How Social Anthropologists Think and Work


How do social anthropologists think and work? Over the past 150 years, social anthropology has been motivated by a curiosity about humankind’s cultural expression and its interpretations. Aiming at exploring the diversity of human social life, social anthropologists conduct the comparative study of society and culture through in-depth ethnographic fieldwork, usually in a relatively small geographical region and in a specific social setting. Drawing on participant observation and ethnographic writing, anthropologists critically examine what they have observed, actively connecting collected materials with larger theoretical issues, and constantly challenge ‘common sense’ and the views that have been taken for granted, thereby enriching the understanding not only of other people’s worlds, but also about ourselves.

How Social Anthropologists Think and Work

The subject matter of social anthropology is as diverse as human
social life. It is therefore challenging to outline all of its many vivid
dimensions within one lecture. Instead of framing the introduction into a
historical review of prominent anthropologists, or a genealogical exploration
of influential theories, this lecture aims at providing an overview of
fundamental thinking patterns and research methods applied by social
anthropologists, thereby uncovering how they think and work, how they engage in
larger theoretical discussions and contribute to knowledge production, and in
what ways social anthropology can be distinctive from other social scientific

This lecture mainly consists of three parts, targeting comparison,
self-reflection, and ethnographic fieldwork. Each topic will be introduced by a
story based on the lecturer’s own experience from the journey of social
anthropological study. Then, each topic will be further discussed based on some
seminal works. Part One focusses on comparative studies, exemplified by From
the Soil
, a well-known monography written by a Chinese anthropologist, Fei
Xiaotong. In this book, he argues that Chinese society is organised through
principles different from those prevailing in the West. He uses two metaphors
to convey the contrast to readers. Chinese society is represented by ripples,
flowing out from the splash of a rock thrown into water. The self, the
individual is in the centre and the society is built from networks created from
relational ties linking the self with discrete other individuals. To be a human
in Chinese society is to be linked to others. The self is discovered only
through the roles within the family, kinship, and closeness with friends or
acquaintances. However, Western society is represented by bundles of rice straw
collected to form a haystack. In the West, social structures consist of a framework
of organisations. These organisations vary in degree of formality and openness,
according to the social status, values, and interests, of their members. Fei’s
book is a good example that demonstrates the importance of comparative approach
in anthropological study.

Part Two focus on how anthropologists challenge ‘common
sense’, and deconstruct ethnocentrism, dualism, and other views that have been formed.
First, the notion of ethnography is introduced. As a primary genre in
anthropological writing, ethnography is a non-fiction text providing insight
into how anthropologists undertake their fieldwork. With holistic, rich, and
multi-faceted account of political, economic and social dynamics, ethnography
usually displays thick description of daily life or a particular practice in an
unfamiliar setting. These ethnographic materials observed by anthropologists in
the field are important empirical data that later would be carefully examined,
interpreted, and analysed by anthropologists to develop their theories.
Cultural relativism is another key conception in these sections. As the
hallmark approach, cultural relativism has been widely accepted for understanding
a culture based on its own term, which stands opposite to ethnocentrism.

Part Three sheds light on ethnographic fieldwork, the primary
method applied in social anthropology, exemplified by the experience of the
lecturer and other research students based in the University of Cambridge. During
the fieldwork, researchers usually spend at least one year conducting thorough
close-up study in the field site. Concrete methods include participant
observation, interviews, survey, which are helpful for them to immerse
themselves into every life. Fieldwork is usually compared to ‘a rite of
passage’ but it is more than ‘a rite of passage’ because it is
research-oriented to bring theory and method together. Shifting away from
anthropological awareness and methods, the final slide encourages students to
think about how ethnographic data collected during fieldwork or through reading
can relate to abstract theoretical knowledge, how anthropological discussions
are formed, and how asking research questions can shape social sciences in
different ways.

Video Resource

Resource activities

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Activity questions

  • 1. When was your first contact with social anthropology? What was your initial impression? To what extent can this lecture enrich your understanding of social anthropology?
  • 2. What are the fundamental thinking patterns in social anthropology? How do social anthropologists conduct their research? Pertaining to the relations between ethnographic materials and theories, how can social anthropologists engage in producing knowledge and exploring the diversity of human social life?
  • 3. In what ways can social anthropology be distinctive compared to other social sciences?

Reflective questions

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Task 1

What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?

Task 2

What are you struggling to understand?

What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?

Task 3

What further questions has this resource raised for you?

What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?

Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?

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Further reading

  • See this:

    Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge:

  • And this:

    Cambridge Open Encyclopedia of Anthropology:

  • And this:

    Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge:

  • And this:

    The Royal Anthropological Institute:

  • And this:

    Discover Anthropology:

  • And this:

    Association of Social Anthropologists (ASA) of the UK:

  • And this:

    American Anthropological Association (AAA):

  • And this: