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What Is an Anthropologist?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2014
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An anthropologist is someone who studies human societies. Anthropology literally means “the study of man,” and anthropologists are interested in modern humans, from the moment that they emerged thousands of years ago to the current time. There are a number of subfields within the discipline of anthropology, including physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, and archeology. All of these fields are aimed at providing a deeper understanding of humans.

Anthropologists are interested in what sets humans apart from other organisms. They study the physical traits of human beings, along with human society, culture, history, and the ways in which humans have changed over the course of history. An anthropologist might, for example, study religious rituals in India, or look at black society in the United States. Anthropologists are fascinated by the differences between humans, and the things which make different groups different, contribute to the development of unique cultures, and shape human societies.

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A working anthropologist tends to spend a great deal of time in the field, making observations of past or present human societies. The data collected by an anthropologist can be synthesized into a paper or book which discusses new discoveries and their implications, or expands upon previous developments in the field. Anthropologists also track long term changes in cultures, with many being particularly interested in the Westernization of developing nations. In addition to be skilled in the field of anthropology, a researcher may also be good at statistics, history, and ethnography, the discipline which involves creating scholarly written presentations about various human cultures.

People who are interested in a career as an anthropologist can choose from a number of college and university programs in anthropology. Pursuing a doctoral degree is common for people who are seriously interested in this field, as this will offer more employment and research opportunities. There is always room for more researchers in this huge and diverse field within the social sciences, especially when people bring fresh, innovative, and unique ideas to the table.

Like some other academic disciplines, anthropology has occasionally been used for unsavory purposes. In the 18th century, for example, some anthropologists tried to prove that there were categorical differences in intellect, cultural sophistication, and social development between humans of different races, thereby entrenching and justifying racism. Physical anthropology in particular was used to exaggerate claims about racial differences. Thankfully, racist attitudes have largely departed the field of anthropology, and while modern anthropologists will freely admit that there are indeed physical, cultural, and social differences between various races, they would not suggest that these differences imply superiority or greater sophistication.

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EdRick
Post 3

@MrsWinslow - I love that show! But I know they make it look much, much easier and much more concrete than it really is.

Another interesting thing about forensic anthropology relates to what the very end of the article talks about with race. Other anthropologists have pretty much rejected the whole idea of dividing humans into "races." It is not a biologically meaningful term.

But forensic anthropologists look at a skull and tell you the person was Caucasian, Native American, etc. They will use bones to determine race, which of course is very helpful in identifying to whom a set of bones might belong.

MrsWinslow
Post 2
The article mostly describes the work of cultural anthropologists, who obviously put most of their energy into studying culture. But there are other kinds!

Any other fans ouf the TV show Bones out there? (It's based on a series of books by Kathy Reichs, but the books are very, very different.) She is a forensic anthropologist.

Forensic anthropologists are usually academics who consult on criminal cases as they arise. They look at old bones and can determine information about the person's age, sex, race, and more: depending on the condition of the bones, they might be able to tell how the person lived (nutrition, etc.) and died (if the bones show injury).

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