Social Anthropology

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Social Anthropology, Political Anthropology, Cultural Studies, Anthropology of Development, Kinship. Sociological Theory.


Social anthropology as social scientific study of societies. It includes “ethnology”, or “Völkerkunde”, as well as the disciplines engaged in the social scientific study of regional or local traditions, such as ethnography, Volkskunde and folklore studies. A large part of its definition thus concerns methodology. The method of ethnography and participant observation during a longer time period is clearly distinct for anthropology. However, drawing from historical resources, or from cognate disciplines is not excluded, something that Sherry Ortner (1996) called 'border-land' anthropology. The borders of the discipline are therefore constantly contested. Its relation with archaeology is interesting.

Concepts outlines BLPES Classification scheme

A. Anthropology: General studies -
  • History
  • Teaching and research
  • Anthropologists
B. Materials and methods of anthropology
  • Scope of Anthropology
  • Anthropological Theory
  • Methods and Techniques
  • Physical Anthropology - Craniology, Dentition, Genetics, Human evolution, Human growth and development, Primatology.
  • Language and Communication
C. Ecology, Technology, Economy D. Ethnographic studies of peoples and communities E. Socio-political structure and relations
  • Political structure and power
  • Social structure
  • Family and kinship systems
  • Life cycle
  • The body, gender, sexuality
  • Legal systems, moral codes
  • Interethnic and intraethnic relations
F. Religion, magic, and sorcery
  • Cosmology and myth
  • Major religions
  • Local religions and rituals
  • Magic and sourcery
  • Religious change
G. Knowledge, arts and science, folk traditions
  • Categories of thought and meaning
  • Symbolism
  • Anthropology of science and medicine
  • Creative expression
  • Games, leisure
  • Food and festivals
H. Culture, personality, identity
  • Ethnicity
  • Identity
  • Psychology
  • Educational systems
  • Biographical material
I. Social change
  • Globalisation and localisation
J. Applied anthropology
  • Borders
  • Indigenous rights
  • Social Development


Biological Anthropology, Archaeology, Linguistics.



Name Period Comment
Immanuel Kant Sociological Beginnings Lectures on anthropology - distinction Philosophy (rational) and Anthropology (empirical).
Adam Smith Sociological Beginnings
Karl Marx Sociological Beginnings
Max Weber Sociological Beginnings
Emile Durkheim Sociological Beginnings Durkheimian problematic of social integration ; mechanical and organic solidarity ; social facts.
Franz Boas American Beginnings foundations for American anthropology - historical particularism (against comparative method and generalisations). - often accused of treating primitive or small-scale societies as neat well-bounded units.
Edward Westermark American Beginnings Sex år i Marocko
Lewis Henry Morgan American Beginnings foundation of kinship studies - Iroquois Indians and kinship as a primary sociopolitical structure. Evolutionary sequence (savagery, barbarism, civilisation). - Primitive society was egalitarian and had no concept of private property - basis for Engels (1891) The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Ruth Benedict American Beginnings thought cultural forms have developed through unique historical processes (thus few universal ones) and not through natural laws (as the evolutionists and Boas thought). - used comparison to separate out universal traits from unique historical ones. In Patterns of Culture she posited a theory of 'integration' to explain the internal coherence of distinct cultures. Cultures differed because they were integrated differently - coming to adopt different ontological values. "“They [individual cultures] are traveling along different roads in pursuit of different ends, and these ends and these means in one society cannot be judged in terms of those of another society, because essentially they are incommensurable.”"
Margaret Mead American Beginnings about the challenge various kinds of social diversity presented to the anthropologist who would treat large national cultures as units.
Alfred Louis Kroeber American Beginnings tracking the development of basic culture patterns over societies, centuries, and continents
Robert Lowie American Beginnings
Edward Sapir American Beginnings on individual variations within apparently unitary cultures. - but still largely accepting the unitary idea of cultures a la Boas.
Edward B. Tylor Pre-20th Century Britain 1888 paper, “On a Method of Investigating the Development of Institutions; Applied to Laws of Marriage and Descent,” - “the first

cross-cultural study” in anthropology. - concerned to establish anthropology as a natural science, which, for him, meant showing that human civilization had everywhere developed according to the same laws and principles, and following the same stages of growth

Francis Galton Pre-20th Century Britain “Galton’s problem.” Galton thought Tylor’s results needed to be screened to eliminate comparisons between apparently independent customs (“found,” as Tylor said, among apparently separate “peoples”) that were in fact “duplicate copies of the same original.” The larger question, debated for decades, concerned the relative place in human history of “independent invention,” on the one hand, and “diffusion,” on the other. [Relevance for globalisation studies today?]

