What are Sociology and Anthropology?

What are sociology and anthropology anyway? What would I study if that were my major?

College students often begin their college experience asking these questions. In fact, many students are unfamiliar with the disciplines of sociology and anthropology. While some students may have heard these terms, or taken a social science courses that talked about these disciplines, very few are able to define them or explain how they are different and unique. So let's look at some of the differences and the simliarities.

They are both distinct areas of study, with separate histories and different ways of looking at the world.


Sociology is the study of social life and the social causes and consequences of human behavior. In the words of C. Wright Mills, sociology looks for the "public issues" that underlie "private troubles." Sociology differs from popular notions of human behavior in that it uses systematic, scientific methods of investigation and questions many of the common sense and taken-for-granted views of our social world. Sociological thinking involves taking a closer look at our social world and recognizing that most often things are not necessarily what they seem. A sociologist understands unemployment, for example, not as the problem of one person who can't find a job, but as the interaction of economic, political, and social forces that determine the number of jobs and who has access to them.


Anthropology is a broad, holistic study of human beings. Many people confuse anthropology as a whole with its subfields archaeology (going on digs) or physical anthropology (studying bones). Actually anthropology includes archaeology, physical anthropology, and cultural anthropology.

Cultural anthropologists study living cultures—from hunters and gatherer societies in Africa to large corporations in the USA—by living in the culture and gaining the insiders' point of view.

Archaeologists do a lot more than dig; they reconstruct past cultures based on their finds.

Physical anthropologists do a lot more than study bones. They reconstruct the physical evolution of the human species, they study the physical adaptations humans have made, and they study primates (apes, monkeys, prosimians, as well as humans).The purpose of all of this activity is to learn about US—HUMANS .

Much in common

Notice that while sociology and anthropology have different emphases—one examines social structures, the other focuses on culture—there is much that they have in common.

Both look at the "big picture," are interested in the way society influences people's lives, and strive to promote understanding. Recognizing these similarities, our major blends the two areas of study. For those with a strong interest in one discipline or the other, it is possible to select courses with a primary focus in either, but we encourage our majors to explore and draw on the insights from both disciplines.

Having two disciplines in one department allows us to offer unique learning situations:

Our curriculum includes a number of courses that combine sociological and anthropological thinking, including courses on social movements, health and healing, global interdependence, religion, family, and social justice.

At Gustavus Adolphus College there are a number of opportunities to develop a better understanding of the social world we live in through a variety of study abroad, internship, and volunteer activities.