What is Anthropology?

Anthropology is not just a subject in university, or a field of study, it is a way of understanding the world around us. At the most basic level anthropology is the study of humankind. Humans and their actions are the object of study, it is true. But anthropology is more than that. It is a way of looking at what humans are, what we do, and what happens when we do it. it’s a way of understanding and explaining why all of this matters. It is a way of understanding everything humans are and using that explanation to make us better. Because this is a giant project, anthropologists have to use everything available to them to understand humans and their actions. Anthropology cannot be defined by its objects of study alone.

Anthropology should also be defined by what an anthropologist uses to get the work done. At its core, an anthropological study has two phases: investigating and analyzing. We use tools like ethnography, interviews, video recording, statistics, and even carbon dating to do the observation. We use conceptual and analytical tools that we share with philosophy, critical theory, media theory, and linguistics to help us do our analytical work. But, while these tools are important they are not what define anthropology. In fact, many of them are not tools at all. They are fully-fledged fields in their own right. Some, like ethnography, are tools. They are also something anyone can do.

Anthropology is not a ‘hard science,’ but this does not mean it cannot speak the truth. One of the major problems an anthropologist faces is that very little humans do resides in the kind of hard truth that a physicist, chemist, or mathematician understands as empirical reality. Everything humans do is in flux and is laid on foundations of sand. This means anthropology cannot be a hard science and limit itself to laboratory observation because we cannot even assume there is a truth waiting to be discovered. By the time we get to a solid conclusion, people have already moved on. Anthropologists work outside the laboratory where the truths are harder to find because we cannot create artificial circumstances to measure one component. We have to deal with the chaos of real life. This means we have to concern ourselves with the messy details of daily life and pay close attention to what people build out of them.

Anthropology is a way of seeing that is more interested in action, process, and decay. Of course, anthropologists are concerned with observable details – things that you can see, touch, taste, smell, and ask questions about. But that is only the beginning. We are looking for the processes through which humans build these things and destroy them just as quickly. Anthropology cannot then be defined by the observational practices of the natural sciences.

Perhaps most importantly, anthropology is defined through what an anthropologist does. An anthropologist puts themselves into new contexts to learn and then tell others about what they have seen. What makes a true anthropologist is the willingness to get in the thick of things and experience something firsthand. One cannot know what it is like to really be part of a culture without living with its members and doing what they do. This is true for a large culture and for a tiny sub-cultural grouping. What makes anthropologists different from other people-centered researchers is that we do this for a long time – often years. The longer the engagement, the more likely one is able to understand the nuances of what is going on and to understand what is left unsaid and unfinished. Something special happens when you live beside the people you are trying to understand. You learn that what matters is not always in what they say or do. It is what they mean and why they do it that matters. Once you experience this, you are an anthropologist.

Finally, anthropology is the process of collecting experiences and trying to help others understand their content and their importance. An anthropologist has to translate the chaos of real life so that those who have not shared the experience can understand. This is an analytical process that requires an anthropologist to be a talented critical thinker and an effective storyteller. But it is much harder to explain what happened in the field than you would expect. It is more than simply telling a story with a sequence of events. The process of telling the story itself is fraught with conceptual and perceptual biases that might totally destroy the perspective of the people described. An anthropologist has to be a cultural translator. We have to explain what is important in such a way that our words act as a bridge of one culturally specific perspective to another. We have to explain the innermost details of life as experienced by one group of people to another while being culturally sensitive to both groups. If we do not, too much is lost in the translation. To do this we have to be very careful analysts and be prepared to undo everything we know and understand about ourselves to tell someone else’s story properly. This means anthropologist is as much self-critique as it is outward-facing analysis.

With all of this in mind the best definition is this: anthropology is the act of learning something very deeply through experience and finding the best way to tell others about it so they can benefit and change the way they look at themselves and others.


the author

Paul Hartley

Paul Hartley is a former resident anthropologist at Idea Couture.