Anthropology vs. Sociology: What's the Difference?

Bird's Eye View of Tenochtitlan in 1519 (Reconstruction, National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico City)
Bird's Eye View of Tenochtitlan in 1519 (Reconstruction, National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico City). schizoform

Anthropology is the study of humans and the ways they live. Sociology studies the ways groups of people interact with each other and how their behavior is influenced by social structures, categories (rage, gender, sexuality), and institutions.

While both fields study human behavior, the debate between anthropology vs. sociology is a matter of perspectives. Anthropology examines culture more at the micro-level of the individual, which the anthropologist generally takes as an example of the larger culture. In addition, anthropology hones in on the cultural specificities of a given group or community. Sociology, on the other hand, tends to look at the bigger picture, often studying institutions (educational, political, religious), organizations, political movements, and the power relations of different groups with each other.

Key Takeaways: Anthropology vs. Sociology

  • Anthropology studies human behavior more at the individual level, while sociology focuses more on group behavior and relations with social structures and institutions.
  • Anthropologists conduct research using ethnography (a qualitative research method), while sociologists use both qualitative and quantitative methods.
  • The primary goal of anthropology is to understand human diversity and cultural difference, while sociology is more solution-oriented with the goal of fixing social problems through policy.

Definition of Anthropology 

Anthropology studies human diversity. There are four primary sub-fields: archaeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. Archaeology focuses on the objects humans have made (often thousands of years ago). Biological anthropology examines the ways humans adapt to different environments. Cultural anthropologists are interested in how humans live and make sense of their surroundings, studying their folklore, cuisine, arts, and social norms. Finally, linguistic anthropologists study the ways different cultures communicate. The primary method of research anthropologists utilize is called ethnography or participant observation, which involves in-depth, repeated interactions with people.

A defining feature of anthropology that makes it unlike many other fields is that many researchers study cultures that are not "their own." Thus, people pursuing PhDs in anthropology are required to spend a lengthy period of time (often a year) in a foreign country, in order to immerse themselves in a culture to become knowledgeable enough to write about and analyze it.

Early in the field's history (the late 19th/early 20th centuries), anthropologists were almost all Europeans or Americans who conducted research in what they considered to be "primitive" societies that they believed were "untouched" by western influence. Because of this mindset, the field has long been critiqued for its colonialist, condescending attitude toward non-western people and its inaccurate representations of their cultures; for example, early anthropologists often wrote about African cultures as static and unchanging, which suggested that Africans could never be modern and that their culture did not undergo change, as western cultures do. In the late 20th century, anthropologists like James Clifford and George Marcus addressed these misrepresentations, suggesting that ethnographers be more aware of and upfront about the unequal power relations between themselves and their research subjects.

Definition of Sociology 

Sociology has several principal tenets: individuals belong to groups, which influence their behavior; groups have characteristics independent of their members (i.e., the whole is larger than the sum of its parts); and sociology focuses on patterns of behavior among groups (as defined by gender, race, class, sexual orientation, etc.). Sociological research falls into several large areas, including globalization, race and ethnicity, consumption, family, social inequality, demography, health, work, education, and religion.

While ethnography was initially associated with anthropology, many sociologists also do ethnography, which is a qualitative research method. However, sociologists tend to do more quantitative research—studying large data sets, like surveys—than anthropologists. In addition, sociology is more concerned with hierarchical or unequal power relations between groups of people and/or institutions. Sociologists still tend to study "their own" societies—i.e., the U.S. and Europe—more than those of non-western countries, although contemporary sociologists conduct research all over the world.

Finally, an important distinction between anthropology and sociology is that the former's goal is to understand human diversity and cultural differences, while the latter is more solution-oriented with the goal of fixing social problems through policy.

Careers 

Anthropology majors pursue a wide variety of careers, as do sociology students. Either of these degrees can lead to a career as a teacher, public sector employee, or academic. Students who major in sociology often go on to work at non-profit or governmental organizations and the degree can be a stepping stone to a career in politics, public administration, or law. While the corporate sector is less common for sociology majors, some anthropology students find work conducting market research.

Graduate school is also a common trajectory for both anthropology and sociology majors. Those who complete a PhD often have the goal of becoming professors and teaching at the college level. However, jobs in academia are scarce, and over half of people with a PhD in anthropology work outside of academia. Non-academic careers for anthropologists include public sector research at large, global organizations like the World Bank or UNESCO, at cultural institutions like the Smithsonian, or working as freelance research consultants. Sociologists who have a PhD can work as analysts in any number of public policy organizations, or as demographers, non-profit administrators, or research consultants.