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The word anthropology is derived from Greek and means "The Study of Man" (the title of a once-famous introductory text published by the American anthropologist Ralph Linton in 1937). Historically, anthropologists started out by examining the lives and beliefs of traditional, non-Western peoples. Today this interest continues, but studies of Western - and non-Western - modern societies and institutions have also become common.

Social anthropology is the branch of this discipline that was developed in Great Britain in the early years of the twentieth century, under the heavy influence of French sociological theory (Émile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss), and inspired by the methodological ideals of fieldwork (see below) that were pioneered by the Polish-British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Social anthropology (which spread from Britain to such countries as Norway, Sweden and Holland) is often contrasted to (American) cultural anthropology (developed by Franz Boas, who was less sociologically inclined and more influenced by linguistics and history), and to French ethnologie (the creation of Durkheim and Mauss), though the distinctions between these traditions has blurred during the last few decades.

As an academic subject, anthropology traces its roots back to the nineteenth century, when the first systematic comparative studies of human cultures world-wide were published. Four national traditions soon became dominant within the discipline - the British, French, German and American schools. Today, after more than a century of dialogue between these traditions, there is a broad consensus as to the subjectís analytical goals and methodology.

Analytically, anthropology may be regarded as a holistic and comparative branch of sociology:

Holistic, in the sense that anthropologists tend to concern themselves with the connections between the various parts that make up a social and cultural whole, rather than specializing on one specific subsystem within the whole. This gives anthropologists a kind of jack-of-all-trades knowledge that purists within other disciplines may find dilettantish, but which has resulted in much and fruitful interdisciplinary cooperation, e.g. with linguists, ecologists, political scientists, economists, medical professionals, historians, philosophers, biologists, psychologists.

Comparative, in the sense that anthropologists have described the most diverse cultures all over the world, as well as all kinds of subcultures, groups and institutions in our own society. All of these accounts together serve as an incredibly rich databank of human cultural and social forms, which may be compared and contrasted, to bring out the specificity - not to say the idiosyncracy - of any society, including our own.

In its methods, anthropology is the social science that most consistently advocates a qualitative approach (though certain subdisciplines utilize quantitative methods extensively). What we seek to uncover through our research is what things, relationships, persons and activities mean to people, rather than what these phenomena are in themselves. And meaning, at least to our present state of knowledge, cannot be quantified. This qualitative methodology is realized by anthropologists through fieldwork. Anthropological fieldwork is a very specific form of inquiry, in which long-term exposure to the daily life of the people being studied is the key. The idea is to live with "them" and live as "them" as far as possible, while at the same time studying "them", so as to ultimately be able to attain at least a glimpse of "their" point of view, of the vision of life which grows out of and responds to the practical exigencies of "their" lives.

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For texts concerned with the anthropological research process on AnthroBase, click here: