Anthropology and the Study of Humanity

Course No. 1631
Professor Scott M. Lacy, Ph.D.
Fairfield University
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Course No. 1631
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Gain a comprehensive understanding of the field of Anthropology.
  • numbers Survey the field of Anthropology and its major subfields-biology, archaeology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology.
  • numbers Ask the big questions about humanity: Where did we come from? What makes us human? What unites our world?
  • numbers Explore the diversity of humanity and see how the field of Anthropology unites us.

Course Overview

What does it mean to be human? Where did we come from? And what unites us in our diversity today? As the world population continues to explode, these big questions about humanity become increasingly important, and anthropology is the field of study that tackles them. From our tree-dwelling primate ancestors 63 million years ago through today’s globally connected citizens, anthropology looks at Homo sapiens to find out why we are the way we are.

Because anthropology is such an interdisciplinary field, many Great Courses have touched on it from different angles. Now for the first time, we are pleased to offer a comprehensive survey of this fascinating topic. Anthropology and the Study of Humanity is your chance to gain a complete understanding of one of the world’s most engaging — and human — sciences. Taught by acclaimed professor and field researcher Scott M. Lacy of Fairfield University, these 24 wide-ranging lectures are the ideal guide through the world of anthropology.

“Put simply, anthropology is the study of humankind over time and space,” Professor Lacy says in the course introduction. “And I promise, if I were to get any more specific than that, we’d be chopping off specialized branches of our disciplinary tree.”

As a field of study, anthropology covers a lot of ground, from the language of primates to bones found in a desert to modern-day war zones. A survey of the field encompasses elements of history, biology, archaeology, linguistics, sociology, and cultural studies. It also involves data analyses, population modeling, urban development, economics, medicine, forensics, sexuality, art, and much, much more. Anything and everything that relates to humanity, anthropology approaches, demonstrating the common threads across world cultures and revealing the underlying connections that unite us all.

In Anthropology and the Study of Humanity, Professor Lacy gives you an elegant blend of theory and application to help you understand this extraordinarily interdisciplinary field as a whole. You will examine how humans evolved and built civilizations, review humanity’s changing attitudes about our relationship to the cosmos, and consider the many ways we express ourselves. In the end, what you’ll discover is that while our species is rich with diversity, we are much more similar than we are different.

Explore the 7-Million-Year History of Walking Apes

To anchor this course, Professor Lacy gives you a historical overview of Homo sapiens, starting at the very root of our family tree, when proto-humans split away from other primates in the animal kingdom. As he wends his way across time and around the world, he grounds you in an array of theories and models, making them accessible and relevant to the world around us. He also introduces the field’s four major academic sub-disciplines:

Biological Anthropology: Uncover the physical makeup of humans, our evolutionary history, and biological variations from one individual to another. Start with the research of primatologists and trace the evolution of Homo sapiens and find out how they might have spread around the world. See how scientists have shifted from a Social Darwinist model to Cultural Relativity.

Archaeological Anthropology: Take on the role of a historical detective and dive into the reality of fieldwork. You’ll learn what the archaeological record shows about the development of tools, the transition to agriculture, and the development of ancient cities. And, you’ll be surprised to discover ways that archaeology reveals counterintuitive truths about our history, such as the origins of money and debt.

Linguistic Anthropology: Language has changed human evolution by increasing our capacity for information exchange, thus speeding up the development of new technologies. Survey this fascinating sub-discipline and consider how language shapes how we observe and perceive daily life. Revisit primatology to see what talking chimpanzees can teach us about humanity.

Cultural Anthropology: One of the biggest lessons from this course is that our behavior is relative to cultural context. Western thinkers used to classify humans as savages or civilized, but as you will discover in this course, such classification is not only wrong-headed, it also shuts down discovery about the richness of our world’s cultures. Examine humanity through the lens of art, religion, cultural constructs, and more.

Cultural Diversity, A Common Humanity

One of the joys of this course is that it is truly global in the way Professor Lacy introduces you to the boots-on-the-ground practice of anthropology. As a hard science, anthropology relies on evidence, and researchers take a test-and-correct approach toward advancing their field. As you review the history of this research, you’ll see how scientists’ thinking has evolved as new evidence is discovered and new insights are gained. For instance, you will:

  • Travel the world to see how our behavior is relative to cultural context — and how the dichotomy of the “savages” versus the civilized represents foggy thinking.
  • Meet field researchers such as Bronislaw Malinowski and Franz Boas, who debunked the older notions of cultural evolutionism in favor of cultural relativism.
  • Find out how Zora Neale Hurston and other anthropologists took Boas’ field work to the next level.
  • Unpack enduring ambiguities around race, skin color, and biology to discover how we are all one united race.
  • Consider how gender and even biological sex itself are socially constructed.

