Introduction to Physical Anthropology

by Arnie Schoenberg
version: 22 March, 2022

the sliders from a  mixing board balancing anthropological concepts: participant vs. observation, ethnography vs. ethnology, emic vs. etic, descriptive vs. comparative, humanity vs. science (mostly), subjectivity vs. objectivity (mostly), cultural relativism (mostly) vs. ethnocentrism

Figure 1.1 using a metaphor of sound mixing; the holism of anthropology means that when we EQ our approach to the world, we tend to avoid panning to extremes. "The Anthropological Imagination Equalizers" by Arnie Schoenberg (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Table of Contents

Full Table of Contents

1 a brief introduction to physical anthropology

1.1    science

1.1.1    scientific method    how to review a scientific article    hypothesis    background    method    data    conclusion

1.1.2    faith

1.2    anthropology

1.2.1    the anthropological imagination

1.3    subfields of anthropology

1.4    anthropology and science

1.4.1    epistemology

1      physical anthropology?


Science is a specific way of looking at the universe.

science  :  empiricism  ::   religion  :  faith 

Anthropology is mostly based on science. Anthropology is holistic. The four main subfields of anthropology are cultural anthropology, physical (biological) anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics.

focus questions

This class is an introduction to physical anthropology, but for many it will be your first anthropology class, or perhaps your first science class in college, so it is worthwhile to back up and introduce both science and anthropology. And before talking about science, we should back up even farther, and talk about epistemology, the study of how we know things.

1.1     science

The word science comes from the Latin for “knowledge”, but in modern English it means a very specific kind of knowledge and implies a specific method of obtaining knowledge. Science is a very particular way of asking: "What's in the box?" We ask in a roundabout way, by forming a hypothesis that states what we think is in the box, then we use empirical observations to see if we can disprove the hypothesis. After testing similar hypotheses we can also develop broader theories to try to explain why certain things tend to be in certain boxes, and help predict what we might find if we opened certain boxes.

To use another analogy: babies crawl around forming hypotheses that their discoveries are edible. Their research method, the way they gather data, is to put it in their mouth and empirically taste it. As they gain experience testing specific hypotheses, they might develop broader theories to explain why eating random things off the ground is unpleasant.

1.1.1     scientific method

cartoon of curious babies eating crap. Every baby knows the scientific method. 1, make an observation; baby picks up irregular shaped green thing off the ground. 2, form a hypothesis; baby looks at green thing with interest. 3. Perform the experiment; baby puts green thing in its mouth. 4, analyze the data; baby looks sick. 5, report your findings; baby cries. 6. Invite others to reproduce the results; baby hands the green thing to another baby, who is curious about the object.

Figure 1.2 "Every baby knows the scientific method" © Tiffany Ard

* another good summary of the scientific method

Here are a few more terms to clarify: law vs. theory, quantitative vs. qualitative, inductive vs. deductive. A theory is a broader kind of hypothesis that has not yet been disproved.

We often use "Law" as an archaic term for an accepted theory; we could talk about Newton and his theory of gravity, or Darwin and the Law of Evolution, and what we mean is that neither hypothesis has been disproven yet.

Other good terms to understand are induction and deduction. Induction is where you take what you can observe and make generalizations, like hypotheses and theories. Deduction is where you start with the general laws of the universe and you use them to predict how a specific event will play out. Both are important aspects of science: the ability to make generalizations, and the ability to predict future events. For example, Sherlock Holmes kept a notebook of all his previous cases, and from this he made inductive generalizations about human nature. When a client came to see him, he would deductively apply his criminal theories to solving the specific case.

Quantitative versus qualitative is another pair of terms to distinguish, They have to do with what kind of data you use. Quantitative science is based on a large quantity of objects, qualitative science is based on intensive scrutiny of a small number of objects. For example, sociology tends to use quantitative methods – studying humans by asking many people a few questions; while anthropology tends to use qualitative methods – studying humans by asking a few people many questions. Anthropology uses both quantitative (statistics) and qualitative (detailed description) methods, but leans towards qualitative research. Within the subfield of anthropology, cultural anthropology tends towards qualitative description and physical anthropology tends towards quantitative description.

