Sociology and Anthropology

Because sociology and anthropology are both social sciences, one might assume that the same research methods would be utilized in the different fields. However, while some of the same approaches can be used in both fields, it is important to realize that the differences in the fields make different approaches possible for each discipline. Sociology specifically examines social life, social change, and the social factors that contribute to individual behavior. Sociologists use surveys, interviews, experiments, observation, and secondary analysis (, 2013). Cultural anthropology examines human culture. Anthropologists employ the following research methods: participant observation, cross-cultural comparison, survey research, interviews, archival research, media analysis, and historical analysis (Donahue-Lynch, 2000). Clearly, the disciplines are related; however, they are not the same. As a result, some approaches that are appropriate for one discipline would not be appropriate for the other discipline. This paper will investigate the different research methods used in both disciplines.

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One of the most popular research methods used in sociology is the survey (, 2014). This is because the survey can be used to collect a variety of different types of information and can be utilized in a variety of different manners. Surveys involve asking people questions. Surveys can utilize open-ended responses or fixed responses. They can be administered orally, in writing, or via the internet. In other words, surveys are flexible. The survey is not an experimental research method, but, instead, a descriptive research method (Palmquist, 2001). As a result, while surveys may be able to identify correlations, they cannot be used to determine cause-and-effect. In sociology, this limitation is acceptable, since social conditions may focus on factors that co-occur, rather than examining whether variables cause other variables to occur.

Another research method frequently used in sociology is the experiment. Experiments compare control and experimental groups to determine the relationship between different variables. In experiments, the presence of a control and experimental group is critical, in order to determine whether the variable that is being tested has an impact on the outcome. In addition, there should be pretesting of the dependent variable for both groups in order to determine the strength, if any, of the impact of the independent variable. Furthermore, the two groups should be roughly equal prior to the introduction of the independent variable, which can be verified through pretesting. The philosophical justifications for using an experimental research design in sociology is that it can allow a researcher to isolate variables, which can help determine cause and effect.

One research method used in cultural anthropology is the interview. Interviews are similar to surveys, but allow the researcher to gain a more in-depth understanding of the issues being examined. Interviews allow for an interaction between the researcher and the subjects, and provide opportunities for the researcher to gain further information about topics raised by the subjects. The interview is a qualitative research method; rather than providing numerical data about the relationship between variables, the interview seeks to provide in-depth data, generally about a single subject or a smaller number of subjects. The interview is used by sociologists, as well. However, it is important to consider that both cultural anthropology and sociology focus on whether individual experiences are generalizable to larger groups; if they are not, then the results of a research design may be of limited utility to the social scientists that use them. The interview is one example of such a research design.

Participant observation is probably the primary means of research utilized by cultural anthropologists. “Participant observation is a fundamental method of research used in cultural anthropology. It involves a researcher, or researchers, living within a given culture for an extended period of time, to take part in its daily life in all its richness and diversity. The anthropologist in such an approach tries to experience a culture “from within,” as a person native to that culture might do (Donahue-Lynch, 2000). The philosophical justification for using participant observation is based upon the role that objectivity plays in anthropology; for the anthropologist, it is less important to be an objective observer and more important to gain a complete understanding of the culture that is being examined. Outsiders to the culture may be able to observe certain rituals or behaviors, but will probably be unable to understand their meaning without participating in those rituals.

Looking at the different approaches to research employed by sociologists and anthropologists, it becomes clear that while anthropology and sociology overlap, they focus on different aspects of human behavior. Anthropology takes a holistic approach to the study of human beings. In other words, it looks at all of the aspects of life for a group of people. As a result, it does not only focus on the people during that time period, but also on the impact that their ancestors have had on a group of people. It examines how the environment and how physical conditions, including the physical characteristics of the people being studied, impact the culture that is being examined.

Sociology is far more limited than anthropology. Rather than taking a holistic view of human beings, sociology focuses on human society specifically social relationships, and focuses on a specific society at a specific point in time. Sociology looks specifically at human relationships and how those relationships impact society as a whole. Sociologists see a link between certain relationships, such as family relationships, and how an individual will interact with society as a whole.

When examining the research methods frequently utilized in each discipline, one of the things that stands out is that anthropologists and sociologists place a different level of emphasis on objectivity. Sociologists are observers of certain societies at certain periods of time. Oftentimes, the sociologists are also members of the studied societies, but are expected to maintain a sufficient degree of objectivity in order to draw conclusions from research rather than personal experience. This is why sociologists may use the experimental design and may use other research methods that are not experimental to derive quantitative data. One of the most useful applications of such research is to describe how different sub-groups or sub-controls may respond within the framework of a larger social group. For example, sociologists may be interested in examining the impact of being from the upper socioeconomic class on people who are ethnic minorities.

In contrast, anthropologists tend to examine broader elements of humanity, going beyond social relationships. “A hallmark of sociocultural anthropology is its concern with similarities and differences, both within and among societies, and its attention to race, sexuality, class, gender, and nationality” (AAA, 2014). This means anthropologists often look for ways to compare different cultures, and then relate those cultures to the broader human experience. For example, anthropologists examine things such as art and language, which describe how humans communicate with one another, not merely the messages that they communicate. In order to fully understand this broader context, anthropologists oftentimes reject the objectivity that is considered such an important consideration in sociological research. This helps explain why anthropologists might select research methods that are immersive.


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