5 Most Branches of Anthropology – Discussed!

Anthropology studies the developments and variation in physical structure and social, cultural, economic and linguistic behaviors of man. It leads anthropology to be divided into four main branches—Physical, Socio-cultural, Linguistic and Archaeological Anthropology. Besides these four, there are many other branches of anthropology most of them are discussed below:

1. Physical Anthropology:

Before understanding the social, cultural and lingual nature of man, it is necessary to understand him as a biological organism. Physical anthropology is the study of the nature of the similarities and differences in the make up of different human population the world over.



The estimation of population characters in terms of various bodily traits such as stature, head shape, nose form, skin colour, etc. lead the 19th century Physical Anthropologists to measure them and classify them into races. But modern physical Anthropology is not limited to description—measurement and classification.

Today analysis, interpretation and theorizations are representatives of modern anthropology. For which Washburn suggested ‘New Physical Anthropology’ as contrasted to the earlier traditional methods of study.

Even ever since Washburn’s adoption of a new nomenclature, Physical Anthropology has kept pace with the rapid growth and developments in allied biological sciences such as Genetics and Molecular Biology and in conformity with it, it has undergone a sea change in the type of problems it studies.

Today, it encompasses the entire gamut of human biological change as the study of events and processes of human evolution. As such it has two broad sub-divisions: Evolutionary Biology and Human Biology of (Palaeontology and Ne-ontology).


While the study of Evolutionary Biology is a historical concern, Human Biology is mainly concerned with studying biological variations in different human populations, presently spread all over the world.

Its concern with the present has also lead to the study of Primate Behaviour—a specialization known as Ethology. This broadening of the horizons of their concerns and greater collaboration with other biological sciences has leaded them to redesign ate their subject more appropriately as ‘Biological Anthropology’.

2. Linguistic Anthropology:

Language is the expression of feelings and emotions. It is the strongest medium to understand the concepts which completes man’s thinking ability. Man is lame without language. Therefore, the capacity to speak language being Man’s unique and distinctive characteristic feature and a part of culture.

It was quite natural for anthropology the have i.e. the relationship between language and culture and the importance of language as an instrument of communication between members of a society. Unlike the science of Linguistics, which developed much earlier in the 18th century, anthropological interest in all languages has not been the study languages as language.


Though, E. B. Tylor was the first noted anthropologist to have drawn the attention of anthropologists towards the study of language, during all these years until recently, there has never been a concerted and serious effort in this direction.

In their study of Primitive societies, they learned the languages of the people they studied. As such a stock of knowledge about the spoken languages of the primitives leads some of them to study the origin of language. Different terms were used to designate such studies such as Ethno-Linguistics of Meta Linguistics etc. There was no unanimity about the terms to designate these interests.

The science of Linguistics was interested in studying the characteristics of different languages which had their scripts and literary tradition. If emphasized in characterizing each language in terms of phonology, syntax and grammar, etc.

It began with the study of ancient mother languages only, having rich literary traditions such as Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and Hebrew, etc. It was more interested in the classification of these languages into broader and smaller categories on the basis of their similarities and differences in linguistic features.

It was in 1960, that an American anthropologist Dell Hymens in collaboration with a few Linguists organized a specialized branch of study in Anthropology replacing the multiplicity of terms in the field by adoption one single term Linguistic anthropology. They defined it as the study of language in Anthropological perspective. It endeavored to study language as an important part of culture.

The Anthropological perspective in the study of language is concerned with those aspects of speech and language which he comes across in his ethnological and ethnographic studies. The scope of Linguistic anthropology is well defined by the anthropologist’s interest in linguistic phenomenon, which is viewed as a part of culture.

As Anthropologists we study the nature and meaning of language in relation to the other aspects of culture. It has close relationship with the science of linguistics.

3. Socio-Cultural Anthropology:

Second half of the 19th century was the beginning period of the socio-cultural Anthropology. Inspired by the increasing popularity of the idea of evolution after Darwin’s publication of the Origin of Species, a few European scholars belonging to different academic fields—got them interested in exploring the possibility of a similar process of evolution in the field of society and culture.

As a corollary of this interest, they got themselves interested in the study of primitive societies with the conviction that they represented the earliest condition of human society and cultures.

All of them who got themselves involved in the comparative study of primitive societies and cultures at that time, with the intention of studying origin and evolution of culture preferred the use of the term ethnologists for them.

Social cultural anthropology today is recognized as a branch or sub-discipline of anthropology which studies man as Homo-faber and Homo socius. It studies man in the context of society and culture.

While society’s presence is attested at the sub-human level, culture is exclusively a human phenomenon. Broadly speaking, this branch of anthropology mainly concentrates on the life patterns of people. It has developed as the science of social-cultural similarities and differences without any binding limitation of time and space.

Though in its earlier stages it limited it’s studies only among the primitive peoples, modern social-cultural anthropology entertains no such limitations. By the beginning of the 20th century its earlier designation as Ethnology was gradually abandoned and replaced by the terms cultural anthropology in USA and by social anthropology in Britain.

In America, a tradition of study of whole cultures developed, while in Britain the comparative study of social-structures was considered to be the subject matter of study of social anthropology.

The American anthropologists considered the study of culture of people to include social structure. So the two differed only in degrees. Unlike its earlier exclusive pre-occupation with the primitives, it has extended its domain to cover complex societies as well, through the study of small seal non- literate societies is still important to it.

4. Ethnology:

The comparative study of cultures in historical perspective is the subject matter of ethnology. The terms cultural anthropology and social anthropology were by no means unheard or unknown, but ethnology was the term commonly used for such studies.

It was claimed to be the comparative study of cultures. The term was restricted to the study of primitive cultures only. It used to be done in the libraries by the scholars who wished to study and distill the reports of travellers, administrator’s explorers and missionaries and ethnographers (descriptive accounts about single cultures).

