Social Anthropology for Year 12/13*

The course is organised around a series of foundational questions that anthropologists have asked and continue to ask about the organisation and interpretation of social life, questions that are profoundly relevant for making sense of the world around us.

* Open to Year 13 offer holders for any School of Social Sciences undergraduate programme.

Course aims

This six-week course is intended for students in Years 12/13 to gain an understanding of some of the key issues that are explored in the discipline of social anthropology. Social anthropology is the cross-cultural study of what it is to be human. The course is organised around a series of key questions that anthropologists have asked about the organisation and interpretation of social life. A commonly used description of social anthropology is that it is about ‘making the familiar strange and the strange familiar’.  This means that an important goal of this course is to encourage students to question their own assumptions, to think laterally, and to be open to understanding other people’s ‘common sense’.  

Learning outcomes

  • Understand some of the key concepts in social anthropology.
  • Learn to examine one’s cultural assumptions in light of comparison with other cultures.
  • Be able to explain what unites and divides humans around the world.
  • Develop critical thinking skills. 

The course at a glance

The course is led by Sinead O'Sullivan.

Six x two-hour weekly sessions in February/March on Wednesday afternoons.

Course content

The course provides students with a taster of university life. Each class is two hours long.  Generally, the first hour will include a mini-lecture and the second hour will follow the format of a tutorial. Tutorials include student input, class and small-group discussion, and class exercises. Students will be expected to do a short reading assignment before each class to prepare for the lecture and the tutorial.

The course will draw on chapters from the following textbook, and all students will be given their own copy:  

Pountney, L. & Maric, T. 2015. Introducing Anthropology. Cambridge: Polity.

Week 1: Welcome and introduction

Students will be introduced to the University, to the course and to the subject of social anthropology. What makes us human? How can we study culture? How do anthropologists go about their research? What is participant observation and ethnography? 

Week 2: The Body

Humans the world over adorn, modify and enhance their bodies. The anthropologist Terence Turner who carried out research with the Kayapo people in Amazonia coined the term ‘social skin’ to describe the body. He argued that body decorations, hair styles, piercings, ear plugs etc convey complex messages about social status, for example marking things like age, generational and gender differences. Might the notion of the ‘social skin’ help us analyse what has been identified as a ‘tattoo renaissance’ in Western societies? Do students wear a uniform? 

Week 3: Personhood

What does it mean to be a person?  It may seem obvious that a person is a unique, bounded individual. But such an understanding of personhood is historically and culturally shaped – and not universal. The notion of who gets to be considered a ‘proper person’, and consequently who gets to be excluded from that category, is constantly changing, not only cross-culturally but also historically. Consider an example of someone in your own society who might not be considered a ‘full person’ – what are they thought to lack? In some cultures, the newborn baby is not considered to be a new person, but rather a reincarnation of another. In others, personhood is acquired way after birth and gradually over time, as the baby is fed, decorated and named. 

Week 4: Kinship

Kinship has been of central interest to social anthropologists. We might think that human beings are created, and thus related, biologically the same the world over.  But it is not the case that all societies, or all people within the same society, place the same weight on biological relatedness. Indeed, we know that in Western societies families are formed in many different ways: think about fostering, step-families, adoption, gay and lesbian parents, reproductive technologies (including surrogate mothers and gamete donors) etc. Can we extend the notion of kinship to online communities, to our relationship with pets, to families ‘we choose’, to ancestors?  Social anthropologists are also interested in the politics of kinship: how governments have an interest, and how they thus intervene, in intimate social relationships:  in marriage, for example, or in the reproductive capacities and choices of women. 

Week 5: Ritual

Rituals are found in all cultures around the world. However, the form they take, the meanings the convey, and the things they achieve, differ enormously. Rituals have been defined as stylised, repetitive acts that take place at a set time and specific location. But if rituals come in many forms, encompass a very wide variety of actions, and are performed for diverse and multiple reasons, it is difficult to be precise. Think about a religious and non-religious ritual you have taken part in this year. What made them ritual rather than routine? We will think further about rituals that mark a stage in the life cycle (birth, puberty, marriage and death, for example), and collective rituals that take place at certain times of the year or at important points in the calendar (for example, Christmas, Eid, the Seder). 

Week 6: How do you write an academic essay?

Using the materials from the course, and focusing on one of its themes, students will prepare an essay plan based on the criteria used for a first-year undergraduate essay in social anthropology. We will look at what makes a good essay in social anthropology and consider planning, structure, referencing, plagiarism and how to make a strong argument.

In this class, we will also sum up what you have achieved in this course and address any outstanding questions you may have. We will also outline the possibilities that are open to you for studying social anthropology, or any of the other social sciences, at The University of Manchester. We will consider, amongst other things, admissions policies, application procedures, personal statements and so on.