Why Study Anthropology?

Anthropology is the comprehensive study of human development, culture, and change throughout the world, past and present. Anthropology can also help us imagine and design futures that attend to human and environmental complexity. The comprehensiveness of anthropology stems from its emphasis on context, reflected in the perspectives offered by the discipline’s four fields: sociocultural, biological, 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. Learning to be a good ethnographer requires learning how to observe, learning how to ask necessary and appropriate anthropological questions, and learning how to locate patterns in complex human behavior. Our unique field-based approach to human experience yields distinctive access to the connections between culture and social life. For biological anthropologists, these connections are found in both field and lab research. 

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. Anthropologists are often in dialogue with historians, literary critics, psychologists, sociologists, biologists, and other specialists whose scholarship engages anthropological questions. Therefore, in addition to ethnographic methods, anthropologists will sometimes employ more quantitative social science methods (such as surveys), natural science methods (such as laboratory research), and methods associated with the humanities (such as textual and visual studies).

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.

Our course offerings are organized into three tracks: sociocultural anthropology; medical anthropology; and law, politics, and economics. The sociocultural track (SCA) introduces students to a wide range of scholarship on cultural meaning-making and changes in societies around the globe. Courses in the medical anthropology track (MedAnth) focus on global health, different cultural notions of psychological and physical wellbeing, and science and technology studies (e.g. the culture of medicine, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and scientific knowledge production). Students in this track will also learn about the biological aspects of human evolution, as well as the impact of culture and the environment on human growth, development, and disease. The law, politics, and economics track (LPE) introduces students to cross-cultural studies of customary and case law, governance, systems of exchange, and debt.

For Anthropology majors, regardless of track, our courses are 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.

For non-majors, our department welcomes students from all disciplines to learn how anthropological theory and methods can be helpful and, indeed, critical for making sense of today's complex world.