The Palgrave Encyclopedia of the Possible

Living Edition
| Editors: Vlad Petre Glăveanu (Editor-in-Chief)

Possible in Anthropology

Living reference work entry


Anthropology is the study of people: how they behave, socialize, communicate, and understand the world. Etymologically, the word combines the Greek terms anthropolos (“human”) and logos (“thought” or “reason”) (Britannica), literally meaning the study of humankind. Often confused with archaeology, which studies human society in the past (and is considered a branch of anthropology in the USA), anthropologists are interested in contemporary human society and culture.

The distinct anthropological approach to the study of people is ripe with possibilities; by helping us see the familiar in the strange, and the strange in the familiar, anthropology furthers our understanding of ourselves and of others.

This perspective is made possible by the ethnographic method that distinguishes anthropology from other social science disciplines. In contrast with psychologists who focus on individuals and their character and behavior and sociologists who examine broader social systems, anthropologists are interested in the interactions between smaller groups of people. These interactions are studied via extensive fieldwork that involves spending long periods of time in intimate contact with the people understudy.

By seeking an in-depth understanding of what it means to be human, anthropology contributes to cross-cultural understanding, provides inspiration for social change, and helps build empathy across cultural divides.


Anthropology Social science Culture Possible Empathy Ethnography Qualitative research 
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Al Ali, N., & Pratt, N. (2009). What kind of liberation: Women and the occupation of Iraq. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  2. Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  3. Barbosa, G. (2013). Non-cockfights: On doing/undoing gender in Shatila, Lebanon. Ph.D. thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).Google Scholar
  4. Bear, L. (2015). Navigating austerity: Currents of debt along a south Asian river. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Bear, L., Ho, K., Tsing, A. L., & Yanagisako, S. (2015). Gens: A feminist manifesto for the study of capitalism. Theorizing the contemporary, fieldsights, March 30. Accessed 9 May 2019.
  6. Blackwood, E. (1995). Chapter 4: Senior women, model mothers, and dutiful wives: Managing gender contradictions in a Minangkabau village. In A. Ong & M. Peletz (Eds.), Bewitching women, pious men. Gender and body politics in SE Asia (chapter 4). Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  7. Daniel, E. V. (1996). Charred lullabies: Chapters in an anthropography of violence. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Engelke, M. (2017). Think like an anthropologist. London: Pelican.Google Scholar
  9. Goleman, D. (2017). What is empathy? In Harvard Business Review Press emotional intelligence series. Emotional intelligence: Empathy. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.Google Scholar
  10. Graeber, D. (2007). Possibilities: Essays on hierarchy, rebellion and desire. Chico: AK Press.Google Scholar
  11. Grosso, S. (2013). Extraordinary ethics: An ethnographic study of marriage and divorce in Ben Ali’s Tunisia. Ph.D. thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).Google Scholar
  12. Haugerud, A. (2016). Public anthropology in 2015: Charlie Hebdo, black lives matter, migrants, and more. American Anthropologist, 118(3), 585–601.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Herzfeld, M. (1985). The poetics of manhood. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Hinton, A. L. (Ed.). (2002). Annihilating difference: An anthropology of genocide. Los Angeles/Berkeley/London: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  15. Kelly, T. (2012). This side of silence: Human rights, torture and the recognition of cruelty. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Merry, S. E. (2003). Human rights law and the demonization of culture (and anthopology along the way). Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 26(1), 55–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Merry, S. E., & Coutin, S. B. (2013). Technologies of truth in the anthropology of conflict, AES/ APLA presidential address. American Ethnologist, 41(1), 1–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Miller, D., et al. (2016). How the world changed social media. London: UCL Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Moore, H. L. (1994). A passion for difference. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Sharma, A., & Gupta, A. (2006). Introduction: Rethinking theories of the state in an age of globalization. In A. Sharma & A. Gupta (Eds.), The anthropology of the state: A reader: 11. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  21. Singerman, D. (1995). Avenues of participation: Family, politics and networks in urban quarters of Cairo. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Thorleifsson, C. (2018). Nationalist responses to the crises in Europe: Old and new hatreds. Abingdon: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Tsing, A. (2015). The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Webster University GenevaGenevaSwitzerland

Section editors and affiliations

  • Richard Randell
    • 1
  1. 1.Webster University GenevaGenevaSwitzerland