“Anthropology is the study of people throughout the world, their evolutionary history, how they behave, adapt to different environments, communicate and socialise with one another. The study of anthropology is concerned both with the biological features that make us human (such as physiology, genetic makeup, nutritional history and evolution) and with social aspects (such as language, culture, politics, family and religion). Whether studying a religious community in London, or human evolutionary fossils in the UAE, anthropologists are concerned with many aspects of people’s lives: the everyday practices as well as the more dramatic rituals, ceremonies and processes which define us as human beings. A few common questions posed by anthropology are: how are societies different and how are they the same? how has evolution shaped how we think? what is culture? are there human universals? By taking the time to study peoples’ lives in detail, anthropologists explore what makes us uniquely human. In doing so, anthropologists aim to increase our understanding of ourselves and of each other.
What do anthropologists do?
While a few anthropology postgraduates go on to work as lecturers or researchers within academia, a significant number are increasingly finding employment in a variety of sectors, ranging from education, charity and international development, to medicine and health-related professions, film and business. Often anthropologists do not follow linear career trajectories, but become involved in various projects in frequently overlapping career sectors. Take a look at our career paths section for case studies, websites and information on careers in anthropology.
Common misconceptions about anthropology
Anthropology as subject is not well known amongst the general population in Britain. As anthropology has not until now been taught at secondary school level (except as an option within the International Baccalaureate), the British general public’s exposure to anthropology tends to be limited to museums, occasional newspaper articles, or TV programmes whose primary aim is entertainment. The result is that many misconceptions about anthropology persist. A common one is that anthropology is mainly about ‘bones and fossils’. These are indeed the special concern of biological and evolutionary anthropologists, who use the evidence of human remains and living sites to reconstruct the bodies, diets and environments of our prehuman ancestors. Social and cultural anthropology, however, is concerned with social relations in the ‘here and now’. A second misconception is that social anthropologists exclusively study ‘tribal’ peoples in ‘remote’ areas, whose cultural practices are perceived as ‘exotic’. While it is true that some anthropologists carry out their research in places far from metropolitan centres, there are many others who undertake research in their home towns, in urban settings or in the industrial workplace. A third misconception is that anthropology and archaeology are one and the same. In North America archaeology is considered a branch of anthropology, whereas in Britain, archaeology is considered as a separate sister discipline to anthropology. Generally speaking, archaeology is about people and cultures in the near or distant past, and social anthropology is about present-day peoples and cultures.”