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Anthropometry, or anthropometrics, is the study of human body measurements. At its most basic, anthropometrics is used to help scientists and anthropologists understand physical variations among humans. Anthropometrics are useful for a wide array of applications, providing a kind of baseline for human measurement.
The History of Anthropometry
The study of anthropometry has had some less-than-scientific applications throughout history. For instance, researchers in the 1800s used anthropometrics to analyze facial characteristics and head size to predict the likelihood that a person was predisposed to a life of crime when in reality, there was little scientific evidence to support this application.
Anthropometry has also had other, more sinister applications; it was incorporated by proponents of eugenics, a practice that sought to control human reproduction by limiting it to people with "desirable" attributes.
In the modern era, anthropometrics have had more practical applications, particularly in the areas of genetic research and workplace ergonomics. Anthropometrics also provide insight into the study of human fossils and can help paleontologists better understand evolutionary processes.
The typical body measurements used in anthropometrics include height, weight, body mass index (or BMI), waist-to-hip ratio and body fat percentage. By studying the differences in these measurements among humans, researchers can assess risk factors for a host of diseases.
Anthropometrics in Ergonomic Design
Ergonomics is the study of people's efficiency in their working environment. So ergonomic design seeks to create the most efficient workplace while providing comfort for the people within it.
For the purposes of ergonomic design, anthropometrics offers information about the average human build. This gives chair makers data they can use to devise more comfortable seating, for example. Desk manufacturers can build desks that don't force workers to hunch in uncomfortable positions, and keyboards can be designed to reduce the likelihood of repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome.
Ergonomic design extends beyond the average cubicle; every car on the street has been built to accommodate the largest set of the population based on an anthropometric range. Data about how long the average person's legs are and how most people sit while driving a vehicle can be used to design a car that allows most drivers to reach the radio, for example.
Anthropometrics and Statistics
Having anthropometric data for a single individual is only useful if you are designing something specific to that individual, such as a prosthetic limb. The real power comes from having a statistical data set for a population, which is basically the measurements of a lot of people.
If you have data from a statistically significant portion of the said population, you can extrapolate the data you don't have. So through statistics, you can measure a few people in your population data set and have enough knowledge to determine what the rest will be like with a high degree of accuracy. This process is similar to the methods pollsters use to determine likely election outcomes.
The population can be as general as "men," which represents all the males in the world across all races and countries, or it can be tailored to a tighter demographic such as "Caucasian American men."
Just as marketers tailor their clients' message to reach certain demographics, anthropometrics can use information from a given demographic for a more accurate result. For instance, every time a pediatrician measures a child during an annual checkup, he or she tries to determine how the child measures up to his or her peers. By this methodology, if Child A is in the 80th percentile for height, if you lined up 100 children Child A would be taller than 80 of them.
Doctors can use these numbers to figure out if a child is growing within established boundaries for the population. If over time a child's development is at either the high or low end of the scale consistently, that isn't necessarily a cause for concern. But if a child shows an erratic growth pattern over time and his measurements are at an extreme of the scale, this may indicate an anomaly.