copyright Donald Judge

‘Social’ and ‘cultural’ anthropology overlap to a considerable extent. There is no hard-and-fast distinction between them, although there are differences of emphasis. Very broadly, the term ‘cultural anthropology’ relates to an approach – particularly prominent in the US and associated with the work of pioneers such as Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict – which stresses the coherence of cultures, including their rules of behaviour, language, material creations and ideas about the world – and the need to understand each in its own terms. ‘Social anthropology’ on the other hand has mainly developed within Britain since the early years of the 20th century. Historically, it has been heavily influenced by intellectual traditions coming from continental Europe, especially from France. Its tendency is to emphasise social institutions and their interrelationships. It has gone through many theoretical shifts over the past hundred years, but its emphasis, like that of cultural anthropology, is still on what has been called the ‘deep structure’ of social relations in a particular society: the organising principles of social life that may govern individual behaviour but may also, under some circumstances, be challenged and break down. Here, we will refer to ‘social anthropology’ to include both.

Social anthropologists conduct their research in many ways, but the method most characteristic of the discipline is that of fieldwork based on ‘participant observation’. This usually means spending a long period (a year or more) living as closely as possible with the community being studied; learning the language if necessary; sharing the activities of daily life; observing and participating in the texture of social interactions; and identifying underlying patterns. Through analysing this experience and exchanging ideas with members of the community, the anthropologist aims to gain a deep understanding of how the society works, including its inherent tensions and contradictions. Social anthropologists usually report their research in the form of ‘ethnographies’, which are detailed descriptions of the society in question, shaped and informed by the research questions the anthropologist has posed. Frequently, these questions change in the course of fieldwork, as growing knowledge reveals ever-deeper issues calling for investigation. With this deep knowledge of very local situations as their grounding, it is often possible for social anthropologists to make comparisons across societies, and draw out broader hypotheses about human life in society.

Many people think that social anthropologists exclusively study small-scale societies in ‘remote’ places. Many classic studies are indeed of this kind, and social anthropologists continue to carry out research in communities far from metropolitan centres. But it has been recognised for many years that the interactions between global patterns and local communities have complex effects that lend themselves to anthropological study; and also that the methods of anthropological enquiry are readily applied to sectors and components of industrial and post-industrial societies. Nowadays, social anthropologists are as likely to be found carrying out research in businesses, educational establishments, hospitals or public-sector bureaucracies, as in the more traditional ‘remote places’. The relationship between the social anthropologist and those he or she studies has also changed radically in recent years, moving from one of privileged observer to the ‘other’ being observed, towards something closer to a dialogue between equals.

Text written by: Hilary Callan


Recommended Resources


The following film was produced by filmmaker Ed Owles (shot at the London Anthropology Day 2007).  For more of the RAI's Educational films visit our YouTube Channel.


The following two films are distributed by the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI). The RAI has an extensive list of ethnographic films for hire and sale. For more information visit the RAI Film website.



Director: Rosella Schillaci
Release: 2011
Length: 75 mins
Location: Italy
Language: English, Italian (English sub)
Ethnic group: Somali and Sudanese refugees

What happens to African migrants once granted political refugee status? In Turin, a northern Italian city, an abandoned clinic has been squatted by more than 200 refugees since December 2008. Khaled, Shukri and Ali have been travelling through hell in order to arrive in Italy. They crossed the border and are determined to have a normal life. Their hopes are dashed and they find their lives ‘suspended’. The film follows their stories over the years, showing life in the clinic, including the inevitable internal problems until the evacuation of the former clinic. Three characters guide us through a story that reveals, intimately, a collective  history, an emblematic tale of all European countries today and their respective immigration policies and the changes occurring in the social fabric of European cities.




Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction
Monaghan, J. and Just, P.  (Oxford Paperbacks, 2000)

An Introduction to Social Anthropology: Sharing Our Worlds, 2nd Edition
Hendry, J. (Palgrave Macmillan; 2008)

Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition
Eriksen, H.T. (Pluto Press, 2001)

General - AcademicInfo is an online education resource center, with a multitude of links devoted to the furtherance of social anthropology.


Undergraduate and Postgraduate Programmes in the UK

See the UCAS website and the London Anthropology Day website. 

Professional Organisations, Groups, and Associations

The American Anthropological Association – the world’s largest association of individuals interested in the advancement of anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research

Association of Social Anthropology in U.K. and Commonwealth - The ASA was founded in 1946 to promote the study and teaching of social anthropology, to present the interests of social anthropology and to maintain its professional status. Its aim is to assist in any way possible in planning research, to collate and publish information on social anthropology and to function as a register of social anthropologists.

European Association of Social Anthropologists - The Association seeks to advance anthropology in Europe by organizing biennial conferences and by editing its academic journal, Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale.

Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology - The main theme of the Institute’s research programme can thus be summarised as the comparative analysis of contemporary social transformation, which also characterises the Institute’s contributions to anthropological theory building.

The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (RAI) - is the world's longest-established scholarly association dedicated to the furtherance of anthropology (the study of humankind) in its broadest and most inclusive sense.


Disclaimer: The above information is provided for information and guidance only. It should not be interpreted as endorsement or otherwise by the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) for any external institution listed.  Furthermore, the RAI accepts no responsibility for material created by external parties or the content of external websites.