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School of Social Sciences

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BSocSc Social Anthropology
Explore human behaviour and relationships and the challenges across different cultures.

BSocSc Social Anthropology / Course details

Year of entry: 2018

Course unit details:
An Anthropology of Science, Magic and Expertise

Unit code SOAN30052
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Anthropology
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


The course will consider debates on the emergence of modern science as a culturally and historically specific way of knowing, supported by particular institutions, instruments, and social relations; the emergence of science as a bounded knowledge practice distinguished from religious, political and social interference; diverse knowledge sites and knowledge techniques and the relative value of abstraction, generality and specificity; the social and political deployment of science, magic and expertise. Lecture topics will include:

  • Magic, Science and Rationality; 
  • Questions of Agency and Explanation;
  • Laboratories and Experiments; 
  • Knowledge, Vision and the Senses;
  • Numbers, Models, Data and Prediction;
  • Classification, Documents, Standards;
  • Expertise, National science and Planning;
  • Science, Politics and Indigenouse Knowledge; 
  • Knowledge, Limits and the Unknown. 

Students will be encouraged to explore these general issues through ethnographic readings that relate to contemporary debates about issues such as: climate change and environmental challenges; medical research and animal testing; inter-species relations and organ transfer; smart materials and nano-technologies; toxins, GM crops and pharmaceuticals; moral panics and human insecurity.


This course sets out to explore the tension between 'expert' and 'non-expert' knowledges. We live in a world where 'experts' appear to rule our lives, yet where 'expertise' is also distrusted. In other contexts it is asserted that 'we are all experts', yet people are also wary of phoney or cult science. Who has the authority and the expertise to meaningfully engage the challenges of climate change, of human health, of food security, of poverty, of technological possibility? Through close reading of ethnographies we will explore the complex relationship between 'science' and 'the social' that are highlighted by these diverse responses to and understandings of expertise. The focus will be on the social processes through which expert knowledges are performed, how they become or fail to become authoritative, how they are distinguished from practical, everyday or contingent knowledges. We will look at how the separation between the social and the technical, or the human and the non-human came to characterise secular, scientific knowledge. And we will ask about what happened to all the ideas and relationships that got left out in the process. What is their afterlife, their cultural power? How do magical ways of knowing, techniques of illusion and charged emotional fields of curiosity and desire inflect the production and movement of knowledge forms? In particular we will explore the problems that arise when expert knowledge is applied as if it were indeed 'not-social', and we will consider the remedies that advocates of non-social knowledge are forced to adopt.

Learning outcomes

Student should be able to

Knowledge and Understanding: critically understand competing approaches to expertise within the social sciences; show an awareness and understanding of a range of ethnographic case studies through which to think comparatively about the role of magic, science and expertise in contemporary and historical contexts.

Intellectual skills: understand and critically evaluate the differences between abstract and relational knowing and how these combine in contemporary understandings of expertise; analyse the ways in which abstraction and contextualisation work together in the communication of expert knowing; compare diverse ways in which the value and authority of knowledge forms have been negotiated in practice.

Practical skills: synthesise and critically evaluate book-length ethnographic arguments in the form of written and oral reports; compare and contrast diverse ethnographic materials and draw more general theoretical conclusions.

Transferable skills and personal qualities: creatively deploy a wide range of ethnographic and other sources in the writing of a substantial research paper; articulate general arguments based on the analysis and understanding of specific examples.

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching will consist of ten two-hour lecture periods and nine follow-up seminars.  The course will be supported by a dedicated Blackboard site.

Assessment methods

Seminar report 3 x 500 words - 10%
Book Review essay 1000 words - 20%
Final essay 3000 words - 70%

Feedback methods

Students will receive feedback on their assessed work.

Recommended reading

Dumit, J. (2012) Drugs for Life: How Pharmaceutical Companies Define Our Health, Durham N.C.: Duke University Press.

Edwards, J., P. Harvey & P. Wade (2007) Anthropology and science: epistemologies in practice, Oxford: Berg. 

Haraway, D. (2003).  The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Latour, B. (1987) Science in Action:  How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Mol, A. (2002).  The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Pratice.  Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Port, Mattijs van de. (2011).  Ecstatic Encounters: Bahian Candomble and the Quest for the Really Real.  Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Rabinow, P. (1996) Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Traweek, S. (1988) Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Tsing, A. (2005) Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 20
Seminars 9
Independent study hours
Independent study 171

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Penelope Harvey Unit coordinator

Additional notes



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