A Sheepish Question

Ahem... What's the difference between sociology and anthropology? I'm starting to read through the first assignment for Anthropology and the Law. While it's very interesting, I guess I'm a little confused because I'm not quite clear on how to define the sphere of what are broadly Anthropological Questions, and where that sphere overlaps and does not overlap with what are Sociological Questions.

I'll confess now to having much more experience with sociology than anthropology. Unfortunately, since neither was my area of specialty in undergrad, my encounters with both were shallow and involved somewhat older scholarship. I'm led to understand that both fields have altered radically since they stopped being exclusively the province of Dead Old (Likely Racist/Imperialist) (Quite Probably German) White Men.

My general impression of sociology is that it sort of arose as a blending of political science, economics, psychology, and history, with the idea of using tools from the various disciplines to answer larger-scale questions of How Societies Work and Why People Act the Way They Do. When I think of sociology, I tend to think of Max Weber. I tend to think of the sociological project as looking at society as it exists now and trying to explain how it works, and to break down what factors cause different societies to act in different ways.

When I think of Anthropology, I tend to think of Margaret Meade and Alfred Kroeber. My impression is of people studying the societies and cultures of ostensibly primitive peoples, and either saying "This is how we used to be back before we got civilization," or "This is how folks interact in the State of Nature, which tells us important lessons about human nature that we can apply to our own lives/societies." I tend to think of anthropological questions as focused on specific cultures, and as being more concerned with how people interact in pre-modern societies.

And yet, and this is where my knowledge gets more fuzzy, I feel as though both disciplines have evolved in ways that make them more difficult to distinguish. I'm under the impression that Sociology has lost a lot of its hubris about seeking to create formulae for how societies operate, and has retreated to a more descriptive goal of "let's look at societies as they are now and talk about what's going on in them." Anthropology, meanwhile, seems to have gotten embarrased of the way that it tended to de-humanize less developed societies and turn them into circus sideshows. The anthropological project, from what I can tell, has expanded to include all manner of contemporary societies. Further, my feeling is that anthropology, too, has stopped trying to make arguments about Human Nature and instead focuses on descriptive studies.

So, looking at the state of the fields right now, how would you differentiate the two? Is it a matter of focus? Sociologists are concerned with societies at large, while anthropologists are concerned with the smaller component groups? Is it a question of ideology? Anthropologists principally wish to describe cultures without attempting to distill their behavior into universal rules, while sociologists are still looking to arrive at big ideas about how societies work? Or is there very little practical difference between the two disciplines as they stand today, and the fact that they're organized in separate departments is a relic of their having arrived at the same place from different origins?

Feel free to correct my gross (and likely inaccurate) generalizations. Also, I now realize that I should have clarified that I'm talking about cultural-type anthropology, rather than the more biological anthropology. Which, again, shows how little I know about the field.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on September 2, 2006 12:00 PM.

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