Anthropology: The Four Field Approach, an Overview

Knoji reviews products and up-and-coming brands we think you'll love. In certain cases, we may receive a commission from brands mentioned in our guides. Learn more.
Anthropology: A Four Field Approach American anthropology has come a long way in the last 50 years. It is still by no means a perfectly coherent discipline, but the four field approach has brought some interdisciplinary norms that are used as standard in

Anthropology: A Four Field Approach

American anthropology has come a long way in the last 50 years. It is still by no means a perfectly coherent discipline, but the four field approach has brought some interdisciplinary norms that are used as standard in today’s anthropological endeavors. The four main sub disciplines are discrete enough that the question of whose area of responsibility any given problem may be is easily determined. There many sub disciplines within the four fields and these begin to amount to specializations.

Most of the following definitions come from Kottak but I have included some from Haviland, both of whom are respected writers of introductory text books in the field. I quote both for juxtaposition as they tend to take differing approaches that are typical of the field as a whole. Kottack has a tendency towards being a splitter, one meaning of this is he tends to classify based on differences, whereas Haviland is a lumper, meaning he tends to classify based on similarities. I tend to be a splitter yet I tend to lean toward Haviland’s definitions as a little more on point or clearer.

Definition of Anthropology: The study of the human species and its immediate ancestors (Kottak, 2004).

As anthropologists we are concerned with the primary focus of the changes and actions of the human race since the beginning of our species and beyond, which brings me to the first of the four fields, archaeology. Many people, when they find out you are doing a dig say the same thing “finding any dinosaur bones?” Though the methodology looks very similar, looking for dinosaur bones makes you a paleontologist, looking for artifacts and human remnants makes you an archaeologist.

Archaeology – The study of human behavior and cultural patterns and processes through the cultures remains (Kottak, 2004). The study of material remains, usually from the past, to describe and explain human behavior (Haviland, 2002).

Other than Indiana Jones, Louis and Mary Leakey are two of the most famous and influential archaeologists of their time. They dug in Olduvia Gorge in the Rift Valley of northern Tanzania for nearly their entire career. Based on the presence of the oldest culturally altered stone tools (dubbed the Olduwan Tool Complex by Mary), they had determined that the gorge would be the best place to find the bones of the people that used them. They searched for 28 years with very little success until they began finding the bones of what would be called Homo habilis, the earliest specimen of genus Homo.

Note: British Archaeology is a different department, not cultural science but Social anthropology. The British take a much less integrated approach to anthropology than we do but it seems to work for them.

Physical / Biological – The study of human biological variation in time and space; includes evolution, genetics, growth and development, and primatology (Kottak, 2004), the systematic study of humans as biological organisms (Haviland, 2002).

Here is an example of Haviland having a more concise definition. This my chosen field in Grad school. As primatologists, we ask questions of primate research that are concerned with the primate in question. These studies lead to a better understanding of primates which in turn lead us to better understand ourselves. As anthropologist we look at primate species (mostly our closest relatives the great apes) and ask questions that have to do directly with human behavior and biology. Some of the most famous of these are:

There is Jane Goodall who studied Chimpanzees at the Gombe Stream Reserve in Tanzania and wrote the book In the Shadow of Man. She is easily the most famous and her work continues to this day making the single longest running wildlife study in history.

Diane Fossey studied Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda and wrote the book Gorillas in the Mist. Her life ended tragically in an altercation with poachers and there was a movie by the same name as the book made about her starring Sigourney Weaver.

Birute’ Galdikas studied Orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra and wrote the book Reflections of Eden. She is not nearly as well known as the others due to the difficulty in studying the very secretive Orangutans, but her contributions to conservation and protection of Orangutans is unparalleled.

Linguistics – The descriptive, comparative, and historical study of language and of linguistic similarities and differences in time, space and society (Kottak, 2004).

The study of languages is one of the most intriguing and difficult fields in Anthropology, it can also be one of the most rewarding. This is a very diverse field that studies not only languages of the past like Egyptian hieroglyphics but modern languages as well. One of the more tangible and unifying concepts from linguistics is the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis.

Sapir / Whorf Hypothesis: Theory that different languages produce different ways of thinking (Kottak, 2004). This is applicable in that the world view of a subject can be interpreted through their use of language and everything about them can then be analyzed in that paradigm for a better overall understanding.

Cultural- The study of human society and culture; describes, analyzes, interprets, and explains social and cultural similarities and differences (Kottak, 2004).

One of the most famous and controversial of these scientists is Napoleon Chagnon who went to South America and studied the Yanomamo on and off for 25 years until he was banned from the country. His book is a standard in curricula for introductory courses in cultural anthropology.

I have always thought and said that as a professor teaching these introductory classes that it was my job to get people excited about, and recruited into, this field of study that has so fascinated me and made my life one of adventure and education. I will be writing many of these articles explaining any number of concepts and ideas.