Anthropology examines the nature and significance of human diversity in its biological, historical, and cultural forms. This examination is a scientific and a humanistic undertaking, and students apply what they learn to understanding and ameliorating social conditions here and elsewhere, and to preserving and to interpreting cultural resources from the past. The discipline also challenges conventional views that regularly mystify, categorize, or essentialize human diversity by race, gender, language, nationality, and class.
The Department of Anthropology offers four overlapping subdivisions: cultural anthropology, archaeology, biological anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. The focus of cultural anthropology is the interplay of culture, history, and personal identity, both in America and internationally. 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 study of ethnographies to discern what is common and what is different among human groups, and then to account for both similarities and differences.
Archaeology has a very similar objective, except that both the time frame and the kinds of evidence are different. Archaeologists interpret 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. As archaeologists are aware that there is no single authoritative interpretation of the past, they take steps not only to be scientifically rigorous but also to attend to alternative explanations, especially those coming from the descendants of the ancestors whose lifeways are being investigated.
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. Biological anthropologists also aim to understand the factors that explain human biological diversity in the world at the present, whether in the way our bodies look and work, how they develop and change over the life span, on how we exhibit health and disease.
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 communication, but it also structures thought and the perception of reality. Moreover, 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.
The Department of Anthropology is one of the largest in New England. All four subdivisions of anthropology are represented in the faculty and in their research and course offerings. The department has large research and study collections in archaeology and biological anthropology, videotape and recording equipment, an extensive collection of anthropological films, and several laboratories for biological anthropology and archaeology.
Upon entering the major, students must meet with the Director of Undergraduate Studies, who in turn assigns each major to a faculty advisor. Majors have a flexible set of requirements, reflecting the very broad scope of the field, but are able to select specific programs of study to suit their individual interests. Majors complete a minimum of thirty-six credits in anthropology, of which at least thirty must be in courses numbered at the 200 level or higher. These must include at least one course in three of the four subfields of anthropology at the 300 level or above; at least one “hands-on” course or project (e.g., a laboratory course, an internship, an honors thesis); and two required courses: ANTHRO 364: Problems in Anthropology 1 and ANTHRO 281: Research Methods.
A minor in Anthropology is available.
Contact the departmental honors coordinator for information on how to pursue honors opportunities within the major.
Internships and Study Abroad
The department encourages students to do internships, carry out practica, and to engage in community service learning. Such experiences help students to see what being an anthropologist is like and help prepare them for employment or graduate study. Field work opportunities are provided by the departmental Field School in Archaeology (summers), by the departmental Field Program in European Anthropology (spring semesters), and through student participation in other ongoing research.
Study abroad offers anthropology students a valuable opportunity to experience another culture in all its complexity as well as an opportunity to gain a different vantage point on one’s own cultural heritage. The academic and personal challenges of such an experience can make a significant contribution to a student’s study of anthropology, while also helping to develop a level of maturity often sought by employers. Go to the International Programs Office for details.
Many anthropology majors attend graduate school in a variety of fields. Anthropology also provides a good background for a wide variety of people-oriented occupations. Its cross-cultural and comparative perspectives prepare students for careers in government, international development, personnel management, human services, sales and marketing, and teaching. As high schools begin to introduce anthropology courses into the curriculum, the need for teachers with a strong foundation in anthropology is increasing. At present, the demand for anthropologists at the B.A. level (particularly archaeologists and biological anthropologists) is rapidly increasing in fields such as cultural resource management, health care, and international programs.
Department of Anthropology
215 Machmer Hall
Academic Advisor: Michael Sugerman, E-14 Machmer Hall, 413.577.0783
For information about the UMass Amherst Archaeological Field School,