Anthropology vs. Psychology

Posted on December 13, 2011 by


Not to make anyone whose educated me look bad, but I honestly could not tell you the difference between Anthropological methods and Psychology methods after I finished my undergrads in ’06.

I found myself interested in Psychological Anthro the most because of the classes I took in the Summer of ’05.  In one class, we were talking about socialization.  We talked about the socialization of an Inuit girl, our own socialization in the media, and about how doctors (or in Anthro terms, those practicing Western biomedicine) screwed up a few Hmong folks in Fresno.  In another class, we were talking about deviance.  We talked about hijras in India and prisoners.

At about the time there was much celebration about electing the first black mixed race black president (November 2008), I was developing my interest in Cognition and Anthropology, thanks to the NeuroAnthropology, the Situationist, and Cognition and Culture blogs.  I was out of school and reading all about how “natives” thought and remembered things.

I was overdosing on ScienceDaily newsbriefs on new findings from new studies.  I’d spend hours clicking from newsbrief to newsbrief.  “The Memories You Want to Forget Are the Hardest Ones to Lose.”  Click.  On the sidebar.  “New Understanding of How We Remember Traumatic Events.”  Click. Reading those briefs used to be my “cognitive potato chips” — couldn’t stop with just one article.

I quickly learned that all this new knowledge that I was interested in tended to come from Psychologists.

I didn’t really understand why things were the way they were until I got a grasp of the methodological traditions in both. That took some additional reading and grad school to figure out.  And 4 literature reviews on four different subjects.

With Social and Cultural Anthropology, it’s been mainly about ethnography, which encompasses putting yourself in with a group of people, learning their ways, doing things with and for them, understanding their thoughts.  With the Psychology I’d been running into, it’d been mainly about results from experiments and answers from surveys from lots of people.

Ideally, we use methods from both disciplines.  However, Anthropology is considered time-and-resource intensive.  You work with a group of people, learn about them, build rapport. Whereas with Psychology, doing a stats analysis saves you lots of time and bam you can clank out a paper in a publication.  I think both are useful depending on the context you want to present it to, and each speaks to different levels of “truth” or a reality.

What I’ve found is this:  Psychology is about discovering if a reality is true for groups of people, Anthropology is about discovering groups of people and their realities.

Psychology, you’re trying to see if many people believe and/or do one thing because of another thing.  Anthropology, you’re trying to see what people believe and/or do.

Psychology you see many worlds and see if and where they meet.  Anthropology, you enter one world, and see whom they meet.