Anthropology Primatology
Christina J. Campbell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0019


Primatology, the scientific study of the members of the order Primates is, by its very nature, a multidisciplinary field, encompassing information gathered by scientists in many academic fields including, but not limited to, anthropology, zoology, psychology, and biology. Typically the term primatology is used in reference to the study of nonhuman primates, thus excluding our own species and those fossil species belonging to our closest extinct relatives. Primatologists may study their subjects in natural situations—i.e., where the study animals are free ranging in their natural habitat—in zoological gardens, captive research facilities, or rehabilitation centers (where previously captive animals are being geared toward release into either a truly wild habitat or a provisioned one).

Historical Background

Primate studies have a rich and diverse history. There have been many changes in the theoretical basis underpinning primatological research, and these changes are often reflected in the types of studies conducted (reviewed in Sussman 2011). During the 1980s, one of the biggest influences was an increase in the number of women in the field and the rising critique of the then male-centric ideologies of the field (Fedigan 1982, Sperling 1991). A movement away from natural history studies to more hypothesis-driven research has characterized the most recent twenty years in the field (Strier 2003, Sussman 2011). Additionally, an increase in range of taxa being studied has challenged preconceived notions about the ubiquity of many traits and behaviors (Strier 1994).

  • Fedigan, L. M. 1982. Primate paradigms: Sex roles and social bonds. Montreal: Eden.

    This book provides a critique of the male-centric nature of primatological studies prior to its publication, stressing the importance of females in primate social groups and evolution.

  • Sperling, S. 1991. Baboons with briefcases vs. langurs in lipstick: Feminism and functionalism in primate studies. In Gender at the crossroads of knowledge: Feminist anthropology in the postmodern era. Edited by M. di Leonardo, 204–234. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    This book chapter discusses the history of feminism in primatological studies. It also provides a feminist critique of sociobiology.

  • Strier, K. B. 1994. Myth of the typical primate. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 37:233–271.

    DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.1330370609

    In this article, the author challenges the notion that terrestrial old-world monkeys are typical and reviews data on kinship, aggression, and sex across the primate order to show that there is no such thing as a “typical” primate. Available online for purchase.

  • Strier, K. B. 2003. Primate behavioral ecology: From ethnography to ethology and back. American Anthropologist 105.1: 16–27.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.2003.105.1.16

    This article discusses the changing nature of primatological inquiry within the broader anthropological field. It compares the earlier field studies to those of human ethnographers and then discusses how the inclusion of ecology, phylogeny, and demography changed the direction of study. Available online for purchase.

  • Sussman, R. W. 2011. A brief history of primate field studies. In Primates in perspective. 2d ed. Edited by C. J. Campbell, A. F. Fuentes, K. C. MacKinnon, R. Stumpf, and S. Bearder, 6–11. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This book chapter provides a timeline of primatological fieldwork and discusses changes in theoretical perspectives throughout the 20th century—illustrating how these changes have influenced the kinds of studies that were conducted.

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