What is Social Anthropology?

Social anthropology is the study of human society and cultures.

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

  • how societies are organised;
  • the relationship between values and behaviour;
  • why people do what they do.

View all our Social Anthropology courses for more information.

Anthropology in practice

Because of its focus on behaviour, 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 increasingly used in the health sector to redesign the patient experience.

Participant observation

Studying anthropology gives you an insight into what makes people tick and the centrality of culture in motivating social action. Anthropology is based on the study of actual societies over an extended time frame through what is called participant observation.

The subject is essentially comparative. Anthropologists compare how people live in different societies at different times and places and come up with theories about why people behave in particular ways.

A graduate of social anthropology will have a wide knowledge of a range of different societies and social practices, around key cultural practices like marriage, religion and daily life.

As anthropologists turn their attention to more sophisticated social contexts, such as state bureaucracies, for example, anthropological studies increasingly shed light on how complex social systems are created, established and maintained.

Social Anthropology emerged in the era when European states had colonial empires. Although there has been much debate about the ways in which the colonial context might have compromised anthropological research, at least one of the major aims of the founders of the discipline remains central to anthropology today: the comparative study of the different forms of human social life and cultural experience.

Our recent work

Recent work carried out by members of the department examines the: 

  • the organisation of the state in Kyrgyzstan, in neighbouring districts of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the Peruvian Andes, Spain and the UK;
  • planning and delivery of the Olympic Legacy in the post-industrial East End of London;
  • way concepts of race, ethnicity and nation enter into recent genomic research about the ancestry of Latin American populations;
  • comparative analysis of the concept of the value and what it means for the transnational economy today. 

Obviously the world we live in today has changed, and anthropology has changed with it. A communications and transport revolution has made the world a smaller place, and international migration has made ‘western’ societies multi-cultural. Yet 'globalisation' does not seem to be making the world we live in less culturally diverse.

Whether we do our anthropology in a village in the United Kingdom or in a booming new town in Papua New Guinea the study of different ways of living in and seeing the world is more important than ever.

Anthropology is sometimes seen as the study of the strange customs and beliefs of other peoples, but one of the principal goals of anthropology is, in fact, to make the familiar strange. People born in any society become accustomed to seeing their way of doing things as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’.

What anthropologists try to show is that we all need to reflect on our taken-for-granted cultural assumptions, particularly if ‘we’ belong to a dominant group which may seek to impose its will on others.


Contemporary social anthropology tackles an enormous variety of topics, ranging from the social implications of the 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.

Although anthropological studies are now conducted everywhere, from middle-class suburbs and inner cities internationally and from boardrooms to migrant labour camps, and from Papua New Guinea to Peru, what all our studies have in common is an awareness of human diversity and similarity.

Our students explore these issues not only in the classroom but also in conversation with people beyond the university. Our social anthropology students in the Anthropology of Development and Humanitarianism module have created a website over the past years, in dialogue with aid workers from the British Red Cross, Save the Children, organisations assisting refugees and asylum seekers, and more.