what it means to be human

From the book Anthropology: What Does it Mean to Be Human? in Intro to Anthropology 2021 for our first class we read chapter 1, “What is anthropology?” The big answer to this question is that anthropology “is a scholarly discipline that aims to describe in the broadest possible sense what it means to be human” (5). But things might get confusing from there!

After that, on to module 1, Anthropology, Science, and Storytelling.

Class Summary: What is Anthropology?

Anthropology is the study of what it means to be human. The word “anthropology” comes from the Greek roots “anthro-” meaning human, and “-ology” meaning the study of. Lavenda and Schultz define anthropology as a “scholarly discipline that aims to describe in the broadest possible sense what it means to be human” (5). Anthropology is not just about studying people from a distance, but engaging with them to understand what life means to them.

In the words of anthropologist Tim Ingold, anthropology’s subject is “humanity unsliced” (Anthropology: Why It Matters, 120). While other disciplines may study humans in a compartmentalized way, focusing on specific aspects like politics, economics, or literature, anthropology strives to consider these elements together, recognizing the integrated nature of human life and experience.

Founding Issue of “What It Means to Be Human”

A central question in anthropology is whether there are human universals that make us similar, or particularities that make us different. Things like eating, clothing, language, and tools are universal, but the specifics of these practices can be quite different across societies. The attitude of viewing one’s own way of doing things as correct and natural, while seeing other ways as wrong or misguided, is called ethnocentrism.

The idea of ethnocentrism is that your way of doing things–what you eat, your marriage customs, your language, your tools–constitute the correct way to be human. That your way is the right way, natural way, or only divinely-inspired way. And that other people are somehow wrong, misguided, bad, or maybe they are not even quite as human as you are.

Anthropology & Colonialism

Anthropology emerged as an academic discipline at a time when non-European peoples “were coming under increasing political and economic domination by expanding European and European American capitalist societies” (Lavenda and Schultz, 9), as described in Eric Wolf’s book Europe and the People without History. During this colonial period, ideas developed that people could be ranked based on racial categories, with Europeans and Americans considering themselves civilized and superior, while viewing other peoples as primitive and inferior. This hierarchical ethnocentrism was used to justify the colonial order.

Anthropology & The Savage Slot

In the 19th century, while other academic disciplines studied Western societies, anthropology was tasked with studying the peoples outside Europe and America who were stereotyped as savages or primitives (For more, see Savage Slot & Anthropology).

Prevalent explanations at the time attributed cultural differences to racial determinism and environmental determinism. Franz Boas, a founder of American anthropology, argued against these ideas, showing there was no evidence of racial superiority or inferiority, and that race was not a valid biological category for classifying people.

Anthropology & Culture

Anthropologists like Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead developed the concept of culture to explain human differences. They argued that human behavior follows learned patterns that are not determined by biology or environment. Contemporary anthropology rejects evaluating societies as savage, primitive or civilized.

Four Fields Anthropology

In North America, anthropology developed as a four-field discipline encompassing:

  1. Biological anthropology: human evolution, primatology, and human biology
  2. Cultural anthropology: the study of contemporary societies through fieldwork
  3. Linguistic anthropology: the study of language and communication
  4. Archaeology: the study of material culture and artifacts

The Promise of Anthropology

While early anthropologists emphasized separating the biological and cultural, many today employ biocultural or biosocial approaches recognizing their interconnection. Material culture–the objects humans produce–is also seen as integral to understanding the human experience. Key areas of focus in contemporary anthropology include:

  • Applied anthropology: using anthropology to address real-world issues
  • Medical anthropology: studying the intersection of health, illness and culture
  • Development anthropology: working to sustainably improve quality of life for marginalized populations

Anthropology Beyond the Classroom

For anthropology to remain relevant, it must have significance beyond academia. Rather than exoticizing or objectifying, anthropology strives to study with people, listening to and learning from them. As James Fernandez suggests, carefully listening to others and giving voice to their perspectives can “widen the horizons of human conviviality,” our ability to live together despite differences. While not everyone will become an anthropologist, developing the ability to listen to and understand others is perhaps the most important lesson anthropology has to offer.

Recap: What it means to be human

From the book Anthropology: What Does it Mean to Be Human? in Intro to Anthropology 2021 for our first class we read chapter 1, “What is anthropology?” The big answer to this question is that anthropology “is a scholarly discipline that aims to describe in the broadest possible sense what it means to be human” (5).

After that, on to module 1, Anthropology, Science, and Storytelling.


Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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