All this terminology is relatively new in human history, but the foundation of science, empiricism, is ancient. I don't want to back up too far into philosophy, so let me just say that science is based on what you can experience. Scientists use what you can see for yourself with your own two eyes (or some extension of your eyes, like an electron scanning microscope). If a scientist makes an argument that a fossil belongs to an ancestor of Homo sapiens, they need to point out the same details that led them to that conclusion, and as scientists they are required to explain their ideas in a way that anyone else could see the same thing they are seeing and come to same conclusions. This is also an example of how science is reproducible. Scientists don't get so excited about the first person to discover cold fusion, what makes it science is the second person to verify the results, or better said, then next scientist who fails to disprove the original hypothesis. Science is about disproving hypotheses. Science can say you're wrong, but it can't say you're right. The goal of science is not about establishing Truth, and for that reason it is often not as satisfying as other branches of knowledge such as religion or art that can claim Truth with a capital "T". Anyone who says "Trust the Science" is obviously not a scientist and shouldn't be trusted. Try not to get too frustrated with statements that hedge their conclusions or admit that we just don´t know yet: this is a characteristic of good science.

READ DEDUCTION VS. INDUCTION     how to critically review scientific articles

Science requires a critical approach. Science is participatory sport. You're not a passive recipient of knowledge, nor some kind of biological hard-drive awaiting the next download. Science is a process, and you need to interact with the information. You must be an active participant in (re)producing knowledge.

The following is a technique for critically reviewing scientific articles. The review part means you extract and summarize the important elements. The critical part means you evaluate the importance and legitimacy of the research.

Scientific writing can be pretty dry. If you're chatting about a movie, probably the first thing you say is whether you liked it or not, and you'll build up an emotional story without any spoilers. You need to shift gears for science. It may be disturbing to your self-esteem, but busy scientists usually don't care about how a scientific article makes you feel or whether you liked it or not. They want to know how much the data supports or disproves the hypotheses they are working with. They don't need spoiler alerts; they want as much spoiling as possible. There are more scientific articles than minutes in a human life, so scientists need the conclusion in the first paragraph, so they can decide whether to keep reading or not. The process of doing science entails communicating several necessary components. With good scientific articles you should be able to easily find all of the following elements:   the citation

Citations are used to transfer the ideas of another writer to your own work. The word citation can refer to the idea or quotation that came from another author, for example, in the Background of your Critical Review you should cite the Textbook, and the citation can be either a block quote, short quote, or a paraphrase. The word citation is also short for bibliographic citation which is the tracking system that identifies and links to the source of the idea or quote. These are crucial parts of a system that allows hypotheses to be tested, makes science reproducible, and lets you "stand on the shoulders of giants" (Brewster, 1855).

Your Critical Review should start with a bibliographic citation, which is how the article you are reviewing would look in a long list of references, works cited, or in a bibliography. It functions as a link between how you use the ideas in the article, and how the reader can get ahold of the article and read it themselves. It's important to stay anal-retentive about the format of a citation so that people can find the article. MLA and APA are popular formats, but much of anthropology uses the Chicago Style.

The bibliographic citation functions as the title of your review and goes on top, like the format of an annotated bibliography. The main difference between an essay and a critical review is that an essay has a topic and a title that summarizes the topic, but a critical review just has a source and then your thoughts about it below.   the introduction to your review

Even though this is the order of elements in the final version, as you're working on your critical review, you want to skip ahead and come back here after the Conclusion.

Cover all the following sections and then summarize them into a single paragraph, like the annotation in a typical annotated bibliography, or an abstract that summarizes a longer work. If you organize your review with a paragraph for each section, and each paragraph begins with a topic sentence, then you can pretty much just copy the topic sentences word-for-word and you're done with the Introduction.

Because the introduction includes a summary of your critical review, you need to write the critical review first, before the introduction.

Why all this jumping around between the article, introduction, and the rest of the critical review? Your job as the writer is to make it easy for the reader to find the information they need as quickly as possible so they can decide if they need to keep reading. It may seem repetitive but you should be summarizing at all levels: your title should summarize your topic, your introduction should summarize your essay, and your topic sentence should summarize each paragraph. This structure is awful for a novel, but it works well for science.    the hypothesis

Don't waste time! Go straight to the core of the article. What is the author trying to prove? Hypotheses come from “Problems” and “Research Questions” but you reword them as answers. The hypothesis shouldn't end in a question mark–it's the answer–stated as a concise declarative sentence that is either descriptive ("This is that.") or causal ("This causes that."). A great way to start is to take the title of the article and make it into a complete sentence, and then consider adding the author's conclusion.

The question you and the scientists want to answer in your review is: how well was the hypothesis supported or disproved.    a background

Now that you've stated the hypothesis, you can back-up and put it in context. Why is it important? How does the hypothesis connect to other research? For this class, you want to refer to the other articles in the same section and explain how this research fits into those broader topics. Why did Arnie put this article in this section? Into what other sections might it fit? What does this article have to do with physical anthropology?

The background is sometimes called the "Problem" or "Research Question." In a larger scientific write-up, you might make this section into a "Literature Review," where you summarize everything that has been written about the subject before your contribution.    the methods

Now that you've given the essential hypothesis, and given its background, you can add more details about the article itself. What did the scientist do? What techniques or technology did they use? How did they look at something? Which empirical senses were involved? This is very different from what the scientist thinks – which you find in the hypothesis or the conclusion.   some data

If methods are how the scientists looked at something, then data are what they saw. What did they see? feel? hear? touch? sense? What senses they used are methods, how their senses responded are data. Data are often reported as "Findings" or "Results". Data are what we often call "facts" in popular lingo: empirical observations that anyone can reproduce. So, to use the science terminology correctly: gravity and evolution are not facts, they are theories that are supported by facts.

Scientists are obligated to make their data public so that other scientists can attempt to reproduce their conclusions. An article is already summarizing the data, and a review of an article should reduce it even more. In the humanities and social sciences, we rarely completely falsify or overwhelmingly support hypotheses. How "true" a hypothesis is, depends on the quality and quantity of the data that supports it. Because anthropology is holistic, we want to represent the range of data used, and we often add a person's story as an example to humanize quantitative data.

You want to give enough data to connect the hypothesis to the conclusion.    the conclusion

The conclusion has two parts: yours and the author's. You want to present the conclusions that the article came to, and you want to wrap your review up, summarizing what you've done so far. In the conclusion, the scientists let us know what they think. How well did the data support the hypothesis? Was the hypothesis testable? Was it reliable (usually a review of the methods)? Was it valid (usually a critique of the background)? Was it verifiable (would it be possible for someone to repeat the same process)? How did the sources cited or the “Literature Review” connect to the data? What further research do the scientists suggest? In a critical review, you want to present how the scientists answered these questions.

As a critical review, you also want to answer these questions yourself, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the article. If this were a peer review you would be a peer of the author, a colleague, you would have the same background knowledge as the author and be more likely to thoroughly understand the article and be able to evaluate it. But, you're taking an introductory class, you're not an expert yet, so try not to get cocky and feel like you are supposed to attack the author. How do you know what you're reading isn't total BS? Try * lateral reading; do your own fact-checking.

Science thrives on constructive criticism. The goal of a peer review is to help the author fix their mistakes and get better.

Here's a great video of Austin's Butterfly: Building Excellence in Student Work, that reflects the ideal way the scientific community comes to consensus.

Austin's Butterfly: Building Excellence in Student Work from EL Education on Vimeo.

Now that you're done with the body of your review, go back and write a short introduction to your work in the form of an abstract or annotated bibliography.

For more info, here's a good source for critically evaluating articles.

Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims

two stick figures talking, one says, I used to think correlation implied causation. Then I took a statistics class. Now I don't. The second figure says, sounds like the class helped. The first responds, Well, maybe. The Artist included the following comment in the alt text: Correlation doesn't imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing 'look over there'.

Figure 1.3 "Correlation" by xkcd (CC BY-NC 2.5)

Science can't prove anything: how scientists define theory, proof, uncertainty

more concepts and terms about science from the Research Methods Knowledge Base

Chart with icons and long descriptive text. A Rough Guide to SPOTTING BAD SCIENCE. Being able to evaluate the evidence behind a scientific claim is important. Being able to recognise bad science reporting, or faults in scientific studies, is equally important. These 12 points will help you separate the science from the pseudoscience. 1, SENSATIONALISED HEADLINES. Article headlines are commonly designed to entice viewers into clicking on and reading the article. At times, they can over-simplify the findings of scientific research. At worst, they sensationalise and misrepresent them. 2, MISINTERPRETED RESULTS. News articles can distort or misinterpret the findings of research for the sake of a good story, whether intentionally or otherwise. If possible, try to read the original research, rather than relying on the article based on it for information. 3, CONFLICTS OF INTEREST Many companies will employ scientists to carry out and publish research-whilst this doesn’t necessarily invalidate the research, it should be analysed with this in mind. Research can also be misrepresented for personal or financial gain. 4, CORRELATION and CAUSATION. Be wary of any confusion of correlation and causation. A correlation between variables doesn’t always mean one causes the other. Global warming increased since the 1800s, and pirate numbers decreased, but lack of pirates doesn’t cause global warming. 5, UNSUPPORTED CONCLUSIONS. Speculation can often help to drive science forward. However, studies should be clear on the facts their study proves, and which conclusions are as yet unsupported ones. A statement framed by speculative language may require further evidence to confirm. 6, PROBLEMS WITH SAMPLE SIZE. In trials, the smaller a sample size, the lower the confidence in the results from that sample. Conclusions drawn can still be valid, and in some cases small samples are unavoidable, but larger samples often give more representative results. 7, UNREPRESENTATIVE SAMPLES USED.In human trials, subjects are selected that are representative of a larger population. If the sample is different from the population as a whole, then the conclusions from the trial may be biased towards a particular outcome. 8, NO CONTROL GROUP USED. In clinical trials, results from test subjects should be compared to a ‘control group’ not given the substance being tested. Groups should also be allocated randomly. In general experiments, a control test should be used where all variables are controlled. 9, NO BLIND TESTING USED. To try and prevent bias, subjects should not know if they are in the test or the control group. In ‘double blind’ testing, even researchers don’t know which group subjects are in until after testing. Note, blind testing isnt always feasible, or ethical. 10, SELECTIVE REPORTING OF DATA. Also known as quote cherry picking endquote, this involves selecting data from results which supports the conclusion of the research, whilst ignoring those that do not. If a research paper draws conclusions from a selection of its results, not all, it may be guilty of this. 11, UNREPLICABLE RESULTS. Results should be replicable by independent research, and tested over a wide range of conditions (where possible) to ensure they are consistent. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence-that is, much more than one independent study! 12, NON-PEER REVIEWED MATERIAL. Peer review is an important part of the scientific process. Other scientists appraise and critique studies, before publication in a journal. Research that has not gone through this process is not as reputable, and may be flawed. copyright COMPOUND INTEREST 2015 - WWW.COMPOUNDCHEM.COM @COMPOUNDCHEM Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence CC BY-NC-ND

Figure 1.4  "A Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Science" by Compound Interest (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Figure 1.4a "Logical Fallacies Wall Poster" by The School of Thought International (CC BY-NC-ND)

* Resisting bad science can save lives. Read the short memoir of Frances Oldham Kelsey, Ph. D., M. D., one of the doctors who prevented the drug thalidomide from causing birth defects in the US.

1.1.2     faith

I introduced this section by discussing epistemology, the theory of knowledge. Science is one kind of knowledge; faith is another kind of knowledge. What you know can come from what you experience with your own empirical senses, or you can believe something that someone told you. Faith is complex and varies from person to person, but we can find a concise definition on a popular bumper sticker that reads: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

animated gif with the words, circular reasoning, in the middle and a rotating circle of words in an archaic font that say ...Bible is True because God said it I believe it because it's in the...

