The Emergence of Anthropology



Anthropology by name is a fairly recent field, and it has been molded over time. Once-philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, biologists and even economists who had developed remarkable ideas about human race, society and culture have contributed to anthropology—the holistic science that takes on the massive study of the human race. The original anthropologists were, for the most part, “Armchair Anthropologists” that had little means of traveling to distant civilizations, and therefore relied on information from merchants, explorers and soldiers. Theories based on the information they agglomerated made these pseudo-scientists useful tools for boosting nationalism.

Cultural anthropology, as established by the Father of American Anthropology Franz Boas at the turn of the 20th century, is a holistic, or all-encompassing, field that utilizes a fourfield approach: culture, psychology, biology and environment. Cultural anthropology, as Boas saw it, flipped previous notions aside and called for using science to prove that no race is inferior to another. Anthropologists are expected to consider those four fields before drawing conclusions for this reason.

Following Boas’ philosophy, some of today’s anthropologists have gravitated towards conservationism, with a heavy focus on globalization and the impact it has on societies. Some fear the disappearance of cultural heritage, others study to promote feminist scholarship, while economists such as Karl Marx were found to preach anthropological theory to warn of the eventual deterioration of hierarchical society as we know it.

Professor Kaoru Oguri teaches cultural anthropology at Cal State Long Beach. In her class, she explained that society is maintained by a balance of revolutionaries and stabilizers. She said that scientists, politicians and competitive athletes make up the center of society, maintaining healthy competition as they generally follow and reinforce the rules of their trade and in doing so, governmental and societal law.

On the other hand, these law-enforcers and abiders are countered by “revolutionaries” that reside on the fringes of society; the artists, writers, philosophers and explorers question the rules and constantly attempt to debunk norms.

The study of anthropology does both. Anthropologists abide by a code of conduct, working consistently to bring meaning to our lives. However, these laws are constantly questioned as anthropologists explore new horizons and encounter new realities.

Anthropology has, and will continue to play roles in unexpected ways. According to an article by Business Insider this year, major companies such as Google and Intel have hired anthropologists, and Microsoft is the second-largest employer of anthropologists in the world.

“[Anthropology answered questions] about why people do what they do, why they think what they think, why they act the way they act,”CSULB anthropology professor Thomas Douglas said. “I look back to Boas who felt that one of the fundamental things that anthropology is for is the moral education of people. By that he meant that people need to accept each other as equals.”

Douglas said that today, anthropology has a huge role in countering racial and social biases— and it does. The field has torn and regrown like an exercised muscle; modern anthropology now makes examples out of the “scientific racists” and has flipped the anthropological creed to that of participant observation and cross-cultural relativism.

Anthropological linguistics teaches us that the Tirió people of Suriname in the Amazon have countless words for tree, as they are one with their environment; Medical anthropology shows us that the Shamans in these civilizations know the properties of countless plants that grows in the rainforest, healing, poisonous and anywhere in between. Cultural anthropology tells us that while these people have never seen an iPhone or know how to use a stove, they are by no means inferior nor underdeveloped.

“Anthropology also offers insight into the shared aspects of humanity,” Douglas said. “We are all at some level concerned with the same things … anthropology looks at the universal need for meaning in our lives and the different ways that humans have gone to satisfy that need.”