Branches of Anthropology

Table of Content

            Anthropology seeks to understand human beings through a careful and comparative study of biological differences and similarities as well as cultural differences and similarities (Lassiter, 2006). In other words, anthropology is the entire history of man as fueled and pervaded by the idea of evolution. Man can be conceived of as evolution, and this is the subject of anthropology in its complete reach. Anthropology studies man as he occurs at all known times and in every known part of the world. Anthropology studies both the soul and body of man-as a physical organism, subject to conditions that operate in time and space, the physicality of which is in intimate relation with a soul-life that is also subject to the very conditions. Possessing an eye to such conditions, anthropology attempts to plot out the general series of the changes, both mental and physical, that are undergone by humans in the course of their history. Anthropology’s task is simply to describe. However, without transcending the limits of its scope, anthropology can and must proceed from the specific to the general, focusing at nothing less than a descriptive formula that sums up the entire changes in which the evolution of humans consist.

            With the flourishing of modern anthropology, four main disciplines have emerged. These are biological or physical anthropology, linguistic anthropology, archeology, and cultural anthropology. These sub-fields are split further into various other subfields even though each of the areas handles a specific component human experience. The focus of biological or physical anthropology is human biology; archeology on the other hand centers on material culture and human technology; linguistic anthropology, as the name suggests, focuses on language; and cultural anthropology handles culture. The task of this paper is to look at the various field and subfields of anthropology and how they integrate to form an anthropological perspective.

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            Man cannot be studied in totality and hence there is need to fragment his study into various fields. Such has been done in anthropology just mass in other sciences that endeavor to study man. As stated, anthropology is divided into four main fields which handle different aspects of man. The field of physical or biological anthropology basically focuses on human biology. Human biology encompasses a very broad field that ranges from the social problems of race to the actual biological complexity of various populations, disease to human health, genetics to heredity, and bone structure to cell structure. In other words, biological anthropology focuses on all aspects of human biology. One of the main integrating concepts in biological anthropology is biological change or evolution (Snipes, 1993). Biological anthropologists, looking through the lens of evolution and change, attempt to comprehend biological changes over long and short terms. Biological anthropologists adopt as subjects the evolution of human species a well as the evolution of the latest influenza virus. They also attempt to comprehend human biological variation among other species of animals. The point at which humans fit in the overall scheme of biological evolutions is an important aspect in comprehending how they are both similar and different from other animals.

            There are also various sub-branches of biological anthropology which includes primatology, human adaptation, human biology, human evolution, neoroanthropology and human osteology. These branches are also further divided into other sub-branches. As such, biological anthropology handles every realm of human biology in its quest for the understanding of the human being.

            Archeology is another branch of anthropology which also handles another different aspect of humans. It adopts many of the research methods that are employed in biological anthropology even though its scope shifts from the study of human biology and focus on human technology or material culture. Material culture has to do with those materials that human beings purposefully creates either as tools to adopt to their environments or as meaningful expressions of their experience (Duff, 1999). In simple terms, the basic concept of archeology is the artifact. Any object that has been created by humans falls within the realm of artifacts. However, the point here does not concern gathering artifacts as done by treasure hunters. The purpose of studying these artifacts is to place them within a broad social context to infer and decipher human behavior. Therefore, from economics to religion, cities to villages, weapons of war to art and crafts, the establishment of agriculture to the collapse of civilizations, human exploitation of the environment to human adaptation to the environment-archaeologists employs artifacts situated within their larger social context to unearth the secrets of human society in both the past and the present.

            Linguistic anthropology focuses exclusively on language since it is a rich source for the expression of diversity of human experience. Linguistic anthropology is the branch of anthropology dedicated to the study of the role of languages in the various activities that constitute the social life of communities and individuals. Generally, humans depend on language for their survival and to communicate ideas and concepts; language is central to culture. Particularly, the entire range of individual society’s collective experience is based in language. For instance, a word in one language may be translated to mean a different thing in another language. This information enables linguistic anthropologists to decipher that not every individual sees the world in the same way. Human uniqueness is shaped and reflected by the diversity of languages.

