What Is Anthropology?
Anthropology is the comprehensive study of human development, culture, and change in the full range of the world's sociocultural systems. Because of its central emphasis on cultural variation, anthropology clarifies the dynamics of inter-cultural interaction, communication (mutual translation and mistranslation), transformation and our biological heritage.
Anthropology's characteristic methodology—long-term field research—creates an understanding of human behavior that illuminates the interconnectedness and interdependency of diverse types of activity: expressive and pragmatic, sacred and secular. Because of its holism, anthropology has been likened to "the carrying frame onto which may be fitted all the several subjects of a liberal education." Indeed, the discipline of anthropology has been influenced by multidisciplinary approaches integrating the humanities with the social and natural sciences. In turn, historians, literary critics, psychologists, biologists and others also regularly draw on anthropological research and theory. While anthropologists also employ formal social science methods (like the survey) and natural science methods (such as observation), the social relationships and interactions of field research provide special access to the subtle expectations of everyday life. As a result, whether it is carried out at home or in unfamiliar places, fieldwork deepens one’s appreciation for how people everywhere invest their experiences with meaning.
One of the qualities making anthropology different from related academic disciplines (like sociology) is its insistently cross-cultural, or comparative, perspective. By extending our vision beyond the confines of familiar social contexts and experiences, this perspective acts as a counterweight to "culture bound" (or ethnocentric) ideas regarding human nature. 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, in an ever-shrinking multicultural world, where humankind's most difficult problems are at least as frequently socio-cultural as biological and technical, a cultural perspective on human diversity is urgently needed.
The Department of Anthropology at Princeton has a faculty of eleven full-time professors. Its size enables it to provide a variety of approaches to this 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, religion and ethics, medicine and science, media, language, and the interrelation of history and culture. They bring to their classroom teaching the immediacy of their field experiences, which span the globe: the United States, Latin America and Europe, North Africa and Middle East, South Asia, Southeast 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. The departmental program is anchored with three required courses that survey the discipline as a whole, and provide the fundamentals of theory and methodology. In addition to a range of special topic courses, the Department offers courses focusing on particular world areas (e.g., Latin America, the Middle East, and the Pacific). Several courses also introduce students to biological anthropology: the study of human evolution, physical variation, and ecological adaptation.
No, we don't expect most anthropology majors to become anthropologists! While Anthropology Department concentrators are very well prepared for graduate study and do enroll in graduate school in the social sciences and humanities (subsequently becoming university teachers and researchers), anthropology also offers an excellent basis for professional training in law, medicine, business, and journalism. It is an obvious asset for anyone whose work will involve international or interethnic communication. It is also excellent training for any sort of work in which a feeling for the background assumptions of everyday life is useful.
Anthropological training sharpens a person’s interpretive skills. Field training extends habits of critical “reading”—usually first learned in literature courses in secondary school—to a wider set of sources and contexts. Whereas literature and history courses train a person to pay attention to the contextual meanings of words in written sources (fiction, newspapers, documents), anthropology courses extend this interpretive skill to social experience: to daily interactions, visual images and media, landscapes, artifacts and goods.
Anthropological training also sharpens a person’s understanding of cultural differences and similarities. In an increasingly integrated yet plural world, effective cross-cultural communication is critical. This is true in an expanding array of endeavors, from international relations and business to domestic public policy, health care, law, education, and social service work. 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 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 or secondary schools and have found work as media and market research consultants and as educational or health-care policy researchers. They have been self-employed or worked for U.S. and international companies and have included a computer applications analyst for the National Geographic Society and a founder of a nonprofit urban community development organization with a current multimillion dollar budget. One anthropology major is currently an associate director at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, another is Asia regional manager and senior vice president of a major U.S. bank in London, and several have become media producers or writers, including a current writer for television’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. One recent anthropology major found work as a wildlife conservation fellow and another is company manager for an off-broadway show in New York City. A number of anthropology students have 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 corporate internship programs.
Most generally, at liberal arts institutions like Princeton, a student's departmental concentration is not simply a means of acquiring the specific knowledge needed for a particular career. Rather, it ought to help a student to build the strong, flexible intellectual and communication skills valuable in many kinds of endeavors. In fact, business schools do not look for economics majors only, nor do medical schools accept solely biology majors. Professional schools, businesses, and both public and private agencies look for graduates whose strong academic records and excellent recommendations (in whatever field) demonstrate their ability to immerse themselves thoroughly in projects and to carry their work competently and creatively through to completion.
The Anthropology Department is particularly well suited to facilitate this kind of achievement. The scale of the department enables us to give concentrators the time each one needs and deserves especially in their Junior Independent Work and Senior Thesis writings. Results tell the tale: anthropology students have done extremely well both at Princeton (with a high percentage achieving academic honors and earning prestigious national awards) and afterwards.