Anthropology is an incredibly broad discipline, covering the entire scope of human experience, but its enormity is controlled by a common narrative and set of three central commitments. The common narrative states that human beings have developed flexible biological and social features that have worked together in a wide variety of environmental and historical conditions to produce a diversity of cultures. The three central commitments are exploring sociocultural diversity, examining how societies hold together, and studying the interdependence of humans and nature.
Anthropologists have developed four main approaches to pursuing anthropology’s common narrative, comprising the discipline’s four fields: biological anthropology, archaeology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. Each of these fields generates a particular type of knowledge about the human experience that can be integrated with knowledge from the other three fields into a deeper, richer understanding of humanity’s central challenges, such as racial injustice and climate change.
Getting at that deeper understanding, anthropologists learn to recognize their own biases as forms of ethnocentrism such as primitivism and orientalism. Rather than categorizing societies according to levels of sophistication (as European scholars did in the 19th century), contemporary anthropologists use holistic techniques of examination and analysis, seeking to understand how the various elements within a culture fit together and how these elements can contradict one another, provoking change. Effective holistic analysis requires a commitment to the method of cultural relativism, which requires a researcher to set aside their own personal values in order to appreciate another culture on its own terms. An important contribution to a rich appreciation of another culture is the input and participation of cultural insiders. The ethical challenges of understanding and representing another culture have led anthropologists to develop collaborative ways of working with cultural insiders, aimed at addressing the power asymmetries of fieldwork and ethnography.