Figure 1.5 "Circular Reasoning" by Arnie Schoenberg (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Radical fundamentalist Christianity in the US makes what should be a parlour room discussion between science and religion into a political debate with real consequences for all of us, especially in the health fields and education. Scientists struggle to understand the complex mechanisms of evolutionary theory, but for many, the struggle is made more difficult by ideological barriers set up by faith-based opposition to science.

movie poster for  Jesus Camp, girl praying, crosses, America is Being Born Again

Figure 1.6 * a good documentary on radical fundamentalism: Jesus Camp. © 2006 Magnolia Pictures (fair use)

We need to stress evolutionary theory because it is a fundamental explanatory device in biology. There is a famous quote by geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky where he states *nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution.” Trying to make sense of biological systems, including human beings, without evolution is like trying to understand physics while claiming that the force of gravity doesn't exist.
 There are very few belief systems in the world that deny evolution, and it is totally compatible with most religions around the world, even the Pope has come out supporting evolution (* 2014), so you have no conflict if you are a Catholic. But unfortunately, we happen to live in a culture that prefers faith over science. Our technology has changed rapidly in the last couple of millennia, but our mindset has not quite kept up. Many fierce battles are fought today in school boards around the country over the separation of church and state, and whether faith-based ideas (Creationism/Intelligent Design) should be taught in public schools. The battles have spilled out onto the streets with people declaring their beliefs with little symbols on the backs of their cars.

the jesus fish symbol of two crossing arcs, but with the word "Darwin" inside and the fish has legs

Figure 1.7 "Darwin fish" by Al Seckel and John Edwards 1983 (public domain)

Personally, I wish I didn't have to dwell on the issue so much, I have friends who are Creationists and we get along fine. But, in my role as professor of physical anthropology, I cannot accept Creationism or Intelligent Design as anything more than dangerous fallacies that interfere with a student's ability to learn the required curriculum. For me to teach "both sides" would be a form of repressive tolerance (Marcuse 1965). I'm not leading any crusades to banish Medieval thinking from society, but I get worked-up about the issue. It's like professional frustration–that I've failed at my job as an educator–when I see people who are proud of their ignorance. They act like being stupid is somehow cool or something. It reminds me of how Cornel West describes the problem of nihilism in society today.

It bothers me too how religion is used reinforce socioeconomic class. Many of you are smart enough to transfer to Harvard with a scholarship and get six-figure jobs in the budding genetics industry in major cities around the globe, but if during your job interview you start spouting ideologically charged Intelligent Design slogans, then your scientific credentials go down the drain, and you're back to flipping meat at In-and-Out or Chick-fil-A's.

So, if you think Creationism/Intelligent Design is a load of crap, fine, so do 99.9% of the scientists in the world. But, if you are a radical fundamentalist Christian, I'm not going to bother with a trigger warning, because you don't have to abandon your faith for this class. I would get in trouble if half the class reasoned, "Well since my teacher has proven that a few poetic lines written thousands of years ago can't be interpreted literally, now I should do the exact opposite of all the moral precepts in the Bible, and become a Satanic mass-murdering tweeker." There are millions and millions of scientists who believe in Christ and evolution and find no contradiction between the two. If that doesn't console you, maybe it'll help to think of this class as an exercise in "know thyne enemy". You don't have to sign a "God is dead!" pledge, and you don't even have to actually believe in evolution to pass this class, you just have to understand it well enough to be able to regurgitate a few of the things I want to hear. But, be forewarned, I'm not a minion of the Devil; it's in my job description to test your faith and proselytize the wisdom of evolutionary theory.

