This is a question that came in a while ago from an anonymous undergrad, one which we encourage you to answer or discuss in the comment section below. It is one that I answer a lot with students as well as many of the people I meet- when they find out I’m an anthropologist, they usually ask me what I’ve been digging up, and, when I explain that I’m a social anthropologist rather than an archaeologist (who is an anthropologist who does dig things up), they go on to ask me how that is different from being a sociologist.
Indeed, there are many sorts of things that social anthropologists study that sociologists also study: education, race, healthcare and gender are just a few examples, and there is theoretical and methodological overlap as well- we often read the same foundational books and study the same things. However, I always try and articulate the differences because there really are a few great divides which I think are important. I work in a collaborative and interdisciplinary institution, which has helped to solidify this thought rather than dispel it. I think there is a place for each unique discipline to bring a distinct contribution to the table, all of which are helpful in understanding the complex social lives of humans.
I was reminded of this recently when a great sociologist/colleague/friend came into our shared office space with her usual positivity tinged with a little frustration and sadness. She explained to me that she had an excellent student who had qualified to attend a conference with her and present research that grew out of her class assignment. Unfortunately, it was looking like that student was not going to be able to accept the opportunity to fly to the conference because her birth certificate did not have a name officially printed on it. I commiserated about how unfortunate that something so minor could force the student to miss out on something she earned.
I was thinking about naming in Belize (and many other places in the world), which does not normally happen until several weeks after the birth, and the meaning behind the naming process- taking into account the season and religious calendar, solidifying kinship ties and personhood. My colleague laughed and told me she could really tell I was an anthropologist.
Of course, anthropologists think about these issues, too, but this story illustrates how the anthropological and sociological perspectives begin from different vantage points and is a great starting point for answering the anonymous student’s question.
Both Anthropology and Sociology have transformed over the last 100 years or so, but their roots still are present in the disciplines today. Sociological studies are most often based in Western or industrialized societies, while anthropological studies have more traditionally been based in non-Western societies. While many, many anthropologists work in Western societies and communities now, this early difference still is significant. When I talk about how, when I conduct my fieldwork, I have the privilege of living in a rainforest community without electricity, and have enjoyed eating armadillo, my sociologist colleague comments that this is why she is a sociologist and not an anthropologist, and I think this perfectly demonstrates our traditional disciplinary reputations.
This difference is also reflected in the perspective on human communities that the two disciplines take. While anthropologists are primarily focused on human cultures in a holistic sense- through time and around the world, sociologists are more interested in the way the broader society affects human social behavior. This means that anthropological study includes the biological and archaeological components, and, even if social anthropologists do not engage with these areas explicitly, most are holistically trained enough to be, at the very least, influenced by these components.
Sociologists are interested in how society and its institutions influence what we do, taking an external or “outside-in” approach to thinking about human societies. Anthropologists look at both external and internal approaches, but usually begin at the micro level. While sociologists often begin at the macro level, I have observed that both disciplines give much attention to both the micro and the macro levels.
The “bigger picture” approach that sociologists take lends itself to the collection of larger data sets, which, in turn, lends itself to a general approach to quantitative data and analyses. While many anthropologists also use quantitative data and analyses, their micro-level, or community, approach lends itself well to qualitative methodologies, which most commonly are employed. Indeed, the primary methodology that characterizes anthropological study, participant observation, is one that encapsulates this qualitative, micro-level approach to understanding human social behavior. This holistic nature of anthropological study is reflected in its “immersive” methodology.
To use my own fieldwork as an example again- it was not until I had learned to bake tortillas (a process that took several months to perfect) that I felt that I could really begin to understand the importance of work and traditional practices in how people in my study community felt about health and wellness. I also conducted a survey about health and work practices, but I didn’t create it until I felt I had a better understanding of the community, which happened after living there for 11 months. A sociologist may have administered that survey much earlier in the study process, and been able to survey several villages, not just the one I looked at.
Different quantitative analyses would have been able to be done with high numbers of responses. It is important to consider that perhaps more people across different disciplines would be interested to use those data. Organizations addressing social issues, in my experience, are often most interested in generalizable quantitative data for programming and policy, and sociologists generate this type of data more often.
The types of data produced, of course, have as much to do with the intended use as with the methodology. While both disciplines have clear overlap in their roots in particular social theory- the structural-functionalists Durkheim and Radcliffe-Brown as examples, sociological data are often utilized in the design of social interventions, or the making of social policy; anthropological data are just as valuable toward these ends, but they are subject to a historical debate about the ethics of using them for these reasons, and often come in a format that policymakers are less accustomed to dealing with.
There is a theoretical vs. applied debate in Anthropology, which seems unnecessary by many of us trained in applied programs. However, when working in communities other than our own, in particular, anthropologists still need to apply cultural relativism. They also need to use caution that their data is not over-generalized and applied to social interventions that are unwanted or unneeded. We aim to “understand,” and not necessarily to “fix,” although we do have an ethical obligation to put our data and energy into addressing injustice.
Kristina Baines is our resident cool anthropologist. She’s been formally trained in applied, sociocultural, ecological and medical anthropology at Florida Atlantic University (BA, MA), the University of Oxford (MSc) and the University of South Florida (PhD). She has a strong interest in corn, how what we do in our environment makes us well, and using innovative methods to make anthropology relevant and accessible to a wide audience. You can find out more about how these interests translate into projects and pursuits by perusing the rest of our site, or you can contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.