I received this question about a week ago, but I was so bogged down with assignments that I didn’t have time to answer. And it’s not a stupid question! It’s completely normal to be a bit confused by what anthro is exactly being that it is so complicated. But I’m going to give a quick introduction.
You’re familiar with the concept of anthropology, but it’s quite the convoluted subject, especially when categorizing it for education. Anthropology is, as you said, the study of people and their cultures, but it’s a bit more than that. Anthropology sets out to ask the questions of who the people are and what makes them people, and similarly, why they have differences of culture and how one defines culture anyway. It is meant to be an exploration of how the current state of the world and humanity as changed over time, the motivations for and inevitability of change, though always emphasizing that linearity is social construction.
It is a highly interdisciplinary study that crosses social science, natural science, and humanities with both qualitative and quantitative research. Due to the diversity of study, one may end up anywhere and everywhere with anthropology under their belts; it also means that there is a fair bit of clashing opinion across subcategories. (There is probably more argument within a subcategory.) It is traditionally categorized into four subcategories:
- social/cultural/socio-cultural: exploration of how people make sense of the world, the relationships between people, living peoples’ livelihoods and what they know to be true. It’s not necessarily about looking for truths or direct answers. It has this super racist and ethnocentric past where researchers were only "legitimate" if they went far away and lived with an indigenous group for a year at minimum, collected their data and published an ethnography. It’s gotten considerably better since then, where cultural relativism is key to studying not only indigenous peoples, but corporate culture, professional industries, cross-cultural contexts, queer and feminist theory, and pretty much anything one can pose a question at. For example, one of my professors works in a NASA team that searches for extraterrestrial intelligence (she is also an archaeologist but that is besides the point). [what is social anth?]
- physical/biological: more scientific/tangible side of the above, exploring how we came to be the physical beings we are and how it both benefits and hinders us. Notable studies include palaeoanthropology (human evolution), bioarchaeology (looking at historical skeletal remains and their surroundings, in order to figure out how people used to interact with each other/death/et cetera), and forensic anthro (how osteology can map out both the life & death of a person, like what Bones does on TV but not at all like that). It incorporates pathology, osteology, genetics, and, I would argue, more social anthro than physical anthropologists will admit/allow. It also has a terribly racist and ethnocentric past that we’re trying to remedy, from the seizure of human remains to hoard and be disrespectful of cultural/religious wishes to the repatriation of remains and conservation of sites. [what is bio anth?]
- archaeology: studying human civilization in a historical context by excavating and analyzing the material culture left behind, and more recently, looking at how living descendent interact with and consider the sites of their ethnic/national ancestors. It is about looking at the “archaeological record”, which consists of artifacts, biofacts, geography, and architectural remains of buildings and settlements. Can help give context to written histories, interactions between societies, and how people interacted with the physical world to discern why people acted as they did in the past, and how it contributes to the way we are now. Ditto to the discipline’s horrible past. [what is archaeology?]
- linguistic: super undervalued, linguistic anthropology studies how language affects social life, and vice versa. It looks at the evolution of language, language structure, modes of communication, conservation of endangered languages, and how language can influence social order, identity, belief, and any other ol’ important thing. It does mishmash better than any other subcategory, in the blending of linguistics with other anthropologies. [what is linguistic anth?]
You can see how there is a lot of bleed between these subcategories, especially with archaeology and physical anthro. It’s important to know the origins of these disciplines and how they facilitated the destruction, desecration, and disrespect to the very people and things that were being studied. There are phrases and grammar that go along with the conscientiousness of such a history (ie. referring to indigenous peoples whose populations still thrive and their entitlement to land and sites of their ancestors in past tense is a big no-no; referring to “progress” as an always-beneficial system of linear change is also a no-no) that may fall to the wayside in a student’s first introduction to anthropology. I know that every school cirriculum is different when it comes to anthro, if taught at all. For instance, the Canadian school system I was educated at introduced anthro in high school, mushed up together with sociology and psychology. I know that there are differences in the names of each of those subcategories because of differences with the UK and other countries (ie. social/cultural/socio-cultural anthro).
It’s a lot of information, and I haven’t even scratched the surface. If you have any questions, require further elaboration, or seek any recommendations for reading, then my ask box is at the ready. Otherwise, there are a few videos you can check out here, here, here, and here (a bit long, but worth looking at). I don’t necessarily agree with everything said in some of these videos, but they’re a good educational supplement.
I hope this was helpful!