Anthropology Defined: How Scholars Define the Study of Humans

A Collection of Anthropology Definitions

Ulf Andersen Portraits - Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins
American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins poses while in Paris,France to promote his book on during February 1989. Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

The study of anthropology is the study of human beings: their culture, their behavior, their beliefs, their ways of surviving. Here is a collection of other definitions of anthropology from anthropologists.-- Kris Hirst

Anthropology Definitions

"Anthropology" is less a subject matter than a bond between subject matters. It is part history, part literature; in part natural science, part social science; it strives to study men both from within and without; it represents both a manner of looking at man and a vision of man--the most scientific of the humanities, the most humanist of sciences.

-- Eric Wolf, Anthropology, 1964.

Anthropology has traditionally attempted to stake out a compromise position on this central issue by regarding itself as both the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences. That compromise has always looked peculiar to those outside anthropology but today it looks increasingly precarious to those within the discipline. -- James William Lett. 1997. Science Reason and Anthropology: The Principles of Rational Inquiry. Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.

Anthropology is the study of humankind. Of all the disciplines that examine aspects of human existence and accomplishments, only Anthropology explores the entire panorama of the human experience from human origins to contemporary forms of culture and social life. -- University of Florida

Anthropology is Answering Questions

Anthropologists attempt to answer the question: "how can one explain the diversity of human cultures that are currently found on earth and how have they evolved?" Given that we will have to change rather rapidly within the next generation or two this is a very pertinent question for anthropologists.

-- Michael Scullin

Anthropology is the study of human diversity around the world. Anthropologists look at cross-cultural differences in social institutions, cultural beliefs, and communication styles. They often seek to promote understanding between groups by "translating" each culture to the other, for instance by spelling out common, taken-for-granted assumptions.

-- University of North Texas

Anthropology seeks to uncover principles of behavior that apply to all human communities. To an anthropologist, diversity itself--seen in body shapes and sizes, customs, clothing, speech, religion, and worldview--provides a frame of reference for understanding any single aspect of life in any given community. -- American Anthropological Association

Anthropology is the study of people. In this discipline, people are considered in all their biological and cultural diversities, in the present as well as in the prehistoric past, and wherever people have existed. Students are introduced to the interaction between people and their environments to develop an appreciation of human adaptations past and present. -- Portland Community College

Anthropology explores what it means to be human. Anthropology is the scientific study of humankind in all the cultures of the world, both past and present. -- Western Washington University

The Human Experience of Anthropology

Anthropology is the study of humans in all areas and in all periods of time. -- Triton College

Anthropology is the only discipline that can access evidence about the entire human experience on this planet.-Michael Brian Schiffer

Anthropology is the study of human culture and biology in the past and present. -- Western Kentucky University

Anthropology is, at once, both easy to define and difficult to describe; its subject matter is both exotic (marriage practices among Australian aborigines) and commonplace (the structure of the human hand); its focus both sweeping and microscopic. Anthropologists may study the language of a tribe of Brazilian Native Americans, the social life of apes in an African rain forest, or the remains of a long-vanished civilization in their own backyard - but there is always a common thread linking these vastly different projects, and always the common goal of advancing our understanding of who we are and how we came to be that way. In a sense, we all "do" anthropology because it is rooted in a universal human characteristic -- curiosity about ourselves and other people, living and dead, here and across the globe.-- University of Louisville

Anthropology is devoted to the study of human beings and human societies as they exist across time and space. It is distinct from other social sciences in that it gives central attention to the full time span of human history, and to the full range of human societies and cultures, including those located in historically marginalized parts of the world. It is therefore especially attuned to questions of social, cultural, and biological diversity, to issues of power, identity, and inequality, and to the understanding of dynamic processes of social, historical, ecological, and biological change over time. -- Stanford University Anthropology department website (now moved)

Anthropology is the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities. -- Attributed to A.L. Kroeber

The Jam in the Sandwich

Culture is the jam in the sandwich of anthropology. It is all-pervasive. It is used to distinguish humans from apes ("everything that man does that the monkeys do not" (Lord Ragland)) and to characterize evolutionarily derived behaviors in both living apes and humans. It is often both the explanation of what it is that has made human evolution different and what it is that it is necessary to explain. ... It exists in the heads of humans and is manifested in the products of actions. ... [C]ulture is seen by some as the equivalent of the gene, and hence a particulate unit (the meme) that can be added together in endless permutations and combinations, while to others it is as a large and indivisible whole that it takes on its significance. 

In other words, culture is everything to anthropology, and it could be argued that in the process it has also become nothing. -- Robert Foley and Marta Mirazon Lahr. 2003. "On Stony Ground: Lithic Technology, Human Evolution, and the Emergence of Culture." Evolutionary Archaeology 12:109-122. 

Anthropologists and their informants are inextricably bound together in producing an ethnographic text that integrates the impact of their unique personalities, their social incongruities, and their dreams.

-- Moishe Shokeid, 1997. Negotiating Multiple Viewpoints: The cook, the native, the publisher, and the ethnographic text. Current Anthropology 38(4):638.