Social Anthropology – What is this all about?

Anthropology is the study of humanity or this is what most definitions of the term say.

However, in and of itself this does not tell you much. At the end of the day, Psychology, Politics, Sociology all centre around humans, their behaviour and social activity. There is indeed much overlap between social anthropology, which is the subfield of anthropology this guide focuses on, and other social science disciplines.

Social Anthropologists study the social and cultural relationships that organise human life including kinship, religion, language and politics but characteristic of the discipline is the tendency to employ a ‘bottom-up’ approach and focus on how particular groups of people create and perceive these relationships themselves.

What do anthropologists do?     

So you study forest people?” Is a response I sometimes get when I say I am an anthropologist. There is a misconception that anthropologists study isolated tribes hidden away in the jungle or nomadic societies in the desert. While in the first half of the 20th century the division between the sociological study of the ‘West’ and anthropological study of the ‘Rest’ did somehow hold, this is absolutely no longer the case. Whereas you are definitely going to read about the Trobiand Islanders, Yamomani and the Nuer in your course, what distinguishes contemporary anthropology from sociology, politics and international relations is a focus on people’s everyday lives and experience rather than the structure of institutions.One term you get to hear a lot when it comes to anthropology is participant observation, which is the discipline’s main research method. Participant observation involves a prolonged period of time spent getting to know a particular population as ‘intimately’ as possible – those can be inhabitants of a single town, an ethnic diaspora, an occupation (e.g sex workers, bankers – see Karen Ho’s Liquidated) and usually results in a written piece called an ethnography.

What Can I do afterwards?

Almost anything! No kidding. Anthropology equips you with cultural sensitivity and critical thinking skills applicable to almost any discipline. My classmates have ended up working in careers as diverse as journalism, business, and filmmaking. A few have further trained to become lawyers or continued studying anthropology at postgraduate level to enter academia.

What if I already have a degree?

There are many reasons to go and study anthropology on top of another degree and most taught masters courses in the UK do not require from you prior experience. Imagine what a skilled and creative architect or urban planner you could become with knowledge of how different groups occupy and relate to space, or how awareness of diverse customs and values could help your law career.

Studying Social Anthropology at the LSE

Anthropology at the London School of Economics dates back to 1904 and its former faculty and students include such big names in the discipline as Bronisław Malinowski, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Edmund Leach, Jean and Jane Comaroff and Michael Taussig. At the undergraduate level you can either study Social Anthropology on its own or combine it with a degree in Law. As a master you can also choose to focus on learning and cognition, religion, development or China.

As a first year BA student in Social Anthropology you would take a course introducing you to the kind of questions anthropologists deal with, a course on theory starting with anthropology’s sociological foundations (Marx, Durkheim, Weber) and classical anthropological theory (Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, Levi-Strauss). You will also take a course on Text and Film, an Outside Option and LSE100 – an interdisciplinary social sciences course for all LSE undergraduates. In your second and third year you will take more in depth compulsory courses in political, economic anthropology, kinship, sex and gender, religion as well as advanced theory and research methods. You will also choose from a wide range of options available each year including area studies and write a dissertation. Most of your courses will be assessed by an exam (70%) and coursework (30%), although the department is increasingly introducing alternative assessment methods.

Studying Anthropology at Other Universities

Anthropology is a very broad subject and what is being taught will largely depend on the faculty’s expertise and departmental tradition. Before applying make sure you throughly study the website to see what kind of courses are on offer and how are they assessed. If you cannot find enough information do not hesitate to contact the department. Choosing the university best suited to your interests and needs is extremely important. For example, unlike LSE, UCL offers a much broader undergraduate degree including courses in biological, material and medical anthropology as well as archeology. At Goldsmiths you can focus on visual anthropology and even combine your degree with media studies or visual practice. Many degrees are also less exam heavy than LSE and will put more emphasis on coursework completed  throughout the year

If you would like to get to know more about the discipline, Discover Anthropology is a website full of resources and includes detailed discussions of specialist areas such as anthropology of art or medical anthropology.

Some Suggested Readings  

Note: This list is by no means exhaustive.  If you are interested in a particular topic say food, fashion, human rights, or the environment there is a pretty good chance that somebody has written an engaging ethnography on it. Googling anthropology of [insert topic] is a good start at finding it.

Astuti, R., Parry, J., Stafford, C. Eds. (2007). Questions of anthropology. Oxford: Berg.

Barley, N. (2011). The Innocent Anthropologist. Notes from a Mud Hut. Eland Books

Bourgois, Philippe (2003). In search of respect: Selling crack in El Barrio. Cambridge University Press

Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and Danger an Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge

Graeber, D. (2011) Debt: The First Five Thousand Years. Melville House Publishing

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1976). Witchcraft, Magic and Oracles among the Azande. Oxford: OUP

Ho, K. (2009). Liquidated : An Ethnography of Wall Street . Duke University Press.

Malinowski, B. (1932). Argonauts of the Western Pacific : An account of native enterprise and adventure in the archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: Routledge

Mead, M. (1929). Coming of age in Samoa : A psychological study of primitive youth for western civilisation.London: Cape

Morrison, K. (2001). Marx, Durkheim, Weber : Formations of modern social thought . London: Sage.

Piot, C. (1999). Remotely global : Village modernity in West Africa / Charles Piot. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press.

Guide by Kasia Buzanska, 19 Feb 2017

Kasia graduated from the London School of Economics in Social Anthropology in 2015. She is currently an MPhil in Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her interests broadly include the Andes, linguistic and cognitive anthropology.  If you have any questions for Kasia about studying anthropology email her at