There are very, very few people who actually take The Bible literally. Almost everyone interprets the meaning of the words in The Bible relative to their own language, historical milieu, and personal circumstances. Biblical scholars use the word hermeneutics to talk about the different ways that passages in The Bible can be interpreted. For example, there are several passages in the King James' version that says it's harder for a rich man to get to heaven than a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Some Biblical scholars think that the passage was poorly translated from the Aramaic to the Greek, and the mistake continued to Latin, and then English. They have found similar sayings from around that historical period that refer to the difficulty of threading a needle with a camel hair, or thread or rope made of camel hair, because camel hairs are known for their thickness. Another interpretation is that Jerusalem had a small gate, called the Camel Gate, that was difficult to pass through if you were rich and carrying all your stuff. For me, the metaphors of having trouble trying to thread a needle with a thick camel hair, or a rich guy not being able to squeeze through a small door with all his bling, make a lot more sense than the literal image of an actual six-foot camel floating through the eye of some giant needle. Stuff gets lost in translation.

Have you ever played that game, "telephone", where you get a big circle with your friends and one person makes up a complicated sentence and whispers it in the ear of the person next to them, who whispers it in the ear of the person next to them, and as the message gets passed around the circle, and people miss-hear things, or forget things, and the message changes. When you compare the original message to how it ended up, it often sounds silly.

a tree, hills, a city in the distance, the sun with a face, covered by a dome with stars on the surface, and a crescent moon with a face. A crawling person with a robe and traveling stick puts their head and hand outside the dome into a space with layers of fire, clouds, wheels, and other circles. The side borders are adorned columns, the bottom border is an open book, the top border has beasts.

Figure 1.8 "A medieval missionary tells the story of finding the point where heaven and Earth meet..." notice the pillars that hold up the heavens. Flammarion engraving 1888 (public domain)

Some of the few people who take the Bible literally have been ridiculed into the closet. The Flat Earth Society took literally a passage from The Bible that said the heavens are held up by four pillars at the corners of the earth, and the image of the sun "rising" literally. They actually believed that if you walked far enough to some corner of the earth you would bump into a big pillar. Nowadays, it's hard to find an honest proponent of the Flat Earth theory, but they were around by the 1950s. Now, everyone just laughs at them, like you would probably laugh at someone one who claims the sun revolves around the earth. But on February 17, 1600, this was no laughing matter, when in the Campo di Fiore, Rome, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for advocating the heretical belief proposed by Copernicus known as heliocentrism.

a plaza with a statue of a hooded figure looking down

Figure 1.9 "Statue of Giordano Bruno, Campo di Fiore, Rome, Italy" by Arnie Schoenberg (CC BY-NC 4.0)

animated gif showing a simple heliocentric model of the planets revolving around the sun, next to a chaotic geocentric model of a the sun and other planets revolving around the earth

Figure 1.10 "Heliocentrism VS Geocentrism" by tRitone11 (License: Imgur sharing policy)

I'm glad that we're at a point in history where I don't have to worry about being burned at the stake for teaching the theory of evolution, and I'm glad that we're at a point where we can just poke fun at Creationists through Darwin fish on our cars, or spoofs such as The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
 But I don't think the battle is over. Obama undid many of attacks on science that characterized the Bush administration, but the Trump administration has waged a radical attack on science and promises a legacy of "alternative facts" for generations to come. We'll see...

two wooden arcs in a naval battle where the mammals are shelling the dinosaurs.

Figure 1.11 "One More Theory" by Dan Piraro © 2016

*A TED talk video of how science can help cure cancer

a primer on logic and arguments

Vocabulary for 1.1

Imagination Questions for 1.1

1.2     anthropology


The anthropological imagination (anthropological perspective) is how anthropologists see the world. Anthropology differs from other sciences because it emphasizes holism and genealogy. The emphasis on genealogy for cultural anthropology implies a focus on the family (domestic structure). The emphasis on genealogy for physical anthropology extends the metaphor of the family tree from an individual and their family, to a family tree writ-large that uses phylogenetic taxonomy to contextualize the human species. Anthropology's emphasis on holism implies a balance between different approaches and many subfields. The four main subfields of anthropology are cultural anthropology, physical (biological) anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. Anthropologists balance objective and subjective epistemologies.

focus questions

1.2.1     anthropological imagination

Imagine you're headed to a job interview and your friend says, "just act naturally!" Seemingly straightforward advice, but what does it mean? What is "natural" about the way we act? If you start getting nervous should you let your smile build into hoots, agonistic screams, and finally grooming to convince your prospective employers to give you the job? Anthropology is a good moderator in the debate between Nature vs. Nurture? How much does biology determine who we are? How much is it how we are raised?

