Is Anthropology a Coherent Discipline? A Brief Comparison.

This essay explores the differences and similarities of the four field approach to American anthropology.

Is Anthropology a coherent discipline?

American anthropology is based on the four-field approach. Those four fields being biological (or physical) anthropology, cultural anthropology, linguistics and archaeology. If the question of coherency were posed in relation to these constructs, I would have to say that they are indeed cohesive. In many respects the disciplines are interrelated on the most basic levels. Few studies, whether in the field or in the lab, escape the inevitable comparisons with findings from all of the sub-disciplines of anthropology. For example: without the ample fossil record provided by archaeological investigation, biological anthropology would have precious little materials for comparisons such as skull morphology (to include brain case sizes). Another example is the study of modern apes in the wild to gain insight into behaviors associated with 3 million year old hominids. Cultural anthropology, specifically the study of modern hunter-gatherers or stone tool users, also gives us insight into human evolution as defined by the archaeological record. All four disciplines contribute in their own ways to a large bank of knowledge that we as anthropologists can draw upon to help answer the most fundamental questions that humans ask. How did we get here? Why are we the way we are, and so on?

At the introductory levels of American undergraduate education the four fields are treated as separate. However, it becomes evident fairly quickly that they are not meant to be autonomous or discrete. In America we approach the mysteries of mankind with four disciplines that are complimentary and relevant. As anyone knows who has spent any time in an America department of anthropology, this is not always the case. Anthropologist as a whole tend to create typologies for reasons of identification then resort to quibbling over those constructs as if they had any meaning to begin with. In my experience I have witnessed a lack of consistent methodology in all of the four fields. Even intra-disciplinary methodological dissimilarities exist. For example look at how Archaeologists collect data differently from one region to the next (Wyoming vrs. Colorado or North America vrs. Central America) or how one primatological study is conducted differently than another even if they are the studiying the same species (Simliki vrs. Kibale). Even with all the differences between the fields that seem to manifest themselves on a daily basis, I would have a hard time assigning a single purpose to any work that has been done. Nearly all studies seem to have far reaching implications that span all four fields of anthropology.


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