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Anthropology is concerned with the study and comparison of people in all parts of the world, their physical characteristics, customs, languages, traditions, material possessions, and social and religious beliefs and practices. Anthropologists constitute the smallest group of social scientists, yet they cover the widest range of subject matter.
Anthropological data may be applied to solving problems in human relations in fields such as industrial relations, race and ethnic relations, social work, political administration, education, public health, and programs involving transcultural or foreign relations. Anthropology can be broken down into subsets: sociocultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and physical, or biological, anthropology.
Sociocultural anthropology, the area in which the greatest number of anthropologists specialize, deals with human behavior and studies the customs, cultures, and social lives of both extinct and current societies, including religion, language, politics, social structure and traditions, mythology, art, and intellectual life. Sociocultural anthropologists, also called cultural anthropologists, ethnologists, or social anthropologists, classify and compare cultures according to general laws of historical, cultural, and social development. To do this effectively, they often work with smaller, perhaps less diverse societies. For example, a cultural anthropologist might decide to study the Roma of eastern Europe, interviewing and observing Roma populations in Warsaw, Prague, and Bucharest. Or, a cultural anthropologist could choose to study Appalachian families of Tennessee and, in addition to library research, would talk to people in Appalachia to learn about family structure, traditions, morals, and values.
Linguistic anthropologists investigate language and culture, specifically, how the evolution of language affects a society or culture over time. Most linguistic anthropologists study non-European languages, by communicating with native speakers.
Physical anthropologists, also called biological anthropologists, study the biology of human groups. They study the differences between the members of past and present human societies and are particularly interested in the geographical distribution of human physical characteristics. Their work involves examining human remains at archaeological digs, analyzing them to see how factors such as nutrition and disease contributed to changes in society. They apply their intensive training in human anatomy to the study of human evolution and establish differences between races and groups of people. Physical anthropologists can apply their training to forensics or genetics, among other fields. Their work on the effect of heredity and environment on cultural attitudes toward health and nutrition enables medical anthropologists to help develop urban health programs.
One of the most significant contributions of physical anthropologists comes from their research on nonhuman primates. Knowledge about the social organization, dietary habits, and reproductive behaviors of chimpanzees, gorillas, baboons, and others helps explain a great deal about human behavior, motivation, and origins. People working in primate studies are increasingly interested in conservation issues because the places where primates live are threatened by development and the overharvesting of forest products. The work done by Jane Goodall is a good example of this type of anthropology.
Urban anthropologists study the behavior and customs of people who live in cities. They might concentrate on the growth and use of urban spaces and institutions, or on the behavior of a certain group or subculture. Many of these anthropologists are active in gender and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies, as well.
Forensic anthropology is a branch of physical anthropology. Forensic anthropologists examine and identify bones and skeletal remains for the purposes of homicide, scientific, archaeological, or judicial investigations.