University of Massachusetts Amherst


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What is Anthropology?

Anthropology is the study of humanity in the broadest sense. Anthropology examines the nature and significance of human diversity in its biological, historical, and cultural forms. This examination is both a scientific and a humanistic undertaking and, inevitably, students of anthropology apply what they learn to understand and ameliorate social conditions here and elsewhere and to preserve and to interpret cultural resources from the past. Anthropology thus straddles the social sciences and human biology in its theories and methods and the interpretive traditions of the humanities as well. Anthropology regularly challenges conventional views that regularly mystify, categorize, or essentialize human diversity by race, gender, language, nationality, and class.

Traditionally, anthropology has been considered a four-field discipline: archaeology, cultural anthropology, linguistics, and physical anthropology. The merging of these rather disparate concerns arose in the context of the development of the American research university in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The tendency is for each of these sub-fields to be treated as independent of one another. However, we believe that one who is sensitive to the interplay of the past and the present, biology and culture, symbols and action, is most likely to come to a distinctively anthropological understanding of the human condition--one that appreciates both the holism and the diversity of the ways of being human.

In cultural anthropology the general focus is on the interplay of culture, history, and personal identity, both here in America, and in other social settings around the world. Cultural anthropologists produce ethnographies richly developed written and/or filmed descriptions of real people in specific social, historical, and cultural settings. Courses in cultural anthropology emphasize the reading, viewing, and comparing of ethnographies to discern what is common and what is different among human groups, and then to account for both similarities and differences.

Archeology has a very similar objective, except that both the time frame and the kinds of evidence are different. Archaeologists are interested in explaining and interpreting cultural change on the basis of what may be gleaned from the material remnants of human behaviors in the past ecological changes, tools, settlements, and artistic and monumental productions, often laid bare through excavation. Archaeologists are acutely aware that the interpretation of the past is fraught with contemporary social and political consequences, so they aim to be as inclusive yet rigorous as possible.

Biological anthropology examines both human origins and variability, and seeks to construct and interpret the processes of evolution and history whereby humans have assumed their current biological pre-eminence among all animals. Further biological anthropologists are interested in understanding the factors that explain human biological diversity in the world at the present, whether in the way our bodies look and work, in the ways they develop and change over the life span, and in how we exhibit health and disease. Biological anthropologists at UMass have been in the forefront internationally in contesting efforts to construe human biological diversity with the culturally constituted categories termed Ôraces.

Linguistic anthropology is a specialized branch of cultural anthropology with a singular focus on the most systematic domain of culture: language. Language is not only a medium of a communication, but it also structures thought and the perception of reality. Further language use defines social communities, whether differences lie at the level of language or dialect. Linguistic anthropologists describe languages now in use or used in the past, trace language change over time and space, and examine the social and political import of language usage.


Journalism Program, 108 Bartlett Hall, University of Massachusetts Amherst, MA 01003 phone: 413.545.1376 fax: 413.545.3349 email: