What is the difference between Anthropology and Sociology?
By Kristina Baines
This is a question that came up a while ago from an anonymous student. He is one who responds a lot with the students, as well as with many of the people I know; When they discover that I am an anthropologist, they usually ask me what I have been digging up, and when I explain to them that I am a social anthropologist and not an archeologist (who is an anthropologist who does dig things up), then they ask me how that is different from being a sociologist.
In fact, there are many kinds of things that social anthropologists study that sociologists also study: education, race, health, and gender are just a few examples, and there is also a theoretical and methodological overlap: we often read the same foundational books and study the same things. However, I always try to articulate the differences because there really are some gaps that I think are important . I work in a collaborative and interdisciplinary institution, which has helped solidify this thought rather than dispel it. I believe there is a place for each unique discipline to make a different contribution to the table, all of which are helpful in understanding the complex social life of humans.
I was reminded of this recently when a great sociologist / colleague / friend came into our shared office with her usual positivity tinged with a little frustration and sadness. She explained to me that she had an excellent student who had qualified thanks to research that came out of her class work to attend a conference with her and. Unfortunately, it seemed that the student would not be able to accept the opportunity to attend the conference because her birth certificate did not have an officially printed name. I complained about how unfortunate that something so small could force the student to lose something she won.
I thought it was so interesting that a name meant so much in our culture that not having an official name in the United States meant that it didn’t have an identity.
I was thinking that naming babies in Belize (and in many other places in the world) normally does not occur until several weeks after birth, and the meaning behind the naming process, taking into account the season and the religious calendar , consolidating the ties of kinship and person. My colleague laughed and said she could really tell that I was an anthropologist.
His first thoughts were on structures that perpetuate economic inequalities related to race and class, and how these developed in the inability of our institutions to help the student obtain another certificate, or bypass strict laws and travel with the group.
Of course, anthropologists think about these issues as well, but this story illustrates how anthropological and sociological perspectives start from different points of view and is a great starting point for answering the anonymous student’s question.
Anthropology = culture and communities
Sociology = social problems and institutions
Both anthropology and sociology have been transformed in the last 100 years or so, but their roots are still presentin current disciplines. Sociological studies are usually based on western or industrialized societies, while anthropological studies have traditionally been based on non-western societies. While many, many anthropologists now work in Western societies and communities, this early difference is still significant. When I talk about how, when I do my field work, I have the privilege of living in a jungle community without electricity, and I have enjoyed eating armadillo, my sociologist colleague comments that this is why she is a sociologist and not an anthropologist, and I believe that This perfectly demonstrates our traditional disciplinary reputations.
Anthropology = non-western cultures
Sociology = western societies
This difference is also reflected in the perspective of the human communities that the two disciplines take. While anthropologists are focused primarily on human cultures in a holistic sense, through time and around the world, sociologists are more interested in how the society in general affects human social behavior . This means that anthropological study includes the biological and archaeological components, and even if social anthropologists are not explicitly related to these areas, most are trained enough to be, at a minimum, influenced by these components.
The sociologists are interested in how society and its institutions influence what we do, adopting an external or “external” approach to thinking about human societies. Anthropologists look at external and internal focuses, but they generally start at the micro level. While sociologists often start at the macro level, I have observed that both disciplines pay close attention to the micro and macro levels.
Anthropology = holistic-human through time and space
Sociology = how humans are affected by society
The “broader” approach that sociologists take lends itself to collecting larger data sets, which in turn lends itself to a general approach to data and quantitative analysis. While many anthropologists also use quantitative data and analysis, their approach at the micro or community level lends itself well to qualitative methodologies, which are used more frequently. In fact, the main methodology that characterizes the anthropological study, participant observation , this approach encapsulates quality of micro level to understand human social behavior.
This holistic nature of anthropological study is reflected in its “immersive” methodology.
Anthropology = more qualitative data.
Sociology = more quantitative data.
To use my own fieldwork as an example again, it wasn’t until I learned to bake tortillas (a process that took several months to perfect) that I felt I could really begin to understand the importance of work and traditional practices on how people in my Study community felt about health and wellness. I also conducted a survey on health and work practices, but did not create it until I felt that 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 study multiple villages, not just the one I saw.
Kristina Baines is an anthropologist. He has received formal training in applied anthropology, sociocultural, ecological, and medical at Florida Atlantic University (BA, MA), the University of Oxford (MSc), and the University of South Florida (PhD). She has a keen interest in corn, how what we do in our environment does us good, and the use of innovative methods to make anthropology relevant and accessible to a wide audience.