While some anthropologists focus on the physical items or fossils of human remains that can tell us more about a group of people, cultural anthropologists are more concerned with the culture of a people and all that it entails, including the economic, religious, and social behaviors and beliefs. It helps us learn not only what it means to be a human member of another society but also what humanity means within our own cultures.
Cultural anthropologists utilize many methods of research when learning about other cultures. Of particular note is participant observation, where the researcher embeds themselves within a community to learn about its practices. This can shed light on beliefs and customs that may not be easily understood by simply talking to members of the group. However, those traditional methods of research, including interviews of both community members and experts on the community, surveys, and other tools are used in conjunction with participant observation. Of course, participant observation of some cultures is not possible if those communities no longer exist.
Through these tools, cultural anthropologists can learn about religion and folklore, art, gender representation and roles, war, ecosystems, racial impact, familiar relationships, methods of play, media, illness, economy, technology, perceptions of pain and pleasure, and the subgroups of a larger community (nations, states, tribes, etc.). Cultural anthropologists learn how communities deal with issues that impact all humans such as aging and illness, as well as those issues that may be specific to a society.
Linguistic anthropology, which specifically focuses on language, is sometimes listed as a subset of cultural anthropology and, at other times, viewed as a distinct form of anthropology. There’s no doubt that language can help to further explain cultural norms and beliefs and the language used by a society can further shape its culture. This is why some researchers are specifically linguistic anthropologists. Both cultural and linguistic anthropology tend to involve more direct contact with peoples, when they are still living, than physical anthropology, which usually occurs in a lab setting, requires.
Of course, cultural anthropology isn’t entirely divorced from physical or linguistic anthropology. All of these elements come together to paint a bigger picture of a group of people and their biological development over time.