Penn Anthropology Undergraduate Handbook

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Anthropology is the global social science. Unlike other social sciences, it not only studies the human condition everywhere, it also studies its biological as well as its cultural and semiotic diversity, and how that diversity evolved and developed from the past into the present. Over the past century and a half it has become the comprehensive study of the human condition in world history. We began in the 19th century with the study of the small non-literate communities that were still found in many parts of the world outside the historical civilizations that historians studied. We learned to see the world as they did, and from their perspectives we began to look back at ourselves. We worked comparatively across all populations, cultural traditions and historical periods, to document the particularities of human life in the world around us today, and in the past that we can reconstruct, in order to arrive at general propositions about humanity as a whole, which we can offer for application in the modern globalizing world.

Anthropology has been taught at Penn since since 1886, in close association with the Penn Museum, which was established at the same time. It has been called the natural history of human kind—from the beginning down to the present. But as the rate of global change has accelerated over the past century, anthropology has also changed. As populations have grown, and society has become more complex, anthropological interests have expanded. We continue to value comprehensive training, but since the 1960s we have specialized on particular dimensions: the prehistoric and historical (in Archaeology); the evolutionary, genetic and biological (in Biological or Physical Anthropology); the social, cultural, and ethno-historical (in Social or Cultural Anthropology, which has also been called Ethnology), and the linguistic and semiotic (in Linguistic Anthropology). The first of these branches of modern anthropology reconstructs the past, from the earliest prehistory down to recent history, where it enriches the work of historians. The second investigates evolutionary origins and modern genetic and biological diversity. The third focuses on diversity in the modern world, and (combined with foundations in the others) provides an excellent preparation for any professional career. It is complemented by the fourth, which analyses the various ways in which humans communicate with each other, in all the processes that make possible the survival and progress of our species.

After mapping the global distribution of peoples “without history,” anthropology moved from the comparative study of cultural data-sets in their geographical distribution to research on particular dimensions of biological and cultural process. We work with both the actual and the symbolic, the real and the ideal, not only how things are, and how they came to be, but also the expectations of what they might become or how they ought to be. We study how we became what we are, biologically, socially, and culturally, explaining the dynamics and the diversity, in order to arrive (like other sciences) at general statements (but in our anthropological mode) about world history and prehistory as a whole, taking into account the full range of human experience that can be accessed. Like all sciences we work from the outside, using conventional social-science methods. Unlike other sciences we have developed an inside approach, participating as ethnographers in what we observe, representing the subject’s orientation, in order to record, analyse and interpret people’s reactions, motivations and understandings in particular situations, and propose generalizations across historical and geographical space. We compare and contextualize our data in order to understand the significance of particular differences and similarities.

Anthropology is the key to the modern curriculum. Our work transcends the intellectual boundaries that have segregated the social and natural sciences and the humanities, and the academic and professional. Our courses are cross-listed in a wide range of other departments: areal, such as African Studies, Africana Studies, East Asian Studies, Near East Studies, and South Asian Studies; disciplinary, such as History, International Relations, Linguistics and Religious Studies; sectoral, such as Biology, Psychology and Religious Studies; and several professional schools, including Education, Medicine, Nursing and the School of Veterinary Medicine. We also have joint degree programs with other departments and schools, and we offer distinct courses that go beyond the disciplinary boundaries of anthropology, on topics such as corporations, psychoanalysis and globalization. Our individual research topics bear on a wide variety of modern issues, such as finance, violence and social control, conflict and negotiation, media and communication, migration and demographics, science and technology, race and gender, food and health, heritage and identity, poverty and rights, and political and economic development, and our research feeds directly into our courses. Because of its global perspective and its holistic approach to the study of the human condition, anthropology is not only central to the modern curriculum, but serves as a launching pad for any branch of it.

We live in changing conditions. As populations have grown, and more people have come into contact with each other, the speed of change has accelerated. As we study the present, we are aware of the trajectories that pass through the present from the past into the future. Anthropology is also changing. But the change is cumulative. We continue to work with an analytical toolbox and a theoretical library which has been tested and developed over the past century and a half. We continue to update and develop our methods and the theory that guides our research and structures our curriculum. In the past decade we have introduced new courses on topics such as science and technology, feminist ethnography, sex and gender, and global food security.

Anthropology began at a stage of world history when the West saw a world divided into spatially distributed cultural communities. Interaction among these communities had generated the concept of race. Anthropology achieved its current place in the curriculum by the development of the idea of culture as a more productive analytical concept for the explanation of human diversity, and by its research application, especially in the ethnographic method. In the first half of the 20th century anthropologists were leaders in the movement to discredit and delegitimize the concept of race, making important contributions to the UN's Declarations of Human Rights in 1948, 1966 and 1976. Today, in a globalizing world, geography is no longer a sufficient guide to cultural difference and divergence. As world population continues to increase, travel and migration have become common experience, and cultural communities are inter-mingling, though cultural history still conditions our thinking. To live in the modern world requires knowledge of the full range of its socio-cultural complexity, and the intellectual equipment for understanding and living with cultural difference. Anthropology produces real data for this purpose. For this reason alone, whether you plan to pursue a career in business, government, medicine, law, or any other profession, a background in anthropology is increasingly valuable.

The Penn Anthropology Program is based on the proposition that in order to ride the scientific, economic and political waves of a globalizing world, to be a global citizen, you must understand: (1) the biology without which you would not be human, (2) the historical processes and trajectories that have led to the different cultural and social forms of the modern world, and (3) the contemporary patterns of social, economic, and political interaction. It equips students with the intellectual skills they need to work in our globalizing world. Anthropology is the involved social science. It is both scientifically rooted and actively engaged. It moves with the times. It makes a difference. The product is global awareness.