Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. To understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences. A central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems. Historically, anthropologists in the United States have been trained in one of four areas: sociocultural anthropology, biological/physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics.
Anthro b pologists often integrate the perspectives of several of these areas into their research, teaching, and professional lives. The four fields of anthropology are cultural, biological (also called physical), linguistic, and archaeology. Biological (or physical) anthropologists carry out systematic studies of the non-cultural aspects of humans and near-humans. Non-cultural refers to all of those biological characteristics that are genetically inherited in contrast to learned. Near-human is a category that includes monkeys, apes, and the other primates as well as our fossil ancestors.
The primary interest of most biological anthropologists today is human evolution–they want to learn how our ancestors changed through time to become what we are today. Biological anthropologists also are interested in understanding the mechanisms of evolution and genetic inheritance as well as human variation and adaptations to different environmental stresses, such as those found at high altitudes and in environments that have temperature extremes. Biological anthropologists are usually involved in one of three different areas of research: human biology, primatology, or paleoanthropology.
Human biology is concerned with learning about human diversity, genetic inheritance patterns, non-cultural adaptations to environmental stresses, and other biological characteristics of our species, Homo sapiens . Primatologists carry out non-human primate studies. This is usually done in a natural setting among wild apes, monkeys, and related animals. They are principally interested in learning about the capabilities and behavior patterns of primates–our closest living relatives. It is likely that the great apes in particular can give us important clues to understanding the lives of our earliest human ancestors over 2 million years ago.
Paleoanthropologists recover the fossil record of early humans and their primate ancestors in order to understand the path of our evolution. In doing this, they often work with geologists, paleozoologists, and scientists with other specialties who help them reconstruct ancient environments. Cultural (or socio-cultural) anthropologists are interested in learning about the cultural aspects of human societies all over the world. They usually focus their research on such things as the social and political organizations, marriage patterns and kinship systems, subsistence and economic patterns, and religious beliefs of different societies.
Most cultural anthropologists study contemporary societies rather than ancient ones. Through the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, the peoples who primarily interested cultural anthropologists were those who lived in small-scale, isolated societies with cultures that were very different from those of Europeans and European Americans. African, American Indian, and Pacific Island societies were often the subject of their research. Today, they are equally likely to study subcultures of modern, large-scale societies such as Southeast Asian Hmong families now living in St.
Paul, Minnesota, Mexican neighborhoods in Southern California, or conservative Old Order Amish communities in rural Pennsylvania. Linguistic anthropologists study the human communication process. They focus their research on understanding such phenomena as the physiology of speech, the structure and function of languages, social and cultural influences on speech and writing, nonverbal communication, how languages developed over time, and how they differ from each other. This is very different from what goes on in an English or a foreign language class.
Linguists are not language teachers or professional translator A hotly debated question in linguistic anthropology since the early 20th century centers on whether or not our languages predispose us to see the environment in specific ways. In other words, are languages filters for reality? For instance, if a language does not have a word for the color orange, can its speakers distinguish orange from red and yellow? The answer to this question is not as simple as it initially seems. Archaeologists are interested in recovering the prehistory and early history of societies and their cultures.
They systematically uncover the evidence by excavating, dating, and analyzing the material remains left by people in the past. Archaeologists are essentially detectives who search through many thousands of pieces of fragmentary pots and other artifacts as well as environmental data in order to reconstruct ancient life ways. In a sense, this makes archaeology the cultural anthropology of the past. Archaeology is also related to biological anthropology in its use of the same methods in excavating and analyzing human skeletal remains found in archaeological sites.
Archaeologists are in a unique position to understand the development of human societies and cultures from those of our distant hunter gatherer ancestors through the ancient civilizations on up to the present. There have been humans for at least 2. 5 million years. Only the last 5,500 of these years have been even partly recorded by scribes and historians. As a consequence, well over 99% of the human story lies in the prehistoric past and has been out of reach of historians. Only archaeology can recover it.
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