Anthropology vs Sociology: What’s the Difference, and Which Is Right for You?
12 Min Read
Anthropology and sociology are two areas of study that are closely related. Both are centered around investigating human behavior and actions, but they are interested in different aspects. While anthropology is rooted in the characteristics, environment and culture of humans and their ancestors, sociology is more focused on topics like social change and the social consequences of human behavior.
Both sociology and anthropology are broad disciplines. Based on the definition from the American Sociological Association, Sociologists can focus on everything from the study of organized crime to the impact of race, gender and social class on society. Similarly, anthropologists turn their attention toward what makes us human, encompassing looking to the past to see how we lived, understanding our biology and exploring how other societies live, according to the American Anthropological Society.
When considering which path of study to pursue, it’s important to have a full understanding of the difference between sociology and anthropologyto determine which is right for you. It’s also critical to see what you can do with degrees in each and gain a clearer picture of what some of the most accomplished sociologists and anthropologists have done.
What Is Anthropology?
Anthropology is a complex field; trying to understand what makes us human is no simple task. It draws from many different disciplines and takes a broad approach to learning about every aspect of the human experience. Of course, there are many different kinds of anthropology — some anthropologists are more interested in how groups of humans lived in the past while others may be more concerned with how social groups interact with one another today.
According to National Geographic, anthropologists explore “aspects of human biology, evolutionary biology, linguistics, cultural studies, history, economics, and other social sciences.” More specifically, anthropology is typically broken down into four subfields, which are archeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology and linguistic anthropology. Let’s take a closer look at each of these and how they relate to the study of what it means to be human.
To understand where we are, and where we’re going, we must first understand where we’ve been. And that’s where archeology comes in. According to the American Anthropological Association, archeologists are squarely focused on analyzing the objects that people have made, ranging from tools and pottery to houses and trash pits. They can also look at plant, animal and human remains to learn what they ate and how they lived. Their area of study covers all of human history — from the earliest humans millions of years ago up to present day.
When the Italian city of Pompeii was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. it was buried in volcanic ash for hundreds of years. When the ruins were discovered in 1748, it offered archeologists a window into how the people of Pompeii lived. For instance, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, they learned that the city had a series of one-way streets, that it was a hub of fish sauce manufacturing and that many of its residents were gourmet cooks.
Biological anthropology is more focused on the behavioral aspects of human beings, as well as our extinct ancestors. Anthropologists in this field are particularly interested in the evolution of humans and typically study the living and dead as well as primates and our other ancestors. At its root, biological anthropology is interested in understanding how and why the current human population is as diverse as it is.
One of the most famous biological anthropologists is Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, who earned the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on uncovering the causes of kuru, a mysterious disease that was prevalent among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea and infected those who participated in a form of ritual cannibalism.
Cultural anthropologists want to know how people around the world interact with society. They speak with people from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints to gain a clearer picture of societal norms — how we dress, eat, speak and interact with each other — and how different groups feel about them. By compiling information about a diverse set of groups, cultural anthropologists are able to supplement and enrich what we already know about human behavior and societies.
Margaret Mead is among the most influential cultural anthropologists of the 20th century. In addition to her groundbreaking work on the Polynesian region, she also spent decades with the American Museum of Natural History, including acting as the curator of ethnology.
The way people communicate is at the center of linguistic anthropology. Specifically, those who study linguistic anthropology are interested in how language impacts the way humans see the world and how we interact with one another. According to the AAS, their main focus is on how language and communication forms the building blocks of society and culture.
One of the most well-known linguistic anthropologists is Elinor Ochs, who earned acclaim throughout the 20th century for her work on “the study of the way children acquire language and are shaped by the culture around them.”
What Is Sociology?
Viewed from a high level, sociology is the study of social relationships and institutions, but when appreciated from a more granular perspective, sociology investigates nearly every aspect of human behavior and life. It analyzes many of the complex aspects of our lives ranging from race, gender and identity to aging, religious faith and social movements. At its heart, sociology is concerned with uncovering and analyzing how the social world in which we live impacts us and those around us.
Much like anthropology, sociology is composed of subfields that provide an opportunity to research and study specific areas of interest. There are a variety of branches of sociology, but several in particular attract the most focus. They are theoretical sociology, cultural sociology, applied sociology and political sociology. Let’s take a closer look at each.
There are many theoretical approaches to sociology, and this branch asks its practitioners to view sociological knowledge through the lens of these theoretical frameworks and methodologies. There are many famous examples of theoretical sociology, including social conflict theory. This Marxist-based theory posits that any society is created due to class conflicts, and laws are written to protect the rights and interests of those in power.
This theory provides a framework within which theoretical sociologists can view contemporary or past societies and make analyses and assessments based on its tenets.
Cultural differences are everywhere and in nearly every aspect of everyday life. Understanding these differences and the impact they have on our society is at the crux of the work done by cultural sociologists. Cultural sociology can focus on a number of different areas including art, philosophy, religion and more.
Pierre Bourdieu is among the most well-known cultural sociologists. He is perhaps best recognized for arguing that those with high social capital are the ones who dictate taste, and that your own particular taste is largely determined by the social class of which you are a member.