Classical 20th century

Name Period Comment
Marcel Mauss stresses a distinction between traditional and modern societies, turning the primitive man into the antithesis of the modern man. What are the characteristics of the two? Why important? Implications for modern study?
Alfred Haddon
Bronislaw Malinowski as opposed to Mauss and Marx, M. is concerned with discovering what the "savage" and the "civilised" share.
A. R. Radcliffe-Brown focus on social structure, Descent theory - Functionalist ? - holds view that the real meaning of a phenomenon can be understood by the anthropologist but perhaps is hidden for the participants themselves. - African Political Systems
Louis DumontIntroduction to two theories of social anthropology -Critique of British (RB) theory of descent groups. Makes distinction between descent groups and marriage alliance. Largely a follower of Levi-Strauss. Asks how much subsystems can be isolated
Meyer Fortes
Edward Evans-PritchardPolitical Anthropology, segmentation
David Schneider pivotal role in kinship studies (American Kinship, A Critique of the Study of Kinship)- focus on cultural meanings in kinship rather than on function (of social groups)). Roots in Weberian theory of meaning.
Claude Levi-Strauss analysed social rules in terms of their structural relation to each other, rather than to their specific content. E.g the social rules determining who was legitimately marriageable were fundamental to human culture - Kinship. Elementary structures of Kinship.
Edmund Leach Political Anthropology, Ritual, Myth, Kinship - 1954 - Political Systems of Highland Burma - process-oriented, dynamic. Many subgroups/systems that were in competition without equilibrium. - Focus on as if conceptions (cf. Levi-Strauss mentalistic structuralism and psychological anthropology's cognitive mapping) i.e. differentiation between abstract political structures and a messy reality on the ground. - Influenced by and interpreted Lévi- Strauss - Against orthodox Structural Functionalism ; Rethinking Anthropology
Max Gluckman 1956 Custom and Conflict in Africa - equilibrium only through a dialectical process of conflicts in different sets of relation subsumed into other sets of relation.- conflicts unite groups within themselves. - Manchester School (focus on process and conflict).- focus on social interaction, process, thus a break with social system and Durkheim and EEP.
Victor Turner Manchester school analysis of unfolding "social dramas" - that can expose value systems and organisational principles. - focus on how individuals themselves respond to forces of change (cf. also Leach, and Pierre Bourdieu.)
Frederick Barth transactionalism explains regularities of social organisation in terms of the strategising behaviour of social agents interacting with one another. (methodological individualist approach, echoing Weber's "social action".) - critique - ethnocenric, and assumes rationality and need structural constraints.
F. G. Bailey distinguishes beween culturally determined rules and pragmatic rules - the latter are the rules of the political game. -looks at how one political structure sometimes gets encapsulated by another.
Van Gennep Rites of Passage book 1960 -

Marxist, Feminist, Subaltern

Interpretive turn


Contemporary Thinkers





Bibliographic databases

Professional organisations


Ethnographic image collections

Ethnographic film collections


Journal des anthropologues ; Austrian Studies in Social Anthropology - Open access  ; Anthropology Matters ; Norsk Antropologisk Tidskrift ; la Revista de Dialectología y Tradiciones Populares Fundada en 1944, hoy la más antigua de las publicaciones periódicas españolas dedicadas a la antropología social y cultural. ; L'Homme bonne qualité, fondée en 1961 par Émile Benveniste, Pierre Gourou et Claude Lévi-Strauss ; IPA Online journal political anthropology, talks of liminality and progress ;

Anthropological Theory ; Journal Royal Anthropological Institute  ; Anthropology today ; Journal of Anthropology ; Journal of Linguistic Anthropology ; Social Anthropology ; Anthropology and Humanism ; AnthroSouce  ; American Anthropologist; Annual Review of Anthropology ; Critique of Anthropology ; Current Anthropology ; Man


Issues Nature vs. culture debate. Biology (in natural science), biology (as perceived and constructed by those who juxtapose it to culture), and culture.

Anthropology tends to be an ideographic or particularistic discipline rather than a nomothetic or generalising one. However, there is a tension between comparative studies and an increasing emphasis on cultural particularism. (Particularly in kinship). Cf. Andrew Strathern and Michael Lambeck (1998: 23) who says that ethnographic fieldwork is always at least implicitly comparative as the ethnographer cannot escape his/her cultural background.

The Discipline in crisis

A fundamental problem is the discarding of the classical texts and theorists as having been wrong in their generalisations.

Wazir Karim argues that academic anthropology has opted for marginality be failing to deal with political tensions, such as the oppressive use of Western knowledge by elites and regimes in the developing world to perpetuate their hold on power.

Henrietta Moore outlines challenges that anthropology faces in a post-colonial world:

Need to link social production of knowledge with social action (focus on social activism and social movements)

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