A field researcher himself, Professor Lacy has spent much time in Mali, and he brings real-world examples to bear on the theories and frameworks he discusses. From the Pacific Islands to the Americas and from Zambia to Tibet, this journey takes you around the world to encounter different cultures with different ideas.

When it comes to the question of who is “more civilized”— Western cultures or Eastern, industrial or agrarian—the answer, for anthropologists, is neither. While Professor Lacy offers unique insights into topics ranging from the family to sexuality to art to war and peace, this course is ultimately a grand examination of what it means to be human, and modern anthropology shows how, despite our diversity around the world, we all share a common humanity.

Anthropologists in the World Today

The exciting thing about this field is that it is no mere academic discipline. It also has real-world implications beyond the textbooks. The course closes with a six-lecture unit on applied anthropology and shows you how its research methods and insights can help us shape the future. Among other topics, you will:

  • Reflect on the nature of war and how anthropologists serve as peacemakers.
  • Follow a forensics exam from the discovery of bones to creating a profile.
  • Consider the difference between the subjective experience of illness and the biological phenomenon of disease.
  • Review the recent history of international development and uncover an approach to alleviating poverty.
  • Discover the “big kahuna” — the ultimate key to happiness.

When you complete this course, you will have a new appreciation for our world and its many cultures, but you will also have a new appreciation for the cultural connections and similarities we share as one race of Homo sapiens. With a passionate and knowledgeable professor as your guide, Anthropology and the Study of Humanity is a must-have course for asking the big questions about human beings. Not only will you gain a broad understanding of academic anthropology, you’ll also get a deeper appreciation for humanity as a whole.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Why Anthropology Matters
    Begin your course with a few of the big questions: Who are we as humans? Where did we come from? Anthropology is the study of humans over time and space, but it is also about bridge-building, connecting, and understanding ourselves and the world around us. Survey the biological, archaeological, linguistic, and cultural approaches to the field. x
  • 2
    Science, Darwin, and Anthropology
    Because anthropology is so strongly linked with other sciences, particularly biology, take a guided tour through the history of science over the past 3,000 years. From pre-scientific ideas through the theory of natural selection, see how the emergence of scientific ideas changed the way we understand ourselves and our origins. x
  • 3
    Our Primate Family Tree
    Travel back in time 63 million years to the beginning of our family tree. Because of our shared evolutionary history, modern humans and other primates have much in common, including our emotional range and our ability to communicate. Review the field of primatology to find out what studying other species can teach us about humanity. x
  • 4
    Paleoanthropology and the Hominin Family
    Shift your attention to the field of paleoanthropology, the study of our human ancestors. Here, trace the development of our species from the earliest bipedal hominids to modern Homo sapiens. Explore archaeological evidence of Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and other species. See how anthropologists continue to test and correct their theories. x
  • 5
    Tracing the Spread of Humankind
    Anthropologists have several theories for how Homo sapiens spread out of Africa and around the globe. In this lecture, examine three theories to explain the migration, and then turn to archaeological and genetic evidence to uncover the latest thinking on when and how humans arrived in the Americas. x
  • 6
    Anthropology and the Question of Race
    Conclude this first unit on biological anthropology by unpacking the ambiguities around race, skin color, and biology. After reviewing the history of Social Darwinism, you'll see how Franz Boas and other 20th century anthropologists shifted our understanding of race to show how it is a cultural construct, independent of biology and geography. x
  • 7
    Archaeology and Human Tools
    Shift your attention from biology to archaeology, where you will dig up several answers about the Homo sapiens family tree. Here, Professor Lacy introduces what archaeologists do and how they work. He then examines the history of tools such as the hand-ax and the microlith, which had a tremendous impact on human population. x
  • 8
    Agricultural Roots of Civilization
    Continue your archaeological studies with a fascinating look at the rise of farming. Why did humans shift from foraging to agriculture 10,000 years ago? How did changing ecology and technological inventions drive this transition? And what lessons does this story have for us today? See how humans must contend with producing more food with less arable land. x
  • 9
    Rise of Urban Centers
    Delve into the ancient urban experience. After the rise of agriculture, our ancestors invested in the future of humankind by building major cities and civilizations across the planet. After considering what constitutes a city in the first place, you'll take an archaeological tour of several early cities, including Jericho, Aleppo, Uruk, and Cahokia. x
  • 10
    Anthropological Perspectives on Money
    The classic story of money says that early humans transitioned from barter to money to credit, but the archaeological record shows we have that history all wrong—that credit emerged before actual money. Study the history of money from an anthropological angle, beginning with early number concepts through the development of paper cash. x
  • 11
    Anthropological Perspectives on Language
    Language has played a starring role in our continued survival as a species, so linguistics is a critical subfield of anthropology. In this lecture, you'll study the origins of language in our primate cousins and then survey the evolution of language in Homo sapiens. Then see how language has changed our evolution by increasing our capacity for information exchange. x
  • 12
    Apocalyptic Anthropology
    No history of humanity would be complete without a few thoughts about how it all ends. Reflect on how different societies have viewed the end of humanity, from the epic cycles of Buddhism and Hinduism to secular techno-apocalypses such as the Singularity. Then see what lessons anthropology may offer in how to avoid extinction. x
  • 13
    Cultural Anthropology and Human Diversity
    Humans are all the same species, but we have a seemingly infinite cultural diversity. As an introduction to anthropology’s fourth major subfield, Professor Lacy takes you around the world to meet Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, and others who helped anthropology transition from “cultural evolutionism” to “cultural relativism.” x
  • 14
    Field Research in Cultural Anthropology
    Continue your study of cultural anthropology by looking at how the next generation of field researchers built on the foundation of Boas and Malinowski. See how Zora Neale Hurston, Alfred Kroeber, and Audrey Richards have broadened the way we think about culture, diversity, and social structures. x
  • 15
    Kinship, Family, and Marriage
    You likely have a concept for what “family” is, so you might be surprised to learn there is no universal concept for “family” around the world. Apply the anthropological lens to understand how and why different cultures have different ideas about how to structure a family—and what functional logic underlies these differences. x
  • 16
    Sex, Gender, and Sexuality
    By this point in the course, it should be no surprise that biological sex and our construct of gender are much more complicated than they seem. Here, Professor Lacy unpacks the cultural and biological questions of sex, gender, and sexuality using genetics, twin studies, and more to show the breadth of human diversity as well as a common humanity. x
  • 17
    Religion and Spirituality
    Anthropologists study religion as a way of studying humans, and this lecture surveys the origins and history of religion, from primate grieving and early human rituals through organized religions and the scientific worldview. Anthropology may not offer new answers about God and the great beyond, but religion offers a fascinating window into humankind. x
  • 18
    Art and Visual Anthropology
    Until recently, Westerners understood art in terms of progress, with non-Western art as somehow “primitive.” Survey the changing views toward world art throughout the 20th century and the role of art in anthropology. Then turn to explore the benefits and challenges that film brings to ethnographic studies. x
  • 19
    Conflict and Reconciliation across Cultures
    This course’s final unit examines several realms of “applied anthropology.” Here, discover how anthropology can assist with conflict resolution. After examining the history and nature of war, Professor Lacy offers several case studies around the world for resolving conflicts with anthropological methods. x
  • 20
    Forensics and Legal Anthropology
    Forensics is the science of analyzing and identifying unknown human remains. Using a hypothetical discovery as an example, you'll follow the stages of a forensics exam to see how anthropologists build a profile of the remains. Several test cases show forensics anthropology in action. x
  • 21
    Medical Anthropology
    Anthropologists recognize a difference between the subjective experience of an illness and the biological phenomenon of a disease. With this distinction in mind, learn how anthropologists study medicine, and how anthropology's four subfields can help us better understand human health and healing. x
  • 22
    Anthropology and Economic Development
    Using his own field research as an example, Professor Lacy takes you inside the powerful world of development anthropology. After grounding you in recent development theory, he takes a look at how anthropologists have thought about international development since World War II. x
  • 23
    Cultural Ecology
    As explorers of the human condition, anthropologists are particularly interested in the complex relationship between culture and the environment. The field of cultural ecology looks beyond mere environmental determinism and examines how the natural world inspires cultural differences. Review the methods and theory of this field of study. x
  • 24
    The Anthropology of Happiness
    What is the purpose of life? This is arguably the biggest question of all, and anthropology helps point the way toward a few answers. See how each of the four subfields—biology, archaeology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology—approach the question of human satisfaction and what we can apply to our own lives. x

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  • 220-page printed course guidebook
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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 220-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested Reading
  • Questions to Consider
  • Bibliography

