What is Anthropology?

March 16, 2009

Over the past few years there has been one question I have despised answering: So, you’re an anthropologist?

My cut and paste answer has become: I’m an archaeologist but I study out of an Anthropology department.

This answer did not randomly develop, I chose to identify myself as an archaeologist rather than an anthropologist. Not because I don’t consider myself an anthropologist, I do, I just don’t want to explain the intricacies of the difference to the uninitiated…you know, the whole Archaeology as discipline or sub-discipline debate. So, this got me thinking, particularly about how the issue is only pertinent (dare I say important) to those that are part of the initiate. Catalyzed by two recent posts at The Blogaeological Record and Glossographia I decided to add my two cents on the issue.

Over at The Blogaeological Record Lars has started a series of posts that he calls Archaeodigms. He is trying to instigate a discussion about where we archaeologists currently stand theoretically. This series, in combination with Glossographia’s great response and thorough discussion from a non-archaeology perspective, has lead me back to a question I asked myself near the end of my undergraduate degree: What is Anthropology?

To me this is the fundamental question for sorting out the often times ridiculous disputes and cold-shouldering that happens in departments across North America. If you ask anybody in one of the four sub-disciplines (Archaeology, Cultural Anthropology, Linguistic Anthropology, Medical Anthropology, Physical Anthropology…wait a minute, that’s more than four…hmmm) they will most likely define Anthropology in terms of their own sub-discipline. Can a definition encompass all of these fields and, if yes, what should it be based on? The second part of this (“what should it be based on?”) is where the “What is anthropology? question comes into play. At what level of generality can all the sub-disciplines be encompassed by one definition? Is our obsession with the unification of the four sub-disciplines a historical hang-up?

Clearly more than four sub-disciplines are currently being recognized. There are more than I listed above too (Environmental, Political, Legal….and the list goes on). Where these fall in the four field divide is often disputed. Some will drop all of these under the umbrella of cultural anthropology but I have many friends and colleagues that argue for considerable differences between them all. A complicating factor, often overlooked from the North American side of the pond, is the Cultural versus Social Anthropology divide. When discussing this with a colleague trained in Belgium he thought it odd that we often refer to a Socio-cultural anthropology. For him the two are clearly different, with Social focusing on the relationship between people and their environment and Cultural focusing on the material and immaterial manifestations of the social. Yet another sub-division within the discipline.

I think there is a serious problem with the four field divide. Not because I disagree with broad training in each, the complete opposite actually. The critical flaw is it assumes there are only four perspectives from which to study anthropology. How can such a framework accommodate the numerous approaches to studying anthropology? Even more worrisome for those of us outside of the Cultural Anthropology sub-discipline is, why is the term Anthropology automatically associated with Cultural Anthropology? I will write on this topic more in the coming weeks but for now I ask you all to consider, from a discipline-wide perspective: What is Anthropology?

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