Why Four Fields?

If you’re an anthropologist, or even just a casual student of anthropology (I’m including followers of this blog), you’ve heard the phrase “Four Fields Anthropology,” or you’ve heard about the four fields in general.

But it’s important to note that approaching anthropology as an enormous umbrella that encompasses everything that humans can possibly be related to isn’t the only way of doing things. In fact, outside of the United States, and even at many schools within the U.S., the fields are separated into individual disciplines.

My background is in four-fields anthropology, and I very much see the value in such a holistic approach. I can see the study of nonhuman primates as inherently related to the study of what makes us human, for the simple fact that humans are primates.

But I can also see where strictly studying lemurs to better understand lemur behavior, ecology, habitat, predation, and evolution can be wholly separated from the question of “What are humans all about, anyway?”

Franz Boas is credited with developing the four fields approach in the early 20th century, because he saw the value in merging interdisciplinary perspectives on humanity. And, going through the 20th century that was largely the approach taken by American schools and universities.

But over time, increasing specialization within the fields led to an increase in treating the individual fields as individual disciplines.

And that’s far from an invalid approach. Someone who strictly studies the anatomical aspects of speech may have little at all to do with people studying metallurgy in east India. And it’s not as though studying functional linguistic anatomy has any shortage or material to build a discipline on.

Even just within myself: I write about the four fields, but I do have a specialization and focused interest in paleoanthropology. I spent time in Kenya–collecting fossils from various sediment layers associated with our earliest direct ancestors to help recreate the environments in which they lived.

Recreating these environments helps us understand what our ancestors had to content with before they had fully modern human anatomy or intelligence. This went so far as to collect teeth to extract carbon isotopes in order to learn exactly what kinds of food sources our ancestors exploited.

Different kinds of carbon means different kinds of animals and vegetation. There’s lot we can learn.

But upon landing in Kenya, what I was up to wasn’t necessarily regarded as anthropology. It was called human paleontology or archaeology. Archaeology is an individual discipline outside of the United States, and human paleontology is just…older archaeology.

That’s one I have a hard time wrapping my head around…because archaeology studies the biological and cultural remains of human society. Biological and cultural remains leads us directly to the other sub disciplines of anthropology!

But still, plenty of people in the world treat it as wholly separate in discipline, with some overlap in subject matter. It’s the how researchers approach things that makes them different, rather than the what exactly it is they’re approaching.

As an undergraduate I think it’s incredibly helpful to have a four fields education. There are aspects of studying humans that cannot be fully answered or approached by a myopic view of strictly anatomy or strictly archaeology. At the same time…there isn’t a rational argument I can come up with against studying one sub discipline to the exclusion of others.

As we move along in our education, and even in our lives as a whole, we become more specialized. We understand more and more what we want out of our lives and career, and become better experts on how to attain our goals and explain our expertise.

While I still consider my ultimate pursuit of studying and understanding biological human origins to be well under the umbrella of anthropology, there are researchers far more brilliant and accomplished than I will ever be who have approached the same questions I approach without the slightest curiosity or inclination toward the other aspects of anthropology as I learn and teach it.

And that’s fine.

There may be no unified paradigm of four fields of anthropology, neatly holding hands to explain the totality of understanding of what it means to be and have become human. That doesn’t mean there isn’t immense value in having that perspective.

Personally I would much rather have a more dynamic background in understanding the vast array of disciplines that can be considered a part of anthropology. So maybe my analogy of an “umbrella” is less appropriate than one of a “foundation.”

Humans are as diverse as we can think we are. And in studying humans, I want my tool kit to be as diverse as possible. Maybe starting with a wider base means my specialization won’t reach as far.

That’s also fine. There will always be more brilliant and specialized researchers. I would rather understand how to communicate with them than just assume we’re on the same page.

Whatever your approach, just be thorough. Four fields or separate disciplines doesn’t matter. We’re all working toward the same ultimate goals. I’m just here to try and make sure less gets lost in translation.


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