A Dictionary of Sociology Date: 1998
social anthropology The study of the entire range of cultures and societies in the world, although originally the discipline tended to concentrate on non-Western and so-called primitive societies. There are significant overlaps with sociology, but also important contrasts. Historically, sociology has tended to study Western societies, and this has generated methodological and theoretical (as well as substantive) differences between the two disciplines. Most importantly, Western sociologists, studying their own society, could take the context for granted before isolating specific aspects for hypotheses in empirical research. Social anthropologists, by contrast, could take nothing for granted, and developed a holistic (see INDIVIDUALISM) method without inappropriate hypotheses for an unpredictable context.
Anthropology grew out of a curiosity with other cultures as described in accounts by explorers, traders, and missionaries, from the late fifteenth century onwards. The discipline emerged as an organized intellectual pursuit from the mid-nineteenth century, when learned societies were founded in France, the United States, England, and Germany. The earliest theories were evolutionist. The British anthropologist Edward Taylor posited a theory of social evolution which suggested stages from animism (see TOTEMISM) to religion and monotheism. Other evolutionist theories of the nineteenth century claimed that primitive societies were remnants of the distant past in a hierarchy of progress. Seemingly incomprehensible customs were described as ‘survivals’. By the end of the nineteenth century, social evolutionism and its controversial hierarchy of human groups was replaced by theories of diffusion and migration. Similarities or differences between cultures were explained by the spread of influences from some cultures or by the movement of peoples. Diffusionists encouraged the cumulative collection of customs for universal comparisons, although it is now widely acknowledged that such comparisons are fraught with difficulties, since there can be few shared definitions for cross-cultural phenomena. In the early twentieth century, Bronislaw Malinowski argued that customs should be explained in terms of their current function, although post-war anthropologists have rejected the crudities of functionalism, preferring instead to interpret cultural practices in terms of their current meaning. Structuralists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss have suggested that similarities between some cultures are to be explained by the limited number of possibilities open to humanity rather than direct contact between societies.
This transformation in anthropological theory has been accompanied by a revolution in research methods. The early tradition of armchair anthropology is well represented by the work of James Frazer, who attempted to synthesize others' disparate findings around the globe into a speculative theory of origins. Generally, however, professional anthropologists at the turn of the century moved from reliance on evidence from outsiders' accounts to that from their own expeditions. Franz Boas visited the Canadian Eskimos; Charles Seligman (1873–1940) visited New Guinea. With few exceptions, the material was acquired through interpreters in standardized interviews, which risked problems of translation and the loss of unique insights from the people themselves. Malinowski has been credited with the fundamental shift in methods. By the mid-1920s, and following his example, anthropologists were encouraged to live for periods of one or more years among the peoples whose language they had to learn. Emphasis was on the interrelationship of different aspects of a culture or the social structure, thus challenging speculative history, especially since there were often no written records. There was a move away from the sweeping comparison of isolated cultural traits to the intensive and holistic analysis of one culture by the specialist fieldworker.
In Britain contemporary social anthropology is separate from the specialized study of biological aspects of humanity. Physical anthropology has become concerned with palaeontology, genetics, and even primates. The physical and social dimensions of social anthropology were more closely linked in the nineteenth century, when it was mistakenly believed that existing primitive societies were lower down in a scale of social as well as physical evolution. British social anthropology is generally identified with figures such as Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. Both were influenced by Émile Durkheim, and although their functionalism has been largely discredited, they left a lasting legacy of studying societies holistically and systematically. Anthropologists from the British school tend to have produced monographs on the politics, kinship, religion, and economy of a specific society. Casual priority is not given to one sphere. Some Marxist anthropologists have given priority to the mode of production. Others have elaborated the power of ritual and symbolism, although not necessarily rejecting the primacy of economic and power relations.
In the United States, by contrast, anthropology is still taught in universities as a unitary discipline. There, cultural anthropology is the closest equivalent to British social anthropology, and is identified with such names as Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead. Elsewhere in Europe, ethnology embraces the geographical and historical, and has included folklore.
Modern social anthropology has developed an approach which is relevant for any area, Western or non-Western, and in ways which are distinctive. It challenges ethnocentricism, being ready with cross-cultural comparisons, yet is alert to possible universals. The practice of long-term participant observation is now standard. Social anthropology aims to make other cultures familiar, but it simultaneously makes the anthropologist's own culture strange, exposing the taken-for-granded as in need of explanation. The discipline moved long ago from an emphasis on pre-literate societies to literate ones and to areas with world religions. It has been extended more systematically to the study of peasant and urban groups, to both the powerful and the powerless, and the full range of capitalist societies. After the independence struggles of former colonies, the Vietnam War, and the liberation politics of the late 1960s, anthropologists became more alert to the politics of research. A less economistic Marxism influenced the study of pre-capitalist societies. A new feminism fed into the critical study of gender across cultures. Studies were made by Western anthropologists of socialist and communist societies. The number of non-Western and indigenous anthropologists increased. Greater use was made of historical records to enhance the study of oral traditions. The role of the anthropologist as detached observer has been seriously questioned and, in some cases, resolved by a greater selfawareness. Racism has been clarified in contrast to ethnocentricism. Not only the content but also the style of writing have been open to experimentation. Literary traditions and the humanities are drawn on to enhance the re-creation of crosscultural experience. Meanwhile, others still emphasize the discipline's scientific status. There can be no unitary anthropology, given this multiplicity of approaches, but the discipline continues to flourish in universities throughout Europe and North America.
Â© A Dictionary of Sociology 1998, originally published by Oxford University Press 1998.