What is Social Anthropology?

Social anthropology is the study of human society and cultures through a comparative lens.

The most challenging, but also most rewarding part of the course was re-learning how to look at the world through an anthropological lens. We learned how to see every-day practices we took as normal, and deconstructed them to the point of unfamiliarity. It is a very interesting way to look at the world which I continue to do in my work life.

Eleanor Hurley / Former BSocSc Social Anthropology student

Social anthropologists seek to understand how people live in societies and how they make their lives meaningful. Anthropologists are concerned with such questions as:

  • Why do people do what they do?
  • How are societies organised?
  • What are the untold stories we could tell?

Ethnographic Research

Although anthropologists in the 19th and early 20th centuries studied ‘far away’ places and small societies, today they turn their attention to a variety of social contexts, from state bureaucracies in Papua New Guinea to religious belief in the UK. One of the principal goals of anthropology is to ‘make the familiar strange and the strange familiar’.

Studying anthropology gives you an insight into what makes people tick. This knowledge comes from the study of societies over an extended time frame through what is called ethnography, which revolves around long-term fieldwork for a year or longer. Anthropologists believe that it is only by understanding and sharing people’s everyday lives that we can analyse, tackle, and challenge societal and global issues. That is why we conduct ‘participant observation’, a form of research that is not only about observing phenomena, but more importantly about participating in other people’s daily lives and practices.

As a Second Year undergraduate student in Social Anthropology, you will have a chance to conduct your own ethnographic research in Manchester, a defiant city seeped in dynamic and diverse histories of labour and suffragette movements, underground music, and multicultural migration.

Anthropology in practice

Contemporary social anthropology tackles an enormous variety of topics, ranging from the social implications of new reproductive and information technologies through the analysis of the social meanings of consumer behaviour to the study of violence, poverty, and the means for resolving conflicts and alleviating human suffering.

Because of its focus on behaviour, social organisation, and meaning, anthropology is used in a number of contemporary settings. Companies such as Google and Intel, for example, use anthropologists to understand how people interact with technology.

Anthropological approaches are also increasingly used in the health sector to redesign the patient experience.