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Meaning, scope and development of Anthropology

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P-I-1.1 Meaning, scope and development of Anthropology

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Meaning: Anthropology is the study of various elements of humans, including biology and culture, in order to understand the human origin and the evolution of various beliefs and social customs. The term anthropology is a combination of two terms ‘Anthropos’ and ‘logus’, the former meaning human and the later meaning discourse or science. Thus anthropology is the science or discourse of man. It is the science or discourse of human beings. Aristotle first used the term ‘Anthropologist’.

Anthropology, “the science of humanity,” which studies human beings in aspects ranging from the biology and evolutionary history of Homo sapiens to the features of society and culture that decisively distinguish humans from other animal species. Because of the diverse subject matter it encompasses, and become a collection of more specialized fields.

Definitions of Anthropology

  1. The concise oxford dictionary: study of mankind especially of its societies and customs; study of structure and evolution of man as an animal”.
  1. Kroeber: “Anthropology is the science of groups of men and their behaviour and production”.
  2. Herskovits: “Anthropology may be defined as the measurement of human beings.”
  3. Jocobs and Stern: “Anthropology is the scientific study of the physical, social and

cultural development and behavior of human beings since their appearance on this earth.”


Anthropology has been divided into two main branches: Physical anthropology and cultural anthropology. These two main branches have been again, sub-divided into several other branches. Physical anthropology is the branch that concentrates on the biology and evolution of humanity. The branches that study the social and cultural constructions of human groups are variously recognized as belonging to cultural anthropology (or ethnology), social anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and psychological anthropology.

Archaeology , as the method of investigation of prehistoric cultures, has been an integral part of anthropology since it became a self-conscious discipline in the latter half of the 19th century.

I. Physical Anthropology:

Physical anthology studies human body, genetic and the status of man among living beings. J.E. Manchip White: “Physical anthropology is the study of bodily appearance of man.” Hoebel:  “Physical anthropology is therefore the study of the physical characteristics of the human race as such”. M.H. Herskovits: “Physical anthropology is, in essence, human biology.” Piddington:  “Physical anthropology is concerned with the bodily characteristics of man.”

II. Cultural anthropology :

Cultural anthropology studies human cultures. In order to carry on his personal and social life man invents some sort of system, develops and establishes it. This total system is culture. It is social heritage. It is however, not transmitted through heredity. It is learned through imitation, experience and understanding.

Cultural anthropology studies human customs, mores, traditions, social life, religion, art, science, literature and economic and political organization. E.A. Hoebel: “The phase of anthropology that devotes its attention to the customs of mankind, is called cultural anthropology”. S.C. Dube:  “Social anthropology is that part of cultural anthropology which devotes its primary attention to the study of social structure and religion rather than material aspects of culture.” It is clear that social anthropology studies the different aspects of social structure such as social institutions, social relations and social events, etc. Penniman: “That part of cultural anthropology which treats of social phenomena is called social anthropology”. M.N. Srinivas: “it is a comparative study of human societies. Ideally, it includes all societies, primitive, civilized and historic.” Charles Winick: “social anthropology is the study of social behaviour, especially from
the point of view of the systematic comparative study of social forms and institutions.”


Appearance of anthropology as a discipline

Man and his surroundings have always been a perennial source of wonder and reflection for himself. This consciousness instigated him in searching for the realities. Therefore, it is futile to talk about the beginning of the study of man. For the genesis of systematic thinking we usually refer back to the classical Greek Civilization especially to the writings of Herodotus in fifth century B.C. Not only Herodotus, many other Greek and Roman historians namely Socrates, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Plato, etc. are considered as pioneer social thinkers. They first expressed their significant interest in man’s affairs considering the perspective of the Universe. Their approach was purely humanistic and they postulated a social theory from the organismic point of view.

The emergence of anthropology as a distinct discipline occurred only recently in nineteenth century.

