Anthropologists do a lot more than you think. Sure, everybody knows about physical anthropologists and archeologists like the movie character Indiana Jones who look for artifacts and physical remains, but did you know that cultural anthropologists study the kinship patterns of indigenous peoples or that linguistic anthropologists both study modern bilingualism and help preserve vanishing languages? Anthropology is a broad, interdisciplinary field, which makes sense given that it is typically defined as the study of humankind.
Physical Anthropologist Responsibilities
Physical anthropologists are also called biological anthropologists, and they study human biology, in specific the origins, diversity, and adaptations of humans. Physical anthropologists also study the biology and evolution of primates, as they are our closest genetic relatives. Physical anthropologists spend a great deal of time in the field, excavating sites to recover physical remains, but most also spend a good bit of time in the lab cleaning, preparing and analyzing specimens. Physical anthropologists who specialize in genetics and species diversity spend most of their time in laboratory research analyzing and identifying genetic material in samples. A forensic anthropologist is a type of physical anthropologist who works with law enforcement to identify skeletal remains and DNA.
Archeologists recover and study artifacts, structures and other materials used by past human cultures. Their job is to piece together artifacts and other information about past cultures to improve our understanding of the customs and lifestyle of earlier peoples. Archeologists spend most of their time at archeological sites, where they painstakingly work to recover artifacts, but they also spend a lot of time in labs analyzing materials and consulting with other archeologists or making presentations at professional conferences.
Cultural Anthropologist Responsibilities
Cultural anthropologists study human cultures. They typically study the customs, behavior patterns and social lives of societies or groups of people, and then publish articles or ethnographies resulting from the research. Traditionally, cultural anthropologists studied other cultures than their own, often actually living in the society and collecting data by observation, interviews, surveys and even participation in cultural events, but modern cultural anthropology also brings its analytical tools to bear on itself as anthropologists deconstruct their own cultures and traditions. Anthropologists have an ethical responsibility to do no harm to their research subjects, which means they must be very thoughtful in the publication of their research results.
Linguistic Anthropologist Responsibilities
Linguistic anthropology is the study of human communication and its social functions, including nonverbal communication. Linguistic anthropologists work with written text and spoken language. Some linguistic anthropologists work to preserve the many soon to be extinct languages used only by a few remaining speakers, and others pursue research such as the issues surrounding bilingualism and multilingualism and the mixing of languages and cultures.
Clayton Browne has been writing professionally since 1994. He has written and edited everything from science fiction to semiconductor patents to dissertations in linguistics, having worked for Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Steck-Vaughn and The Psychological Corp. Browne has a Master of Science in linguistic anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.