This course introduces the field of socio-cultural anthropology as a way to consider humanity in its numerous manifestations and in its intricate complexities. In trying to account for the social and cultural variation in the world, it explores alien and seemingly exotic practices in far-away places, and it re-considers our own everyday practices and ideas in the places we call home. The course thus helps transform ‘the strange’ into ‘the ordinary’, and ‘the ordinary’ into ‘the exotic’. In the process, students will gain a general, though comprehensive, introduction to the aims, scope, methods, and history of socio-cultural anthropology. During the term we explore three complementary avenues to the comparative study of human society and culture: ethnographic description and analysis of particular societies and cultures; the comparative study of social institutions; and different theoretical approaches involved in description, analysis and comparison.
Introduction to Socio-cultural Anthropology is divided into three main parts. In Part I, our aim is to introduce the discipline and some of its key concepts. What types of problems does socio-cultural anthropology address? What questions does it ask, and how do anthropologists attempt to answer them? Studying socio-cultural anthropology does more than just inform us about other societies and cultures. In considering the ways socio-cultural anthropology has approached its subject matter, that is, by looking at the societal context within which the discipline originated and developed, we are also able to reflect on our own society and its set of cultural assumptions. In this introductory part of the course, we begin outlining the history of socio-cultural anthropology and its transformation through time.
In Part II of the course we explore how the symbolic systems through which humans conceptualize the world and communicate with one another play a fundamental role in defining identity (who you are) and difference (who you are not). Both are ways of categorizing people in relation to others, thereby placing people in groups and collectivities of various kinds: families, kin groups, classes, ethnic groups, local communities, nation-states. By detailing how different cultures categorize people differently, this section of the course shows that the identities and differences we often consider natural are in fact a product of culture and society. The categorization of people is a process, a social and political act that is intricately bound up with the workings of social institutions and the distribution of power.
Finally, part III of the course offers a review of some of the central themes and sub-disciplines in the field of socio-cultural anthropology. First, we explore the field of economic anthropology. Here, we provide an overview of the anthropological study of production, consumption and distribution in various cultures. We then shift our attention to political anthropology by concentrating on one important issue in the anthropological study of politics, that is, the difference between centralized and stateless polities. Third, we consider some themes in the anthropology of religion and ritual. How have anthropologists studied religious ideas, reaction to misfortune, and ritual practice? Next, we shift toward anthropology in practice, a burgeoning sub-field often referred to as applied anthropology. In what ways do anthropologists promote change or particular outcomes in the societies within which they work? Finally, the course concludes with some final reflections on anthropology’s changing world.
The course utilizes a variety of anthropological texts. The textbook by Jack Eller acquaints students with the principal areas of anthropological inquiry. These topics are illustrated empirically through the reading of two main ethnographies. Margaret Mead’s classic account of adolescence in American Samoa considers the extent to which adolescence and sexual development are shaped by culture. Mead’s account touches upon central anthropological issues such as culture, kinship, gender, and the life-cycle. Second, an ethnography of a New York ghetto neighbourhood demonstrates the relevance of cultural anthropology in a contemporary post-industrial society. Philippe Bourgois portrays the lives of Puerto Rican crack dealers in East Harlem. He conveys the most intimate and hidden details of their lives: from crime and sexual violence, to close friendships and childhood dreams of glory and dignity. This focus on problems of the inner city gives insight into the consequences of polarized race, class and gender relations, the relationship between culture and economy, and between individual responsibilities and structural constraints. Finally, a number of journal articles and book chapters (available at various academic libraries and/or through Utrecht University's Omega online journal subscription) supplement the term’s main anthropological texts and illustrate other key issues in the study of culture and society.
- Teacher: John Friedman