Taxonomy of Anthropology

Several of my fellow ScienceBloggers have written posts on the differences between the various disciplines within their respective specialties so I thought I would have a go at anthropology. At the outset, I should say that anthropology is the most important of the biological sciences (as a matter of fact we are so important that we are usually housed in our own buildings far away from everbody else. Jealous folk claim that that is because we steal everybody else’s ideas [kind of like Russia trying to claim Mark Twain as a russian writer] but that’s a base canard).
There are four main types of anthropologists and within each main types there are bunches of smaller types.

Linguistic Anthropologists – very mysterious group that no one understands so we lock them in a closet with a copy of Grims’ Fairytales.
Cultural Anthropologists – usually found in obscure and exotic locations talking about the self referential speaking of truth to power in the larger metanarrative of power relations between dialogues of ethnicity and gender. It’s all rather complicated, and if they get recursive it can give you a headache. There is another group of cultural anthropologists who study geneaologies and spend a lot of time talking about crow kinship systems and cross cousin marriages and such. It’s very abstract …
Archaeologists – Spend a lot of time digging holes and looking for old thingmajingies. Usually have long hair and such so an archaeology conference can be mistaken for a hippie get together. There are several types of archaeologists.
Bioarchaeologists, for example are the mutant offspring of archaeologists and osteologists (see below). They spend a lot of time crawling around in the dirt looking for bones to compare. In Harry Potter the main evil character is referred to by some euphism such as ‘He-who-must-not-be-named” or some such, in anthropology this role is filled by the artifact typologist (really, don’t talk to these people or your head will explode – fair warning) who spend a lot of time arguing over whether attributes of artifacts are real or just statistical associations. Another type of archaeologist is the experimental archaeologist – but don’t be fooled by the name they don’t use test tubes or particle accelerators or anything. Instead they try to recreate the lifestyle of the people (dead – so you’d think it would be easy) they study. So they spend a lot of time knapping flints and reassembling flint cores and stuff.
Physical Anthropologists – there are a wide variety of physical anthropologists.
Paleoanthropologists – spend a lot of time in hot nasty locations being attacked by scorpions (although, oddly enough they tend to avoid Australia). Like all phsyical anthropologists, paleoanthropologists love bones (this is the primitive condition for physical anthropology – cladistically speaking) the older the better. The quickest way to tell if you are dealing with a paleo is to hand them a bone – if they dismissively toss it aside and say something like “recent Holocene” while they are doing it you know you are speaking to a paleo. Paleoanthropologist also love to name their bones with long unpronounceable names like “Wangapithecus inyoureyeieye”
Osteologists – Loooove bones! Give them a bone and they will happily sit in a corner and burble at it for days or even weeks…Legend has it Osteologists once mated with archaeologists and the result was the bioarchaeologist…
Human Variation – see just from the title you know they are non-conformists. Anthropologists who study human variation display the autapomorphic trait of not being totally mesmerized by bones – it’s all very strange. Anyway, since they use a lot of concepts and math from genetics most consider them spies sent over by the biology department.
Forensic Anthropologists – these guys are kind of creepy. Usually don’t show up unless the remains were in such bad condition that the coroner engaged in projectile vomiting for four hours. But at least they like bones. They are kind of like the osteologist and kind of like bioarchaeologists cause they like to compare bones so they learn about sex…of the bones, as well as ethnicity and height and stuff.
So there you have the main outlines of anthropology as a discipline. As with any taxonomy, I’m sure some will accuse me of lumping others of splitting…
Added later: fixed some typos…

18 Responses

  1. Probably, the most common type of anthropologist I come across is the unemployed;)

  2. Ahhh, yes. The lost ones…poor devils. Consigned to endlessly wander the world seeking a use for their skills (and being constantly asked “Wow, you majored in anthropology, what can you do with that?”).

  3. Trekjunkie – You nailed it in one! My 5 years of Physical Anthro in school turned into a lifetime of Cultural Anthro – specializing in the sales sub-culture.

  4. I know your list can’t cover them all, but how about them primatologists and applied anthropologist.
    Where one treks out into rain forests and charms our ape ancestors, the other treks into the concrete jungle and works the corporate machine.
    Also, I think archaeologist can be factioned down to those that like the bones and those that like the artifacts like the ceramics and stone tools. I don’t know where CRM people will lie, since they do a little bit of the applied and archaeology workage.

  5. I do not know how I could have forgotten CRM, applied Anthro and the primatologists…

  6. What about those archaeologists that spend their time doing one of the following: trying to prove that some literary source is correct; trying to prove that some literary source is wrong or trying to prove that archaeology can say nothing about any literary source.

  7. Archaeologists? Man, based on some of the things they say I suspect most of them can’t tell the difference between their asses and a hole in the ground (says the aspiring paleoprimatologist, whose field is utterly devoid of baseless speculation).

  8. Yup, my brother is a cultural anthropologist, looking for work, interviewing around the country. His topic is modern society, though, so his papers are readable and understandable and actually fun!

  9. I just posted a link to one his papers on Serbia and Milosevic on my blog….

  10. I’ll have to check that out…

  11. I am a “practicing” anthropologist, meaning I actually make a meager living at it. I work with Maya Indian organic farmers in Mexico, i do a little biology, study Mayan languages, look at health and nutrition issues, geospatial analysis and write about globalzation, culture, intellectual property, “life science” and other stuff. I just can’t fit me, or my colleagues into that ‘four field’ taxonomy of yours. I’ll have to think about it, but we need a different one to fit many people who actually do and teach anthropology.

  12. Ron – bear in mind the tongue in cheek nature of the post. If I were trying to accurately portray the field of anthropology I would have included a lot more (CRM, applied anthro, medical anthro, zooarchaeology, etc.). Anthropology is an incredibly large and diverse field (I was encountered a cultural anthropologist working in corporate America studying “corporate culture” – it was very frustrating cause they knew what they wanted to hear and kept playing with his study till they got the results they wanted). To paraphrase Leslie White “Anthropology is anthrpologizing”, so I agree that a lot of the lines between types of anthropology are blurring. As you point out what you do could be catagorized under any number of the subfields of anthro…

  13. Ron – Right on! You are my hero at this point.

  14. J-Dog – again, bear in mind the tongue and cheek nature of the post (it was catagorized under “Silliness”) which is not meant to give a true and complete breakdown of the field of anthropology…

  15. I wasn’t accusing you of being serious when you were being silly. But the four-fold classification is traditional and your tongue in cheek made me realize how little it seems to fit the ‘real world–maybe it never did.

  16. That’s an interesting taxonomy…You defenitely have irony. But..a little remark..
    ”steal everybody else’s ideas [kind of like Russia trying to claim Mark Twain as a russian writer]”
    — I hope it’s a joke.
    I live in Russia and I like Mark Twain…but I never heard of such claim. That’s nonsence.

  17. I was actually referencing Checkoff from the original Star Trek…but the idea itself seems to be something of an urban legend…

  18. so weird..really

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