Anthropology is the study of humankind, past and present, that draws and builds upon knowledge from the social sciences and biological sciences, as well as the humanities and the natural sciences

Since the work of Franz Boas and Bronisław Malinowski in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anthropology in Great Britain and the US has been distinguished from ethnology and from other social sciences by its emphasis on cross-cultural comparisons, long-term in-depth examination of context, and the importance it places on participant-observation or experiential immersion in the area of research. 


Mayan statues exhibited at the British Museum an example of a subject of study of anthropology. image: R.Conan-Davies

Cultural anthropology in particular has emphasized cultural relativism, holism, and the use of findings to frame cultural critiques.  This has been particularly prominent in the United States, from Boas's arguments against 19th-century racial ideology, through Margaret Mead's advocacy for gender equality and sexual liberation, to current criticisms of post-colonial oppression and promotion of multiculturalism. 

While in Great Britain and the Commonwealth countries, the British tradition of Social Anthropology tends to dominate, in the United States anthropology is traditionally divided into the four field approach developed by Franz Boas in the early 20th century: 

  • biological or physical anthropology, 
  • social anthropology or cultural anthropology, 
  • archaeology and 
  • anthropological linguistics. 

These fields frequently overlap, but tend to use different methodologies and techniques.

In those European countries that did not have overseas colonies, where ethnology (a term coined and defined by Adam F. Kollár in 1783) was more widespread, social anthropology is now defined as the study of social organization in non-state societies and is sometimes referred to as sociocultural anthropology in the parts of the world that were influenced by the European tradition.