The 4 Types of Anthropology
Jun 16, 2023
The 4 types of anthropology
Anthropology is a fundamental a subject as there is, because it’s us studying ourselves. The American Anthropological Association defines anthropology simply by saying, “Anthropology is the study of what makes us human.”
Human culture and human society are what separate us from other every other living thing, and are systems we participate in every day of our lives without even thinking about it. In that sense, for us as people, anthropology is all-encompassing—every act of human behavior is part of it. So why don’t we think of it as one of the core subjects everyone should know?
The reason may be that it’s just too big a subject to wrap our heads around. That is why it’s so important to understand the different fields within anthropology. Each area looks at a different aspect of the experience of a human being, and there is plenty to study within each one. If you are interested in the culture of human groups and looking at society to see what makes us tick, you’ll want to know these fields so you can find the one that interests you most.
What is anthropology?
So what is the study of anthropology? What do anthropologists do? Clearly determining what makes us human isn’t easy, but the hardest part is where to start. There are some fundamental things we know are distinct to humans—opposable thumbs, the ability to speak in languages, the desire to wear clothing. But which part is the key?
The simplest answer is all of the above, which is why there are multiple fields within the subject. The American Anthropological Association sketches out the components of anthropology to give us an idea of what experts in anthropology get up to.
“Anthropologists take a broad approach to understanding the many different aspects of the human experience, which we call holism,” they say on their website. “They consider the past, through archaeology, to see how human groups lived hundreds or thousands of years ago and what was important to them. They consider what makes up our biological bodies and genetics, as well as our bones, diet, and health. Anthropologists also compare humans with other animals ... to see what we have in common with them and what makes us unique.”
Like most things you can study, understanding human populations means watching people, analyzing what they use and leave behind, both now and in the past, and looking for broader patterns over time. Human evolution has made us a complicated species, so almost everything else we know—language, science, math, social science and so on—plays into finding out why we are what we are.
What are the subfields of anthropology?
Certainly, every institution is a little different when it comes to what anthropology course options they offer and their expectations on how to become an anthropologist. Nevertheless, there is a general agreement across academia, particularly in American anthropology, on four main areas within the larger subject.
According to National Geographic, “Anthropologists specialize in cultural or social anthropology, linguistic anthropology, biological or physical anthropology, and archaeology. While subdisciplines can overlap and are not always seen by scholars as distinct, each tends to use different techniques and methods.”
Cultural anthropologists, or sociocultural anthropologists as they can also be called, examine human interaction. They look at what we do when we get together and why, which is more specifically called ethnography, as well as how we organize ourselves into groups and establish rules, which is broadly known as cultural relativism. One of the most common and well-known methods for studying these dynamics is through participant observation.
Humans are naturally performative. Even in the normal patterns of our routine, we are affected by an audience. Whether we like the attention or it makes us uncomfortable, we tend to act differently than normal if we know someone is watching specifically to see what we do. That can make gathering information for sociocultural anthropology unreliable.
Participant observation is the process by which an anthropologist tries to make themselves part of the group, doing what everyone else is doing and studying it in secret. They join an existing community and help the people complete their work, take part in their customs, and establish a kinship so that, hopefully, people in the group slowly forget the researcher is a stranger and go about their business normally.
It is easier to determine what motivates us and how we think as humans with a combination of an objective view and experiential insight. As the old saying goes, "You can't really understand another person's experience until you've walked a mile in their shoes."
Linguistic anthropologists study how random sounds and gestures stop being random and start collecting into language. The story of a language is a historical one. Native languages often developed because of environmental factors influencing how a group of people’s mouths, throats and vocal chords developed, the volume and type of sound they needed in order to be heard and understood, and literally what they saw around them that they needed to communicate about.
Many languages evolve over time as people move into new territories and gradually influence one another. By the same token, invading forces throughout history have often brought their languages with them and imposed them on indigenous people as a means of control. Due to where they live and what resources they have, there are some peoples whose languages have changed very little for thousands of years.
In modern society, language is also a signifier of class and identity. Millions of people all over the world may share knowledge of English, Spanish, Mandarin, or other common tongues, but dialects, accents and local vernacular make certain they are not speaking the same language. That’s a big part of who we are.
Also known as physical biological anthropology or simply physical anthropology, this field is about our changing human bodies and why we look different, inside and out, than we did in the past.
Relying heavily on the study of human biological evolution, biological anthropologists often study other types of primates to get a sense of how our bodies used to work. We gain valuable insight into why we are at the top of the food chain on our planet by, essentially, studying our competition. For example, National Geographic mentions the pioneering work of primatologist Jane Goodall, who did a version of participant observation with chimpanzees for decades.
“One of the most notable of Goodall’s discoveries was that chimpanzees use basic tools, such as sticks,” their article said. “Toolmaking is considered a key juncture in human evolution. Biological anthropologists link the evolution of the human hand, with a longer thumb and stronger gripping muscles, to our ancient ancestors’ focus on toolmaking.” Physical anthropologists spend entire careers looking to unravel mysteries like these.
Similarly, medical anthropology looks at humans’ constant unwanted companions—germs—as well as our natural tendency to test our limits to see how our behavior has shaped the evolution of disease, injuries and our methods for treating them.
Archaeological anthropology, or archaeology for short, could be seen as the most morbid of the fields, as it involves literally and figuratively digging up the past. Archaeologists examine human remains, as well as the stuff we leave behind, to see how human life has changed through time.
As the world’s most famous (fictional) archaeologist, Indiana Jones, once said, “Archaeology is the search for fact, not truth.” What that means is that living beings can lie, obscure facts, hide evidence, or use persuasion to create different versions of what the truth is.
People who passed away hundreds or thousands of years ago, on the other hand, can’t communicate, so whatever is left of them represents indisputable information. That provides a highly valuable starting point for determining how they lived and why.
Archaeology is largely research-based. It involves combing through history looking for gaps or inconsistencies, all to determine what you hope to find and the best place to look for it. Archaeological finds can vary wildly from place to place, but commonalities from one place to another can also be keys to history.
A dig in North America could closely resemble findings from similar digs in South America or Latin America dated to centuries earlier. That progression could tell the tale of people migrating from country to country and bringing aspects of their culture with them, either to search out greater resources or due to force from their homeland’s new conquerors.
Archaeology can also have more modern applications, such as forensic anthropology. A forensic anthropologist examines more recently buried human remains using archaeological techniques in order to determine how people died and how long ago. This information can be used not only to restructure different cultures from a historical perspective, but also to solve violent crimes. Think the TV shows “CSI” and “Bones,” but without the one-liners and theme music.
How to determine which is right for you
Ultimately, it is important to figure out which one of these areas will work best for you and stick to it. While there is certainly crossover between them, trying to study all four comprehensively may simply be too much to ask.
The editorial team at Indeed sums it up this way: “To work in anthropology, you need to decide which of the four categories you want to work in. Each branch will require a different education and fieldwork experience to start a career. Consider your interests and how they relate to the specific branches. For example, if you're interested in history, archaeology would be a good branch to pursue.”
If you’re a scientist or mathematician by nature, try biological anthropology. If English or a foreign language has always been your strongest class, steer for linguistic anthropology. And if you prefer social studies, government, or just always did better with extracurricular activities, try cultural anthropology.
Keep in mind that regardless of which field you focus on, there are certain skills you should focus on no matter your area of anthropology, as they will likely be vital for success. According to Indeed, they are:
- Critical thinking
- Verbal communication
- Written communication
- Physical fitness
Take the First Step to a Career in Anthropology
Whatever your field of anthropology ends up being, your most important choice is where you’re going to school.
Look for a program like the one at North Central College. According to Dr. Matthew Krystal, professor of anthropology at North Central, “At North Central, you’ll join our fieldwork-intensive curriculum, studying a wide range of anthropological topics. We facilitate hands-on learning and encourage work with dedicated faculty on individualized projects and a robust study abroad program. Anthropological skills can lead to graduate school and a wide range of rewarding careers in the public or private sector.”
Find out more about North Central and dig into your future anthropology degree today.
Jacob Imm is the associate director of communication in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 13 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.
American Anthropology Association, “What is Anthropology?” https://www.americananthro.org/AdvanceYourCareer/Content.aspx?ItemNumber=2150
National Geographic, “History and Branches of Anthropology.” https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/history-branches-anthropology/
Indeed, “Types of Anthropology (And How to Work in This Field).” https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/finding-a-job/types-of-anthropology