I think the best way to get a sense of how anthropology differs from other branches of science is to understand the anthropological imagination. I borrowed the concept of the anthropological imagination from one of my professors, Dr. Wade Pendleton, who in turn borrowed it from an introductory anthropology book (Dimen-Schein 1977), who based it on an important sociology book, The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills (1959).

The anthropological imagination is also called the "anthropological perspective" (Jurmain 2011:19-20; Field 2011), and it distinguishes anthropology from other ways of seeing the world. I like the connotations of "imagination" in the way it has been used by John Lennon and recent social movements to recognize the agency that people have to go beyond their cultural constraints. Franz Boas (1858-1942), one of the founders of anthropology, described this as people's need to break the "shackles of tradition" (* Franz Boas: Shackles of Tradition). It is especially related to cultural anthropology, where "the world is as you see it", the idea that if people believe in ghosts, then you as a scientist need to start with the assumption that those ghosts really exist. That might seem weird to many scientists, but anthropologists need to balance a detached, objective, way of seeing, with the subjective reality of the people they join to study.

Anthropologists balance several seemingly contradictory philosophies. I like to see the anthropological imagination as tendencies between two extreme poles, and though they may lean towards one side or the other, they can never really go to the extreme in any direction.

the sliders from a  mixing board balancing anthropological concepts: participant vs. observation, ethnography vs. ethnology, emic vs. etic, descriptive vs. comparative, humanity vs. science (mostly), subjectivity vs. objectivity (mostly), cultural relativism (mostly) vs. ethnocentrism

Figure 1.1 using a metaphor of sound mixing; the holism of anthropology means that when we EQ our approach to the world, we tend to avoid panning to extremes. "The Anthropological Imagination Equalizers" by Arnie Schoenberg (CC BY-NC 4.0)

The principle method of fieldwork in cultural anthropology is called participant observation, and the incongruity between the action of participating and the action of observing exemplifies a methodological balance and the holistic goal of anthropology. Anthropologists must objectively study people as an outsider, but they also become part of that culture. They must be culturally relative, and not judge a foreign culture by the standards of the researcher's culture, but they also have their own ethical principles that come from the anthropologist's own culture, and there are limits to how dogmatic anthropologists can be about cultural relativism, and scientists (myself included) need to be a little bit ethnocentric to support things like the * United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and tell another culture that they're doing it wrong.
 Because our science is so tied to humans we can't avoid asking ethical questions, or as Sir Raymond Firth put it "Cui bonum?", which means "For Whose Good?" (Schepher-Huhges, 1981). What is the purpose of doing anthropology?

Physical anthropology tends to be more scientific than the other subfields. We can objectively study this biological species and its origins as any zoologist would. But, at the same time, we are talking about ourselves, myself, my relatives, the people who gave me the genes I have now, that enable me to think, and type, and wish that this font was easier to read on this crappy screen. We're animals, but we're also different than other animals, and even physical anthropology has humanistic aspects.

I think the two most distinctive characteristics of anthropology are that it is holistic and it emphasizes genealogy. Holism means that it tries to understand all facets of the human condition. This has many implications. Anthropology is multi-disciplinary; it involves many branches of knowledge. By the early 1900's Franz Boas solidified anthropology into four interrelated subfields: cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. As anthropologists began solving real world problems, some advocated for a fifth subfield: applied anthropology. For each of these sub-fields you can combine practically any other branch of science to make sub-sub-fields, depending on your specialization. Don't get too hung up about the correct taxonomy for these branches of knowledge. It can be rewritten in many forms depending which branch you want to emphasize. But in anthropology, all specialists need to have a broad overview to fit their research into the larger questions of what it means to be human, and this incorporation of specific issues into broad questions requires a holistic approach. A good example for physical anthropology is the concept of biocultural evolution, the idea that to understand human evolution we need to look at both biology and culture.

