I’ll skip this article because I’m not even an Anthropology student, I’ve never even considered taking a class – it’s not relevant to me. Let me ask: are you a human being? If you answered no, you’re excused. If you answered yes, keep reading; I’ll let you in on a little human secret. Content – information, facts, evidence – is the least important part of Anthropology. Although, yes, it uses the scientific method, the key to Anthropology is its perspective. It is a frame of reference for understanding the world beyond what people have told you. Anthropology is driven by the belief that in order for generalizations about human beings, whether characteristics of culture or biology, should be shown to be true of all places and times of human existence. If the generalization is found to not apply (as is the case with most) we should be skeptical about accepting it. Skepticism is our best defence against accepting inaccurate ideas about our fellow humans in the absence of valid evidence. With this perspective, it becomes clear that numerous specialities and disciplines are required to truly understand humans.
Understanding humans requires explanations that are tested and supported by evidence. But in Anthropology, even your understanding of evidence gets a reality check. Even with extensive testing and acceptance all knowledge, at its root, is uncertain and subject to re-evaluation as new tests and technology is developed. And although the scientific method requires us to be objective, it’s impossible to be completely free of bias. Sure, we studied something objectively and found evidence to support a hypothesis. But the way we studied it affected the results. And our motivations for studying it affected the results. Someone with a different approach and different motivations would likely get different results. So we will never find absolute truth (the limit does not exist).
Theories help a bit. We can create increasingly reliable understandings if theories are continuously revised and tested. But the concepts and ideas that theories address are not directly observable, so no theory can be proven. A theory may, however, suggest relationships or predications supported by new research. When a theory is supported, it is supported for the time being with available evidence that appears consistent. There is always a possibility that some implication or hypothesis will not be confirmed by future tests. This is true of any discipline, but Anthropology brings it to the forefront of thought as we are constantly reminded through the complex enigma that is being human.
Don’t give up on us yet though, theories are not useless. And humans love making them because we have a tendency to attempt to make sense of the world. Essentially, anthropological theories encompass what is generally true of humans and how are they capable of varying. Necessarily, anthropology studies the widest range of people humanly possible to ensure that explanations are not restricted to only the culture from which the anthropology originates. Application of these theories on a global scale as well as in everyday life help avoid misunderstandings between people. They help us understand why a group of people might be different than us, giving less reason to denounce their behaviour just because we are unfamiliar with it. These theories help us understand that what’s good for some may not be good for others to stop us from imposing our beliefs on them. In the end, anthropology helps us understand and accept our place in the biological and social world – as primates trying to live our best life.