What is Anthropology?

Anthropology is the scientific and humanistic discipline devoted to explaining humanity: Who are we? Where did we come from? Why do we behave in the ways that we do? Where are we going?

These are big questions, to be sure, and they've haunted humans for millennia. To answer these questions, anthropologists focus on key differences and similarities across the human species, and across time and place. These differences in culture, language, and physical appearance are the foundation of our study, which investigates human behavior, artifacts, health and nutrition, economic systems, religious/spiritual beliefs, leadership/political systems, means of subsistence, family composition, language, body structure, and environmental influence, among many other topics. We've discovered that most of these topics are influenced by others -- spiritual beliefs, as an example, often place great meaning on locally-available foods - it is the anthropologist's desire to look at the interactions between these topics of study that makes anthropology unique as a discipline.

American Anthropology began in the late 1800's as scholars started to adopt a scientific approach to the cataloging and preservation of Native American artifacts, language, and customs. As the field gained academic credence as a worthy alternative to the haphazard home collections of wealthy antiquaries, early figures such as Franz Boas proposed dividing this science of humanity into four subfields:

Archaeology - Uses material remains to better understand the lives of humans past and present. Examples include the discovery of the historic early 17th century fort at Jamestown, Virginia; investigations into evidence of early human migration found at the Monte Verde site in Chile; and work performed by Dr. Leeson and RC students right here on campus.

Cultural anthropology (ethnology) - Observes patterns of behavior within and between different human groups. Examples include ethnographic study of the lives of the Ju'/hoansi, a foraging people who live in Namibia and Botswana; a year-long exploration of the trials and tribulations of freshmen at a U.S. college, as revealed by living among them; and work on campus to improve the ability of local social services agencies to effectively understand and seek to serve their clients.

Physical (biological) anthropology - Studies humans and non-human primates to seek improved understanding of our biological diversity and evolution as a species. Examples include research linking soda consumption to malnutrition and dental caries (cavities) in Mexican children; explanations for height differences between equatorial Africans and Inuit Native Americans; and discoveries of pre-human ancestors at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.

Linguistic anthropology - Studies human languages in both their social and cultural contexts. Examples include ongoing work deciphering early human texts and determining migration patterns using such clues as the Rosetta Stone; ongoing understanding of the evolution of the English language, e.g. "ebonics" and chat/text languages; and explorations of the use of language to uphold, and to resist, power.

These four subfields are still recognized today, and serve as the foundation for anthropological training at Roanoke College.

For more on Anthropology and its subfields, get in touch with Dr. Leeson, wleeson@roanoke.edu, or Dr. Morris cmorris@roanoke.edu, and/or visit the website of the American Anthropological Association (AAA): The AAA is the world's largest professional association for anthropologists, and this webpage provides more information about the subfields, our code of ethics, and careers in anthropology. For even more on careers in anthropology, visit Roanoke College's Careers in Anthropology page, here.

Here are some other websites that may pique your interest:

The Society for Applied Anthropology website contains useful information for anthropologists concerned with identifying, assessing, and solving contemporary human problems. RC students can have the opportunity to present original research at the annual meetings of this Society.

Many physical/biological anthropologists are involved in the study of non-human primates because of their genetic and behavioral similarities to humans. This site explores "what's new" in primatology.

A thorough primer on the concept of "race," its social meaning, and the flawed reasoning behind assumptions that humans can be classifies into groups that correspond with racial categories as we know them today.

The Smithsonian's online National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives include several excellent online exhibits, furthering their attempts to ensure that future generations have access to the images, texts, and recordings discovered through anthropological research.

Home of the Society for Medical Anthropology, this site provides insight into the role of anthropologists in health and healing worldwide.