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What is anthropology?

Anthropologists use a variety of techniques unique to each branch of the field to analyze human phenomena.

  • Why is marriage between cousins so strongly frowned upon or even forbidden in the West, and yet may be the rule in some other societies?
  • When and how did humans first settle in North America?
  • Can the prevalence of some diseases among some human groups be explained by factors other than biological ones?
  • What can accents, slang and glossolalia tell us about the dynamics of social relationships?

Each of these questions illustrates one of the 4 specializations in anthropology.

The 4 sub-disciplines of anthropology

Biological anthropology

This sub-discipline deals with the origins and evolution of the human species, through:

  • Primatology (study of non-human primates)
  • Paleontology (study of our fossil ancestors)
  • Genetics and epigenetics
  • Neuroanthropology
  • Bioarchaeology

It also focuses on the nature and causes of biological variability between the individuals in a given population or different populations, and the complex relationships between biology and culture.

For example, consider 2 areas of investigation:

Evolution, biology and behaviour

Human cultural variability is so great that it masks the fact that underneath the diversity is a universal human nature that guides and structures this variability. Human nature consists of all the biological constraints that affect the human psyche, social relationships and culture in general. It is the product of the evolutionary history of our species, over several million years.


Paleoanthropology is an interdisciplinary field of research that brings together the sub-disciplines of biological anthropology, archaeology, paleontology, paleoethnology, geology and various other related disciplines. Research done in each of these areas furthers our understanding of human behaviour and biology.

By offering training in paleoanthropology, the UdeM Department of Anthropology is a leader among Canadian universities. With an unprecedented concentration of researchers in this field, the Department is able to offer a wide range of courses. This gives students well-rounded training in the field, particularly at the undergraduate level. For graduate and post-graduate students, the Department has unique resources for supervising and supporting students wishing to explore paleoanthropology in depth, from every angle.


Archaeology leads one into heart of the human adventure, from the origin of our species to the modern day. It makes it possible to study material evidence from the past about social organization, lifestyles and transformations. Archaeology seeks to understand human societies through the material evidence of their output and cultural practices. It studies human societies by examining material culture, the remains of structures and built environments, human and animal bone remains, plant remains and the contexts in which they are found. It covers the period from prehistory to documented history (historical and colonial archaeology) and the contemporary era (urban and industrial archaeology).

The many themes addressed in archaeology include:

  • Hominid dispersal
  • Food production and sedentarization
  • Development of complex societies (chiefdom, kingdom, state)
  • Symbolic systems
  • Trade
  • Know-how
  • Seafaring
  • Colonization

Teaching in archaeology combines theoretical classroom teaching and practical training. The Department offers students access to artifact collections (in French) (from various parts of the world) and specialized laboratories (historical dendrochronology, archaeometrics, zooarchaeology, underwater imaging). Students also have the option of taking part in field schools.

Undergraduate training in archaeology begins with a course explaining the contribution of this sub-discipline to anthropological knowledge. It continues with specialized courses on specific cultural space-times, methodological and conceptual approaches and analyses of artifact working methods (stone, pottery, wood, etc.). Laboratory-based courses offer applied analytical training, while fieldwork internships provide a transition between classroom training and concrete research work.

Master's- and PhD-level studies cover all the disciplines taught, training future archaeology researchers, professors and managers.


Ethnology studies the social and cultural variability of human societies, by examining their traditional organization (kinship, politics, economy, relations between the sexes, religion, ecology, health, law, technology, etc.) and their contemporary reality (migration and exile, cultural output, globalization, etc.).

Ethnology (or social and cultural anthropology) is a constantly evolving field of studies, attuned to changes taking place around the globe. For a sociocultural anthropologist, behind every custom, story or simple object there is an entire society and group of individuals within it to be decoded. This is done through empirical research work focusing on individuals, their daily lives and their experiences on a local scale.

There are 3 major interdisciplinary themes underlying our professors' research:

The contemporary world

  • Ethnicity, nationalism, interethnic relations, migrations, hybridity
  • Dynamics of international co-operation and human rights, the role of international organizations (NGO and humanitarian), globalization, national interdependence, the environment and local knowledge
  • Urban phenomena and their representations and ideologies, power and politics, conflicts, violence and justice in everyday life
  • Social dynamics, health and the body
  • Indigenous peoples: resistance, hegemony and States, the changing religious and symbolic landscape

Textual criticism and discourse and story analysis

Perspectives offered by semiology, historiography, linguistics and other currents resulting from the "narrative turn" are central to the research done by a number of the ethnologists in the Department.

Researchers attempt to connect narrative, often individual, data with the supranarrative framework provided by local cultures.

Individuals, identities and cultural products

Sociocultural anthropologists are increasingly engaged in studying the production and circulation of cultural products of all kinds: objects, images, sounds, artifacts, performances, etc.

They attempt to situate these products within the framework of economic and political connections, local realities and the "world system" in order to study how they operate and move from one space to another.

Individual and collective identities are also part of this production and circulation process. This movement is accompanied by circulating values, feelings and meanings, whose mobility requires constant recoding.


Ethnolinguistics studies the diversity of communities' linguistic practices: multilingualism, registers and styles. It examines the similarities and differences between languages.

As part of the general study of human variability, ethnolinguistics looks at language within its sociocultural context and concentrates on the linguistic aspects of this variability: language evolution, and its real use by different groups and sub-groups in a wide range of sociocultural contexts.

This field covers a number of perspectives:


Quantitative study of intra- and interindividual linguistic variations in connection with language community dynamics.

Languages and symbolic systems

Linguistic systems as a model for conceptualizing other social phenomena (myths, kinship systems, entire cultures).

Ethnography of communication

Study of the diversity of communication behaviour: face-to-face communications, types of discourse, non-verbal language, social indexicality.


Theories concerning linguistic change and historical linguistics as a tool for studying the past, in conjunction with archaeology, comparative mythology, biological anthropology, etc.

In addition to these general topics, linguistic anthropology courses examine questions relating to such issues as:

  • The effects of relations between different language groups
  • Language retention among minority groups
  • The performance of traditional texts in the context of immigration
  • The relationship between poetics and culture
  • Male and female linguistic and communication styles

Studying anthropology at UdeM means acquiring broad-based training that is firmly anchored in 21st-century concerns and challenges.