Within academia and even more starkly within the professional realm is the divide between the “natural” sciences and the “social” sciences. The traditional divide of the sciences has been one which has developed due to common misconceptions between fields. Anthropology, the “study of mankind” is one of the most significant, yet overlooked fields within the social sciences. Like other social sciences, anthropology holds answers to key issues that traverse the science divide.
Anthropology is the study of the human experience, past and present, by incorporating both the natural and social sciences. With a broad and all-inclusive definition, anthropology is known as a holistic field in which anthropologists from a wide range of backgrounds seek to develop a better understanding an even broader spectrum of cultural phenomena. Understanding what it actually means to be a “holistic” field while encompassing the entire human experience is understandably difficult to conceptualize, especially for those outside of the field.
Just like the natural sciences, anthropology focuses on the importance of collecting valid and reliable data. In anthropology, field observation and in-depth analysis is among the primary means of data collection. Anthropologists emphasize the importance of objectivity in the collection and analysis of data. Objectivity allows for the proper understanding of the human experience based on the concept of cultural relativism.
Emphasis on objectivity does not mean that anthropologists claim to be absent of any predispositions. On the contrary, the fact that all humans have predispositions that have developed from socialization is a key factor in studying the human experience. Awareness of our own predispositions and efforts towards objectivity allows for the understanding of culture and the context it creates. Cultural relativism is the idea that the human experience the phenomena within these experiences can only be understood within the context in which they exist. Broadly speaking, the context is the culture in which the experience is taking place.
Culture itself can be defined in a number of ways and includes anything from politics, language, and arts to technology and science. As such, anthropological work requires the anthropologist to become involved first-hand in issues ranging from local traditions to governmental and healthcare systems in order to understand the “culture” surrounding the scope of their work. The comprehensive work of anthropologists therefore lends itself to a plethora of knowledge useful well beyond the confines of the field. Even as a field that contributes to countless topics, issues, and ideas within the human experience, anthropology is often characterized as a social science independent of natural sciences such as biology, physics, and chemistry, among others. To say this characterization is misplaced is an understatement – the natural sciences, like the social sciences, exist in reality within the context of the human experience.
Anthropology is unique in that it seeks to study the human experience in order to develop a holistic understanding of phenomena. Human issues are composed of interconnected factors, sustainable solutions can only exist if we thoroughly understand the answer to the question why? As human beings, we are consistently changing aspects considered to be within the realm of natural sciences. As such, it is important to recognize that in order for natural sciences to advance, social sciences, particularly anthropology, must be integrated. We must answer the why before we can begin to find the answer to how we can solve issues within the human experience.