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Anthropology vs. History

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

This is a topic that I really enjoy, and if I go back to school this would be what I would want to study. In today's post I will be giving you an overview of Anthropology as well as History, I am doing this because when I talk about Anthropology people don't really know what it is about.


What is Anthropology?

Anthropology is the study of what makes us human. Anthropologists take a broad approach to understanding the many different aspects of the human experience, which we call holism. They consider the past, through archaeology, to see how human groups lived hundreds or thousands of years ago and what was important to them. They consider what makes up our biological bodies and genetics, as well as our bones, diet, and health. Anthropologists also compare humans with other animals (most often, other primates like monkeys and chimpanzees) to see what we have in common with them and what makes us unique. Even though nearly all humans need the same things to survive, like food, water, and companionship, the ways people meet these needs can be very different. For example, everyone needs to eat, but people eat different foods and get food in different ways. So anthropologists look at how different groups of people get food, prepare it, and share it. They look at the different ways people dress and communicate in different societies. Anthropologists sometimes use these comparisons to understand their own society. Many anthropologists work in their own societies looking at economics, health, education, law, and policy (to name just a few topics). When trying to understand these complex issues, they keep in mind what they know about biology, culture, types of communication, and how humans lived in the past.

The Four Sub-fields

Anthropology is generally divided into four sub-fields. Each of the sub-fields teaches distinctive skills. However, the sub-fields also have a number of similarities. For example, each sub-field applies theories, employs systematic research methodologies, formulates and tests hypotheses, and develops extensive sets of data.


Archaeologists study human culture by analyzing the objects people have made. They carefully remove from the ground such things as pottery and tools, and they map the locations of houses, trash pits, and burials in order to learn about the daily lives of a people. They also analyze human bones and teeth to gain information on a people’s diet and the diseases they suffered. Archaeologists collect the remains of plants, animals, and soils from the places where people have lived in order to understand how people used and changed their natural environments. The time range for archaeological research begins with the earliest human ancestors millions of years ago and extends all the way up to the present day. Like other areas of anthropology, archaeologists are concerned with explaining differences and similarities in human societies across space and time.

Biological Anthropology

Biological anthropologists seek to understand how humans adapt to different environments, what causes disease and early death, and how humans evolved from other animals. To do this, they study humans (living and dead), other primates such as monkeys and apes, and human ancestors (fossils). They are also interested in how biology and culture work together to shape our lives. They are interested in explaining the similarities and differences that are found among humans across the world. Through this work, biological anthropologists have shown that, while humans do vary in their biology and behaviour, they are more similar to one another than different.

Cultural Anthropology

Sociocultural anthropologists explore how people in different places live and understand the world around them. They want to know what people think is important and the rules they make about how they should interact with one another. Even within one country or society, people may disagree about how they should speak, dress, eat, or treat others. Anthropologists want to listen to all voices and viewpoints in order to understand how societies vary and what they have in common. Sociocultural anthropologists often find that the best way to learn about diverse peoples and cultures is to spend time living among them. They try to understand the perspectives, practices, and social organization of other groups whose values and life-ways may be very different from their own. The knowledge they gain can enrich human understanding on a broader level.

Linguistic Anthropology

Linguistic anthropologists study the many ways people communicate across the globe. They are interested in how language is linked to how we see the world and how we relate to each other. This can mean looking at how language works in all its different forms, and how it changes over time. It also means looking at what we believe about language and communication, and how we use language in our lives. This includes the ways we use language to build and share meaning, to form or change identities, and to make or change relations of power. For linguistic anthropologists, language and communication are keys to how we make society and culture.


What is History?

History is the study of the past – specifically the people, societies, events and problems of the past – as well as our attempts to understand them. It is a pursuit common to all human societies. History can take the form of a tremendous story, a rolling narrative filled with great personalities and tales of turmoil and triumph. Each generation adds its own chapters to history while reinterpreting and finding new things in those chapters already written. History provides us with a sense of identity. By understanding where we have come from, we can better understand who we are. History provides a sense of context for our lives and our existence. It helps us understand the way things are and how we might approach the future. History teaches us what it means to be human, highlighting the great achievements and disastrous errors of the human race. History also teaches us through example, offering hints about how we can better organise and manage our societies for the benefit of all.

Those new to studying history often think history and the past are the same thing. This is not the case. The past refers to an earlier time, the people and societies who inhabited it and the events that took place there. History describes our attempts to research, study and explain the past.This is a subtle difference but an important one. What happened in the past is fixed in time and cannot be changed. In contrast, history changes regularly. The past is concrete and unchangeable but history is an ongoing conversation about the past and its meaning.

The word “history” and the English word “story” both originate from the Latin historia, meaning a narrative or account of past events. History is itself a collection of thousands of stories about the past, told by many different people. Because there are so many of these stories, they are often variable, contradictory and conflicting. This means history is subject to constant revision and reinterpretation. Each generation looks at the past through its own eyes. It applies different standards, priorities and values and reaches different conclusions about the past.

