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Bachelor of Arts - Anthropology Major - Types of Anthropology

Sociocultural Anthropology

Sociocultural anthropology explores the diversity of human societies and cultures, particularly peoples of the recent past and the present. Social anthropology includes topics dealing with social, political and economic anthropology, such as how families or villages are organized, while cultural anthropology focusses on the understandings, beliefs and practices of different groups of people.

Culture affects how we give meaning to things in our lives, and shapes our ways of life. Studies of gender, art or religion within and between societies are some of the kinds of things that cultural anthropologists may study. Sociocultural anthropology also includes the study of how different societies live in their environments, or ecological anthropology. Although we can analytically separate social organization from beliefs and practices, in reality most anthropological studies of modern peoples use both perspectives. In Britain, this area of study is usually called social anthropology, and in the United States cultural anthropology. We offer a diverse array of courses in sociocultural anthropology at Athabasca University, which are listed below.

Linguistic Anthropology

Linguistic anthropology is the study of the history, structure and function of language.

cree syllabics


Anthropologist Dr. Meaghan Peuramaki-Brown on site
AU Faculty member, Dr. Meaghan Peuramaki-Brown, documenting an ancient Maya building platform (ca. 250-900 AD) in Belize, Central America. (Photo by Marla Peuramaki, 2010.)

Archaeology provides a unique link between the diverse cultures of the past and our cultures today. This sub-discipline of anthropology helps us understand not only where and when people lived on the earth, but also why and how they have lived. Archaeologists examine the changes and causes of changes that have occurred in human cultures over time, seeking to identify and understand patterns of activity. To conduct archaeology means to study ancient and not-so-ancient human behaviour through investigation of the archaeological record: the excavation and documentation of archaeological sites, and analysis of material remains (artifacts, features, and ecofacts) found in context (i.e. the relationship that artifacts have to each other and the situation in which they are encountered).

Anthropologist Sheila Greaves on site
AU Faculty member, Dr. Sheila Greaves, excavating a possible pithouse site in Jasper National Park, on the east bank of the Athabasca River. (Photo by Gwyn Langemann, Parks Canada.)

From million-year-old fossilized remains of our earliest human ancestors in Africa, to the Victorian era building located just down the street from your home, archaeologists analyze the physical remains of the past in pursuit of both broad and detail-specific understandings of human culture. These pursuits are typically classified into two main subfields:

  • Prehistoric Archaeology: The study of past cultures that did not have written language.
  • Historical Archaeology: The study of past cultures that existed (and may still) during the period of recorded history, which can be several thousands of years in areas such as the Near East.

Some additional subfields:

  • Underwater Archaeology: The study of the physical remains of human activity that lie beneath the surface of oceans, lakes, rivers, and wetlands.
  • Urban Archaeology: The study of the material past of urban centres.
  • Bioarchaeology: The study of human remains recovered from archaeological sites.
  • Cultural Resource Management Archaeology: The vocation and practice of managing cultural resources, including the investigation and salvage of archaeological sites and materials that are threatened by destruction due to modern development projects.

In addition to the theoretical understandings, practical tools, and specific knowledge of the discipline, archaeology students acquire the following skills:

  • Deal with diverse society.
  • Work in teams.
  • Work carefully and patiently.
  • Assimilate and communicate information.
  • Solve problems.
  • Make logical deductions.
  • Analyze scientific evidence.
  • Write reports.
  • Deal with disappointment.

Biological Anthropology

Biological, or physical, anthropology extends the study of what it is to be human through time and space to focus on humans from a biological perspective, within an evolutionary framework. In their research, biological/physical anthropologists explore three broad areas: human biology and variability, the anatomy and behaviour of non-human primates, and the fossilized evidence supporting the concept of human evolution. Thus, the field of biological anthropology encompasses several subdisciplines:

  • Paleoanthropology is the study of ancient humans (their anatomy, behaviour, ecology and chronology), particularly as evidenced in the fossil record over the last 4–5 million years.
  • Anthropometry, the measurement of human body parts, focuses on identifying and evaluating physical variability among living and extinct human populations.
  • Genetics, a branch of biology dealing with variability among organisms and the mechanisms for transmission of variable characteristics from parent to offspring, allows biological anthropologists to explain how evolutionary processes work.
  • Primatology is the study of the behaviour and biology of those species most closely related to us, the nonhuman primates (prosimians, monkeys and apes); anthropologists use this information on social and reproductive behaviour, infant care, communication, diet, and locomotion in order to better understand how our own behaviours have evolved.
  • Osteology is the study of skeletal material; human osteology focuses on the interpretation of the skeletal remains of past human populations, while paleoanthropologists use the same techniques to study ancient humans. Paleopathology is an important branch of osteology that studies abnormalities, or traces of disease, nutritional deficiencies, and injury in human skeletal remains.
  • Forensic anthropology is an applied anthropological approach dealing with legal questions. Forensic anthropologists are often asked to aid in the identification of human remains, and have recently been involved in such tragedies as the crash of a Swissair plane at Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia, and the investigation of “disappeared persons” in Argentina.

In their quest to understand our nature as a single species with substantial genetic and physical diversity, as well as our recent and common ancestry, biological anthropologists collaborate not only with other anthropologists, but also with specialists from other disciplines such as chemistry, geology and botany.

AU offers an introductory course in biological anthropology (ANTH 278), a course in human sexuality (SOSC 378) that includes components of human biology, and a course in primate behaviour (ANTH 310).

Updated June 20, 2024 by Digital & Web Operations (