Social anthropology

Social anthropology

Social anthropology is the branch of anthropology that studies how currently living human beings behave in social groups. Practitioners of social anthropology investigate, often through long term, intensive field studies (including participant observation methods), the social organization of a particular people: customs, economic and political organization, law and conflict resolution, patterns of consumption and exchange, kinship and family structure, gender relations, childrearing and socialization, religion, and so on.

Social anthropology also explores the role of meanings, ambiguities and contradictions of social life, patterns of sociality, violence and conflict, and the underlying logics of social behaviour. Social anthropologists are trained in the interpretation of narrative, ritual and symbolic behaviour not merely as "text", but with communication examined in relation to action, practice, and the historical context in which it is embedded. Social anthropologists address the diversity of positions and perspectives to be found within any social group.

Substantive focus and practice

Social anthropology is distinguished from subjects such as economics or political science by its holistic range and the attention it gives to the diversity of culture and society across the world, and the capacity this gives the discipline to re-examine Euro-American assumptions. It is differentiated from sociology both in its main methods (based on long-term participant observation and linguistic competence),Fact|date=June 2007 its commitment to the relevance and illumination provided by micro studies, and its extension beyond strictly social phenomena to culture, art, individuality, and cognition.Fact|date=June 2007 While some social anthropologists use quantitative methods (particularly those whose research touches on topics such as local economies, demography, or health and illness), social anthropologists generally emphasize qualitative analysis of long-term fieldwork, rather than the more quantitative methods used by most economists or sociologists.Fact|date=June 2007


Specialisations within social anthropology shift as its objects of study are transformed and as new intellectual paradigms appear; ethnomusicology and medical anthropology afford examples of current, well-defined specialisms.

More recent and currently emergent areas within social anthropology include the relation between cultural diversity and new findings in cognitive development; social and ethical understandings of novel technologies; emergent forms of 'the family' and other new socialities modeled on kinship; the ongoing social fall-out of the demise of state socialism; the politics of resurgent religiosity; analysis of audit cultures and accountability.

The subject has been enlivened by, and has contributed to, approaches from other disciplines, such as philosophy (ethics, phenomenology, logic), the history of science, psychoanalysis, and linguistics.

Ethical considerations

The subject has both ethical and reflexive dimensions. Practitioners have developed an awareness of the sense in which scholars create their objects of study and the ways in which anthropologists themselves may contribute to processes of change in the societies they study.


Social anthropology has historical roots in a number of 19th-century disciplines, including ethnology, folklore studies, and Classics, among others. (See History of anthropology.) Its immediate precursor took shape in the work of Edward Burnett Tylor and James George Frazer in the late 19th century and underwent major changes in both method and theory during the period 1890-1920 with a new emphasis on original fieldwork, long-term holistic study of social behavior in natural settings, and the introduction of French and German social theory.

Departments of Social Anthropology exist in universities around the world. The field of social anthropology has expanded in ways not anticipated by the founders of the field, as for example in the subfield of structure and dynamics.


Modern social anthropology was founded in Britain at The London School of Economics and Political Science following World War I. Influences include both the methodological revolution pioneered by Bronisław Malinowski's process-oriented fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands of Melanesia between 1915 and 1918 and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown's theoretical program for systematic comparison that was based on a conception of rigorous fieldwork and the structure-functionalist conception of Durkheim’s sociology. [Barth, Fredrik, et al. (2005) " [ One Discipline, Four Ways: British, German, French, and American anthropology] ". Chicago: University of Chicago Press.] Other intellectual founders include W. H. R. Rivers and A. C. Haddon, whose orientation reflected the contemporary Volkerpsychologie of Wilhelm Wundt and Adolf Bastian, and Sir E. B. Tylor, who defined anthropology as a positivistic science following Auguste Comte. Edmund Leach (1962) defined social anthropology as a kind of comparative micro-sociology based on intensive fieldwork studies. There was never a settled theoretical orthodoxy on the nature of science and society but always a tension between several views that were seriously opposed.


Following World War II, sociocultural anthropology as comprised by the fields of ethnography and ethnology diverged into an American school of cultural anthropology while social anthropology diversified in Europe by challenging the principles of structure-functionalism, absorbing ideas from Claude Levi-Strauss’s structuralism and from Max Gluckman’s Manchester school, and embracing the study of conflict, change, urban anthropology, and networks.Facts|subst:DATE|date=July 2008

1980s to present

A European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) was founded in 1989 as a society of scholarship at a meeting of founder members from fourteen European countries, supported by the [ Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.] The Association seeks to advance anthropology in Europe by organizing biennial conferences and by editing its academic journal, "Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale".

Anthropologists associated with social anthropology

* Andre Beteille [ After dinner talk on the history of social anthropology: Beteille speaks of his childhood and natural inclination to anthropology, his training, fieldwork in Delhi and the influence of his supervisor, M.N. Srinivas. His work on equality and inequality in human societies and publications on such, esp the caste system. He reflects on and analyses the work of Dumont, as well as Marxism, Hinduism and Islam. He cites those who have influenced him and his work, and closes with an overview of his current interests in Nationalism and tribal identities in India, as well as his lectures on backward classes.]
* Mary Douglas [ interview by Alan Macfarlane, in which Mary Douglas talks about her life and work in Africa and elsewhere.]
* Robert L. Carneiro
* E. E. Evans-Pritchard
* Raymond Firth
* Rosemary Firth [ Rosemary Firth interview by Alan Macfarlane: about her arrival in anthropology and fieldwork in Malaya with Raymond Firth, and about the position of a woman anthropologist.]
* Meyer Fortes
* Clifford Geertz
* Ernest Gellner
* Adam Kuper
* Edmund Leach
* Murray Leaf
* Alan Macfarlane [ Eight lectures for first year Cambridge University students in February 2006. Introducing some of the major approaches to the anthropology of politics and economics.]
* Bronisław Malinowski
* David Maybury-Lewis
* Siegfried Frederick Nadel
* Alfred Radcliffe-Brown
* Sarah Rahman
* Audrey Richards
* Victor Turner
* Marilyn Strathern
* Douglas R. White
* James Woodburn [ James Woodburn Interview and film of James Woodburn by Alan Macfarlane: about his life and work in anthropology and visual anthropology in Africa and Britain]


* Bronislaw Malinowski (1915) "The Trobriand Islands"
*(1922) "Argonauts of the Western Pacific"
* (1929) "The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia"
*(1935) "Coral Gardens and Their Magic: A Study of the Methods of Tilling the Soil and of Agricultural Rites in the Trobriand Islands"
* Edmund Leach (1954) Political systems of Highland Burma. London: G. Bell.
* (1982) "Social Anthropology"
* Thomas H. Eriksen (1985) "Social Anthropology", pp. 926-929 in "The Social Science Encyclopedia" cite book|title=|isbn=0710200080|oclc=11623683
* Adam Kuper (1996) "Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School" cite book|title=|isbn=0415118956|oclc=32509209



* [ Benchmark Statement Anthropology (UK)]

External links

* [ - The Moving Anthropology Student Network (MASN)] - website offers tutorials, information on the subject, discussion-forums and a large link-collection for all interested scholars of social anthropology

ee also

* Cultural Anthropology
* Sociology

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