If you take a cultural anthropology class you will see the study of culture requires a holistic approach in its own right because culture is integrated and all-encompassing; you need to study all the elements of culture together and their interaction. Another consequence of holism, and the multi-disciplinary approach of anthropology, is that anthropologists tend to be skeptical of unicausal arguments. A unicausal argument is something like "people have wars because they have an aggressive nature." Anthropologists understand that human nature is supremely complex, and that culture can drastically change any human characteristic that people try to claim is biologically determined. Sure, people are aggressive. You can look at chimpanzees and hominid weapons, but humans are also peaceful, you can look at bonobos and the amazing art of the Upper Paleolithic. Try to keep this point in mind when you're writing for this class: avoid unicausal arguments, give all sides of an issues, avoid oversimplification, explore the evidence that supports each position.


Another general emphasis in anthropology is on genealogy. In cultural anthropology, the structure of the family is usually a core element of a culture. In physical anthropology, I like to view our emphasis on classification and taxonomy as just an attempt to better understand the branches of our own family tree.

The anthropological imagination is also something that you as an individual will use to better understand yourself and your place in the world. Biological and cultural explanations can be useful in solving your own problems. Having an answer to “Why am I sweating right now?” means understanding the cooling mechanisms that our ancestors evolved over tens of millions of year, and the fight-or-flight response in response to stress that involves putting your own personal financial problems into a cultural context where education is touted as the method of class mobility, yet restricted by public policy that raises tuition, textbook prices, and limits financial aid.

1.2.2     subfields of anthropology



Many anthropologists consider applied anthropology as a fifth subfield. I prefer to think of it as a research goal or purpose that cross-cuts all of the four subfields. For example, there are projects that can be considered applied linguistics, or applied archaeology. There are many applications for physical anthropology, especially in medicine. The word forensic means "legal", but most forensic anthropology tends to be a subfield of physical anthropology-we use what we know about human biology to help solve crimes.

3 stages of facical reconstruction: 1) skull with depth markers, 2) sketch showing skull beneath the face, 3) sketch without the skull. Compared to a photo of actual person

Figure 1.12 Forensic Facial Reconstruction by Karen T. Taylor (KTT) from Wikimedia (GFDLor CC-BY-SA-3.0)

* The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team is a good example of forensic anthropology. They have been recently working to identify the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico.

Archaeology can also be a kind of Applied Anthropology. Obsidian scalpels are actually sharper than steel ones:

Check out careers in genetic counseling

* the Health and Medicine chapter from a cultural anthropology textbook

* Desmond Morris' The Language of the Body: a good video combining physical anthropology, cultural anthropology and linguistics

1.2.3     conclusion: anthropology and science

In conclusion, anthropology is mostly a science, but has many aspects of humanism.

For a more traditional introduction to anthropology and science read the Dennis O'Neil overview of anthropology, Nature magazine's Introduction to Biological Anthropolgy, or Nelson et al.'s Introduction to Biological Anthropology

1.2.4     epistemology for physical anthropology

Epistemology means the study of how we know what we do. Taxonomy comes from the Greek word for “branches”. Here is a taxonomy of knowledge for this class:

taxonomical chart with arrows leading down: knowledge points to: awe inspiring aristic revelation, past-life regression, empirical observation, Religious experience, alien abduction flashback, and drug-induced hallucination. Empirical observation points to science, which points to chemistry, geology, sociology, anthropology, physics, and rocket science. Anthropology points to linguistics, cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, and archaeology. Physical antrhopology points to anthropometry, medical anthropology, forensic antrhopology, primatology, paleopathology, and paleoantrhopology.

Figure 1.13 "A sample taxonomy of epistemology for physical anthropology" by Arnie Schoenberg (CC BY-NC 4.0)

You can add or subtract boxes, and draw the arrows differently depending on what you want to focus on, and because anthropology is holistic these charts don't make much difference; anthropologists include all relevant aspects of knowledge. We will focus on the bottom part of the flowchart, but always keep the bigger picture in the back of your mind.

imagination questions

vocabulary for 1.2


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