’s attention toward culture and away from physical makeup. As one of the most influential of the early anthropologists, he believed that a person is not merely a product of their physical race or attributes. In other words, a primitive man is not primitive because of his skin color or shape of his head. Instead, he is primitive because his culture is primitive. In the same manner, if a modernized, white male had been born into an African tribe, he then would act as a primitive. His pale skin would not change this.

In simpler terms, Boas asserted it’s a person’s culture, not their race, that determines their behavior. With this, Boas and his students turned early anthropology a bit on its head, and Franz Boas earned himself the nickname ‘Father of American Anthropology.’

Anthropology Disciplines

Today, anthropologists in the United States are trained in both physical and cultural disciplines. Some of these are sociocultural anthropology, biological/physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. Sociocultural anthropologists focus on social patterns and practices across cultures. Biological anthropologists study human adaptation, biological origins, evolution, and variation. Archaeologists explore past people and cultures. Linguistic anthropologists focus on the ways language reflects and influences social culture.

Lesson Summary

Anthropology is the study of humankind. Deriving from the Greek words for ‘human’ and ‘study,’ it includes pretty much all things to do with humans, or in technical terms, Homo sapien nature. Often using thecomparative method as a tool, anthropology seeks to explain culture by studying the similarities and differences among people groups.

Men like Darwin, author of The Origin of Species, are credited with the 19th century birth of modern anthropology. Many of these beginning anthropologists believed that all cultures were sort of on an evolutionary ladder, progressing from savage to civilized. Unfortunately, this belief led to the exploitation of more primitive cultures by those who deemed themselves more evolved.

Unlike these earlier anthropologists, Franz Boas, nicknamed the ‘Father of American Anthropology,’ took a different view. He asserted that it was culture, and not physical race, that determined behavior.