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Is majoring in anthropology right for you?

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

One of the most exciting–yet often challenging– parts of college is choosing your major! Choosing a major is an important step in cultivating your academic and personal interests. As we continue our blog series discussing the different college major options, today we will be discussing anthropology!

What is anthropology?

The American Anthropological Association defines anthropology as “the study of what makes us human.” Anthropology studies human societies, both past, and present, in order to understand changes and continuities in the way people live. This includes human biology and genetics, as well as social and cultural aspects of human living. These comparisons across societies and people are useful in developing a deeper understanding of one’s own society, as well as in enhancing public policy in education, economics, medicine, and more.

Using methods from a variety of academic disciplines, anthropology effectively combines the natural sciences and social sciences in order to explore human social organization and culture. Anthropology is guided by cultural relativism: the practice of understanding how one’s own cultural norms influence the perspective through which we study other cultures and societies. Anthropology also engages with studies of evolution and evolutionary biology to discover more about past human societies.

Overall, anthropology is a comprehensive field of study serving as an intersection between the natural sciences and the humanities.

Here are a few of the many different areas of anthropological study:

Biological Anthropology: Also known as physical anthropology, biological anthropology shares quite a bit in common with traditional biological science. Researchers in this field study biological aspects of humans and animals, contributing greatly to understandings of human evolution and biological development. This field relies heavily on fossils in order to understand the past, but also studies the variations among contemporary human populations, and the biological impact of this variation.

Interested? Read: Our Origins by Clark Spencer Larsen

Medical Anthropology: This subfield of anthropology explores social determinants of health. Research in this field explores how race, class, and culture impact the practice of medicine and the quality of healthcare that patients receive. Many pre-med students decide to pursue this as a major in undergrad in order to gain a more holistic understanding of health and human beings.

Interested? Read: Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies by Phillipe Bourgois

Sociocultural Anthropology: Sociocultural anthropology is one of the main fields of anthropology. This field compares the ways different people engage in their individual cultures and societies around the world. Research here explores kinship ties, political organization, patterns of economic exchange, and gender relations. Ethnographic studies in this field explore broadly the impacts of culture on human behavior and the way in which people understand the world around them.

Interested? Read: Think Like an Anthropologist by Matthew Engelke

Linguistic Anthropology: People studying linguistic anthropology study language and methods of communication. Across the globe, language varies between cultures and communities, and linguistic anthropology sees the understanding of these differences as a key to understanding our world. This field also explores how forms of language have changed over time, and are continuously adapting in different environments and among different populations.

Anthropological Archaeology: Archaeologists examine human culture and development through what is termed as “material culture.” Essentially, researchers in archaeology utilize material objects (such as tools, pottery, and other objects) to learn more about human cultures both past and present. Through the discovery of these objects, we can get a much clearer understanding of how humans engaged with the world in the past, particularly their environment and the resources around them. Most undergraduate students do not get to participate in traditional archaeological research like digs. Archaeology is most traditionally a graduate field in most institutions.

Interested? Read: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow

What will my college course load look like if I major in anthropology?

This varies by school, but you’ll likely get a glimpse of logic, value theory, theoretical theory, and other foundational courses before narrowing in on your specific area of study. Here are some sample classes*. Do they sound interesting to you?

*These are actual names of anthropology classes offered at Princeton University, but many anthropology programs will offer similar courses!

Part of the beauty of anthropology is that, like many majors, it is not linked directly to a specific job or career field. Some jobs common for people who major in Anthropology include careers in law (such as a lawyer or attorney), careers with the federal government (like international development or cultural resource management), careers in academia, and careers in non-profit and humanitarian aid. In whatever field you choose to enter, choosing anthropology as a major provides you with a framework for understanding human cultural norms and societies and how these intersect with human biology and behavior.

Anthropology vs Sociology: What’s the difference?

This is a very common question! The best way to think about the difference between these two fields is that while anthropology focuses on conducting research about humans and culture at an individual level, sociology applies a broader lens and focuses on societal, larger structures, and behavior in group settings. Anthropological research utilizes mostly qualitative methods, while sociological research employs quantitative in addition to qualitative methods. Additionally, while anthropology relies heavily on the research method of ethnography, which is centered on qualitative observations, sociology employs both qualitative and quantitative research methods.

With the exception of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, most high schools and secondary schools do not offer opportunities to learn about anthropology prior to entering college. Interested in exploring anthropological ways of thinking? Does the prospect of conducting ethnographic research in different cultural communities excite you? Are you willing to do a lot of reading and writing? Are you yearning to apply critical thinking skills in challenging your preconceived notions of the world around you?

Check out these resources to see if anthropology might be right for you!

Does anthropology sound like a major you'd be interested in? Tell us in the comments.

After you decide your major, you'll need to find the perfect college to study it. For example, USC is an INCREDIBLE place to study anthropology. Find your perfect campus! Download our completely free College Research Guide to see a list of the best resources for your college search so you know exactly where to start.

Aisha Chebbi is a Princeton University student and anthropology major.

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