So… What Is Anthropology?

When I tell people that I majored in anthropology, many people mention dinosaur bones. Not so much. Others discuss Stonehenge, which is a little closer to the truth.

Believe it or not, I had never heard of anthropology (the study of humankind) before I started at college. But once I looked into it, I thought it was the most brilliant idea. The study of people groups! I had always felt a little bit like an observer, on the outside looking in. Now I discovered there was a term for that: participant observation.

When I found out that anthropology is divided into four main areas – archaeology, physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistics – I was even more excited. I wouldn’t have to pick! Everything was available, under one roof!

When I was much younger I wanted to be an archaeologist. Inspired by Indiana Jones and an excellent book about Inca treasure hunting called Cruise of the Condor, I looked forward to digging up secret tombs in the depths of crumbling temples. As time passed, I forgot about particular aspiration and moved on to other possibilities – nursing, writing, teaching.

But in college, I rediscovered that childhood ambition. And when I learned that one of our professors went on digs to Mexico, I was definitely hooked.

I loved my cultural anthropology class. I loved all the random stuff that we read about, the sampler of articles from many different books and periodicals, everything from an article on sugar and the sugar trade to geriatrics. Pretty early on, I knew that I was going to pursue anthropology as my major. I had never met anything I loved learning and writing about quite as much.

Early on, we learned about the concept of cultural relativism. The father of anthropology, Franz Boas, came up with the idea – that our perceptions, our worldview, is not absolute or distinct, but integrally tied to our culture. In order to understand other cultures, we have to see what is happening from their point of view rather than our own. We have to step out of the box of “ethnocentrism,” the belief that our culture is superior to every other, and instead accept each culture’s beliefs and mores on its own merits.

When I learned about cultural relativism, I felt like I had made a major discovery. I felt free not to judge people.

I really liked the Anthropology department. Not the location – no, they stuck those wild, cheery, energetic anthropologists in the basement. You know why? Because they could handle it! Because the anthropology professors were the motivated, caring, thoughtful kind of people I wanted to be and they transcended the basement.

Over the next three years, I learned many interesting things and had many fascinating experiences. I took a Gender and Power class and interviewed female pastors. I went to Mexico and did archaeology. I took classes on African cultures and studied the blurry and insubstantial concept of race. I did an honors project on Baptist Latino churches.

I have never regretted my major. Anthropology was the perfect pre-nursing major because it taught me about seeing things from other people’s point of view.Through anthropology, I learned how to talk to people, to  listen to people. I discovered how irrelevant race is. I mean it when I say this: it opened my mind.

So that’s what anthropology is – the study of culture and people. A discipline that seeks to encourage mutual understanding. A field of study that we could all learn from.

Because how can we love our neighbor if we don’t try to understand him or her?


6 thoughts on “So… What Is Anthropology?

  1. I am an anthropology major and I face the same situation people just assume anthropology is only about dinosaurs and fossils (archaeology) , but like you said there are many other aspects of anthropology such as cultural, linguistic, and physical anthropology. Furthermore, anthropology is a vast field with many opportunities. I just came back from a field study in South Africa studying baboons

    • Studying baboons in Africa sounds really interesting! That just demonstrates how broad anthropology is.

      I always have to say something like “well dinosaurs are actually paleontology. I don’t actually know much about them. I study people!” 🙂

  2. Studying anthropology can sometimes seem as lonely as studying any other arcane subject.

    We become experts in something that most people, on a daily basis, are hardly aware exists: other cultures. People ask, metaphorically, what kind of cloth we learned to weave in college, and the answer is that we “studied loom design.”

    Most people aren’t really sure what to make of it.

    Congrats on making it through anthro. How do you feel that has affected your perspectives in your following education?

    • I really like the way you put that – “we studied loom design.” It’s so true! I always felt like anthropology was the most basic discipline, incorporating aspects of all the other humanities. I think anthropology affected my very way of learning; as I approached nursing school, in some ways it felt more like a ritual of initiation than simply education per se. My full answer to your question will probably end being a post sometime soon.

  3. Ariel, bet you would love a relatively new book, Misunderstanding Scripture with Western Eyes. It has a lot to say to us as Christians who may not also be “anthropologists.”

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