The basis of applied sociology is to take the lessons learned in the classroom and apply them to real-world situations with the aim to bring about positive social change. Put simply, it’s taking the next step from theory into practice, according to Sociology at Work.
Applied sociology can take on many different forms. For example, public policy experts can draw on certain theories to make recommendations for pieces of legislation. Similarly, it can include working with community members to conduct research and learn about what kinds of developments would be best suited to the needs of local citizens.
The foundation of political sociology is based on examining the relationship between societies, states and political conflict. Much like sociology itself, political sociology is a broad discipline that can encompass many different areas of study. For example, it can include a macro focus, which is geared toward understanding the sources of political change inside nation-states and political institutions as a whole. Conversely, the micro focus is more interested in how social identities have an impact on the way individual people vote, organize and interact with the political system.
Some of the most well-known philosophers are political sociologists. For example, French historian and writer Alexis de Tocqueville penned some of the most influential and perceptive analyses of the American political system during the 1800s — many of his insights still have an impact today.
Anthropology vs. Sociology
It’s clear that anthropology and sociology often share the same goals; they both seek to understand the driving forces behind human behavior, however when you consider the difference between anthropology and sociology you can see they diverge in several crucial ways.
The most notable difference between the two is the time period on which they focus. Anthropology typically looks toward the past to answer questions about the future, drawing on historical civilizations to gain perspective. Conversely, sociologists are often concerned with contemporary issues and how current societies interact with one another and why. Of course, sociologists can draw from past research and historical texts, but their main focus is on the here and now.
To put it another way, sociology has a narrower focus. Where anthropology is concerned with the study of human beings as a whole over time, sociology is more focused on the lives of everyone within a society and the way they interact with one another.
Impactful Work in Anthropology and Sociology
To gain a firmer understanding of the differences between anthropology and sociology, it’s important to see how the two areas of study play out in real-world examples. Some of the most famous anthropologists and sociologists were active in the U.S. throughout the 20th century, let’s take a closer look at some of their work and the impact it had on the way we think about humanity today.
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston is one of the most acclaimed American novelists of the 20th century, but before she was a household name on bookshelves she started an experienced cultural anthropologist. In fact, she worked with Franz Boas, sometimes called the Father of American Anthropology, at Columbia University.
Hurston’s accomplishments in anthropology began in her native Florida, according to NPR. While there, she collected stories and folklore of local residents. Eventually, she moved west to New Orleans, where she continued her research into the local culture and spiritual practices like voodoo; she was fully immersed in the culture for months.
This experience resulted in a sense of urgency to chronicle the culture and was included in Hurston’s landmark “Journal of American Folklore,” which was released in 1931. She also released the autoethnographical “Mules and Men” that combined her first-hand experiences with meticulous research. Throughout the rest of her career, Hurston continued anthropological research along with her well-known fiction writing, but her reputation as an anthropologist stayed with her.
Patricia Hill Collins
When considering contemporary sociologists, you have to put Patricia Hill Collins among the most recognizable and impactful. The 100th president of the American Sociological Association, Collins burst into the public consciousness in the 1980s with the publication of “Learning from the Outsider Within,” an article that appeared in the journal Social Problems. The article established Collins as an expert on race, gender, and social class.
Perhaps Collins’ most famous contribution to sociology is her proposal of a form of standpoint theory in her book “Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.” This theory posits that different kinds of oppression — of race, gender, class and privilege — provides African American women with a distinct and unique point of view with which to understand their own status.
Gustave Le Bon
Though he died 90 years ago, French anthropologist Gustave Le Bon contributed some of the most impactful research in the last 150 years. Specifically, he was concerned with understanding why seemingly peaceful groups of people can suddenly turn into violent mobs — drawing on accounts of the 1848 rebellion in France to answer the question. According to the New York Times, though his theory of crowd behavior is decades old, it persists to this day.
“An agglomeration of men presents new characteristics very different from those of the individuals composing it,” Le Bon wrote. “The sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their conscious personality vanishes. A collective mind is formed.”
Careers in Anthropology and Sociology
Studying anthropology and sociologists provides opportunities for careers outside of being a researcher or conducting fieldwork. According to the AAS, there are a variety of paths you can take to put your online B.A. in Anthropology or Sociology to good use.
Anthropologists can work in corporate and business settings. Many organizations find that employees with a background in anthropology are adept at conducting market research and understanding human behavior. Similarly, there are opportunities for anthropologists to work in state and local governments in a research capacity — assessing the impact of certain government-funded projects and programs. Finally, there are opportunities to work in nonprofit or community organizations to implement programs.
As for sociologists, there are a diverse range of career paths you can take outside of research-based roles. According to The Muse, sociologists often work as urban planners, who are integral parts of shaping what communities look like. Additionally, they can put their sociology degree to use in roles such as social workers, paralegals and school counselors. Sociology degrees equip students with a diverse skill set and deep understanding of the way humans interact with one another.
If you have an interest in investigating and examining human behavior, consider earning a B.S./B.A. in Anthropology and Sociology. This flexible online program at Eastern Oregon University provides a unique opportunity to combine both disciplines and learn from seasoned professors with diverse backgrounds. Not only does this well-rounded program equip students with the skills to succeed in varied career paths but it offers two specialized tracks so you can tailor your degree to fit your interests and goals.