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A practical guide to interpretive anthropology research

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Anthropology should be interpreted as an academic discipline that originates in the humanities but has become increasingly linked to the social sciences, such as sociology, history, and cultural studies. The term “anthropology” comes from the Greek words “anthrōpos” (Ancient Greek: ἄνθρωπος) meaning “human being” and “-logia” (λογία) meaning “study,” giving a rough translation as “the study of humanity.”

What is Interpretive Anthropology?

Interpretive approach anthropology definition can be done as: 

Interpretive anthropology studies culture through a framework that focuses on the meaning of cultural events and practices. It emphasises the importance of understanding the perspective of those who study culture rather than imposing the perspective of an outside observer.2

Interpretivism anthropology is a relatively new subfield that examines the world through observations, pictures, and interviews. It is used primarily by marketers.

The interpretive paradigm is based on qualitative research methods such as participant observation (being present in a setting) or interviews (asking questions). These methods are often combine with other research techniques such as archival sources or statistical analysis.

Anthropologist challenge traditional scientific methods such as positivism (the idea that there is only one proper way to do things) and ethnocentrism (the belief that one’s own culture is superior). They argue that these approaches cannot fully capture the complexity, diversity, fluidity and ambiguity inherent in human experience.

Field of Anthropology

The field of anthropology is split into four main sub-fields: 

Social Anthropology: This field examines how societies are organized, function, and change over time. Social anthropologists study the development of culture and social institutions, such as marriage systems or religious beliefs. They also investigate how societies adapt to their environments, especially those based on agriculture or animal husbandry.

Physical Anthropology: Physical anthropologists study human evolution and variation from an evolutionary perspective. They examine the biological characteristics of humans from different populations across time and space to learn about our origins and history as a species.

Linguistic Anthropology: Linguistic anthropologists focus on language as a crucial aspect of human culture. They study how languages change over time and how they relate to other aspects of culture, such as shared beliefs or values. They also investigate how different languages are structured differently so that speakers can communicate with each other effectively.

Cultural Anthropology: Cultural anthropologists study people’s beliefs and behaviors to understand better why they do what they do. They look at different aspects of culture, including art forms such as music, dance, or visual arts; religious rituals; social structures like families or neighborhoods.

What is the Difference between Sociology and Anthropology? 

The first thing to remember about the difference between anthropology and sociology is that they are two different fields of study. The second thing to remember is that both are social sciences. The third thing to remember is that they are both related to each other but in different ways.


Sociology is the study of society, including its origins and behavior. It looks at how humans interact with one another and how this interaction changes over time. Sociologists often look at topics such as crime and delinquency, marriage, divorce and family life, social class and social mobility, race relations and prejudice, education, politics, and religion.


Anthropology is the study of humans as a species in relation to their culture (including language), biology (including human genetics), archaeology (including paleontology), physical environment, history and prehistory. It studies all aspects of human existence across time and space from our earliest beginnings as a species through modern times as well as existing societies around the world today to learn more about who we are as individuals and what makes us unique among all other species on earth.

The difference between anthropology and sociology can be summarized by saying that sociology looks at society from within while anthropology looks at society from without

Approaches of Anthropology 

Symbolic and interpretative anthropology are two closely related fields that focus on the study of culture.

  • Symbolic Anthropology
  • Interpretive Anthropology

Symbolic Anthropology

Symbolic anthropology is based on the idea that things’ meaning is derived from how people use them. The theory was developed by anthropologist Victor Turner (1920-1983), who argued that symbols have multiple meanings, which can change over time. In other words, if we know what a symbol means to one person, we cannot assume it means the same thing to someone else. So, for example, a cross might represent Christianity for one person and death for another.

Anthropologists study symbolic anthropology study rituals, myths, and other forms of symbolism to understand how people create meaning in their lives. They also study how people express their identity through these symbols, which may vary from one culture or community to another.

Symbolic anthropology has been criticized for being too subjective and unable to be replicated by other researchers. However, many anthropologists today recognize the importance of studying symbols to understand how people communicate with one another and make sense of their world.

Interpretive Anthropology

Interpretive anthropology is based on researchers’ ethnographic research methods to understand how people think about their world and social relationships. It focuses on understanding people’s perceptions and experiences rather than trying to explain them through universal laws or scientific principles. Interpretive anthropologists try to understand why things happen in a given culture rather than focusing on what happens or how it happened.

What is the primary contribution of interpretivism anthropology?

The primary contribution of interpretivism anthropology is that it provides a way for us to understand the world through people’s eyes. It allows us to look at the world differently and understand how others see things.

Interpretivism emphasizes the importance of understanding how humans interpret their experiences rather than what is happening in the world.

For example, if we compare two people who have never met before but have similar backgrounds and interests, they will likely interpret many things differently. Moreover, their particular personalities and circumstances will influence the interpretation of these experiences.

How should the symbolic approach of anthropology be interpreted?

The symbolic approach of anthropology considers culture as a complex system of symbols and meanings in which social relationships are embedded. Symbols are signs that stand for something else, typically ideas or concepts.

The symbolic approach is sometimes called semiotic or sign-theoretical because it is based on the idea that meaning depends on symbolization. For example, language is a system of symbols used to communicate thoughts and feelings with others; without language, there would be no culture.

The symbolic approach is a method of interpretation that focuses on the object’s meaning rather than its physical construction.

