Social and Cultural Anthropology

What is Social and Cultural Anthropology?

Have you ever wondered:

  • What it would be like to live in the Amazon rainforest, gathering manioc and hunting game for your food?
  • Why some people in Canada live in mansions while others in Canada and abroad live in shacks with no running water?
  • Why there are so many wars around the world? Why does religion or ethnicity lead to such violence?
  • What various cultural customs and rituals mean and where they came from? Why do North Americans have jack o'lanterns? What is the Japanese tea ceremony?

Social and cultural anthropologists investigate the specific and universal aspects of societies and cultures of people living around the world. Culture is what makes each group of people different from other groups. Social anthropologists want to know what these cultural differences are, why they occur and what they mean. In the past, anthropologists tended to study people from small scale societies, for example, the Yanomamö in the rainforests of Brazil or the Inuit in the Canadian north. Today, anthropologists still work with these people, although the focus of their research has expanded to included the relationship between people from indigenous cultures and global economic and political systems. Furthermore, anthropologists now study large-scale, pluralistic societies including those of North America and Europe.

Social and cultural anthropologists seek a rich and intimate understanding of specific cultures through ethnographic research, that is, by living with and sharing the lives of the people they study. Whether we are researching street people in Canada's large cities, or rice farmers in a village in Bangladesh, we get to know real people and let them tell us and show us what their lives are like and how they see the world. The answers to the questions posed above are long and complicated, like anthropological fieldwork itself. To investigate these questions, anthropologists spend months or years living in a society, watching what goes on and participating, to the extent possible, in local life. Participation is not always easy--do you know how to gather manioc and leach its poison so that it is edible? The rewards of learning how to do this--not getting poisoned by bitter manioc, as well as getting to know new people and their culture--are enormous.

Even beginning to learn a culture's intricate pattern of knowledge takes time. Anthropology's holistic perspective helps fieldworkers understanding this pattern. Holism means that an anthropologist looks at the entire context of a society when analyzing any specific feature. For example, to understand the Japanese tea ceremony, anthropologists might investigate Japanese religion, aesthetics and history, as well as the economy, social relations and the politics of gender. Their colleagues studying medical practices in Japan might find the tea ceremony interesting as an alternative therapy used by people who also rely on hospital-based physicians.

While, the holistic approach permits anthropologists to develop a complex understanding of entire societies, anthropology also adds another dimension of analysis through cross-cultural comparison. When examining any particular society, the anthropologist is interested in seeing how that society is similar to or differs from others. This perspective allows anthropologists to open their eyes to what may seem "obvious" or "natural" in the cultural world in which they are immersed. For example, an anthropologist studying Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Rwanda will understand this experience and its theoretical implications more fully by comparing it to the Serb-Croat-Albanian conflict in the former Yugoslavia and to other cases of nationalism which have not led to mass violence, such as the situation of nationalism and separatism in Quebec Click on the links below to find out more about social and cultural anthropology.

Social anthropologists at StFX: Mikael Haller, Susan Vincent, L. Jane McMillan, Clare Fawcett