Anthropology: The Four Subfields

  1. 1.1 Compare and contrast the four major subfields of anthropology.

The word anthropology is derived from the Greek words anthropo, meaning “human beings” or “humankind,” and logia, translated as “knowledge of” or “the study of.” Thus, we can define anthropology as the study of humankind. This definition in itself, however, does not distinguish anthropology from other disciplines. After all, historians, psychologists, economists, sociologists, and scholars in many other fields systematically study humankind in one way or another. Anthropology stands apart because it combines four subfields that bridge the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. These four subfields—biological anthropology, archaeology, linguistic anthropology, and cultural anthropology—constitute a broad approach to the study of humanity the world over, both past and present. Figure 1.1 shows these subfields and the various specializations that make up each one. A discussion of these subfields and some of the key specializations in each follows.

Figure 1.1

The four core subfields of anthropology and applied anthropology.

The subfields of anthropology initially emerged in Western society in an attempt to understand non-Western peoples. When Europeans began exploring and colonizing the world in the fifteenth century, they encountered native peoples in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. European travelers, missionaries, and government officials described these non-Western cultures, providing a record of their physical appearances, customs, and beliefs. By the nineteenth century, anthropology had developed into the primary discipline for understanding these non-Western societies and cultures. The major questions that these nineteenth-century anthropologists sought to answer dealt with the basic differences and similarities of human societies and cultures and with the physical variation found in peoples throughout the world. Today, anthropologists do not solely focus their attention on non-Western cultures: They are just as likely to examine cultural practices in an urban setting in the United States as to conduct fieldwork in some far-off place. However, anthropologists continue to grapple with the basic questions of human diversity and similarities through systematic research within the four subfields described below.