Chapters 1 & 2: The Essence of Anthropology


Anthropology is the study of humankind in all times and places (3).” It is the study of humanity, including our prehistoric origins and contemporary biological, linguistic and cultural diversity. It arose in Europe when early thinkers pondered the questions of where we come from, how we got the way we are and why we share so many similarities and differences.



Anthropology consists of four sub-fields: Biological, cultural, linguistic and archaeology. Each subfield has its own sub-specialties. Applied anthropology is the application of anthropological knowledge, skills and data to real-world problems. All four subfields have applied areas. Many contemporary problems we address involve one or more subfields.


Anthropology is unique because it focuses on a broader range of time & topics than other fields.


In order to overcome the influence of their own culture on their research, anthropologists fully immerse themselves in their research and data. In this way, patterns become clearly visible. All anthropologists conduct fieldwork. One common aspect among all four subfields in fieldwork is culture shock, or feelings of loneliness and anxiety upon shifting from one culture to another.


Some fieldwork methods are characteristic of archaeology and paleoanthropology because of their focus on the past. Because cultural and linguistic anthropology focus on living cultures, they share many basic fieldwork methods.

Studying the Past

Discovering Fossils and Artifacts through Fieldwork

The first step is to locate objects so we have a place to conduct fieldwork, known as a site, a place that contains archaeological or fossil remains. A site we think might be promising must then be surveyed to figure out if extensive excavation is worthwhile. Next comes excavation, or recovering objects by removing the surrounding materials.


Mapping is the first step. You divide the site into smaller cubes using a grid system based on a datum point. Excavation can now begin. Small trowels, brushes and dental tools are commonly used because excavation is essentially controlled destruction. Any soil removed from a pit is sifted to make sure no small objects are missed. Everything that is found and excavated is carefully recorded. Its location in the larger site and within the pit are recorded, it is drawn, described and photographed. Researchers also use programs that include GPS so an object’s coordinates can be entered directly into a map.

Dating Fossils & Artifacts

In order to create the proper interpretations for fossils and artifacts we must have accurate dates for them.

Studying the Present

The first step in fieldwork occurs at home. It is choosing a research topic. Once a topic has been decided on, library research is done to learn about that culture. Researchers will also try to learn the language before going to the field.

In the Field

Once in the field, establishing rapport, or a trusting relationship with the study population, is crucial. Most anthropologists work with key informants (consultants), members of the culture being studied who can provide information and help the researcher understand what they are seeing and experiencing.

The Ethnography

Most of us collect more data than we can ever use, so sorting through it and figuring out what is important is a huge task. This is when analysis and interpretation come into play.


A key benefit of anthropology is being able to take various ethnographies and conduct cross-cultural comparisons. This process allows us to discover cultural universals, find out whether a given practice or event occurs anywhere else, and to refute a previously held theory.


Ethics refers to rules about behavior and what is right and wrong. While ethics was not very important in the early years of anthropology, it has grown in relevance. The American Anthropological Association, the main professional association of our discipline, created a code of ethics that covers research, teaching and application.


Globalization refers to the worldwide interconnectedness among people, cultures, nations and economies. The processes of globalization have significantly altered the way anthropologists conduct research and the way we think about the communities with whom we work. Anthropology in a world of globalization now has to ask questions like: How are non-Western cultures impacted by globalization? Does globalization lead to all cultures becoming more alike? Are economic processes helping or hurting the world’s poor?