A brief overview of social anthropology and the study of other cultures. Please see www.alanmacfarlane.com for the context and further films.
Practitioners of social anthropology investigate, often through long term, intensive field studies (including participant observation methods), the social organization of a particular people: customs, economic and political organization, law and conflict resolution, patterns of consumption and exchange, kinship and family structure, gender relations, childrearing and socialization, religion, and so on.Social anthropology also explores the role of meanings, ambiguities and contradictions of social life, patterns of sociality, violence and conflict, and the underlying logics of social behaviour. Social anthropologists are trained in the interpretation of narrative, ritual and symbolic behaviour not merely as text, but with communication examined in relation to action, practice, and the historical context in which it is embedded. Social anthropologists address the diversity of positions and perspectives to be found within any social group.Social anthropology is distinguished from subjects such as economics or political science by its holistic range and the attention it gives to the diversity of culture and society across the world, and the capacity this gives the discipline to re-examine Euro-American assumptions. It is differentiated from sociology both in its main methods (based on long-term participant observation and linguistic competence), its commitment to the relevance and illumination provided by micro studies, and its extension beyond strictly social phenomena to culture, art, individuality, and cognition. While some social anthropologists use quantitative methods (particularly those whose research touches on topics such as local economies, demography, or health and illness), social anthropologists generally emphasize qualitative analysis of long-term fieldwork, rather than the more quantitative methods used by most economists or sociologists.Specialisations within social anthropology shift as its objects of study are transformed and as new intellectual paradigms appear; ethnomusicology and medical anthropology afford examples of current, well-defined specialisms.More recent and currently emergent areas within social anthropology include the relation between cultural diversity and new findings in cognitive development; social and ethical understandings of novel technologies; emergent forms of 'the family' and other new socialities modeled on kinship; the ongoing social fall-out of the demise of state socialism; the politics of resurgent religiosity; analysis of audit cultures and accountability.The subject has been enlivened by, and has contributed to, approaches from other disciplines, such as philosophy (ethics, phenomenology, logic), the history of science, psychoanalysis, and linguistics.The subject has both ethical and reflexive dimensions. Practitioners have developed an awareness of the sense in which scholars create their objects of study and the ways in which anthropologists themselves may contribute to processes of change in the societies they study.