Introduction to Anthropology

The Greek roots define anthropology (anthropos + logos) as ‘the study of man’. But this definition is too broad as there are many disciplines that study man in one way or another. I would like to reflect on two definitions by Universities, which I think are closest to my understanding of anthropology.

According to Stanford University (2009), “Anthropology is devoted to the study of human beings and human societies as they exist across time and space. It is distinct from other social sciences in that it gives central attention to the full time span of human history, and to the full range of human societies and cultures, including those located in historically marginalized parts of the world. It is therefore especially attuned to questions of social, cultural, and biological diversity, to issues of power, identity, and inequality, and to the understanding of dynamic processes of social, historical, ecological, and biological change over time.”

According to Western Washington University (2009), “Anthropology explores what it means to be human. Anthropology is the scientific study of humankind in all the cultures of the world, both past and present.”

Today, anthropology is generally divided into four subfields:

  • Biological or physical anthropology – This subfield involves the study of the means of biological evolution, genetic inheritance, human adaptability and variation. This discipline was developed in the 19th century and it was called physical anthropology because all of its data was physical (fossils, especially human bones).
  • Social anthropology or cultural anthropology – This subfield is usually based on ethnography. It studies culture as a significant scientific concept. Sir Edward Taylor articulated the anthropological meaning of the term ‘culture’ as “Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”
  • Archaeology – This subfield studies human culture through documentation, surveillance, recovery, interpretation and analysis of material culture and environmental data, containing architecture, landscapes and artifacts.
  • Anthropological linguistics – This subfield includes the study of the process of human communication – both verbal and non-verbal. It examines the relation between culture and communication, use of language as a social tool and the adaptation in language across space and time.

History of Anthropology

Classical Cultural Evolution (1860’s)
Edward Taylor (1832-1917)
James Frazer (1854-1941)
American Anthropology (1920’s)
Franz Boas (1858-1942)
British Anthropology (1940’s)
Radcliff Brown (1881-1955)
Malinowski (1884-1942)
French Structural Anthropology (1960’s)
Ferdinand Saussure (1857-1913)
Claude Levi Strauss (1908-2009)
Symbolic & Interpretive Anthropology (1970’s / 1980’s)
Clifford Greetz (1926-2006)

During the European enlightenment period in the 18th century, there was a growing concern to find out more about why the people and the societies in other parts of the world were so different from that of Europe. This is when pioneers like E.B.Tylor, J.Frazer, H.J.S.Maine and J.F.McLennan got interested in the stages of cultural and social evolution and they tried to acquire primary data from travelers, missionaries, traders, explorers and other non-specialists. They got the appellation of ‘Armchair Anthropologist’, where they used the data collected by others to propose theories about other cultures. These theories were mainly focused on the primitive societies.

While looking at these differences and addressing the question of why people across the world had similar beliefs and practices, the two schools of thought emerged; ‘diffused’ – cultural traits spread from one place to another; and ‘independent invention’ – different groups have the capability of inventing similar beliefs and practices differently.
Towards the beginning of 19th century, anthropologists themselves went out to seek the answers to these questions, and they concluded that both processes occur and they can both account for cross-cultural similarities. Franz Boas advocated the diffusionist approach, where he believed that societies and culture changed as a consequence of migration and borrowing. He insisted that language, race and culture are quite independent of each other. During his research on the Eskimo and their perception of the colour of ice and water, he realized that different people had different conceptions of the world around them. He began to focus on understanding the relation between human mind and the environment. Malinowski, who is known as the founder of ‘participant observation’ did intensive field research in the Trobiand Islands of Melanesia for two years. His functionalist approach focused on human, social and biological needs. The goal of his work was ‘to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.’ He said that people had primary needs and that people produced culture to satisfy these needs. Radcliff-Brown on the other hand, drew an analogy between people and society and said that people of a society are like parts of a human body, and his studies examined how customs aided in maintaining the overall stability of a society. Brown’s structural functionalism approach was based on Durkheim’s ideas that society was more than the sum of its parts. His thoughts differed from French structuralism, which examined the conceptual structures in language and symbolism. Claude Levi Strauss, who sought to apply the structural linguistics of Ferdinand Saussure to anthropology, considered culture to be a system of symbolic communication. Clifford Geertz, in his book The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) outlined culture as “a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.”

