social anthropology Research Paper Starter

social anthropology

(Research Starters)

Social anthropology was an influential British social science that fused theoretical aspects of anthropology and sociology while conducting empirical research on the structural forms of indigenous societies. Through fieldwork, social anthropologists produced detailed accounts of society and social structure that did not depend on a real or imagined history but on how society and social structure actually functioned from day to day. Social anthropology established society, function, and structure as prominent topics in the social sciences. Research in social anthropology often focused on kinship systems, political institutions, trade networks, and localized epistemological frameworks (whether those be religion, mythology, or magic).

Keywords Fieldwork; Function / Functionalism; Kinship; Social Structure; Society; Structural-Functionalist; Structuralism; Synchrony

Social Anthropology


Social anthropology, since its inception in England between the World Wars, has been something of a British institution, the genius of which has been best recognized by those reading it from afar. During its heyday at the London School of Economics, Oxford, and Cambridge, social anthropology was a minor and marginal academic discipline in the British University system Spencer, 2000). While its handful of notable proponents published ethnographically rich monographs of a remarkably similar vein, they never could reach a working agreement on what social anthropology was, what the aim of its research should be, or even its place in the social sciences. The founders of this contentious school of thought spent the lion's share of their careers ruthlessly disagreeing with one another (e.g. Leach, 1984). And yet, while this pugnacious bunch was at the helm, social anthropology solidified the primacy of fieldwork in American anthropology, sparked the resurgence of structuralism in French sociology, introduced Emile Durkheim to American sociology, and paved the way for the reintroduction of Karl Marx to the Anglo-American social sciences. More recently, the field of cultural studies was formed on the conceptual framework laid by social anthropology. The discipline of social anthropology that emerged in postwar England, it might be said, has been immensely productive elsewhere.

Social anthropology initially sought to bring the global variety of human societies into a single analytical optic that did not rest on a speculative reconstruction of their pasts (i.e., social evolution) but on their witnessed forms in the present. This initial, evolutionary paradigm suggested that there was a single origin to all of humanity and that one should explain different human societies according to the distance they had achieved from that origin (Tylor, 1920[1871]; Marx, 1974[1883]; Frazier, 1996[1890]; Durkheim, 1997[1893]). When it came to non-literate societies, this paradigm was criticized on both sides of the Atlantic for reducing them to speculations about their pasts rather than seeking to understand them through the directly observable facts that comprise a proper science. Franz Boas (1940) and what became cultural anthropology spearheaded the American reaction to this paradigm. The British reaction, led by Bronislaw Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1984[1922]) and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown's lectures on a "nature science of society"(1957[1937]), became the discipline of social anthropology in the 1940s and 1950s.

Both the American and British rejections of evolutionary thinking focused on the comparative study of non-literate social groups and emphasized the necessity of fieldwork over the armchair reflections of previous scholars. Fieldwork at this time consisted of living in a small community (often a village) for at least one year, becoming conversant in the local language and taking descriptive notes on the everyday lives of community residents (e.g. Evans-Pritchard, 1973). The aim of fieldwork was to formulate a scientific understanding of a specific society based on descriptions of its functioning from day to day, a scientific understanding that could then be compared and contrasted with other societies (Radcliffe-Brown, 1951; cf. Evans-Pritchard, 1950; Leach, 1958). Malinowski famously wrote that the goal of fieldwork is to "grasp the native's point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world" (1984[1922], p. 25).

While fieldwork remained pivotal to the development of cultural anthropology and social anthropology, differences in the theoretical aim of fieldwork quickly splintered them into two distinct academic disciplines - cultural anthropology saw fieldwork as a method to inscribe and interpret the contents of culture, while social anthropology saw fieldwork as "an empirical discipline" that examined the structural organization of society according to how it actually worked (Kroeber, 1963; Geertz, 1976; Forte, 1978:9). Fieldwork in social anthropology has focused on the structural forms of social organization through detailed studies of kinship systems, political institutions, systems of trade and localized epistemological frameworks - whether those be magic or religion.

