Anthropology Home

Undergraduate Program

The Anthropology Major

Anthropologists study humanity in the broadest possible sense. Like other social sciences, we want to know why people behave the way they do, and we begin by trying to document just how diverse human behavior can be around the world. By diverse we mean "variable." All humans organize themselves into families, but what a typical family is composed of can vary greatly. All people eat, but how, when, and what we eat is not at all predictable. All people have some concept of beauty, but what is beautiful in one culture may be ugly in other.

When anthropologists hear, “Oh, that’s just human nature,” we tend to be skeptical. Before we make any generalizing statements about how people behave, we want to make sure that our conclusions are not based solely on the study of people in western contexts. This is why anthropologists are known for studying so-called “exotic” people or tribes. But studies of the remote and exotic are only part of what anthropologists have done over the century and a half to understand human societies. We also try to view our own society through a different lens––looking at familiar aspects of modern life that would appear strange to a member of another culture. For example, why do perfectly normal, rational people treat pets like human beings? Why do some think it’s disgusting to eat a dog, but have no problem eating a pig?

The following paragraphs outline some of the practical skills and distinctive perspectives students develop as anthropology majors, which have been invaluable in their post-collegiate career paths.

1. Research Methods

Anthropological methods are different from those of other social scientists. We tend to base our studies on what we call fieldwork—living and working with a small group of people for a year or more in order to understand and describe the way their society works at a micro-level––learning their language, ways of life, political and economic systems, local beliefs. We tend to rely on the firsthand study of small groups in situ, rather than on surveys or experiments in laboratory settings. Fieldwork methods in anthropology are based on the principle of participant observation: when conducting fieldwork, anthropologists must be both subjective participants in the social life of the people they study, as well as objective observers of it.

Students are introduced to this approach to social research right from the beginning: Anthropology 101 and 104 include at least an option to design and carry out your own research project. A required course for the major is 201, in which students may design and carry out intensive, participant observation studies. Students thus gain valuable experience in problem solving and teamwork. We also strongly encourage students to study abroad and pursue independent research. Our entire curriculum prepares students to adapt to foreign cultures, so our students love to go to relatively unusual places. We also sponsor our own summer course abroad in Malawi, a small country in Africa. More locally, our department has a strong interest in community studies and social justice, so many of our students have internships with community organizations or carry out research on social issues in Rochester. 

2. Critical Thinking and Theoretical Analysis

The results of anthropological research are presented primarily in the form of book-length studies called ethnographies. In these texts, anthropologists move back and forth between concrete descriptions of the particular times and places they conducted fieldwork and an abstract analysis of the social and scientific meanings contained in this material.

Learning how to interpret complex empirical materials in terms of theoretical analysis and scholarly debate is a central part of the anthropology curriculum. Students are taught to see how specific theoretical arguments shape the selection of the empirical materials presented and how particular empirical cases relate to general theoretical claims. All of the courses taught in the department make use of full-length ethnographies or original research papers, and these writings are treated as contributions to theoretical debates in progress. Unlike other majors, in our courses there is very little use of textbooks, which tend to treat knowledge as a set of established truths. Students are thus expected to demonstrate their own ability to describe and analyze the ethnographies they read and the research projects they carry out themselves. All courses require students to write short- and long-form essays.

3. Cultural relativism

Classic questions of interest for anthropologists deal with human variability and universality: Do all societies have private property, or are there some groups where everything is shared equally? Do all societies have a formal political hierarchy, or are there places that have absolute equality? How do relationships between men and women or adults and children vary from society to society? Do all societies fight with their neighbors? Is the transition from childhood to adulthood always marked by conflict with parents? How are universal needs like food, clothing, and shelter channeled through different cultural ideas to produce different ways of eating, dressing, and living together? 

Participant observation entails the subjective experience of deliberately exposing oneself to different forms of life. This experience provides a way of viewing one’s own form of life from the outside, so to speak, viewing it in comparative terms as just one possible form of life. This results in another principle of anthropology, cultural relativism. This means that one must suspend judgment until one has understood other cultures from the inside and one’s own from the outside. It does not mean that anthropologists view all forms of life as morally equivalent. On the contrary, only by going through a process of empathy with the other and estrangement from the self can one be in a position to have reasoned opinions about different forms of life. This is why, when we interview graduates about what they learned as anthropology majors, they often say that anthropology is a major that teaches you to see the world in a different light—to think critically about aspects of the world that people often take for granted. 

4. Cross-cultural and interdisciplinary comparison

Familiarity with a wide variety of cultures, societies, and social groups gives anthropologists a unique ability to cast a comparative light on the findings of other social scientists, often leading to the qualification or falsification of theories developed on the basis of western industrial societies. While much of anthropological research is conducted by single investigators, an increasing amount of research is conducted by teams with complementary specializations. Anthropologists are now routinely included on teams with economists working on development projects, healthcare providers treating culturally diverse populations, educators teaching diverse student bodies, marketers selling to global markets, human rights advocates defending ethnic minorities around the world, and relief agencies dealing with refugee populations.