Department of Anthropology

University learning goals

Here is how anthropology courses satisfy the WSU Vancouver campus learning goals:

Critical Thinking

In anthropology there are two broad approaches to understanding the human species. One approach, sometimes referred to as "scientific anthropology," seeks to replicate the success of natural sciences, such as physics and chemistry, by adopting similar methods, such as the use of mathematical models and quantitative measurement. This approach is heavily influenced by positivism, and often uses a hypothetico-deductive model to test general theories of human behavior.

The other approach in anthropology, sometimes referred to as interpretive, critical, or constructivist anthropology, draws inspiration from the humanities, such as art, literature, and in particular, history. Adherents of this approach may seek to understand a particular aspect of a culture as one might seek to understand the work of Shakespeare or Van Gogh, or more often, choose to draw on historical narratives, or integrate archival studies and oral history into their work. The advocates of this approach are often skeptical that the natural sciences offer an adequate model for understanding humans, e.g., that human behavior can be explained by some yet to be discovered mathematical or statistical "laws" analogous to the laws of physics. They instead emphasize the importance of context, history, ideas, and power in shaping behavior, institutions, and society.

The type of critical thinking required in a course will often depend on which approach it takes, which in turn often depends on who is teaching the course. Some anthropology professors at WSU, such as XX, take the first approach, some, such as YY, take the second, and some, such as ZZ, blend the two.

In scientific anthropology courses, students will learn how theoretical concepts, such "fitness" or "complexity" are operationalized, that is, how they are defined so that they can be measured; they will learn how to evaluate the quality of the measurements; and they will learn how to determine whether the relationships between measured quantities conform to theoretical predictions.

Because the interpretive/critical/constructivist approach involves more of a variety of experience-based ways to solve problems or make discoveries, students in these courses will learn how to assess the persuasiveness of anthropological arguments in terms of logic, rhetoric, and appropriate use of analogy.

Quantitative and Symbolic Reasoning

Scientific anthropology places heavy emphasis on quantitative research, whereas interpretive and critical anthropology do not. Hence, most anthropology courses taking a scientific approach require analysis of quantitative data and statistical models. Students in these courses will become familiar with quantitative methods commonly used in many social science disciplines.

Scientific Literacy

In scientific anthropology courses students will typically learn about a variety of important scientific concepts, theories, and methods. The emphasis will usually be on the scientific interpretation of empirical data, that is, the ability of one or more scientific theories to explain the phenomena that are the focus of the course (e.g., complex societies, childhood).

In interpretive/critical/constructivist anthropology courses, in contrast, students will often learn to critique the process of knowledge formation itself. For instance, do scientific theories reflect cultural biases, and even in some cases serve to justify those biases? Is Western scientific knowledge inherently superior to systems of knowledge developed by non-Western cultures? Is knowledge constructed, and therefore culturally relative, rather than simply acquired by experience?

Information Literacy

In courses that require a research paper or presentation, students will learn to use the library and online databases to locate relevant articles and books. They will learn how research and other forms of written scholarship are organized, such as in specialty journals, edited volumes, and books, and how to discover effective keywords for search. They will learn how to identify researchers who specialize in particular topics, and how to find their publications. They will learn the distinction between peer-reviewed research and other kinds of scholarly output.


In courses that require student presentations, students will learn how to effectively present complex material to a group of their peers using text and figures. They will also learn to effectively critique such presentations. In courses that require writing, students will learn to, e.g., craft effective research reports or essays, some of which will include graphical representations of data.


The core mission of anthropology is to document and explain human diversity at all levels, from genes to physiology to psychology to language and culture, in all contemporary, historic, and prehistoric populations. At the same time, anthropology seeks to understand humans as single primate species that evolved from a last common ancestor with chimpanzees. Every anthropology course tackles one or more aspects of human diversity. Some courses also explore human universals -- traits that are shared by all, or almost all, human populations. Students in anthropology courses will learn how their society compares to others, coming to understand both the profound differences as well as the equally profound similarities.

Depth, Breadth, and Integration of Learning

Due to the deeply holistic approach of anthropology to the study of the human species, courses in this discipline provide students with some of the best opportunities to achieve an understanding of a topic that is at once broad, deep, and integrated with knowledge they have acquired from courses in other departments. Because anthropology studies human differences and similarities in the context of differences and similarities in the natural, biological, and social environments of human populations, as well as with historical processes, anthropology courses provide a unique opportunity for students to synthesize their knowledge of, e.g., history, literature, biology, sociology, psychology and the natural sciences with material they are studying in class.