Department of Social Anthropology

About Social Anthropology

Social Anthropology is about the organisation and culture of the various societies of humankind and the individual experience of living in them. By focusing on the similarities and differences between societies anthropology aims to interpret and explain the vast range of customs and institutions which shape human behaviour. The anthropologist's special skills lie in the study of social relations at the level of the local community. Through prolonged residence and face-to-face participation anthropologists come to understand social life from the perspective of the local person. In western society - no less than in other societies - people live and participate in communities - in neighbourhoods and villages, and in schools, universities and factories. These too have been the focus of recent social anthropological studies.

  • See our department home page, or Youtube, for a film made by St Andrews students and staff about these issues - 'What is Anthropology?'

In recent years, social anthropologists have become increasingly interested in western society, but traditionally they have concentrated their studies on societies in other parts of the world, including remoter parts such as the (Inuit) Eskimos of the Arctic, or the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. Through the study of other cultures close up anthropologists get to know human life as it is actually lived in the everyday and this gives them profound insight when it comes to more abstract debates about what it means to be human. As part of their research, most professional anthropologists will have spent at least two years experiencing a particular social setting in fine detail. This means that the anthropologist will have gained an intimate understanding of the life-style, language and cultural practices of another people. They will be able to reflect comparatively, not only on that other culture, but on their own personal customs and habits too.

The social anthropologist's comparative knowledge of social life can have an immense practical relevance in today's busy, globally intermixed social worlds. Anthropologists can show that the apparently strange, exotic, customs of cultures different from our own are fully rational given the environment, technology and practical knowledge of the people in question. Through making sense of such customs, anthropologists play a part in the endeavour to eliminate cultural misunderstanding and prejudice, including ethnic prejudice in Great Britain. More broadly, their work also helps us to realise the diverse and creative possibilities that exist for living in and understanding the world. In the field of social and economic development, and in the administration of relief in the wake of natural and man-made disasters, the anthropologist's expertise is also important. The policies of government and international agencies concerned with these problems must take account of the particular worldview of the people to whom aid is being given; the anthropologist can help supply this knowledge.