Sociology and Anthropology

About the Fields of Sociology and Anthropology

Despite their often disparate areas of focus, a common aim links sociological and anthropological studies: the advancement of knowledge of who we are, how we came to be that way, and where we may go in the future. Both academic disciplines seek to understand how the myriad societies of the world work, and how people live, think, and believe, not only in our own society but in all human cultures.

Sociology is the study of group behavior and society. The realization that our social world – be it a family, a campus, a city, a nation, an entire world - guides our actions and life choices is an essential lesson of the discipline. To think sociologically is to realize how the general categories into which we fall shape our particular life experiences, and influence our thoughts, feelings, and actions. In doing so, sociologists examine the causes and consequences of human behavior; the goal is not to document a particular perspective of society, but rather to know how societies work and why. The field of sociology has broad scope. Topics of investigation range from intimate relationships to the consequences of overpopulation; from shared religious beliefs to social movements promoting radical social change; from problems of poverty to corporate downsizing; from questions of group solidarity and shared identities to instances of group conflict and violence. Sociology provides a distinctive perspective on the world and addresses many challenging issues that are confronting society and the world today.

Anthropology is the study of the origins, evolution, and contemporary diversity of human beings as both biological and cultural organisms, from our emergence millions of years ago to our flourishing in the present. With a perspective that is among the most holistic of all academic disciplines, anthropology is divided into subfields that allow for a comprehensive and comparative assessment of the human species. Physical anthropology involves the study of the genesis and development of our ancestral and living lineage by examining the biological, primatological, and fossil data. Cultural anthropology engages the broad field of human cultural data (provided by language, ritual, kinship, religion, symbolism, politics, economics, and other areas of social life) in order to study variations in the beliefs and behaviors of members of different groups at the band, village, city, and state level. Archaeology involves the reconstruction of the human past through the analysis of artifactual and human remains.

The subject matter of anthropology ranges from the arcane (spirit possession and animal sacrifice in Vodou) to the commonplace (the anatomy and development of the primate foot). The breadth of the subject matter means that anthropologists may study Mayan hieroglyphics, the fossil remains of extinct human ancestors, the everyday lives of street children in Latin America, the fertility rituals of New Guinea Highlanders, the rise of civilization in the Middle East, and more. For an anthropologist, diversity itself – in all of its manifestations of body shapes and sizes, customs, technologies and worldviews – provides a frame of reference for understanding any single aspect of life in any given society.

The Department of Sociology & Anthropology at Muhlenberg offers a graded sequence of courses that are designed to help students understand and comprehend the central concepts, principles, issues, and methods associated with these two disciplines, and to see how sociological and anthropological research is connected to research in other disciplines. Majors from the department have a strong record of successful applications to graduate programs across the country, and have found careers in teaching and research at the university level. Due to the department’s emphasis on methodological rigor, our graduates are often employed in law, civil service, social services, education, social work, public health and policy, and by human resource management and marketing research companies, and non-profit research organizations. International organizations such as the United Nations, World Bank and World Health Organization regularly hire sociologists and anthropologists for research and policy analysis, and they can also be found working in museums and national parks.