Anthropology, with its focus on culture, is unique among the social sciences. Even more distinctive is its method of directly engaging with people through fieldwork. The ethnographic method, known as participant observation, grounds anthropologists’ interpretations by allowing them to experience particular social realms. On the basis of long term personal engagement, anthropologists offer understandings of cultural worlds that can both challenge conventional knowledge and reveal others’ world views. Anthropology makes strange worlds familiar and the familiar world strange. Extended and participatory fieldwork is not always feasible, but anthropologists still attend to the specificities of people’s lived experiences and the meanings they attribute to them: through interviews, for instance.
While historically associated with small-scale societies – once remote from the centres of world power – anthropologists have become increasingly involved in examining wider systems such as capitalism or neoliberalism, and employing new methods such as online participant observation.
The geographic position and colonial history of Australia have led to the development of leading anthropological scholarship and practice in the fields of Australian Aboriginal, Melanesian, and other Pacific studies, as well as Indigenous land claims and native title.