Anthropology: What It Is And What Is The History Of This Scientific Discipline


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

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

What is Anthropology?

Anthropology is the discipline that studies the behavior of human beings in relation to the specific culture in which they develop. The latter includes study both the physical aspects of human beings as well as language and sociocultural norms where the interaction occurs.

Originally, 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.

The Enlightenment and other backgrounds

The stage we know as the Enlightenment appeared in Europe during the second half of the 17th century and concluded 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 social philosophers of the 17th century who wondered about the possibility of there being a kind of “laws” that dominated the course of history and societies, just as they had proposed for physics and biology.

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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 about beyond the biological aspects, and with this, a specific field of study was gradually formed.

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

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

contemporary anthropology

Entering the 20th century, the discussion focused on considering that anthropology could not be speculative, but rather data collection techniques and methods had to be reviewed and, in general, review the methodology.

In this way, anthropology increasingly concentrated on studying not repetitive events but unique events in history, although always under the tension between the generalization inherited from positivist scientific methods and the idiographic 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.

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While their traditions have been fundamental for 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 German-Jewish origin, considered the father of North American anthropology. He was one of the first to question the concept of “race.” and the postulates of the scientific 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 ones.

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 relationship with 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 much of structuralist functionalism, taking up proposals from Emile Durkheim with which, he provided many of the bases for the theoretical development of anthropology (while Malinowski contributed more towards methodology).

Just as these early currents of anthropology did, Radcliffe-Brown studied “primitive” societies and how tribes and non-Western societies were organized.

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4. Marcel Mauss (1872-1950)

Marcel Mauss is part of the French tradition of anthropology. He was also a sociologist, and collaborated significantly with Durkheim. His works are fundamentally theoretical (not so practical), and among other important concepts he developed that of “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 that of “body techniques”, through which he analyzed how attitudes, postures, forms, gestures, and all bodily habits are constructed between different cultures.