Symbolic anthropology is closely associated with Victor Turner’s “dramas” or “myths.” A drama is any ritualized event or action that has some meaning for those who perform it or observe it. 

In this respect, all cultural events can be considered dramas, but not all dramas are visible to outsiders. In some cases, they may only be visible to insiders who are able to discover their hidden meanings through careful observation and analysis.

Examples of symbolic and interpretive anthropology

There are few examples of symbolic and interpretive anthropology 

Symbolic anthropology focuses on the study of symbols, including myths and rituals. Symbols are viewed as a means of communication from one person to another. The focus is on how people use symbols to express themselves and how they understand them. This field also looks at how people change over time regarding their symbols and how this impacts their culture.

Example: A symbol is an American flag with different meanings for different groups of people. Some see it as representative of freedom and opportunity, while others see it as a sign of oppression and imperialism. Anthropologists would look at these different perspectives to better understand what they mean to those who hold them.

Interpretive Anthropology: In interpretive anthropology, anthropologists attempt to understand what “culture” means to those who live within it by looking at how they conduct their lives and make sense of the world around them. Interpretive anthropologists tend to focus more on understanding individuals’ experiences than cultural norms or trends (comparative anthropological studies).

Example: An interpretive anthropologist might want to study the experiences of a single person growing up in New York City because they believe that an individual’s experience can shed light on broader questions like “What does it mean

What is the relationship of Anthropology with individual and society?

The relationship between the individual and society is a significant focus of anthropology. Humans are social animals, and our societies consist of individuals and groups. Individuals can be defined as single entities capable of making decisions and controlling their actions. However, groups are more than just collections of individuals; they have distinct identities and structures that differentiate them from other groups. One way to understand this relationship is to examine how culture affects individuals and society.

What is culture? 

Culture is the set of beliefs, values, practices, and material objects that all members of a society share. It includes everything from language, dress, food preferences, and entertainment choices to religious practices and government policies. Culture influences how people behave in certain situations because they expect others to act in specific ways based on what they have learned from their culture.[1]

For example, if you live in the United States and wear shorts in wintertime, people might think you are strange because they are used to seeing pants or long pants this season. However, if your family comes from another country where it is cold all year round, wearing shorts might not seem strange![2]

In anthropology, there are two basic approaches to understanding the relationship between the individual and society: functionalism and structuralism.

What is the role of anthropology in our lives? 

Anthropology can be used in many fields, such as history, sociology, psychology, religious studies, economics, and politics. It can also be used in business management or organizational behavior, where anthropologists study organizational cultures to improve organizational efficiency.

The goal of this research method is not only to understand how people think about things but also why they think about them in specific ways. Without anthropology we would not have many of the technological advancements that we have today such as computers, cars or airplanes.

Anthropologists also provide valuable information about cultural diversity to help companies make better business decisions. It can be challenging when trying to sell products or services to foreign markets where there may be cultural differences with the home country.

How Anthropologists Think About The World?

Anthropologists rely on two types of evidence to help them understand the world: primary and secondary sources. 

Primary sources are original records created at the time under investigation by someone there. Secondary sources are accounts written later by people who did not witness the events but used other documents as sources.

Anthropologists’ primary interests are:

How do people interact with each other? How do they communicate with each other? What are the rules that govern their behavior? How has technology affected human life? How have humans changed the environment around them?

How do anthropologists work? 

In interpretivism anthropology, there are two different ways to be a scientist: fieldworker or lab worker. Fieldworkers go out into the world to conduct research while lab workers stay inside and conduct experiments on animals or plants in controlled environments.

Anthropology looks at how people live together in groups and societies. It focuses on how they interact with each other, how they communicate, what rules govern their behavior, how they live together as families or communities and how they interact with technology. 

An anthropologist might study the way that people behave in a specific situation (for example, when meeting a stranger for the first time), or he might try to understand why some groups of people act in a certain way compared to others (for example why some cultures encourage their children to be independent whereas others teach them to obey their parents).

Where do Anthropologist works?

Anthropologists work in museums, research centers, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and educational institutions. They research various topics, from human origins to modern-day cultures worldwide. In Interpretative anthropology, Anthropologists often specialize in specific regions or cultures and may also specialize in particular time periods or fields of study, such as archaeology or linguistics. 

For example, an archaeologist specializing in Native American cultures may focus on identifying archaeological sites containing evidence of early habitation by humans in North America. 

An anthropologist who specializes in sociolinguistics may study how language changes over time or how different dialects develop within communities separated by great distances. However, sharing cultural customs or traditions makes them distinct from one another.


How do anthropologists study human societies?

Answer: Anthropologists study human societies in many ways, including observing people in their natural settings, interviewing them, and collecting data about their environments. They may also use various techniques to record the past, such as studying ancient artifacts or examining the remains of organisms that lived long ago.

What are some uses for anthropology?

Answer: Anthropologists can use their knowledge of other cultures to help solve problems in our society. For example, they may work with doctors to understand how diseases spread from person to person and how we can prevent them from spreading further. They may also help businesses understand how different cultures react to marketing strategies or advertisements.

How does the study of the past differ from other sciences?

Answer: Anthropology is unique among sciences because it focuses on understanding the way people lived in the past as well as in the present day. Other sciences focus only on what happens now. However, an anthropologist might study ancient and modern civilizations to understand why they developed certain customs or beliefs over time.

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