Approaches to anthropology
The "four field" approach
Principally in the United States, anthropology is often defined as being "holistic" and based on a "four-field" approach. There is an ongoing dispute as to whether this makes sense theoretically or pragmatically in the structure of American academic institutions. Supporters consider anthropology holistic in two senses: it is concerned with all human beings across times and places, and with all dimensions of humanity (evolutionary, biophysical, sociopolitical, economic, cultural, linguistic, psychological, etc.); also many academic programs following this approach take a "four-field" approach to anthropology that encompasses physical anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology or social anthropology. The definition of anthropology as holistic and the "four-field" approach are disputed by some leading anthropologists, that consider those as artifacts from 19th century social evolutionary thought that inappropriately impose scientific positivism upon cultural anthropology in particular. The pressure for the "integration" of socio-cultural anthropology (inherently associated with the humanities), with "biological-physical anthropology" (inherently associated with the natural sciences), has been criticized as an inappropriate imposition of positivism (the belief that the only proper knowledge is that derived from the scientific method) upon cultural anthropology. This criticism argument has been raised towards the development of sociobiology in the late 1960s (by cultural anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins), and towards the "four field holism" of American Anthropology. While originating in the US, both the four field approach and debates concerning it have been exported internationally under American academic influence. (for more details see the section on the relations with the natural sciences and the Humanities)
The four fields are:
Biological or physical anthropology seeks to understand the physical human being through the study of human evolution and adaptability, population genetics, and primatology. Subfields or related fields include paleoanthropology (study of evolutionary history of the human species), anthropometrics, forensic anthropology, osteology, and nutritional anthropology. On the basis of Tinbergen's four questions a framework of reference or "periodic table" of all fields of anthropological research (including humanities) can be established.
Socio-cultural anthropology is the investigation, often through long term, intensive field studies (including participant-observation methods), of the culture and social organization of a particular people: language, economic and political organization, law and conflict resolution, patterns of consumption and exchange, kinship and family structure, gender relations, childrearing and socialization, religion, mythology, symbolism, etc. (U.S. universities more often use the term cultural anthropology; British universities have tended to call the corresponding field social anthropology, and for much of the 20th century emphasized the analysis of social organization more than cultural symbolism.) In some European countries, socio-cultural anthropology is known as ethnology (a term coined and defined by Adam F. Kollár in 1783 that is also used in English-speaking countries to denote the comparative aspect of socio-cultural anthropology.) Subfields and related fields include psychological anthropology, folklore, anthropology of religion, ethnic studies, cultural studies, anthropology of media and cyberspace, and study of the diffusion of social practices and cultural forms.
Linguistic anthropology seeks to understand the processes of human communications, verbal and non-verbal, variation in language across time and space, the social uses of language, and the relationship between language and culture. It is the branch of anthropology that brings linguistic methods to bear on anthropological problems, linking the analysis of linguistic forms and processes to the interpretation of sociocultural processes. Linguistic anthropologists often draw on related fields including anthropological linguistics, sociolinguistics, pragmatics, cognitive linguistics, semiotics, discourse analysis, and narrative analysis.
Archaeology studies the contemporary distribution and form of artifacts (materials modified by past human activities), with the intent of understanding distribution and movement of ancient populations, development of human social organization, and relationships among contemporary populations; it also contributes significantly to the work of population geneticists, historical linguists, and many historians. Archaeology involves a wide variety of field techniques (remote sensing, survey, geophysical studies, coring, excavation) and laboratory procedures (compositional analyses, dating studies (radiocarbon, optically stimulated luminescence dating), measures of formal variability, examination of wear patterns, residue analyses, etc.). Archaeologists predominantly study materials produced by prehistoric groups but also includes modern, historical and ethnographic populations. Archaeology is usually regarded as a separate (but related) field outside North America, although closely related to the anthropological field of material culture, which deals with physical objects created or used within a living or past group as a means of understanding its cultural values.
A number of subfields or modes of anthropology cut across these divisions. For example, medical anthropology is often considered a subfield of socio-cultural anthropology; however, many anthropologists who study medical topics also look at biological variation in populations or the interaction of culture and biology. They may also use linguistic analysis to understand communication around health and illness, or archaeological techniques to understand health and illness in historical or prehistorical populations. Similarly, forensic anthropologists may use both techniques from both physical anthropology and archaeology, and may also practice as medical anthropologists. Environmental or ecological anthropology, a growing subfield concerned with the relationships between humans and their environment, is another example that brings cultural and biological—and at times, archaeological—approaches together, as it can deal with a broad range of topics from environmentalist movements to wildlife or habitat conservation to traditional ecological knowledge and practices. Biocultural anthropology is a broad term used to describe syntheses of cultural and biological perspectives. Applied anthropology is perhaps better considered an emphasis than a subfield in the same sense as the standard four; applied anthropologists may work for government agencies, nongovernmental agencies, or private industry, using techniques from any of the subfields to address matters such as policy implementation, impact assessments, education, marketing research, or product development.
More recently, anthropology programs at several prominent U.S. universities have begun dividing the field into two: one emphasizing the humanities, critical theory, and interpretive or semiotic approaches; the other emphasizing evolutionary theory, quantitive methods, and explicit theory testing (over idiographic description), though there have also been institutional pressures to rejoin at least one high-profile split department. At some universitities, biological anthropology and archaeology programs have also moved from departments of anthropology to departments of biology or other related fields. This has occasioned much discussion within the American Anthropological Association, and it remains to be seen whether some form of the four-field organization will persist in North American universities.
As might be inferred from the above list of subfields, anthropology is a methodologically diverse discipline, incorporating both qualitative methods and quantitative methods. Ethnographies—intensive case studies based on field research—have historically had a central place in the literature of sociocultural and linguistic anthropology, but are increasingly supplemented by mixed-methods approaches. Currently, technological advancements are spurring methodological innovation across anthropology's subfields. Radiocarbon dating, population genetics, GPS, and digital video- and audio-recording are just a few of the many technologies spurring new developments in anthropological research.