Anthropology is the study of the human as at once an individual, a product of society, and a maker of history and culture. It’s the nature of the human condition to live within structures of symbol, belief, and power of our own fashioning: religion, art, gender, war, ecosystems, race relations, embodiment, kinship, science, colonialism, language, nations and states, play, subsistence strategies, mass media, illness, pain, and pleasure. In a word, culture. And anthropologists study all this and more.
Anthropology comes from the Greek, literally “the study of the human.” As such, we overlap with history, sociology, psychology, political science, literature, documentary studies, and other fields. What distinguishes anthropology is less what anthropologists study, than how they do it, and in particular the investigative techniques of participant-observation. Researchers live with and share the daily experiences of the people they are studying, often for years at a time. They also conduct formal and informal interviews; carry out surveys; gather oral histories, myths, and genealogies; and take notes, film, and record. Things that seem irrational, scary, and downright weird on first arrival become second nature, and things that seemed natural and unquestionable at home can start to seem rather odd. Anthropologists believe that this position of being betwixt and between, or liminal, is a powerful place for understanding.