  • Sydney Slotkin in his book ‘Readings in early Anthropology’ traced the history of many anthropological sub-disciplines form seventeenth and eighteenth century. But he also agreed that the real professional interest of the subject did not appear until nineteenth century.
  • Hodgkin in collaboration with several other distinguished persons, in 1839 inaugurated an ‘Ethnological Society’ in Berlin. Eminent naturalist Milne-Edwards took there an active part. In 1841, a similar type of society was formed in London and soon after that in 1842 the third ‘Ethnological Society’ was founded in New York.
  • Anthropology is therefore considered as the product of scientific developments in western world.
  • Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) perhaps boosted the zeal of all scientists in different fields. Darwin showed that life had evolved from the unicellular organism and went to the way of complex multicellular organism, through the process of evolution. This idea not only opened the new avenues for zoology, anatomy, physiology, philology, palaeontology, archaeology and geology; it also accelerated the pace of socio-cultural studies.
  • Being influenced by Darwin, a group of intellectual namely Spencer, Morgan, Tylor reached to the conclusion that evolution did not operate only in case of physical aspect of mankind, but also in cultural life. Accordingly, the year 1859 may be taken as the date of birth of anthropology; R.R. Marret (1912) termed anthropology as ‘child of Darwin’.
  • In the same year 1859, Paul Broca founded an ‘Anthropological Society’ in Paris. Broca himself was an anatomist and human biologist. He advocated the idea of general biology by synthesizing all specialized studies in order to understand a man. Anthropology made a significant progress in America following Broca’s light.
  • Nearly thirty years, from 1840 to 1870, a great debate continued with the two words ethnology and anthropology. By this time, the names such as anthropology, ethnology, ethnography, archaeology, prehistory, philology and linguistics were firmly established.
  • After a few years, anthropology really acquired a synthetic character and honoured both in Europe and America.
  • Lewis Henry Morgan was one of the leading personalities of the world who combined his personal intensive field work in a native culture with comparative work and general theory. Morgan founded the great branch of anthropology, known as social-cultural anthropology through the comparative analysis of family and kinship structure.
  • Germany, at first established a psychological and later a geographical tradition of cultural anthropology. Theodore Waitz developed the basic physical anthropology, which embraced the peoples of the whole world. Adolf Bastain by surveying the cultures of people all-over the world inferred about the basic psychological configuration in man. Friedrich Ratzel blended geography with anthropology and created a new sub-field anthropogeography.
  • The concept of culture given by Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) established anthropology as an academically recognized discipline in Europe. Tylor has been recognized as the father of modern anthropology.. In his epoch-making book ‘Primitive Culture’ (1871), Tylor first defined culture in the following words; “culture or civilization taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole, which included knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”.
  • Discipline of sociology and anthropology appeared as twin sisters particularly after industrial revolution and colonial expansion respectively.
  • After the First World War, outlook of anthropology changed greatly, 19th century anthropologists were totally unacquainted with the peoples with whom they were concerned.
  • Brownislaw Malinowski taught the importance of field-study in contrast to speculation about the primitive people.
  • During the Second World War, the American anthropologists became attentive to the psychological problems and issues of whole nations in order to understand the basic features of developed civilizations like Japanese, the Chinese, and the Russians etc. National character studies became very popular in this period. At the end of the world war, anthropology got the French scholar Claude Levi-Strauss whose emphasis was restricted to the formal aspect of culture.
  • By the end of Second World War, the physical aspect of anthropology also took a new turn. It was no longer a study limited to different kinds of measurements; study of growth and development became prominent due to the rediscovery of genetics. The progress in the study of the human genetics provided a firm basis of integration between physical anthropology and social anthropology. Anthropologists’ basic interest in prehistory is more or less akin to primitive ethnography.
  • The British Evolutionary and Diffusionist theories met a setback but the structural-functional theory emerged as the most important school. The period can be said as the formative phase of institutionalization of anthropology. It was further strengthened by British social anthropology, which acquired a definite recognition on the global plane.
  • The concept of colonial anthropology or neo-imperialism in anthropology is comparatively a recent achievement.

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