The study of how history differs and has changed over time is called historiography. Like historical narratives themselves, our understanding of what history is and the shape it should take is flexible and open to debate. For as long as people have studied history, historians have presented different ideas about how the past should be studied, constructed, written and interpreted. As a consequence, historians may approach history in different ways, using different ideas and methods and focusing on or prioritising different aspects. The following paragraphs discuss several popular theories of history:

The study of great individuals

According to the ancient Greek writer Plutarch, true history is the study of great leaders and innovators. Prominent individuals shape the course of history through their personality, their strength of character, ambition, abilities, leadership or creativity. Plutarch’s histories were written almost as biographies or ‘life-and-times’ stories of these individuals. They explained how the actions of these great figures shaped the course of their nations or societies.

Plutarch’s approach served as a model for many later historians. It is sometimes referred to as ‘top-down’ history because of its focus on rulers or leaders. One advantage of this approach is its accessibility and relative ease. Researching and writing about individuals is less difficult than investigating more complex factors, such as social movements or long-term changes. The Plutarchian focus on individuals is often more interesting and accessible to readers. The main problem with this approach is that it might sidestep, simplify or overlook historical factors and conditions that do not emanate from important individuals, such as popular unrest or economic changes.

The study of ‘winds of change’

Other historians have focused less on individuals and taken a more thematic approach, looking at factors and forces that produce significant historical change. Some focus on what might broadly be described as the ‘winds of change’: powerful ideas, forces and movements that shape or affect how people live, work and think.

These great ideas and movements are often initiated or driven by influential people – but they become much larger forces for change. As the ‘winds of change’ grow, they shape or influence political, economic and social events and conditions. One example of a notable ‘wind of change’ was Christianity, which shaped government, society and social customs in medieval Europe. Another was the European Enlightenment that undermined old ideas about politics, religion and the natural world. This triggered a long period of curiosity, education and innovation.

Marxism emerged in the late 19th century and grew to challenge the old order in Russia, China and elsewhere, shaping government and society in those nations. The Age of Exploration, the Industrial Revolution, decolonisation in the mid-1900s and the winding back of eastern European communism in the late-1900s are all tangible examples of the ‘winds of change’.

The study of challenge and response

Some historians, such as British writer Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975), believed historical change is driven by challenges and responses. Civilisations are defined not just by their leadership or conditions but by how they respond to difficult problems or crises.

These challenges take many forms. They can be physical, environmental, economic or ideological. They can derive from internal pressures or external factors. They can come from their own people or from outsiders. The survival and success of civilisations are determined by how they respond to these challenges. This itself often depends on its people and how creative, resourceful, adaptable and flexible they are. Human history is filled with many tangible examples of challenge and response. Many nations have been confronted with powerful rivals, wars, natural disasters, economic slumps, new ideas, emerging political movements and internal dissent. The process of colonisation, for example, involved major challenges, both for colonising settlers and native inhabitants. Economic changes, such as new technologies and increases or decreases in trade, have created challenges in the form of social changes or class tensions.

The study of dialectics

In philosophy, dialectics is a process where two or more parties with vastly different viewpoints reach a compromise and mutual agreement. The theory of dialectics was applied to history by German philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel suggested that most historical changes and outcomes were driven by dialectic interaction. According to Hegel, for every thesis (a proposition or ‘idea’) there exists an antithesis (a reaction or ‘opposite idea’). The thesis and antithesis encounter or struggle, from which emerges a synthesis (a ‘new idea’).

This ongoing process of struggle and development reveals new ideas and new truths to humanity. The German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a student of Hegel and incorporated the Hegelian dialectic into his own theory of history – but with one important distinction. According to Marx, history was shaped by the ‘material dialectic’: the struggle between economic classes. Marx believed the ownership of capital and wealth underpinned most social structures and interactions. All classes struggle and push to improve their economic conditions, Marx wrote, usually at the expense of other classes. Marx’s material dialectic was reflected in his stinging criticisms of capitalism, a political and economic system where the capital-owning classes control production and exploit the worker, in order to maximise their profits.

The study of the unexpected

Some historians believe history is shaped by the accidental and the surprising, the spontaneous and the unexpected. While history and historical change usually follow patterns, they can also be unpredictable and chaotic. Despite our fascination with timelines and linear progression, history does not always follow a clear and expected path. The past is filled with unexpected incidents, surprises and accidental discoveries. Some of these have unleashed historical forces and changes that could not be predicted, controlled or stopped. A few have come at pivotal times and served as the ignition or ‘flashpoint’ for changes of great significance. The discovery of gold, for example, has triggered gold rushes that shaped the future of entire nations.

In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car took a different route through Sarajevo and passed an aimless Gavrilo Princip, a confluence of events that led to World War I. American historian Daniel Boorstin (1914-2004), an exponent of this fascination with historical accidents, claimed that if Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, thus diminishing her beauty, then the history of the world might have been radically different.


I hope that today's post gives you a litter bit of a better insight into the differences between History and Anthropology. Hope you enjoyed today's post :)


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