            Since language can be used to mean both spoken and non-spoken discourse, a fundamental concept in linguistics is communication. In anthropological terms, communication is the employment or arbitrary symbols to relay meaning. This implies that while particular sounds or gestures have no inherent meaning in and of themselves, humans assign meaning to them and through them relay meaning to others (Sosjonk, 2001). For instance, belching at the dinner table is considered a rude gesture in polite company in the United States. In other countries, the same may be conceived of to mean a compliment. Again, in America, a slight nod of the head may mean yes among most Americans; the same gesture may be meaningless among non-English speakers who employ other gestures to communicate an affirmative response non-verbally. The meaning behind the gesture or sound itself is what is of importance and not the belching or nodding. Therefore, from sounds and gestures to the construction of language families, from the history of words to their ongoing evolution, from the various ways that men and women communicate to how power structure is transmitted through spoken language, linguistic anthropologists attempt to decipher the intricacies of human communication within larger social contexts, both in the past and present.

            Cultural anthropology shares the focus on human communication with cultural anthropology. However, its fundamental, driving concept, culture, is far much broader in scope. A much as it might be held that culture and groups or the values and attitudes of such groups are synonymous, anthropology conceives of culture to be a shared and negotiated system of meaning informed by knowledge that people learn and put into practice by interpreting experience and generating behavior. Culture is the eye through which individuals view the world. At the same time, culture is what produces human difference evident in the world (Welsh, 2000). What makes the German society different from the American society is culture. Culture is also resp9onsible for the different feeling in towns and the differences in families. In a similar sense, all humans share similarities in culture such as the questions that surround the meanings of life and death, marriage, inheritance, religion, among other things. This is the scope of cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropologists study culture to understand the powerful role that it plays in human life.

            The integration of all these branches of anthropology forms the foundation of anthropological perspective. Anthropological perspective differentiates what is human from what holds as true for a specific society. Anyone who arrives at a just conception of man must not consider him exclusively as an individual being as man is a social being (Waltz et al. 2007). Man cannot be comprehended as an individual being and therefore, biological or physical anthropology cannot in itself claim to determine the nature of man, neither can it do so when combined with archeology. The social life that man finds himself contributes much towards teaching the individual what passes within him, and exudes to him sensually what he would not have been able to understand by mere self contemplation (Metcalf, 2005). Anthropology is a wide field of observation which is still too restricted to make it possible to deduce the notion of man by looking at its various branches alone. The various branches of anthropology integrate to form the anthropological perspective by making inquiry into the various aspects of human history and constitution.

            Attention must be directed to the history of a people and to the entire history of civilization for human horizon to be extended. However, this foundation is not sufficiently comprehensive. A knowledge of entire mankind is required in order to have a just conception of the nature of man. However, this knowledge cannot be achieved or even thought of if it is not preceded by giving a definition of the limits of mankind, and determining the question of whether all men are of a single species, or if this is not the case, within what limits should the notion of species be restricted.

            This question of whether human beings are of a single stock, or whether there exists permanent specific differences between them, is important to all sciences. Anthropology, through studying the various realms of human life and being, endeavors to provide an understanding of these questions through an integration of all the sub-disciplines that fall under it. The disciplines are interdependent in the sense that they draw from each other. There are four main perspectives that are central to anthropology and these include cross-cultural or comparative emphasis, evolutionary emphasis, ecological emphasis and holistic emphasis. All these are important to anthropological perspectives as they enable anthropologists to look beyond the confines of the society and make a comparison between them and the beliefs and practices of other societies. Anthropologists, unlike other social scientists, do not often fall victim to equating human nature with the peculiarities of the contemporary society.


Duff, D. (1999). Physical anthropology. Australian Journal of Historical Archeology, (9) 1:        109-108

Lassiter, L. (2006). Invitation to Anthropology. Rowman Altamira

Metcalf, P. (2005). Anthropology: The Basics. Taylor and Francis.

Snipes, F. (1993). The Evolution of the Human species: Anthropological Perspective. Journal of            Ontario Archaeological Society, (23) 2: 78-89

Sosjonk, P. (2001). Anthropological Perspective. Journal of the Tennessee Anthropological         Association, 3: 478-479

Waltz, T. & Collingwood, F. (2007). Introduction to Anthropology. Oxford University Press

Welsh, B. (2000). Issues in Anthropology. Journal of Alabama Archeology (3) 17: 34-35


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