social anthropology

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social anthropology

[′sō·shəl ‚an·thrə′päl·ə·jē]
The study of social organization among nonliterate peoples.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

social anthropology

The study (by Western investigators) of small-scale, 'simple’, nonindustrial cultures and societies (see also ANTHROPOLOGY, CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY). As a discipline, it overlaps with sociology, sharing many of its theoretical orientations and its methodologies.

As a specialism, social anthropology developed in the 19th century as a scholastic offshoot of imperialist expansion, informed by and engaging in the scientific and pseudoscientific debates of the time. E. Leach (1982) distinguishes a number of tendencies amongst the ‘founding fathers’ in the period around 1840, united only in their preoccupation with ‘exotic’ cultures and at times their ETHNOCENTRICITY and arrogance.

The first major theoretical perspective to emerge was that of EVOLUTIONISM. In its time, the variety of evolutionism which became predominant was ‘progressive’ in the sense that it accepted that the people concerned were ‘our fellow creatures’, as a book of 1843 argued (quoted in Lienhardt, 1964). On the other hand, this evolutionary perspective was based on the racist assumption that the cultures of’primitive’ people belonged to an earlier and inferior stage of human history and that contemporary European observers could see in those cultures the 'savage’ origins of their own societies. Sir Henry MAINE (1861) provides a good example: ‘As societies do not advance concurrently, but at different rates of progress, there have been epochs at which men trained to habits of methodical observation have really been in a position to watch and describe the infancy of mankind’. These ‘habits of methodical observation’ and description were a prominent aspect of the development of the subject. In French, German and US studies, as well as British, intensive field-research into single societies became increasingly common and researchers qualified, criticized and, in many cases, dismissed earlier assumptions about the ‘irrationality’ and the ‘barbarity’ of’primitive’ cultures.

In the period after World War I, MALINOWSKI and RADCLIFFE-BROWN were instrumental in advancing the discussion of fieldwork and in establishing STRUCTURAL-FUNCTIONALISM as the dominant perspective in British social anthropology. Influenced by the theoretical work of DURKHEIM, and emphasizing the importance of direct observation in the field, the anthropologists of this period published a great many studies of different cultures, tending to focus on the analysis of INSTITUTIONS. Thus patterns of KINSHIP, religious belief-systems, MAGIC, political systems, etc. were studied in great detail. As in other social sciences, different emphases and schools emerged and new theoretical debates and issues became important. STRUCTURALISM, particularly as developed in the work of LÉVI-STRAUSS, has been especially influential upon sociological theories.

In recent years, social anthropologists have also directed their attention to the study of their own and other urban, industrial societies, using the techniques and research practices developed in studying other cultures. This trend has made the discipline even harder to distinguish from sociology in many respects, other than by departmental boundaries or the self-definitions of practitioners. See also CULTURE, ETHNOGRAPHY.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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