Anthropology: Physical Science, Social Science or Both?


Anthropology covers a wide range of subjects that cover both the scientific and social realm. Anthropology often seems to balance in the middle of these two areas of study. Research varies greatly from the physical to the cultural. Anthropology is an all- encompassing area of study that focuses on four basic subgroups.

The Early Years 

Anthropology started out with the concept of learning about the “other”.  Interest in indigenous tribes led to ongoing research around the globe. At the time, anything outside of the European culture fell into this category. These studies involved relocating to a given area and immersing oneself in the culture of the area. This made for some excellent ethnographic data. Early anthropologists covered all aspects of the subject. Anthropology eventually split up into four main subgroups, allowing for more detailed research.


The cultural aspect of anthropology is at the heart of all four subgroups. Every part of the study points to a cultural attribute. Modern cultural anthropologists follow many of the same habits of early anthropologists. They may go to a faraway country and focus their research on how people live. Common subjects include religion, diet, and medical practices. The study now includes modern subcultures, such as low socioeconomic groups and refugees.


At some point during the evolution of anthropology, a detailed interest in languages emerged. Linguistic specialists study the development of native languages, as well as modern language variations. True linguists have a clear understanding of semantics, syntax, and phonetics. Languages, in turn, are a large part of our culture.


Biological anthropology is often referred as physical anthropology. These scientists study past human remains to gain a clear understanding of how our ancestors lived. Modern biological anthropology can be applied towards forensics in high-tech crime labs. Anthropologists mainly focus on the skeletal remains of deceased individuals. They use the size of bones, injuries, and geographical location to come up with a comprehensive theory of how a group lived or how they died. Forensic anthropologists use these same methods to identify murder victims. Biological anthropologists often work at locations where a past culture has left a large mark.


Archaeology merges with biological anthropology in places like Machu Picchu and the Mayan ruins. Archaeologist focus on artifacts, as well as helping with the excavation of human material. Archeologists can paint a picture of an entire culture by studying artifacts, buildings, and other historical materials. Archaeologists often spend hours in the lab analyzing microscopic pieces of pottery. Knowledge of various types of soil and plant life also helps an archaeologist discover the daily habits of early inhabitants.

The study anthropology covers a wide range of research possibilities. Each subgroup focuses on different aspects of the human condition. The four subgroups allow for more detailed research in each area. Anthropology is the bridge where social sciences and physical sciences meet.


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