They made comparative study of the people and their culture on the basis of variations in them in terms of race, language, culture, customs and practices. Their concern with past and evolution characterized them as ethnologists.

Modern Ethnology has developed as a specialized study more systematic than its earlier 19th century version and is studied through the systematic analysis of Museum collections, comprising rare relics of recent human cultural past.

Ethnology is primarily characterized by its concern about man’s cultural history and tracing the routes of migration of people and populations without a recorded history on the basis of their comparisons in terms of their racial, linguistic and cultural features. Ethnologists also study dynamics of culture. That is, how various cultures develop and change.

(i) Ethnography:

The descriptive account of the total way of life of the people at a given time is simply denoted by a single word, ethnography. Ethnographers usually spend some time living among the people they study and make observations. J. C. Pritchard in his book ‘The Natural History of Man’ used this word for the first time as descriptive study and distinguished it from Ethnology which according to him was the comparative study of the history of the nations.

A. H. Kane, in his book ‘Ethnography’ (1896) described that the various groups of people taken independently all of the other, constituted the subject matter of ethnography which was purely descriptive. According to Kane, ethnology on the other hand studied the same human groups comparatively with the objective of tracing their origin, early history and migrations.

In its earlier phase, ethnography was the task of non-professionals to whom the books like ‘ The Notes and Quarries in Anthropology’ provided a standardized format for observing and recording of data through extensive use of interpreters.

This armature ethnography was totally eclipsed with the publication of Malinowski’s ‘Argonauts of the Western Pacific’ in 1922. This study was conducted by Malinowski himself by his prolonged stay among those people. Since then, the ethnographic field work became a highly professionalized activity.

It was no more merely a collection and description of facts but rather turned into deeper analysis of a particular social structure or culture pattern. In anthropological studies description cannot be neatly separated from analysis and interpretation, particularly ever since trained professional anthropologists themselves adopted the role of ethnographers.

The present day modern ethnography is no more a causal venture of an armature, but a deliberate effort of a professional with a theoretical frame work. Today, ethnography is the first hand account of the social life and culture of a particular human community or society obtained through the procedure of long term stay and face to face field work. Today, a hard and fast distinction between social anthropology and ethnography has become less significant and difficult to make.

(ii) New Ethnography:

Since 1960’s, a group of American cultural anthropologists have begun to talk about New Ethnography. They have been influenced by the advances in structural linguistics combining what they have learnt from the former with the best in the intensive field work tradition.

A term “Ethno- Scientists” or “Cognitive anthropologists” has come to be used for them. To them, ethnography is no more an uncritical narrative but a highly sophisticated and creative theoretical activity.

(iii) Ethnohistorians:

Anthropologist investigates written documents to establish the sequence of cultural change. Unlike ethnographers, who rely on their own observations, they rely on the reports of the others. Unlike historians, they studied the people who did not themselves leave written records.

They tried to re­construct the recent history of people and also suggested why certain changes in their way of life took place. With the data collected and analyzed by the ethnographers, and ethno-historians, the work of a third type of ethnologist, the cross-cultural researcher can be done who is interested in discovering why certain cultural characteristics may be found in some societies but not in the others.

Cross-cultural researchers analyzed compiled data for many cultures to arrive at general explanations of cultural variations.

(iv) Ethno Science:

An ethnographic approach known as ‘ethno science’ attempts to derive anthropological urges from a logical analysis of ethnographic data that are kept as free as possible from contamination by the observer’s own cultural biases. Rather than collecting data according to a pre-determined set of anthropological categories, the ethno scientist seeks to understand a people’s world from their point of view.

Utilizing what he or she has discovered about them through studying their languages and particularly, the words they use to describe what they do, the ethnoscientists tried to formulate rules that generate acceptable behaviour in the culture.

The rules in question are believed to be comparable to the grammatical rules that generate the correct use of the language. Many ethno- scientists think that if we can discover the rules that generate correct cultural behaviour, we can explain much of what people do and why they do it.

Probably, individuals do generally act according to the conscious and unconscious rules they have internalized. However, we still need to understand why a particular society has developed the particular cultural rules it has. Just as grammar does not explain how a language came to be what it is, so the ethno-scientific discovery of cultural rules does not explain why those rules developed?

5. Archaeological Anthropology:

Archaeologists may be called as the detectives of nomads, the evidences for which are found buried under the ground in different layers of earth in the form of material cultural remains and have to be dug out in order to study them.

The two current archaeological traditions are the Text-aided or the old world archaeology and the Text-free or the New World Archaeology. While the former is more concerned with the archaeological studies of historic period, the later confined itself to the study of origin and development of culture in prehistoric times.

The prehistoric archaeology is mainly concerned with the study of the prehistoric cultural past of Man-going as far back in time as remote past when the evidences of the beginning of Man’s cultural activity is attested by the availability on pebble tools or eoliths, which are hardly indistinguishable from the rocks broken and smoothened by the natural processes.

Since all these studies are concerned with the period of human existence prior to the invention of script, it comprises the text free archaeology an archaeological tradition brought much to perfection in the study of American prehistory in close association with anthropology.

The New World Archaeological Tradition as such, developed into a specialized branch of study of Anthropology in America known as Archaeological Anthropology, Archaeology is much distinguished as a specialized study not much for it’s regard for the element of historicity or chronology as much for it’s knack of interpreting material cultural evidences of the past unearthed form the layers of earth.

In America, the New World Archaeology developed in close association with Anthropology and is taught in the departments of Anthropology in various universities. The old world archaeology which originated and developed in Europe and confined to the researches in early historic times, is intimately related to History and is taught with history in various university departments the world over.