As a discipline, anthropology includes academic and applied aspects that focus on, respectively, developing new theories and solving practical problems. Today, we face a growing number of global problems, most of them linked to one another and to long-standing historical inequities and injustice. Many of the problems we experience in our local lives derive from these major issues, and every one of them intersects with and affects cultural traditions and contemporary social behaviors. In 2021, the United Nations identified 22 critical global issues that transcend national boundaries and affect people everywhere, with those who suffer various forms of injustice typically experiencing greater effects from these challenges than those living in more stable communities. Three of the challenges are major actions areas for philanthropic organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: climate change, gender inequality and gender-based violence, and global health. Intersecting with these global issues are the devastating losses we face in terms of biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity.
The term ethnosphere, first coined by Canadian cultural anthropologist Wade Davis, refers to the sum total of all human knowledge across time—the human cultural legacy. The diverse ways in which we humans have solved or managed the challenges of our lives are a rich storehouse for our future. Too often, contemporary people feel we have little to learn from those who are different from us or who came before us, but the solutions to our current problems are founded upon this legacy. As globalization proceeds, conjoining our lives in myriad ways, it is important to remember that diversity is a storehouse of critical knowledge from the generations before us and the cultures around us, many of which are fighting today to survive. By preserving and valuing the ethnosphere’s diversity, we preserve ourselves, our children’s futures, and the hopes we have for our planet.
The anthropological approach views humans as part of a wider system of meaning, as actors and change-makers within a dynamic environment populated by others. Across cultures, those others can include other species, plant and animal, and spirits as well as other human beings. It is the human ability to imagine and construct the universe in which we live that most interests anthropologists. The anthropological perspective is grounded by principles and standards of behavior considered important to understanding other people and their ways of life. These include the value of all cultures; the value of diversities, biological and cultural; the importance of change over time; the importance of cultural relativism; and an acknowledgment of the dignity of all human beings. These anthropological values undergird our discipline.
Anthropological studies produce documentation of immeasurable worth. Through anthropological research, we collect, preserve, and share the stories of living humans as well as human artifacts, sites, and bodies. Today, anthropologists and those using an anthropological lens contribute to the 21st century in various ways, including through research, research and development, public policy, and applied or practicing anthropology. Career and employment trends today align with what anthropologists do, whether or not one is a full-time practicing anthropologist. Students heading into any field that addresses the human condition, past or present, will benefit from studies in anthropology.