 Birth of the discipline

Anthropology was born in the 19th century. In France and UK it was known as ‘ethnology’. Until 1870, anthropology narrowly referred to physical anthropology.
The formation of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1871 led to the replacement of ‘ethnology’ by ‘anthropology.’ In 1884, Oxford University incorporated the first formal teaching program in anthropology discipline and in 1908, University of Liverpool created the British chair of anthropology to which Sir James George Frazer was appointed.

Ethnography and Anthropology

Brewer defines ethnography as “the study of people in naturally occurring settings or ‘field’ by methods of data collection which capture their social meanings and ordinary activities, involving the researcher participating directly in the setting, if not also the activities, in order to collect data in a systematic manner.” (as cited in Interpreting Qualitative Data, 2006, pg.67)

The origins of ethnography are in the work of nineteenth century anthropologists who traveled to observe different pre-industrial cultures. Early anthropologists believed that to understand the culture one must participate (emic) rather than just observe (etic). This has given rise to the method called participant observation. Atkinson and Hammersley describe participant observation as a mode of ‘being-in-the-world’ characteristic of researchers. (as cited in Interpreting Qualitative Data, 2006, pg.68) Ethnographers today practice this method as an integral part of the discipline. In Ethnography: a way of seeing, Harry Wolcott ( 1999) uses an interesting metaphor to describe the discipline of ethnography as a way of seeing a field, not the only (legitimate) way, nor the (authoritative) way. He goes on to say that ethnography constitutes one ethnographer’s way of seeing the field and every legitimate newcomer concretely realizes another version of what ethnography is, can be, and will be in the future. This raises the debate about how valid the findings are? But, at the same time there is an aim behind the ethnographers’ fieldwork. Ethnographers go into the field with a focus on what they intend to find and the aim to make the data collected actionable. The work of ethnographers is tightly integrated, holistic and not simply a collection of unrelated items. Anthropologists go into the field to study something new without the intention to make their data actionable, their study is more experiential.

Anthropologist K.P. Friedman points out that anthropology lags behind because of its resistance to ‘open access’. He questions anthropologists about the accessibility to their intellectual contributions and states that if anthropologists are keen about sharing knowledge, it is essential to think about how that knowledge can be published and distributed. Today, the internet is omnipresent and functions as an integral part of contemporary societies. Facebook, Google Earth, Wikipedia have become the tools for socializing and planning. This technological advancement has given rise to new communities and there are new fields emerging everyday. Ethnography has flown with the advancement to make use of the technology and make it beneficial to meet its own interest. The insights of ethnographers are used as a foundation for further use in the industry whereas the anthropological findings are more academic oriented. In the book, Engaging Anthropology, Hyland Erickson criticizes anthropologists for being reluctant to simplify their insights and goes on to say that the complex representation of their findings even turns the potential readers off.

In Reading Ethnography David Jacobson mentions, “since ethnographies are the main product of anthropological inquiry, they constitute the bases for anthropological knowledge.” But is the reverse true as well, that anthropology is fundamental to ethnography? Although the focus of ethnography lies on the present, looking more at how things are rather than how they got there, no ethnographer should ignore the past. Ethnography generates abundant data and one can derive value from this data only with the power of pattern recognition. It is useful to have an understanding of anthropology – for example the cultural setting of a society, to make patterns that can act as templates to work within during the process of analysis and synthesis.

Applied Anthropology
In the literal sense, applied anthropology means the application of the methods and theories of the four subfields – cultural, linguistic, biological and archaeological to analyse the practical problems. In contrast to academic anthropology where there is emphasis on creating theoretical models, applied anthropology concentrates more on the non-academic setting. Applied anthropologists use tools like ethnography, participant observation and survey while working with their clients like development agencies, NGO’s, government and ethnic associations.

