X is for xeno-anthropology.
…And what the heck is that, anyway?
First, we’ve got the term that gets used every day in the world as we know it: anthropology, the study of humankind. In the United States, there are four basic fields of anthropological study: cultural anthropology, linguistics, physical anthropology, and archaeology. Then we’ve got the prefix xeno, meaning foreign. Obviously, if anthropology is the study of humankind, no one covered by that is a foreigner in such a context; we’re all humans. So what people, what cultures and languages and artifacts, would xeno-anthropologists study?
As I’ve said before and will no doubt say again, one of the flaws in the English language (and most others, as far as I know) is that we don’t have a word for person that doesn’t also mean human being. We don’t recognize non-humans as people — which is probably why we, as a species, have this bad habit of declaring those we don’t like non-human so we can mistreat or even kill them without feeling so bad about it. That’s why the term xeno-anthropology is so cool: it contains within its basic meaning the implication that those hypothetical non-human foreigners are people, like us, people with culture and language and artifacts and all the things that anthropologists study. Just having a word like that, even if we won’t have any use for it outside science fiction until we actually, y’know, meet someone who isn’t us, gets us in the habit of thinking of all people as people — even the ones who aren’t our species.
So now you’re wondering where you can find xeno-anthropology in fiction, right? (I hope so, at least.) I don’t have my library in front of me to help me remember titles, but here are two science fiction novels featuring archaeologists studying artifacts of alien species: Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds, and The Engines of God, by Jack McDevitt.
Another science fiction novel with archaeologists (shameless plug — I edited this one) is The Remnant, by Paul B. Spence. Actually, this novel has the whole four-field set: cultural and physical anthropologists, linguists, and archaeologists. This is what happens when sci-fi writers get anthropology degrees, or anthropologists write sci-fi, or something like that…
If you’re mostly interested in the linguistics/cultural side of things, C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series features a protagonist who begins his career as a translator — of culture as well as language — between a small population of humans and the native species on a planet far from Earth. This is an excellent series, of which there are currently fifteen (felicitous fifteen, I cannot help but think — the author is particularly skilled at making the reader see things through the worldview of the non-human characters).
And I cannot find anything resembling a complete list, but I can name at least a few science fiction authors with degrees in anthropology: Ursula K. LeGuin, Joan Vinge, Michael Crichton, Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Preston. There is, in fact, an entire subgenre of sci-fi commonly called anthropological science fiction; the examination of alien cultures, and through them ourselves, is a popular theme.