Written by Annika Sharlow
Anthropology – defined literally as the study of humans – is a huge field spanning several subfields and a complicated history. But what exactly is it today? And why should you study it?
There has always been fascination amongst humans with our collective histories, our identifications within societies, and our futures. Anthropology aims to study these things and better understand humanity. This field of study can be thought of in two parts: “Thinking Big” and “Seeing Small.”
Anthropology as a field is generally all about “thinking big” and trying to answer three big questions of life:
- Where did we come from?
- Who are we?
- Where are we going?
Of course, these questions are extremely broad, expansive, and unanswerable by a single individual (or even an entire field of people). They require many lenses of thought and countless perspectives. The anthropology subfields (biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and archaeology) all exist as different ways to try and answer these questions.
- Biological anthropology may attempt to answer the question of “where did we come from” by looking at the species evolution of humans.
- Archaeologists may answer that question by looking at artifacts to see how different groups across time and place changed and developed to answer it.
- Linguistic anthropologists may answer that question by looking at the shifts and similarities of language through time to see how different groups of people moved and interacted.
- Cultural anthropologists may answer the question of “who are we” by listening to the stories of and interviewing members of a group of people to better understand how they view themselves.
The anthropological subfields tackle these questions differently in terms of focus and methods, but they all work on finding answers through research and study.
The field of anthropology is attempting to answer these questions on a micro-scale rather than trying to make sweeping claims. Answers to these questions can vary vastly depending on which people researchers are basing their answers on, so it’s important to not broadly apply any findings from one group to every other group in the exact same way.
This is where the idea of “seeing small” comes into play. Research is conducted by focusing on a specific group (based on race, behaviors, religion, cultural background, geographic location, etc.) and trying to answer parts of the three questions as they specifically apply to this selected group. This could mean looking at the storytelling of the group, studying their language and its usage, looking at the historical artifacts/remains, and especially spending time immersed with and talking directly to the group being studied to better understand the people involved.
Through four subfields and various methods, anthropology seeks to understand the role of human beings and the way they interact across cultural differences. No matter what major you are pursuing or what career you might have, the skills and knowledge learned from an anthropological education can benefit everyone. You will ask questions about your culture, whether that be in the workplace or at home. You will see the world around you through a different lens, enabling you to have empathy and compassion for those different from yourself. And you will, in the background of all that you do, be on that lifelong journey to understand what it means to be human.
Read more about the exciting work being done by anthropology students. For more information about why to study anthropology and Ball State’s Department of Anthropology, visit our website, contact our office. or follow us on Facebook and Instagram.