Why Study Anthropology?

Anthropology is the comprehensive study of human development, culture, and change in the full range of the world’s sociocultural systems, past and present. The comprehensiveness of anthropology stems from its emphasis on context, reflected in the perspectives offered by the discipline’s four fields: sociocultural, biological, and linguistic anthropology, and archaeology. The Anthropology Department at Princeton regularly offers courses and advising in sociocultural and biological anthropology; additional instruction is available through cross-lists, cognates, and special offerings by visitors.

The characteristic methodologies of anthropology inform an understanding of human experiences and practices, illuminating their interconnectedness and interdependence. For sociocultural anthropologists, such connections are discovered mainly through long-term ethnographic research.  For bioanthropologists, they are found in the field and in the lab.  The discipline of anthropology has influenced other disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, and in turn has been influenced by multidisciplinary approaches integrating these modes of inquiry. Thus, anthropologists are often in dialogue with historians, literary critics, psychologists, sociologists, biologists, and other specialists whose scholarship engages anthropological questions. While anthropologists employ formal social science methods (like the survey), natural science methods (such as observation and laboratory research), and methods associated with the humanities (such as textual and visual studies), our field-based approach to human experience yields distinctive access to the connections between culture and social life. 

One of the qualities that makes anthropology distinct as an academic discipline is its insistently cross-cultural, or comparative, perspective. By extending our vision beyond familiar social contexts and experiences, and drawing on knowledge and experience from all over the world, this perspective offers a productive counterweight to "culture bound" or ethnocentric ideas regarding human nature, values, and ways of life. Anthropological theory emphasizes the importance of context and people's understandings of their own milieu and the world around them. The relevance of such an approach is potentially broad. For example, together with biological anthropology, this comparative perspective has enabled anthropologists to play a leading role, during the 20th century and into the 21st, in undermining the intellectual credibility of racist social theories. Today, world events continue to engage anthropologists – for example, on questions of economic development, political crisis, the social effects of globalization, and social security. In an ever-shrinking world, where humankind's most difficult problems are both local and global, anthropology’s multicultural expertise is especially relevant wherever improvement can be found in mutual understanding, innovative partnerships and novel combinations of knowledge.

Course offerings emphasize the study of cultural meaning-making and change in Western and non-Western societies, the core of contemporary socio-cultural anthropology. Our bioanthropology courses emphasize the biological aspects of human adaptation and development, as well as the biological implications of social life (such as nutrition, growth and aging). The major is designed to provide students with a broad understanding of the discipline through courses on foundational concepts, fundamental methods, and the history of ideas. In addition, special topic courses offer students significant opportunities to craft individualized programs in consultation with their advisers.