Week 1 - Introduction: Key Issues in Social Anthropology
This introductory block explores what the academic discipline of anthropology covers, and examines it aims and scope as well as its methodology. The sessions will also introduce you to some of the key terms used within the discipline, and to some of the approaches that anthropologists have brought to the study of human behaviour. In week 1 of the block, we will investigate the theme of cultural difference and the role played by culture in shaping human behaviour (the nature/nurture debate). In the second part of the session, we will investigate the principles of cultural relativism and how this relates to the concept of ‘ethnocentrism’ in anthropological investigations into cultural difference.
Week 2 & 3: ‘The Natives’ Point of View’ – Participant Observation, Anthropological Methods & Ethics
In these two sessions we will explore how anthropologists gather their data and look at the importance of the fieldwork method of ‘participant observation’ to the discipline. We will also examine how ‘scientific’ this methodology is and uncover its great strengths. We will look at the work of Bronislaw Malinowski (1884 – 1942), a Polish born academic who was one of the founders of modern British social anthropology and who was also the first anthropologist to engage in long term fieldwork. We will also look at some of the ethical issues surrounding the practice of ethnographic fieldwork, and examine these issues in relation to a number of case studies.
Week 4 & 5: What Does It Mean To Be Human? The Theoretical Foundations of Anthropology
These weeks examine some of the ways that ‘humanity’ and ‘human nature’ have been defined by anthropologists, and explore this in relation to how anthropology has used its ‘scientific’ status to define or deny the humanity of others, and to ascribed moral and intellectual superiority to Euro-American industrialized societies (seen as lying at the apex of an evolutionary ladder). Subsequently, much of the work of early European anthropologists was based on constructing hunter-gatherer societies as irrational and superstitious ‘primitives’ supposedly caught in an ‘evolutionary rut’ - a view which allowed Europeans to legitimise the ‘civilising’ project of European colonisation. Alternatively, later studies of hunter-gatherer societies have portrayed them in an idealized light as ‘noble savages’. In the remainder of this session and in the final class, we will examine a range of theoretical positions which anthropologists have applied to further their understanding of culture and society. Central to this examination is the debate concerning the kind of knowledge that anthropologists can hope to acquire, and whether the status of the discipline as ‘a natural science of society’ can be justified. During the session, we will examine some of the 'scientific' perspectives applied by the 'founding fathers' of the discipline including Durkheim, Malinowski, and Radcliffe Brown, as well as claims that anthropology is less a science than an ‘interpretive’ approach to culture. We will also revisit the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate in relation to this (in particular looking at the issue of human violence), and examine the role of contemporary evolutionary theories to an understanding of human behavior, culture and society.
Week 6: Kinship and the Family
A key interest for socio-cultural anthropology has been to try and understand how societies function, and what cultural features or activities bind people together. In this week’s session we will look at anthropological studies of kinship, which has been called ‘the backbone’ of the discipline. Indeed, it is often assumed that blood-relatedness forms the very basis of human sociality; however, anthropologists have also treated kinship as a ‘symbolic’ system of classification. In today’s session we will assess the importance of blood relations, along with claims that the political systems of ‘pre-literate’ peoples are organised primarily around descent and consanguinity.
A key focus of this session will be on the ‘symbolic’ character of kinship systems: we will look at how ‘exploded’, ‘fictive’ and ‘metaphorical’ forms of relatedness demonstrate the fact that blood-relationships and biology do not define the breadth and scope of kinship systems found cross-culturally. As a form of ‘symbolic classification’, kinship systems vary widely and offer different ways of thinking about kinship and relatedness - many of which may challenge our own assumptions about the ‘naturalness’ of blood-ties.
Week 7: Gift-Giving, Exchange & Commodities
It has been argued that processes of exchange and reciprocity are one of the key means by which groups establish and maintain social ties. This week we shall examine one of the classic examples of exchange within anthropology: Malinowski's analysis of the kula exchange in Melanesia, along with the claim that ‘pre-literate’ societies can be characterized by forms of gift-giving in contrast to the more ‘abstract’ use of money and market economies which supposedly characterize ‘civilised’ societies. We will also examine the impact of ‘modern’ forms of commoditization with regard to practices of branding and advertising.
Week 8: Signifying Collective Identity: Personhood, Social Solidarity and Social Boundaries
How and when does an individual become a member of society? What does it mean to be a person? How do we create a sense of collective identity? What is the importance of social institutions and roles in this process and what happens when these are no longer clear or lose their power? How, as members of a social group do we define ourselves in relation to those who do not belong to 'our' group? In this session week we will investigating the importance of ideas about personhood and social identity, and examining how individuals create social bonds and how social groups become organised through various forms of classification such as age, class, caste and gender to understand how our 'personhood' is often defined through these categories. We will also examine some of the ways in which everyday objects and activities – such as food and clothing - are used to signal status and group identity. We will also examine how anthropology can help us to understand the rise of forms of nationalism in the context of debates around the racialized aspects of the Brexit vote and the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States.
Week 9: Constructing Difference: Gender & Race
Ideas about gender and race are crucial to understanding how societies organize themselves with regard to social hierarchies, and how they create and sustain social boundaries. In today’s session, we will examine the varied ways in which ideas about gender and race have, historically, been used to construct and classify difference and ‘otherness’. In the session we explore the ways that encultured conceptions of gender and race are often used to ‘naturalise’ asymmetrical power relations both within and between social groups. In relation to the previous session, we will use a discussion of gender and race to further investigate the ways in which an anthropological perspective can be used to understand processes of social exclusion, and how social boundaries are constructed and maintained.
Week 10: Symbols and Society: Language, Art & Religion
Many of the areas of human life and culture we have previously looked at are considered by many anthropologists to be ‘symbolic systems’. In this session we will focus on what this means and investigate the role of symbolic thinking in human life. In relation to three key symbolic systems which, arguably, define our humanity: art, religion and language. We will examine theories regarding the relationship between art, language and religion in relation to the emergence of the human capacity for abstract and symbolic thought.