Applied anthropology has been employed since the colonial era in the 1930’s and the British were the first ones to realise the practical value of anthropology. Today, with the advent of globalization, the world is becoming a more complex place with diverse cultures coming closer and applied anthropology appears to be the way to understanding people and their needs better.
The Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) was founded in 1941. The aim of the society is to derive solutions for human problems by the application of knowledge from the study of the inter-relationship between human beings and their social, cultural and ecological setting.

Medical Anthropology
Medical anthropology has its roots in the work of early ethnographers such as W.H.R. Rivers (1864-1922), who collected information on medical systems as part of their ethnographic fieldwork. The discipline of medical anthropology came to be known by this name in the 1960s, though during the 20th century the study of health and medicine from an anthropological perspective was common. The best way to define medical anthropology is the study of interaction between culture, health and disease.
Medical anthropologists examine the inter-relationship between cultural norms and the health of individuals / social institutions. Some of the core issues that medical anthropology is concerned with are – development of new biotechnologies, globalization of diseases, reproductive technologies, local forms of medical knowledge, pharmaceutical lifestyle, violence and human suffering. Medical anthropology is gaining huge importance and is the fastest growing sub-field of anthropology today.

Case Study : The Roseto Mystery

In the 1950’s, Stewart Wolf, a physician who taught in the medical school at the University of Oklahoma, decided to investigate into why Rosetants seemed virtually immune to heart attacks. During that period, heart attacks were an epidemic in the United States and the leading cause of death in men under the age of sixty-five. The results of the investigation were alarming – in Roseto, no one under fifty-five had died of a heart attack or showed any signs of heart disease. People in Roseto were just dying of old age. Wolf thought that they must be following a healthy dietary practice, but he soon realized that was not true. The Rosetants were cooking in lard and their evening meals were full of large quantities of food rich in fat. The men smoked and drank wine freely after a hard days work in the slate quarries. Yet they had very healthy hearts. Wolf, realized that the secret of Roseto wasn’t diet or exercise or genes or location. It was Roseto itself! He observed that Rosetants visited one another often and many homes had three generations living under one roof. They lived in a close-knit community. The Rosetants were healthy because they had created their own world for themselves. This showed that people within a community are comforted and taken care of by the others within that community and the culture that they are a part of. Israel and Bomeo, have demonstrated similar kinds of effects.

Case Study : Kuru, South Fore

This caused major social problems within their community. During that period men had multiple wives who took care of the children, but now the number of marriageable women reduced and men were left with the duties of child care. People in South Fore assumed that Kuru was the work of witches who used contagious magic in their town. People got worried and started cleaning up their houses to avoid the witches from gaining access to their hair, nail clippings or personal belongings. Witch hunts were organized to get rid of the witches. But nothing changed the rate of increase in the number of victims. In the early 1950′s, a team of Australian doctors began their investigation to find the causes of fatal Kuru. Anthropologists and field workers joined in to trace cases of the disease in family lines and see if it could be inherited. Field workers collected water, soil, plant, and animal specimens to test for environmental toxins; but it was all in vain. Their attempts failed to find the cause of Kuru. In the late 1950′s, Carleton Gajdusek, an American pediatrician came to South Fore to examine and solve the problem. He lived among the Fore, studied their language and culture and performed autopsies on Kuru victims. He examined the tissue of people who were victims of Kuru and found that the disease organism was carried from the blood and was concentrated in the brain tissue. He soon learnt the reason for this transmission. As a part of the funeral practice, the people of South Fore ate their dead relatives. The women butchered the corpses and were the main cannibals along with their children. This activity of cannibalism was the reason behind the transmission. In the early 1960′s, cannibalism was outlawed in Papua New Guinea. With elimination of this practice, Kuru disappeared among the South Fore within a generation.
These two case studies portray how culture within a community had affected the health of individuals and had played a significant role in preventing a disease in the first one and adding to the mortality rate in the second one.


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