Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Sociology or Anthropology

Sometimes people ask me what the difference is between sociology and anthropology. There are the surface ones, of course — sociology typically studies first-world societies, whereas anthropology has a rep for studying so-called “primitive” cultures. But the fundamental difference is a philosophical one: sociologists study society, while anthropologists study culture.

What’s the difference? Let’s do a case study. It’s easy to notice a subtle sort of sexism in American textbooks. For example, studies have found that in biology textbooks sperm are seen as competitive creatures while eggs are passive receptacles they aim to penetrate. But the actual science on the subject is much less clear: eggs seem to do a fair bit of selection themselves, etc.

I saw a paper by an anthropologist on this fact; their argument was that these textbooks were a result of the sexism of American culture, a culture which sees men as competing for access to women, and those notions are naturally transported onto our writing about conception. Sexist culture, sexist output.

A sociologist would dig a little deeper. They’d see who writes the textbooks, perhaps notice a disproportionate number of males. They’d look into why it was that males got these jobs, find the sexism inherent in the relevant institutions. They’d argue it was the structures of society that end up with sexist textbooks, not some magical force known as “American culture”.

As you might guess, I’m on the side of the sociologists. Blaming things on culture — as if it were a natural property of a group of people or a mystical life force with its own mind — seems too facile. It also seems wrong.

I’ve mostly been talking about the cultural anthropologists, but there are also a subset of racist anthropologists (sometimes called “anthropological science,” in accordance with Wall’s Law). These anthropologists tried to measure different properties of people, see if they could quantify the differences between the races and predict criminality from the shape of the head.

Cultural anthropologists disdain all that and prefer to endorse a very left-wing notion of cultural relativism. (One shouldn’t make judgments about other cultures!) But in doing so, they end up pushing the judgments off onto the peoples involved. Just like the racist anthropologists, they end up suggesting that the reason people over here believe act differently from the people over there is because they’re different people.

But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from psychology, it’s that — for the most part — people are people, wherever you go. As Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment showed, put normal people into the wrong situation and they turn into devious enforcement machines. And put the same people into a different society and they’ll change just as fast.

It isn’t culture — whatever that is — that causes these things; it’s institutions. Institutions create environments which force a course of action. And that’s why I’m a sociologist.

Bonus recommendation: I’ve been watching The Wire lately; perhaps the most sociologically-inclined show on television. And that’s what makes it interesting, unlike all the other good-evil cop dramas.

You should follow me on twitter here.

December 23, 2006


The interesting thing to me in Zimbardo’s “study” (and even more so in Milgram’s earlier shock experiments) is that the subjects were carefully selected to be “normal” (read ‘white bread’ go-along-with-it students) and of course they got herd results.

The person who would have rebelled and hit the fake guards in the mouth were pre-screened out and this gave a weird (and persistent) mistaken impression that everybody fell into the “they were killing Jews, but I wasn’t a Jew…” riff.


posted by William Loughborough on December 23, 2006 #

I think you’re right to take a systems approach.

Where I would caution you, referring to back to your writing about, e.g., Alfie Kohn, is in ever thinking it’s easier to engineer systems than it is. Which is not to say it can’t be done. But it’s a lot of harder than it looks, and involves dealing with some of the meaner aspects of human behavior.

posted by Seth Finkelstein on December 23, 2006 #

What causes institutions?

posted by John Meyer on December 23, 2006 #

Although the “cause” of institutions is less central to his observations about them, Wolf Wolfensberger at http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/lib/docs/1909.htm makes much clear in the case of the (euphemestically named) “schools for the feeble-minded” which are among the last vestiges of total institutionalization as a nagging peculiarity, along with eugenics, etc.


posted by on December 24, 2006 #

In addition to the modern/primitive focus, I would also posit that sociology often takes a more statistically rigorous approach and anthropology is concerned with things, like ethnographies and case studies, that are anecdotal.

“But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from psychology, it’s that — for the most part — people are people, wherever you go.”

Does it really, though? This seems like a broad assumption.

posted by Joe Grossberg on December 25, 2006 #

Like Sartre (and the anarcho-syndicalist in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) you see the violence inherent in the system, but how is it that all these differing institutions come to exist in the first place?

Which forces create the institutions that then force courses of action?

posted by David Mathers on December 25, 2006 #

I find your generalizations of both disciplines curious.

