Social science > anthropology > archaeology

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

Archaeologists think of human society as very complex, meaning it has many interconnected parts. Since they focus on people—and societies—that now are gone, they look to studies of living people and societies for insights. When they look at the research and conclusions of other social scientists, they use their anthropological perspectives to gain insights.

Social scientists focus their research on society, or social behavior. Mostly they study human social behavior, but sometimes they look to other species to understand human beings. Anthropology and archaeology are social sciences.

Anthropology is the study of humans, of humanity. Anthropologists consider such questions as what makes humans humans, and how do we account for the tremendous variations in human-ness.

Soc sci anthropology archaeology graphic

In the Americas, archaeology is considered a subfield of anthropology, along with socio-cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and physical or biological anthropology. Obviously, the subfields overlap. For example, archaeologists typically study research in socio-cultural anthropology and linguistics, which helps them understand how living people communicate. Physical or biological anthropologists look at fossils and bones, even chemically and microscopically, to consider genetics, adaptation, and health/disease issues.

Another field of social science is political science. Political scientists examine political behavior. Without doubt, anthropologists also examine political behavior, since it is part of human behavior. The two fields do overlap. Still, many would argue that the holistic point of view that anthropologists take provides more insights in the long run. The holistic perspective assumes that a whole, like society, is very complex, and that the parts do not exist independently of the whole, or if they were severed from the whole they would change. The whole, in holism, is not merely the sum of its parts.

Barfield 2010 Afghanistan cover

Let’s look at an example.

Anthropologist Thomas Barfield began his research in Afghanistan in the 1970s when he lived with nomads wandering the northern part of the country. After twenty-five years, he revisited the group, finding they had prospered. In his 2010 book, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton University Press; introduction available as a PDF), Barfield brings his holistic anthropological perspective to analyzing that country. He considers what he learned from people he met and what he learned from history as he examines modern Afghanistan. From both perspectives, it is clear that “the outstanding social feature of life in Afghanistan is its local tribal or ethnic divisions” (page 18). Barfield notes:

Political scientists often give primacy to individuals, political parties, and ideologies in their studies. Those that employ models of “rational choice” assume that individuals always try to maximize their interests or minimize their pain when it comes to making decisions. When people are presented with the same alternatives, they will respond in the same way whether you are in Kansas or the Qandahar. Anthropologists are less keen on this approach and its assumptions, not because they are familiar with societies in which group interest regularly trumps individual interest. That is, individuals support decisions made by their group even when such support has negative consequences for themselves. Anthropologists also believe that cost-benefit calculations are shaped by cultural predispositions about what is considered important. [page 17]

This distinction between group and individual interest priorities is a huge cultural difference between tribal peoples/Afghanistan and modern Americans/the USA. As you consider peoples known only archaeologically, what evidence do you think gives evidence of whether group or individual interests were prioritized?

The final sentence of the above paragraph is:

In an aristocratic society where honor is the highest ideal, the willingness to die to preserve it strikes observers as noble; in a commercial society where money takes precedence, such behavior is considered lunacy.

What archaeological evidence would lead an archaeologist to conclude that a society prioritized honor—or prioritized money?