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What do Anthropologists Study?

Students take Anthropology courses for a variety of reasons, whether or not they are planning to major in the discipline.  Any member of the Anthropology faculty will be glad to talk to you informally about the field and our class offerings, but undeclared undergraduates should never hesitate to engage in the formal advising process.  If you have questions or are experiencing problems with the formal advising process, please contact the Office of Academic Advising, or the Director of Undergraduate Studies, [[blweis, Professor Weiss]].

Many students are drawn to the field because of the excitement of research in a natural setting or curiosity about the origin or meanings of everyday things. There is an allure in understanding what lies behind customs of a nomadic pastoral people or the intriguing interplay within a group of chimpanzees. Some find it intensely exciting to painstakingly unearth the foundations of a long lost city or reconstruct changes in the ceramic styles of Virginia. The challenge of recording and describing the sounds and syntax of some of the world's remaining unwritten languages may hold a powerful appeal. These are the kinds of activities that are often showcased in television and news stories about anthropology. Because anthropology is often absent from high school curricula, those of us who are aware of anthropology at all often receive our first introduction to the topic through popular media. The portrait of the field as adventuresome and prone to work in far-off and out-of-the-way places is, in fact, true - but it is not the whole story.

Increasingly, anthropologists work close to home. They study transnational corporations, captive animals, school classroom and daycares, newspapers, social movements, and social inequalities linked with race and gender. Today, within the social sciences and humanities, anthropology is more defined by its approach than its subject matter. Anthropology takes its comparative scope to be all humans at all times and places. The normative framework for anthropological understanding requires that markets, representative governments, legal and religious belief systems, social inequalities, sexual orientations, families, and general human capacities be placed in a broad comparative framework. While some of the insights of the field are readily grasped, as with any serious field of inquiry, rigorous and disciplined study over a number years develops a facility for applying the anthropological approach to the study of real-world problems.

There are different paths along which a student may travel to arrive at anthropology. Although a few students come to college intending to major in anthropology, most receive their initial introduction in an elective topic that awakens their interest in the field. Such courses might include, "The Rise and Fall of Civilizations" or "Medicine and Culture." Once they have decided to major in anthropology, however, students must fulfill course requirements in a number of other areas as well. The requirements aim to have students experience a general overview of the conceptual underpinnings of the field. Some students may take an introductory 200 level course and decide to matriculate as a major. Others may taken an upper-level course and then enroll in an introductory course for a more systematic introduction to a subfield. Whatever the path taken, the goal of the undergraduate curriculum is threefold:


  1. Provide students with a general background in the subfields of anthropology.
  2. Enable students to specialize in an area of interest, usually by taking a number of courses in a logical sequence within a specific subfield or otherwise tailoring their coursework so that the interrelation between methodology, issues and basic literature of a topic may be grasped.
  3. Provide students with the opportunity to engage in original research and synthesis involving a writing project, either in a capstone seminar, independent study, or honors research course.

Finally, as with all liberal arts majors, anthropology undergraduates hone critical thinking, speaking, and writing skills.

The Four Subfields

Its unique history has bequeathed United States anthropology with an intellectual grounding in four subfields. This may be seen in the articles appearing in the flagship publication of the American Anthropological Association, American Anthropologist, on its webpage at http:www.aaanet.org, and in the organization of the Association itself into sections and interest groups. In different colleges and universities, however, professionals doing research and teaching in these subfields may be housed in different departments. Bookstores will often shelve books written by anthropologists in many different sections-while the offerings in the anthropology section appear relatively thin (this is true of the William and Mary Bookstore, for example). The four subfields are usually called socio-cultural anthropology, archaeology, biological anthropology, and linguistics.

Socio-cultural Anthropology is the study of the social and cultural dimensions of living peoples. Such study often involves the method called participant observation, often complemented with other sorts of data gathering methods. Language learning and study often compel us to use the tools of linguistics. Relevant social and cultural topics encompass all of human experience - immigrants' memories of loss, the maintenance of common fishing grounds or irrigation works, understanding and treatment of illness, great holiday meals and feelings of sacredness. The range of topics that have attracted the attention of socio-cultural anthropologists is practically limitless, and the applications of disciplinary theories and methods are wide-ranging.

In Archaeology a distinction is often made between historical archaeology, in which written records are available to complement what is unearthed, and the broader enterprise of archaeology involving human populations where writing was not used. However, in all cases archaeologists address many of the same questions posed by socio-cultural anthropologists using creative approaches to document the remains of past human activities. They are also in a position to address questions involving spatial distribution and patterns and development through time. Technical advances in such fields as chemistry, geology, and remote sensing have expanded the repertory of data gathering methods in archaeology.

Biological Anthropology seeks to understand biological and biocultural similarities and differences among populations of nonhuman primates, extinct human ancestors, and modern humans. This type of study may shed light on human culture, communication, society, and behavior. Such efforts may range from studies of great ape foraging or modeling the evolution of technology and language, to researching pathologies observed in human skeletal remains or study of genetic markers allowing us to infer how populations may have diverged and merged through time. A key concern within this subfield is exploring the relationship among genes, behavior, and environment in order to understand the consequences - both historically and in the present day - of genetic determinist theories.

Linguistics studies one of the most fundamental aspects of culture.  It may be closely associated with socio-cultural approaches to specific cultures or forms of communication. Alternately, some linguists broadly focus on the human capacity to create and understand language and its relation to other modes of communication. Linguistic courses at William and Mary are offered through Linguistic Studies, an interdisciplinary program administered by the Charles Center. In particular, ANTH 204 "The Study of Language"(crosslisted with ENGL 220),  forms part of the sequence of introductory courses to the anthropological subfields, although it is not required for the Major. Linguistics courses generally carry ANTH 204 or ENGL 220 as a prerequisite.

As with most classifications, the four subfields are a bit of a simplification. Many research agendas cross-cut the subfields. There are biocultural anthropologists, evolutionary ecologists, ethnoarchaeologists, and socio-linguists, for example. Some anthropologists consider themselves primarily as applied anthropologists. These generally work for clients or employers and seek to use the tools and results of anthropological research to address specific problems of clients.