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
and conflict resolution, patterns of consumption and exchange
and family structure, gender relations
, childrearing and socialization
, 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), its commitment to the relevance and illumination provided by micro studies, and its extension beyond strictly social phenomena to culture, art, individuality, and cognition. 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.
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.
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
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
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
. 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
and from Max Gluckman
’s Manchester school
, and embracing the study of conflict, change, urban anthropology, and networks.}}
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
- 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
- Adam Kuper (1996) Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School