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Anthropology: what it is and what is the history of this scientific discipline

Anthropology: what it is and what is the history of this scientific discipline

June 17, 2024

Anthropology is a discipline that has evolved in an important way for more than three centuries and has contributed very important knowledge for the understanding of what constitutes us as human beings in relation to our social and cultural environment.

Next, we explain what anthropology is and make a brief review of its history, development and background.

  • Related article: "Differences between Psychology and Anthropology"

What is Anthropology?

Anthropology is the discipline that studies the behavior of human beings in relation to the specific culture in which they develop. This last includes study both the physical aspects of human beings and the language and socio-cultural norms where the interaction occurs.


In its origin, anthropology was a science of history and was closely related to a social philosophy. However, and in response to social transformations, it is currently a discipline that has its own field of study and is very important for our societies.

  • Maybe you are interested: "The 4 main branches of Anthropology: how they are and what they investigate"

The Enlightenment and other background

The stage we know as the Enlightenment appeared in Europe during the second half of the seventeenth century and ended with the beginning of the French revolution a century later. Among many other things, this was the period in which the modern scientific method originated , both in the natural sciences and the social sciences.


Specifically, it was the seventeenth-century social philosophers who wondered about the possibility of a kind of "laws" that dominated the course of history and societies, as they had proposed for physics and biology.

It was from there when the concept of "culture" began to be discussed (although formally it took place until the 19th century). From this concept, human behavior could be thought beyond the biological aspects, and with this, a specific field of study was gradually formed.

In this process, which lasted many years, even centuries, Darwin's theory of evolution, Freud's psychoanalysis, Saussure's semiotics, Nietzsche's philosophy, Husserl's phenomenology; all this within the framework of a universal, western and Eurocentric vision of the world, which subsequently translated into the intention of understand and compare the societies that were beyond .


That is to say that anthropology arises from the advance of many ambitious theories about the knowledge of being human in relation to social change, historical resources and research methods that were based on live observations.

Contemporary anthropology

Entering the twentieth century, the discussion focused on considering that anthropology could not be speculative, but that we had to review the techniques and methods of data collection and, in general, review the methodology.

In this way, anthropology concentrated more and more on studying not repetitive events but the unique events of history, although always under the tension between the generalization inherited from positivist scientific methods and the ideographic perspective (the understanding of particular phenomena). ).

The first anthropologists and their theories

According to Thomas Hylland (2013) there are four founding fathers of anthropology . Each of them is part of a specific and different tradition of the same discipline (North American, French, German, British). These four founders are Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, Marcel Mauss.

While their traditions have been fundamental to the development of contemporary anthropology, we will briefly review some of the ideas they developed.

1. Franz Boas (1858-1942)

Franz Boas was an American of Jewish-German origin, considered the father of American anthropology. He was among the first to question the concept of "race" and the postulates of the scientistic method. He is also one of the pioneers in studies on the phenomenon of migration.

Boas paid attention to cultural and geographical differences. He questioned the talk of "higher cultures" and "inferior cultures," and focused more on describing general laws than individual laws.

2. Bronisław Malinowski (1984-1942)

Malinowski is recognized to this day as the father of social anthropology, because He was a pioneer in the development of "field work" ; which is the key moment of data collection during the investigation.

He is also one of the founders of functionalism (school of anthropology that analyzes social institutions and their relation to the satisfaction of needs). His tradition is British anthropology and he took up many of the postulates of Freudian psychoanalysis to develop his theories and oppose reductionist scientific methods.

3. Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955)

Along with Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown is one of the founders of the British tradition of anthropology. He developed a large part of structuralist functionalism, retaking proposals from Emile Durkheim , with which, it contributed many of the bases for the theoretical development of the anthropology (whereas Malinowski contributed more towards the methodology).

As these first strands of anthropology did, Radcliffe-Brown studied "primitive" societies and how tribes and non-Western societies were organized.

4. Marcel Mauss (1872-1950)

Marcel Mauss is part of the French tradition of anthropology. He was also a sociologist, and he collaborated in an important way with Durkheim. His works are mainly theoretical (not so practical), and among other important concepts developed the "total social fact", which explains how the set of dimensions that make up social life (institutions, politics, family, religion, etc.) give rise to a concrete reality.

Finally, another of his important concepts has been "body techniques", through which he analyzed how attitudes, postures, forms, gestures, and all bodily habits are constructed between different cultures.

Bibliographic references:

  • Harris, M. (1979). The development of anthropological theory. History of theories of culture. 21st Century: Mexico.
  • Hylland, T. (2013). A history of anthropology. Pluto Press: USA.

An introduction to the discipline of Anthropology (June 2024).


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