What is Anthropology?

copyright James Preston

Anthropology is the study of people throughout the world, their evolutionary history, how they behave, adapt to different environments, communicate and socialise with one another. The study of anthropology is concerned both with the biological features that make us human (such as physiology, genetic makeup, nutritional history and evolution) and with social aspects (such as language, culture, politics, family and religion). Whether studying a religious community in London, or human evolutionary fossils in the UAE, anthropologists are concerned with many aspects of people’s lives: the everyday practices as well as the more dramatic rituals, ceremonies and processes which define us as human beings. A few common questions posed by anthropology are: how are societies different and how are they the same? how has evolution shaped how we think? what is culture? are there human universals? By taking the time to study peoples’ lives in detail, anthropologists explore what makes us uniquely human. In doing so, anthropologists aim to increase our understanding of ourselves and of each other.


What do anthropologists do?

While a few anthropology postgraduates go on to work as lecturers or researchers within academia, a significant number are increasingly finding employment in a variety of sectors, ranging from education, charity and international development, to medicine and health-related professions, film and business. Often anthropologists do not follow linear career trajectories, but become involved in various projects in frequently overlapping career sectors. Take a look at our career paths section for case studies, websites and information on careers in anthropology.  


Studying anthropology

Both at undergraduate and at postgraduate level, studying anthropology imparts a unique set of skills for working with people. Gaining a deep understanding of cultural and ethnic differences and learning how people’s perspectives, beliefs and practices fit into a wider social, political and economic context is crucial in today’s globalised world. Take a look at our study & experience section for information on a wide range of programmes ranging from pre-university to distance learning and short evening courses. 


Common misconceptions about anthropology

Anthropology as subject is not well known amongst the general population in Britain. As anthropology has not until now been taught at secondary school level (except as an option within the International Baccalaureate), the British general public’s exposure to anthropology tends to be limited to museums, occasional newspaper articles, or TV programmes whose primary aim is entertainment. The result is that many misconceptions about anthropology persist. A common one is that anthropology is mainly about ‘bones and fossils’. These are indeed the special concern of biological and evolutionary anthropologists, who use the evidence of human remains and living sites to reconstruct the bodies, diets and environments of our prehuman ancestors. Social and cultural anthropology, however, is concerned with social relations in the ‘here and now’. A second misconception is that social anthropologists exclusively study ‘tribal’ peoples in ‘remote’ areas, whose cultural practices are perceived as ‘exotic’. While it is true that some anthropologists carry out their research in places far from metropolitan centres, there are many others who undertake research in their home towns, in urban settings or in the industrial workplace. A third misconception is that anthropology and archaeology are one and the same. In North America archaeology is considered a branch of anthropology, whereas in Britain, archaeology is considered as a separate sister discipline to anthropology. Generally speaking, archaeology is about people and cultures in the near or distant past, and social anthropology is about present-day peoples and cultures.


Quotes about anthropology

 "Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and  listen, record in astonishment and wonder at that which one would not have been able to guess" 

Anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978)



 “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences” 

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887-1948)





 “Anthropology is the most humanistic of sciences and the most scientific of  the humanities”

Anthropologist Alfred L.Kroeber (1876-1960)




Recommended Resources


Watch our ‘Inside Anthropology’ video for a brief introduction to the discipline. The film was produced by Ed Owles and Cinzia Rocchi for London Anthropology Day in 2006. For more of the RAI's Educational films visit our YouTube Channel.



The following trailer is for Duka's Dilemma an excellent ethnographic film that is distributed by the Royal Anthropological Institute.



Director Jean Lydall, Kaira Strecker
Release 2001
Length 87 mins
Location Ethiopia / Africa
Ethnic Group Hamar
Language Hamar & English
Prizes/Commendations Winner of the 2003 RAI Film Prize

Filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Lydall has been making films with the Hamar community of southern Ethiopia since the 1970s. In 2001 she returned with her daughter and grandson to follow the continuing life story of Duka. Candid interviews reveal the complex family dynamics when Duka’s husband, Sago, takes a second wife, Boro. This film provides an intimate and personal family portrait that captures Duka’s ambivalence at sharing her home and husband. The quiet suspense is only heightened when Duka’s mother-in-law starts stirring up trouble. The high points of the film include the birth of the new wife’s child, and heated dispute between the mother-in-law and her son, which leads to the building of a new house.



The RAI has one of Europe's most extensive collection of anthropological films which are available for sale or hire.



Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology 9th Edition
Peoples, J. And Bailey, G. (Wadsworth, 2011)

What is Anthropology?
Eriksen, T. H. (Pluto Press, 2004)

Introducing Anthropology 3rd Edition
Davies, W. M. (Totem Books, 2006) 



The American Anthropological Association's definition of Anthropology

Sapiens - a digital magazine about the human world with a range of accesible articles

A series of tutorials on biological and cultural anthropology created by Dr. Dennis O'Neil. 

anthropology.net - a blog which promotes and facilitates discussions, reviews research, extends stewardship of resources, and disseminates knowledge of anthropology.

anthrodendum (previously called Savage Minds) a group blog devoted to ‘doing anthropology in public’ — providing well-written relevant discussion of sociocultural anthropology that everyone will find accessible.


Professional Organisations, Associations, and Societies

The American Anthropological Association – the world’s largest association of individuals interested in the advancement of anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research

The Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth - The ASA aims to promote the study and teaching of social anthropology, to present the interests of social anthropology and to maintain its professional status. 

The European Anthropological Association – a scientific organisation which aims to promote research and teaching in anthropology in the different European countries and to promote exchanges of information, workshops, scientific congresses, and schools at postgraduate level

The European Association of Social Anthropologists – a professional association open to all social anthropologists either qualified in, or working in, Europe.

The International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) - a world organization of scientists and institutions working in the fields of anthropology and ethnology, but also of interest to archaeologists and linguists, among others. I

The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (RAI) - is the world's longest-established scholarly association dedicated to the furtherance of anthropology (the study of humankind) in its broadest and most inclusive sense.

World Council of Anthropological Associations (WCAA) - network of national and international associations that aims to promote worldwide communication and cooperation in anthropology