Anthropology students with a professor at North Central College.

What is the Study of Anthropology?

Kim MacGregor

Jun 14, 2023


Are you highly curious about people and places? Are you fascinated by the evolutionary origins of humankind and studying human social and cultural similarities and differences? Do you enjoy research and studying languages?

If so, you might satisfy your intellectual curiosity by studying anthropology, which is — simply put — “the study of what makes us human,” according to the American Anthropological Association (AAA)

More broadly, it is the scientific study of human behavior and human diversity, with data and discoveries made through fieldwork. Also known as ethnography, anthropological fieldwork can include excavation of archaeological sites and immersion in communities.

Work as an anthropologist typically requires at least a master’s degree. However, the skills and thinking acquired as an undergraduate can prepare you for work in other fields, especially when coupled with learning experiences outside the classroom, like an internship or other work experience. For example, at North Central, students majoring in anthropology have opportunities to conduct research and present findings at local, regional and national conferences. They travel to Guatemala to study highland Mayan culture while working with indigenous artists and farmers. They apply for grants and scholarships to purpose research and projects.

History behind anthropology

Interestingly, it takes digging to understand the origins of anthropology as a field of study. Generally, it is traced back to the Age of Enlightenment — the intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

That Euro-centric view is the subject of some debate these days. Journalist Linda Nordling authored “Who Gets to Study Whom?” for the digital magazine Sapiens. In the essay, she says the study of anthropology “grew out of the European colonial project and was part of an overarching effort to not only understand and describe the people Native to the regions that Europeans annexed — but also, in some cases, to dominate and exploit those people and their lands.”

Therefore, she notes that “questions are being raised about the power dynamics surrounding ‘who gets to study whom.’” This could affect the opportunities and future study, with steps taken to ensure greater inclusion of perspectives from scholars of underrepresented communities and nations.

In the U.S., Franz Boas is considered the “Father of American Anthropology.” He established the first university anthropology department in the nation and was instrumental in creating the American Anthropological Association. He also developed the four subsets of anthropology, described below. He is known for his theory of cultural relativism — the belief that all cultures are essentially equal but simply need to be understood on their own terms. He also denounced the idea that some different racial or ethnic groups are more advanced than others.

One of Boas’ students was Margaret Mead (1901 – 1978), perhaps the most famous anthropologist of the 20th century. In 1925, she conducted fieldwork on adolescent girls in Samoa. The resulting book, “Coming of Age in Samoa,” brought international acclaim.

Find out more about anthropology at North Central College

Importance of anthropology

If you study anthropology, friends and family may question your decision from a career-readiness standpoint. But as Marc Brightman wrote in, “This discipline has never been more important at a time of troubling intolerance in society, but it does far more than merely help understand ethnic diversity.” He continues: “Anthropology is about human ecology, different ways of being in the physical world, and about sustainability — not just culture and identity.” Brightman argues that anthropology “should be the first of all the sciences our children encounter, with its singular capacity to inspire the imagination, broaden the mind and open the heart.” 

There is also a case to be made from a career readiness standpoint. Writing for The Balance, Mike Profita outlines the skills honed by anthropology majors, saying that “An anthropology major learns to identify patterns of leadership and evaluate the effectiveness of organizations.” He adds that students learn to think outside their cultural experience in order to find creative solutions, while also honing writing, research, presentation, and team-building skills — all applicable to many professions.

Different types of anthropology

The AAA defines four subfields that teach distinctive skills but also have similarities. These types of anthropology apply theories, employs systematic research methodologies, formulates and tests hypotheses, and develops extensive sets of data.

  • Cultural anthropology – Exploring how people in different places live and understand the world around them. Cultural anthropologists study what they think is important and the rules they make about how they should interact with one another.
  • Archaeology Studying human culture by excavating and analyzing pottery, tools, burials and more to understand differences and similarities in the daily lives of human societies across space and time.
  • Linguistic anthropology Studying the many ways people communicate across the globe. Linguistic anthropologists also study how language is linked to how we see the world and how we relate to each other.
  • Biological anthropology Seeking to understand how humans adapt to different environments, how humans evolved from other animals. Biological anthropologists studies how biology and culture work together to shape lives. 

Anthropology careers

So what can you do with an anthropology degree? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of anthropologists and archeologists is projected to grow 6 percent from 2021 to 2031, about as fast as the average for all occupations. The median annual wage for anthropologists and archeologists was $61,910 in May 2021.

Mike Profita compiled a list of top jobs for anthropology majors, including attorney, diversity officer, foreign language teacher, foreign service officer, and interpreter or translator, and public health specialist, among others.

At North Central, there is an emphasis on an active, intentional “public” anthropology, where insights and wisdom are shared with interest groups, volunteer organizations, community service agencies, and the general public to impact change. Our goal is to prepare students to become public intellectuals committed to a just social world achieved through meaningful careers. The hands-on learning emphasis — working with dedicated faculty on individualized projects — will prepare you well for the future, whether you may choose to pursue graduate school or a career in the public or private sector.

Kim MacGregor is the editorial director and executive speechwriter in the North Central College Office of Institutional Communication. She has decades of experience as a communication strategist and writer for journalism, marketing, and nonprofit advancement. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Marquette University.



American Anthropological Association.

Brightman, Mark. “Anthropology is so important, all children should learn it.” Ecologist, March 10, 2015.

Profita, Mike. “Best Jobs for Graduates With an Anthropology Degree.” The Balance, Dec. 8, 2022.

Nordling, Linda. “Who Gets to Study Whom?” Sapiens, July 17, 2020.