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Geography vs. Human Sciences vs. Archeology & Anthropology

So, you’re a social scientist? Great! Me too! When I was applying to university there were so many choices I had to make as a social scientist which I hadn’t had to make before – what did I want to focus on, did I want to have quantitative and scientific aspects as part of my degree, what about humans did I really care about?

I ended up stuck between three very different, but all human-focused, University of Oxford courses; Geography, Human Sciences and Archeology and Anthropology. I now do Geography at Oxford. This article will take you through the structure of these three courses and the different content and benefits they present.

All three of these courses teach the bastion – in my opinion – of the social sciences; they outline the relationship between humans and other humans, and between humans and their environment. They are the main focus of any non-historian/non-economist social scientist, and are the edgy social sciences of our time. But, they are also vastly, and importantly, different.

This course focuses on recent history, present and future issues surrounding global environmental change, inequality, and the transformation of the global economy. There is significant interdisciplinary focus with the course ranging from the earth sciences and biological approaches to environmental landscapes, to anthropological and political science approaches to modern events and constructions of nation states. In the first year, students follow a core course which includes Earth Systems Processes, Human Geography, Geographical Controversies and Geographical Techniques. In the second and third years, students study a core course of (usually) either Human or Physical Geography, alongside a nature of Geography course – Geographical Research – and 3 option courses.

See a short overview and a run through of the course here: https://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/courses-listing/geography?wssl=1

What makes it different from the rest?  

  • Geography at Oxford has a significant coursework component — the final degree relies upon a 40% weighting on coursework completed in the second and third year, these include 3 extended essays, a fieldwork report and a dissertation.
  • The course has a large fieldwork component, with students taken on trips in both first and second year (Dorset and Berlin/Tenerife) and examined on fieldwork reports in both prelims and finals.
  • As compared to other courses, Geography has a larger focus on the environment and climate science. This makes up half of the first year course and can be specialised into in the final 2 years. The course is not just focused on Human Geography and you have to take both sides of Geography in the first year.
  • There is significant breadth and flexibility as a result, students can choose to specialise in either Human or Physical Geography but can also choose to remain unspecialised and to do both Human and Physical core and option courses.
  • Options reflect this flexibility ranging from ‘African Societies’ (an anthropological and economic geography approach to Africa) through to ‘Complexity’ (a interdisciplinary course which encourages the application of computer modelling and network thinking to science) and ‘Desert Landscapes and Dynamics’ (a strongly physical geography course looking at particle transport and landscape formation).

Human Sciences allows students to study everything related to humans. These include topics such as the biological, social and cultural aspects of human life, the evolution of humans and their behaviour, molecular and population genetics, and human interaction with the environment. Human sciences is a mix of biological and social approaches to humans. In first year students study core topics including the biology of organisms, genetics and evolution, society, culture and environment, sociology and demography and quantitative methods for human sciences. In second and third year students follow a core course of 5 modules ranging from behavioural evolution through to demography alongside a 2 option modules chosen from a large list of courses. These include; physical and forensic anthropology, gender theories and realities, general linguistics, an introduction to human skeletal remains, and social policy

See a short overview of the course here: https://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/courses-listing/human-sciences?wssl=1

Key differences:

  • Human Sciences has a real scientific aspect to the course, with significant amount of teaching from biology staff and from a biological sciences perspective. This includes a number of practicals in first year.
  • There is a focus on evolution and genetics, and biology on a much more cellular level than what you would encounter in a Geography degree.
  • There is a significantly larger focus on the agency and actions of humans in Human Sciences as compared to Geography and Archeology and Anthropology — humans remain constantly at the centre of study.
  • While Human Sciences can be more scientific than the other two subjects, this depends on your choices in options. All courses can be manipulated to specialise in essay-focused, theoretical discussion or on a more scientific investigation of the discipline.

Archaeology and anthropology looks at the study of humans over time, from the origins of the species through to the present. It integrates the two disciplines through this historical timeline as both have significant implications for the study of humans in time; while archaeology is used for longer reconstructions, anthropology, routed in colonial encounters, focuses on depth of cultural understanding. The course looks at various approaches to reconstructing human societies while giving undergraduates a solid foundation in the study of both disciplines. First year students take 4 core courses including an introduction to world archaeology, introduction to anthropological theory, perspectives on human evolution, and the nature of archaeological and anthropological enquiry. Second and third year follow a similar core module layout with students taking on 4 core courses and three option modules.

See a short overview of the course here: https://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/courses-listing/archaeology-and-anthropology?wssl=1

Key differences:

  • Archeology and Anthropology is historical to a much larger degree than Geography and Human Sciences. It looks at the structure of societies through time and its this temporal perspective which binds the course.
  • There is a larger emphasis on fieldwork; as part of your course you will undertake at least four weeks of fieldwork anywhere in the world (subject to approval by tutors).
  • The course is structured using a core course with option modules which is a similar structure to Human Sciences and Geography. However, there is a much more specific focus in Arch & Anth on the 2 disciplines rather than on having a wider understanding of knowledge which is given by Human Sciences (in Biology) and Geography (in Earth Systems).