History of the development of anthropology as a science

History of the Development of Anthropology as a Science

Anthropology, as a scientific discipline dedicated to the study of humanity in all its dimensions, has a long and complex history. Its evolution is marked by a series of paradigm shifts, methodical advancements, and changing perspectives on what it means to be human. This article will traverse the history of anthropology, highlighting its seminal moments, foundational figures, and transformative ideas.

Early Roots and Precursors

Anthropological thought can trace its origins to ancient civilizations, where philosophers and historians like Herodotus and Ibn Khaldun sought to understand human societies and cultural diversity. In ancient Greece, Herodotus’ inquiries into different cultures laid the groundwork for ethnographic inquiry. Similarly, Ibn Khaldun, a 14th-century North African thinker, proposed theories on social cohesion and historical dynamics that resonate with modern anthropological thought.

However, these early efforts lacked systematic methodology and the comparative frame that would later define anthropology as a science. The Enlightenment period in the 18th century marked a significant shift, as European intellectuals, including philosophers like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant, began to engage in the systematic study of human nature, society, and culture. This period emphasized rationality, empirical observation, and critical inquiry, laying the groundwork for anthropology as a scientific endeavor.

The Birth of Anthropology as a Discipline

The 19th century witnessed the formal emergence of anthropology as a distinct academic discipline. This period was characterized by an increased interest in understanding non-European societies, driven by colonial expansions and encounters with diverse cultures. Anthropologists of this era often worked in the service of colonial administrations, studying indigenous populations to aid governance.

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One of the key figures in the development of anthropology was Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, an English anthropologist who is often regarded as the father of cultural anthropology. His seminal work, “Primitive Culture” (1871), introduced the concept of culture as a complex whole encompassing knowledge, beliefs, art, morals, law, customs, and other capabilities acquired by people as members of society. Tylor’s comparative method and his evolutionary framework, which posited that societies progressed from “primitive” to “civilized” stages, significantly influenced the discipline.

Another foundational figure was Lewis Henry Morgan, an American anthropologist who conducted extensive ethnographic work among Native American tribes. His book “Ancient Society” (1877) introduced the division of social evolution into three stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Despite the progressive and often ethnocentric nature of these classifications, Morgan’s work laid crucial groundwork for later anthropological theories.

The Boasian Revolution and the Rise of Cultural Relativism

The early 20th century heralded a transformative period in anthropology, spearheaded by Franz Boas, a German-born anthropologist who became a central figure in American anthropology. Boas vigorously challenged the unilinear evolutionary models of Tylor and Morgan, advocating instead for cultural relativism and historical particularism. He argued that each culture is unique, shaped by its own historical and environmental circumstances, and should be studied on its own terms rather than through a Eurocentric evolutionary framework.

Boas emphasized the importance of fieldwork and empirical observation, urging anthropologists to immerse themselves in the cultures they studied. His insistence on rigorous data collection and his critique of racial determinism brought a scientific rigor and ethical dimension to anthropology. Boas’ students, including Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Alfred Kroeber, further developed and popularized his ideas, establishing a lasting legacy in the discipline.

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Structuralism and Functionalism

The mid-20th century saw the rise of new theoretical approaches in anthropology. Structuralism, pioneered by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, sought to uncover the underlying structures of human thought and culture. Lévi-Strauss argued that human cultures, despite their surface diversity, share common deep structures rooted in the human mind. His work on myth, kinship, and binary oppositions highlighted the universal aspects of human cognition and communication.

Simultaneously, functionalism emerged as a dominant paradigm, particularly through the work of Bronisław Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. Functionalism focused on understanding the functions and roles of cultural practices and institutions within a society. Malinowski’s fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands and his concept of participant observation set new standards for ethnographic research, emphasizing the necessity of living within the community to gain a comprehensive understanding of its culture.

The Postmodern Turn

The latter half of the 20th century witnessed a paradigm shift influenced by postmodern thought. Anthropologists began to question the objectivity and authority of their own discipline, recognizing the influence of power dynamics, representation, and subjectivity in ethnographic work. The “writing culture” movement, led by scholars like James Clifford and George Marcus, called for reflexivity and self-awareness in anthropological writing, emphasizing the need to consider the positionality of the researcher and the constructed nature of ethnographic narratives.

Moreover, feminist anthropology, spearheaded by figures like Sherry Ortner and Gayle Rubin, challenged the male-centric bias in anthropological research and theory. Feminist anthropologists highlighted the importance of gender as a fundamental aspect of social structure and cultural meaning, opening new avenues for understanding power relations and identity.

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Contemporary Trends and Interdisciplinary Approaches

Anthropology in the 21st century is marked by its interdisciplinary nature and its engagement with global issues. Anthropologists increasingly collaborate with scholars from fields such as sociology, history, linguistics, and biology, enriching their analyses with diverse perspectives. The advent of digital technology and globalization has also expanded the scope of anthropological inquiry, allowing researchers to explore virtual communities, transnational networks, and the impact of digital media on cultural practices.

Contemporary anthropologists grapple with pressing issues such as climate change, migration, health disparities, and social justice. They strive to apply their ethnographic insights to address real-world problems, advocating for the marginalized and contributing to policy debates. This applied dimension of anthropology exemplifies its enduring relevance and its commitment to understanding and improving the human condition.


The history of anthropology as a science reflects its dynamic and evolving nature, shaped by intellectual currents, methodological innovations, and shifting societal contexts. From its early speculative roots to its current interdisciplinary and socially engaged form, anthropology has continually redefined itself to better understand the complexities of human life. As it moves forward, anthropology remains committed to its foundational principles of cultural relativism, empirical rigor, and ethical responsibility, ensuring its enduring contribution to the study of humanity.

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