Social anthropology not only shares a theoretical foundation with sociology, it also helps establish that foundation. Long before they became the theoretical trinity of sociology, social anthropology turned to the writings of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber for conceptual grounding (Fortes, 1978, p. 5). In its formative years, social anthropology was often regarded and read as a specialized branch of comparative sociology (Radcliffe-Brown, 1951; Evans-Pritchard, 1951). Talcott Parsons, who attended Malinowski's seminars at the London School of Economics before he became the most influential American sociologist in the postwar period, remarked: "Social anthropology and sociology are, as conceptualized disciplines, so close together as for many purposes to be almost fused" (1948 p. 246). The prominence of structure and function in the postwar research agenda of sociology (e.g. Merton, 1949; Parsons, 1949) can be directly attributed to the influence of social anthropology. The essential difference between social anthropology and sociology was found not in the theories that shaped research agendas but in the actual object of research. Social anthropology, one adherent recollected, was "hardly distinguishable in its scope from that of the professed theoretical sociologists, though its different ethnographic base gives it a different illustrative content and a different - sometimes sharper - focus"(Firth, 1951, p. 477). Whereas sociology examined various aspects of cities and nations in Europe and the United States, social anthropology was focused on a holistic examination of small indigenous communities (often located somewhere in the British Empire). Social anthropology theoretically aligned itself with sociology's interest in conducting research in existing communities (which it further conceptualized as synchrony), but it calibrated such an approach to the practical considerations of non-literate, homogenous societies (Evans-Pritchard, 1976, p. 245-51).


While Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific provided the model text for social anthropology, Radcliffe-Brown provided the theoretical framework of social anthropology (Stocking, 1984). Radcliffe-Brown, reading and reiterating themes in the work of Èmile Durkheim, forged "a triad of crucially important theoretical concepts, namely society, function, and structure" (Langham, 1981, p. xiii). While many of the proponents of social anthropology vehemently disagreed with Radcliffe-Brown's formulation of these concepts (not to mention one another's reformulations), they remained doggedly committed to them. Social anthropology, during the period of its greatest influence (1930-1960), consisted of several dozen monographs that used society, function, and structure in a remarkably similar fashion and a growing set of fierce debates about these very same concepts between the departments of social anthropology at Oxford (A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, E.E. Evans-Pritchard), Cambridge (Meyer Fortes), and the London School of Economics (Bronislaw Malinowski, Raymond Firth, Edmund Leach). These overlapping monographs and very public debates brought the concepts of structure and function into the research agendas of adjacent disciplines like cultural anthropology, sociology, and even history.


Society is the basic unit of social anthropology-it is what frames research in social anthropology (Radcliffe-Brown, 1949, p. 322). So what is society? "Individual human beings," wrote Radcliffe-Brown, "are connected by a definite set of social relations into an integrated whole" (1935, p. 396). This integrated and bound whole - society - is a general system that is not obvious at the beginning of research but rather becomes empirically perceptible through focused observation. Society is a domain whose systematic form only becomes intelligible through fieldwork (Radcliffe-Brown, 1940). Fieldwork defines society first by describing patterned activities and prominent positions in the everyday life of a given locale and then by logically extending such configurations into a general system. Society, then, is the general system of organization that specific patterns of thought and action manifest, that established roles and relations enact. Society, as such, is outside the awareness of its members who daily abide by it but know next to nothing of its systematic functioning (Evans-Pritchard, 1976[1937]; Radcliffe-Brown, 1957[1937]). Once established through research, society becomes "the analytic frame" of that research (Fortes, 1978, p. 11). Society, Radcliffe-Brown once wrote, is really just "any convenient locality" at the onset of fieldwork (1940; quoted in Leach, 1959, p. 5). It only becomes a substantive matter in the course of fieldwork.


"What is new," wrote Evans-Pritchard about the analytical framework social anthropology inaugurated, "is the insistence that a society can be satisfactorily understood without reference to its past" (1950, p. 120). This fundamental break with the existing modes of explanation was guided by a reworking of the concept of function. Initially lifted from Èmile Durkheim (1997 [1893]) on deviance and social solidarity, function has been put to various uses in social anthropology. In Malinowski's description of life on the Trobriand Islands, function is the normative relation of everything to everything else (1922). In Radcliffe-Brown's more precise formulation, function is the initial assumption of "interconnections" that enables the fieldworker to see links between the "standardized mode of activity or mode of thought" and the systematic form of society (1949, p. 322; 1940, p. 10). Function is the hypothesis of causal link between observable social structures and the general system of society (Firth, 1955). Function, in this, offers a way to investigate and explain a society that does not resort to a real or imagined history but resolutely stays within its actual workings.

While critiques of this concept - namely that it is a...

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