The Field of Anthropology

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The field of anthropology is vast and complex. There is no one way to approach the study of such a broad subject and an attempt to limit the view of humanity’s development would only produce a limited and flawed perception. While there is a place for each of the four fields of anthropology, physical, cultural, linguistic, and archaeological, all must be considered together. In fact, each alone can hardly function without wandering into the territory of the others. It only makes sense to combine each part to gain a holistic understanding of anthropology and fulfill the true potential of the science.

Physical anthropology may be one of the most obvious of the four fields. Its concern with the biological progression of humanity makes it the most literal interpretation of anthropology and the most scientifically objective (UCSC). To only look at the facts of human anatomy throughout history and across the world would be to ignore some vital context, though. Physical characteristics can both influence and be influenced by cultural aspects of a population and the only way to know which is which is to embrace the companion field of cultural anthropology.

It would also be almost impossible to make a study of physical anthropology with only the living and recently recorded examples of humanity to consider. The American Association of Physical Anthropologists directly acknowledges that physical anthropology is the study of both living and fossil humans (Hagen). Without looking into the past, there would be no comparison for the way humans have changed over time and physical anthropology would have no distinction from simple anatomy.

Of course, the same way that cultural anthropology helps to understand how physical characteristics might develop and cycle back into cultural aspects of the human experience, archaeological anthropology helps to put both of those fields into an historical and even pre-historical perspective. This particular field may be more essential than any of the other three in that it gives anthropology the scope it needs to really matter as a science (UMN). Only by being able to see where we’ve come from does the study of humanity have any chance of informing where we might go.

In the pursuit and application of archaeological anthropology, cultural considerations cannot be ignored. While archaeology can provide hard evidence, those details lack meaning without an understand of the culture that created them. Tools, clothes, dwellings, religious artifacts, organizational indicators, and any other object or hint of an object that archaeology can uncover all play a role in the lives of long-dead humans. The only way to understand that role and gain insight into those humans is through the cultural application of anthropology. Though it is the most abstract of the fields, it permeates all the others by providing context which improves understanding. It also helps to carry discoveries forward and apply them to the current and future state of humanity.

Though the most specific and isolated of the fields, linguistic anthropology is still thoroughly intertwined with the others. The use of language is universal to humanity and the particulars of that use seem to be almost infinitely diverse. Linguistic anthropologists are somewhat similar to cultural anthropologists in that they could benefit almost as much from studying current humans as those long dead, simply because language is so diverse and so complex (CSULB). The many variations of modern languages indicate many fascinating things. But those variations become much more meaningful and even more complex when taken in an historical context.

Tracing the roots and progression of language throughout history, from modern day back to the earliest evidence of a shared tongue, can provide an anthropologist a view of humanity’s journey across the globe as well as the development of the mind and of social interactions. For example, the Latin language gives insight into the Latin world. In both of those regards, however, anthropology comes full circle into once again requiring the use of all fields. Without archaeological evidence it would be impossible to trace the spread and development of language throughout time and across the world. Without physical anthropology the changes in language would be impossible to link to brain function and even the structure of the tongue and vocal cords. And without a cultural context it would be difficult to explain why any of it mattered.

Language not only provides direct contact with the past, but it also implies many things about its contemporary time and those who spoke it, if a cultural lens is used to decode those hidden meanings. By comparing archaeological artifacts and physical characteristics, it is possible to connect the behaviors of one culture with those of another that might otherwise never make sense. Dialects and even different languages can be unlocked with the merest of keys and those keys are often provided by those connections that only come about by the cooperation of the different anthropological fields.

It is not difficult to see why the four fields of anthropology are so dependent on each other. Simply exploring the purpose and methods of one automatically leads to the use of one or more of the others, or forces a premature abandonment of possibly important discoveries. Attempting to focus solely on a single field, or disparaging the use of any one, would be to cripple the science of anthropology. Such a complex study demands a complex approach and the cooperation of many different experts, because each field is complex and demanding in its own right. True anthropology reflects its subject, it is a community and a constantly developing field that requires a view both long and broad to truly be understood.

Works Cited

CSULB. "Linguistic Anthropology." Department of Anthropology. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.

Hagen, Ed. "Welcome to AAPA." American Association of Physical Anthropologists. N.p., 30 June 2009. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.

UCSC. "Physical Anthropology." UC Santa Cruz - Anthropology. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.

UMN. "Subfield: Archaeological Anthropology: Anthropology." Department of Anthropology. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.