The contrast between anthropology and sociology is a topic that has concerned many searching for the right college major. Fans of the social sciences will likely find the two majors have much in common, but each has a distinct focus and application. Consider a few of the distinguishing features of each to see which better aligns with your interests.
Simply put, sociologists study complex societies. The American Sociological Association explains that sociology builds on other social disciplines, such as economics, history and psychology, in order to examine the social interactions of individuals, groups and entire societies. Sociologists employ scientific inquiry to understand the nature of social dynamics and their consequences. For example, a sociologist would be most concerned with the systemic causes of homelessness, like poverty, unemployment and inequality, rather than the personal circumstances of a homeless individual, unless those circumstances shed light on the overarching system.
Anthropology is the study of humans, from their origins to the present. Anthropologists study both complex and small-scale societies. This broad science can be divided into four specialized disciplines. Sociocultural anthropology compares and contrasts different societies on topics such as class, gender and sexuality. Biological anthropology examines the interaction of biology and culture, and human adaptation to the environment. Archaeology studies the remains of past societies, such as tools, pottery and architecture. Finally, linguistic anthropology studies the development and influence of languages across cultures. Anthropology as a whole incorporates the research from these specialized disciplines to answer questions about humans from all time periods.
Similarities and Differences
Even where the interests of the two sciences overlap, they maintain subtle nuances, specifically in their research methods. Anthropology started out as a field science – anthropologists study people in their own environment. To do this effectively, an anthropologist will live in a community for a year or more to interact with the people and learn their culture from the inside. This qualitative methodology is called “participant observation.” While some sociologists have also adopted this practice, most sociological studies involve quantitative methods like interview questionnaires and statistical compilation, rather than qualitative participation and observation.
As an academic discipline, it's important to note that many colleges and universities blend their sociology and anthropology departments. Students can obtain a degree in either field, or a joint degree. Students of both disciplines will accrue experience in qualitative and quantitative data analysis, objective interpretation of evidence and multicultural perspective through the study of religion, social movements, family structures and global interdependence, among other things. Anthropology students are more likely to receive specialized training and pursue a career in one of its four specific disciplines. Students of both sciences, however, have broad career opportunities in fields like education, social services, research and international development.
- Gustavus Adolphus College: What are Sociology and Anthropology
- Middlebury: Department of Sociology and Anthropology
- American Sociological Association: What is Sociology?
- American Anthropological Association: What is Anthropology?
- East Tennessee State University: Sociology and Anthropology
- University of Richmond: Why Sociology and Anthropology?
- Photo Credit Agung Parameswara/Getty Images News/Getty Images
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