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

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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.

  • 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. The latter includes study both the physical aspects of human beings and language and sociocultural 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.

  • You may be interested: "The 4 main branches of Anthropology: what they are like and what they investigate"
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Illustration and other background

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

It was from there when the concept of "culture" began to be discussed (although it formally 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, and even centuries, Darwin's theory of evolution, the psychoanalysis of Freud, the semiotics from Saussure, the philosophy of Nietzsche, the phenomenology of Husserl; all this within the framework of a universal, western and Eurocentric vision of the world, which later translated into the intention of understand and compare societies that were beyond.

In other words, anthropology arises from the advancement of many ambitious theories about the knowledge of the human being in relation to social change, historical resources, and research methods that relied on observations in alive.

Contemporary anthropology

In the twentieth 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 ideographic perspective (the understanding of the phenomena individuals).

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 North 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 as well as geographical differences. He questioned the talk of "higher cultures" and "lower 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 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 contributed many of the bases for the theoretical development of anthropology (while Malinowski contributed more towards the methodology).

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

4. Marcel Mauss (1872-1950)

Marcel Mauss is part of the French tradition of anthropology. He was also sociological, and he 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 build attitudes, postures, forms, gestures, and all bodily habits between different cultures.

Bibliographic references:

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