What Is Anthropology?
Anthropology is the comprehensive study of human development, culture, and change in the full range of the world’s sociocultural systems, past and present. With its emphasis on human variation and cultural diversity, anthropology clarifies the dynamics of inter-cultural relationships, communication, and transformation, along with our complex biological heritage. The comprehensiveness of anthropology stems from its emphasis on context, reflected in the perspectives offered by the discipline’s four fields: sociocultural, biological, and linguistic anthropology, and archaeology. The Anthropology Department at Princeton regularly offers courses and advising in sociocultural and biological anthropology; additional instruction is available through cross-lists, cognates, and special offerings by visitors.
The characteristic methodologies of anthropology inform an understanding of human experiences and practices, illuminating their interconnectedness and interdependence. For sociocultural anthropologists, such connections are discovered mainly through long-term ethnographic research. For bioanthropologists, they are found in the field and in the lab. The discipline of anthropology has influenced other disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, and in turn has been influenced by multidisciplinary approaches integrating these modes of inquiry. Thus, anthropologists are often in dialogue with historians, literary critics, psychologists, sociologists, biologists, and other specialists whose scholarship engages anthropological questions. While anthropologists employ formal social science methods (like the survey), natural science methods (such as observation and laboratory research), and methods associated with the humanities (such as textual and visual studies), our field-based approach to human experience yields distinctive access to the connections between culture and social life.
One of the qualities that makes anthropology distinct as an academic discipline is its insistently cross-cultural, or comparative, perspective. By extending our vision beyond familiar social contexts and experiences, and drawing on knowledge and experience from all over the world, this perspective offers a productive counterweight to "culture bound" or ethnocentric ideas regarding human nature, values, and ways of life. Anthropological theory emphasizes the importance of context and people's understandings of their own milieu and the world around them. The relevance of such an approach is potentially broad. For example, together with biological anthropology, this comparative perspective has enabled anthropologists to play a leading role, during the 20th century and into the 21st, in undermining the intellectual credibility of racist social theories. Today, world events continue to engage anthropologists – for example, on questions of economic development, political crisis, the social effects of globalization, and social security. In an ever-shrinking world, where humankind's most difficult problems are both local and global, anthropology’s multicultural expertise is especially relevant wherever improvement can be found in mutual understanding, innovative partnerships and novel combinations of knowledge.
The Department of Anthropology at Princeton has eleven professors who, together, provide a variety of approaches to anthropology’s vast subject of study while still giving students personal attention. Anthropology faculty are active in research and have overlapping specialties in the study of nationalism, race and ethnicity, politics and the law, consumption and exchange, gender and sexuality, human adaptation and development, religion and ethics, medicine and science, media, language, and the interrelation of history and culture. As sociocultural and biological anthropologists, they bring to their classroom teaching the immediacy of their field experiences. Anthropology’s regular course offerings span the globe: the United States, Latin America, Europe and Russia, North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific Islands.
Course offerings emphasize the study of cultural meaning-making and change in Western and non-Western societies, the core of contemporary socio-cultural anthropology. Our bioanthropology courses emphasize the biological aspects of human adaptation and development, as well as the biological implications of social life (such as nutrition, growth and aging). The major is designed to provide students with a broad understanding of the discipline through courses on foundational concepts, fundamental methods, and the history of ideas. In addition, special topic courses offer students significant opportunities to craft individualized programs in consultation with their advisers.
Anthropology is excellent preparation for any profession or field of study in which multicultural knowledge and primary research skills are relevant expertise. Recent department concentrators have graduated into careers in the arts, medicine, law, journalism, business, education, and a wide range of U.S. or internationally-based service organizations. Our majors are well prepared for graduate study in anthropology as well as other disciplines, e.g., the social sciences, public health, and the humanities, and leading to subsequent careers as college and university teachers and researchers. Whatever the profession, preparation in anthropology is an asset for anyone whose work entails scope for innovative approaches to social analysis or problem-solving, particularly where international or multicultural communication may be involved. Anthropology is also excellent training for any sort of work in contexts of crisis or rapid social change, given the discipline’s emphasis on adaptation, resilience, and creativity as fundamental aspects of human experience. Overall, anthropological training sharpens interpretive skills and critical thinking, fostering imaginative approaches wherever the question involves assumptions about human nature, cultural difference or the organization of social life.
Anthropological training informs a person’s understanding of cultural differences and similarities. In an increasingly integrated yet plural world, effective cross-cultural communication is critical. By emphasizing the interpersonal and social contexts of cultural experience, anthropology helps students not only navigate, but flourish in diverse living and working situations. Today, cross-cultural “fluency” is essential to mobility, and is thus relevant in an expanding array of endeavors, from international relations and business to domestic public policy, health care, law, education, social service work, and entrepreneurship. Whether one’s career objective is practical, scholarly, or some combination of the two, anthropological training can be an important foundation.
In addition to university professors and published authors, anthropology graduates have included performing artists and writers, investment bankers, journalists, and lawyers involved in business, community, immigration, or international law. Anthropology graduates have gone on to earn MD's in a variety of specialties. They have taught in elementary and secondary schools, and have found work as media and market research consultants and as educational, environmental, or health-care policy researchers. They have been self-employed or worked for U.S. and international companies, and have founded non-profits. A number of anthropology students started their careers through participation in Princeton’s Teacher Preparation Program, Teach for America, Princeton in Asia, Princeton in Africa, or Project 55, as well as post-graduate fellowships (such as Fulbright) and corporate internship programs.
Most generally, at liberal arts institutions like Princeton, a student's departmental concentration is more than a means of preparing for a particular career. Rather, it is meant to help a student build the strong, flexible intellectual and communication skills that are valuable in many kinds of endeavors (as well as many aspects of personal life). Anthropology gives students opportunities to hone and demonstrate skills that employers in any sector or field value highly – in particular, the ability to immerse themselves thoroughly in an original and independent project, and take ethical and intellectual responsibility for that project’s research process, to write clearly and with precision, to be sensitive to other points of view and alternative approaches, and to carry their work competently and creatively through to timely completion.
The Anthropology Department is particularly well suited to facilitate this kind of achievement. The scale of the department enables us to give concentrators personal attention, especially in their Junior Independent Work and Senior Thesis writings. Anthropology students have done extremely well at Princeton (with a high percentage earning academic honors and prizes, as well as prestigious national awards) and in their lives after graduation.