If all anthropologists did were to use “culture” as a basis of explanation, they wouldn’t be much use at all (“Why do some people celebrate Christmas?” “It’s their culture, stupid.”)

As you point out, there is no magical force known as ‘culture’ and nor would any but the most na├»ve anthropologist claim that as a reason in its own right.

What you describe as a sociological approach to your case could just as well be a social anthropological approach, examining the ways that the American institutional sexism has come about and the assumptions inherent in the system. This is culture, too. :-)

That said, I find labels like sociologist and anthropologist enormously unimportant. It all comes down to the methods used, and in that regard there is little to separate the two

Instead of describing cultural anthropologists the like of which (I sincerely hope) hasn’t been seen since the 1960s, help clear the misunderstanding that these disciplines are so different from one another. It’s an artificial distinction curiously maintained by people who should know better.

posted by Andreas on January 4, 2007 #

I have to agree with Andreas. I myself have a degree in both disciplines and have seen first hand the differing methodologies and perspectives. It’s not that anthropologists end up using the term “culture” as a cure-all answer to the questions raised in the discipline no more than sociologists use “society” or “institution”. The major difference for me is that while anthropology tends to study aspects of humans through as an organic mass of culture, sociology tends to study specific areas of a society. Thus, while an anthropologist might study an area and make inferences on the overarching mindset, a sociologist studying the same area traces specific lines of social connections. In the end however, the two are very similar. Nevertheless they can both mutually aide each other, as shown by the numerous amounts of both sociologists and anthropologists using research from both disciplines.

As a side note… I personally found anthropologists to be more warm and engaging than sociologists.

posted by Leonard on January 8, 2008 #

But the actual science on the subject is much less clear: eggs seem to do a fair bit of selection themselves, etc.

In my opinion, this is a counter-intuitive result. I certainly hadn’t heard it before. It seems to me that we should not attribute to malice what can be attributed to ignorance.

Also, isn’t it possible that males did, in fact, evolve to be more competetive? And if they did, then why is it sexist to say so?

Let’s suppose the science is undecided on this topic. How can we hope for a balanced analysis if one conclusion is considered boorish and politically incorrect?

posted by John Maxwell on October 21, 2008 #

An anthropologist might respond: But why does it seem counter-intuitive? Because of the sexism latent in the culture. The point is not that we can’t say things that seem intuitive or offensive; just that we be careful to overcome our biases and carefully look at the facts — something the textbooks and Baumeister clearly haven’t done.

posted by Aaron Swartz on October 21, 2008 #

The characterization you make of anthropology might have been true about 70 years ago, but the field is a very different place now. Political economy, pratice theory, anthropology of the first world, and on and on…no anthropologist these days would simply boil down any social phenomenon to “it’s the culture” and leave it at that. Also, the point of cultural relativism (and it should be noted that not all anthropologists consider themselves cultural relativists, although this was an important step in moving past the racist tendencies of early anthropology and sociology) is not that “those people are different” but that different expression comes from human universals reacting in different situations.

Anthropology and sociology have a lot of common history, common theory, and common aims. You might want to read a bit more about anthropology before dismissing it out of hand.

posted by Gemma on November 29, 2009 #

I think you way oversimplify how cultural anthropologists view culture. You speak of them as if they formulate no theory, and as if they don’t utilize the concepts of ‘society’ and ‘institution.’ You also fail to acknowledge the limitations of the quantitative approach (the most obvious example being how ‘ethnicity,’ a word which itself has only the vaguest of definitions, is used to derive statistical data that is potentially misleading or unhelpful).

Lastly, I’d like to point out that it was a cultural anthropologist, Franz Boas, who punched holes in the arguments of the same eugenicist “scholars” you mention—using the same forms of measurement they did, no less, just done more accurately and with the understanding that succeeding generations of children born to immigrant parents were experiencing physiological changes due to new diets and environments, etc.

Point being, you do a great injustice to both fields with your flippant and uninformed analysis of their differences. Why would you cut yourself off from one or the other, when both come with built-in advantages and disadvantages?

It comes down to being a good scholar, period.

posted by Amanda on February 3, 2010 #

Thank you so much. This made me understand the differences between sociology and anthropology much clearer and made succint the nebulous distinctions I had between the two. If I were to succintly summarize the difference between sociology and anthroplogy I would repeat what you said in the first paragraph: sociology studies society and anthropology studies culture. Put in another way I would say sociology studies what groups do and anthropology studies what groups think. Put in another way I would say sociology studies what makes groups of poeple the same while anthropology studies what makes groups of people different.