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Your professor

Scott M. Lacy

About Your Professor

Scott M. Lacy, Ph.D.
Fairfield University
Scott M. Lacy is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Fairfield University in Connecticut, where he teaches anthropology, environmental studies, and black studies courses. He earned his Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his research interests include cross-cultural knowledge production, food systems, intellectual property rights associated with seed, and the...
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Anthropology and the Study of Humanity is rated 3.8 out of 5 by 59.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Fun Romp Through Humanity Thank you to 'Challenger' for writing exactly the review I would have written. Please see his 'Most Helpful Favorable Review', labelled "Solid Introductory Course" for my thoughts and feelings. So, briefly - this is a fun, enjoyable course which covers in pretty good breadth, but little depth, the study of us human creatures. It spans biology, linguistics, archaeology, and comparative cultures. I found it fascinating. It is not a scholarly approach - it would be quite appropriate for a high school class. Mostly we get informal conversational descriptions of anthropological work in various times and cultures, with a good dose of the professor's personal experiences and opinions. It is well-organized by general topic - read the course description fully! - but within each lecture there is a pretty free flow. Unlike some reviewers, however, I appreciated this as a congenial way to be introduced to a field about which I know next to nothing. And yes, Professor Lacy is a bit heavy in his emphasis on how nice it would be for us all to recognize our mutual human dignity and worth, and stop killing each other. I only wish he had explained how to do that. In fact, my only substantial criticism of the course is that it pays very little attention to describing or explaining the negative aspects of our cultures. As just one example which jumped out at me: In one lecture (sorry, I forget which) we hear about a society which practices fraternal polyandry, the practice of a woman marrying two or more men who are brothers, apparently to keep family estates intact. One assumes that the women and men growing up with this expectation learn to accept it, but no mention is made of what happens - assuming there are approximately equal numbers of males and females - to all the women who are left out because all the brothers are taken. I do realize I'm being a bit flip - perhaps too much Covid-19 isolation. But I want to be clear - I absolutely highly recommend this course for anyone with an interest in human cultures, both historical and present-day, who doesn't already have a degree in the field. It is truly a pleasure to take. Enjoy!
Date published: 2020-08-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor keeps you interested and excited about A I binge watched the course over four days. The course was so interesting, I just kept watching the next lecture until I had watched the entire disc. I have passed on the course to a friend who is interested in Anthropology.
Date published: 2020-07-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging and fascinating Professor Lacy is heartfelt, enthusiastic and knowledgeable, but he needs to jettison the words “well” and “right” from his lectures. He’s apparently trying to be conversational in his approach, but it becomes tedious and annoying. There’s no need to end a sentence with an inquisitorial “right?” Also annoying is his habit, many times per lecture, of repeating the subject of his sentence as a pronoun before he goes on. For example, “The early inhabitants of the region, they built adobe style houses near the river . . .” Or this one: “The first of these sites, well, it’s in modern day Bolivia . . .” Please, read the line as it appears on the teleprompter. The language or phrasing occasionally can be sloppy, without clarifying, but that’s more in the realm of nitpicking. But for all that, I’m still giving this course 5 stars. Though the presentation at times can be annoying, I give Professor Lacy points for being passionate and engaging. The course is well structured, and the subject matter – nothing less than humanity – is fascinating, highlighted with frequent examples, including from his own work in Africa. I have no formal background in anthropology other than a college course or two many years ago, and I’m a former Peace Corps Volunteer as is Professor Lacy. I appreciated and learned much from his wide-ranging approach to the subject matter.
Date published: 2020-05-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fabulous course! Prf. Scott Lacy is just terrific. The course was so interesting I plan to watch it again. In each lecture he covers just the right amount of material. I felt that I learned so much from each lecture.
Date published: 2020-05-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic! I was definitely a beginner in anthropology, and this class was tremendous! I did not want it to end!
Date published: 2020-04-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from It give me a thirst to study many of topics more deeply.
Date published: 2020-04-04
Rated 3 out of 5 by from 1 star or 5 star? At either Amazon or The Great Courses, this course is overwhelmingly rated either a single star or 5 stars. So which is it? IT IS BOTH. Let me explain. If this is your first introduction to the field it is a 5 star. It gives a good overview of the different aspects of Anthropology. After this course you will be able to decide which area you want to dive deeper into. Each lecture is NOT a deep dive. If you have been studying/listening to Great Courses in the genre for some time, it is definitely a 1 star. I looked back at some of the Great Courses that I have taken, and I can list a 24 or 36 lecture course that covers the topic of each of the lectures in this course. Sometimes there are more than one. So if you have taken B Fagan's courses on Ancient Civilizations and/or Writing and Civilization, B King's Biological Anthropology and/or Roots of human behavior, J Hawks Rise of Humans, or any of J McWhorters Linguistics courses, you will be bored and disappointed. (I could list more but you get the idea). But if this is your first course, go for it, you are starting a great adventure.
Date published: 2020-02-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good Overview and Introduction to Topic I like this course a lot. The instructor is lively and knowledgeable, and I have gotton a good sense of the field and the big, important ideas.
Date published: 2020-01-29
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