The study of Social Anthropology provides a systematic way of examining the social lives and cultures, the customs, values and modes of thought of human societies which may be very different from our own. Anthropology is the study of human origin, development and social interaction using a holistic approach and mainly qualitative research, mainly by means of participant observation.
Anthropologists study the lifestyle and culture of human societies, their politics, religions, legal systems, economies, modes of education, languages, health care methods, and styles of art. They make comparative studies relating to human origin, evolution, races, the cultures created, as well as the distribution and physical characteristics of humans.
In South Africa particular attention is paid to the rich variety of inhabitants. The heterogeneous composition of the population provides ideal opportunities and challenges for the anthropologist. Because of the sensitivity that anthropologists have towards the different lifestyles, circumstances and problems of people, they play an increasingly important role in dealing with the challenges facing modern human culture; for instance conflict resolution and relationships in the workplace.
Anthropologists attempt to comprehend and record such things as myths, rituals, economic systems, family patterns and the forms of political organisation of a given group or society.
To sum up, Anthropology is the study of humans as biological, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual beings, with specific reference to factors such as the social and political organisations, religion, the legal system, life styles, economy, art and language.
Anthropology has distinct but related sub-fields, which have developed their own theoretical and methodological specialisations over the past century. These can be summarised as follows:
Physical Anthropology: This has close connections to natural sciences such as biology and genetics. This involves an understanding of the way in which humans have evolved from their “hominid” ancestors over the last few million years as well as the extent to which we share genetic characteristics with other primates such as the great apes, gorillas and chimpanzees. Palaeo-anthropologists examine fossil remains of extinct primates. Physical anthropologists are concerned with the science of ethnology and study the behaviour of humans in their natural settings. Archaeology: Archaeologists study the different forms of social organisations and cultures that have characterised humankind through time. They collect data by excavating sites of past habitations and meticulously record the objects, settlement patterns and remains of people whose lives they are trying to understand.
Anthropological Linguistics: Language provides a rich subject for study. Without an understanding of the language spoken by a particular people, not much can be learnt about their myths, beliefs, political situation and so on.
Social and Cultural Anthropology: This involves the study of the culture and social organisations of living peoples. It is related to ethnology, which is often defined as the comparative study of cultures.
Besides those described above, other areas of specialisation include: medical anthropology; economic anthropology; and urban anthropology.
Anthropologists spend time in an office, the library, as well as in the “field”. They study relevant literature, observe, interview people, and in some instances are involved in resolving problems between people with different cultural backgrounds.