I once heard anthropology was the most humanistic of the sciences and I can see how this is the case. Personally I feel more attracted to anthropology because I am more attracted to culture than society. Plus I feel like I get enough hard science through the other subjects I study.

posted by Delong on August 30, 2010 #


Well, aside from the problem I have with your grossly out of date representation of anthropology as ‘racist’, I have a few problems with sociology, myself.

First off, no anthropologist in todays day and age would accept that the explanation for anything was ‘because it’s their culture’. That’s like a psychologist saying that someone is a serial killer ‘because of their behavior’. No shit. There is always some kind of argument made to explain HOW it relates to people,s understandings of certain concepts, in this case say by looking at how gender roles are created, understood, and reproduced symbolically within the social group which produced these sexist textbooks. Just saying ‘culture’ as if it is something quantifiable is probably the worst thing you can do in anthropology, so bad anthropologists even have their own term for it: reification.

Rather than looking for simple cause-effect relationships, anthropologists are interested in the meanings people give things in the most taken-for-granted ways within their social contexts. A dumb blonde joke makes sense to people in Canada and the US because the ‘dumb blonde’ has meanings which were historically created, are locally understood, and continue to be reproduced in our respective societies. Sure, there are pockets of resistance where people say this is sexist, but some people would argue that they aren’t talking about A dumb blonde, they’re just making a joke. Now, you can call these people liars and force them to admit their own internalized sexism, which would give you some great research material, I’m sure…or you could realize that on some level, this social trope is being understood through a different system of meaning which is somehow defining and reproducing (with varying levels of success) sexist beliefs, and instead look for WHY these beliefs exist in the first place.

You could do this by examining what qualities people associate with ‘femininity’, look at what kind of discourses exist about women among different groups (men, women, the media), how is the masculine then constructed as opposite to the feminine? There are so many venues of access to explore because anthropologists understand that humans live lives that are enmeshed in, and indeed lived through meanings.

What culture really is is still up for debate in the field of anthropology. I mean saying it’s a shared set of meanings, values, and beliefs within a certain social group is facile, but it’s the only definition we can really agree on right now. You can still tell it’s there though. Would you say that gravity doesn’t exist just because we don’t understand it? We can feel it anytime we fall, and similarly, we can feel our culture the moment we go to another country and realize how strange things look to our unaccustomed eyes.

Let’s put this issue to rest: phrenology was NOT just practiced by anthropologists. It also ceased to be taken seriously some time ago.

Yes, anthropology was undoubtedly labelled ‘the hand-maiden of colonialism’ and with good reason! It started out as a practice by missionaries and aristocrats, usually for the purpose of demeaning or converting other non-white, non-Christian civilizations. But sociology had just as rocky a past, and just as many who believed (as anthropologists of the time did) that certain ‘primitive’ people were stuck in a period of history that Western civilizations had long since surpassed.

This being said, which discipline created the field of ‘post-colonial’ studies? Not sociology. Anthropology was the first discipline to be self reflective about it’s role in colonization, and to this day, it continues to educate people about the fallacies of it’s past, something that was never explored in my sociology class. Not only that, but some early anthropologists (Franz Boas and his students in particular)were also fierce advocates for the groups of people they lived with and learned from in a period of intense and very institutionalized racism.

Finally, I have a problem with how seriously the other social sciences take themselves. To this day, anthropology is one of the only disciplines to really get that some things can’t by their very nature be studied objectively. Anthropology tries to be ‘inter-subjective’, which basically means trying to see the world through the eyes of the people they study, and to gain some understanding of what meanings people ascribe to certain concepts through listening to the stories they tell each other about themselves. You can’t ever hope to understand -all- the complex meanings people live their lives through everyday, but anthropologists try anyways, and that’s one of the reasons why we have such a better understanding of the way other people live now than 30 years ago.

The main goal of anthropology is to try and see humans as humans, without trying to reduce people to ticks on a survey sheet, and without disregarding all of the messy, contradictory, and complex systems of meaning that go along with making sense of the world…and that’s why I love it.

posted by Pinchy on October 22, 2010 #

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