What is Sociocultural Anthropology

What is Sociocultural Anthropology? An Introduction

We can understand the discipline better when assessing the two branches of study that form it. On one hand, cultural anthropology is applied to learn about ethnographic records that give a holistic view about how culture influences an individual’s experience. It also aims to provide a well-rounded perspective of a society’s customs and knowledge.

On the other hand, researchers apply social anthropology to study ethnographic records and isolate details that refer to social relationships in political, economic and domestic spheres. This field of study also prioritizes how social life is organized, and considers cultural phenomena to be secondary compared to issues of social scientific inquiry.

Although the combined study of sociocultural anthropology includes aspects of the linguistic branch, it focuses on how there are differences and similarities between human populations.

History of Sociocultural Anthropology as a Discipline

Along with Europe’s expansion of its colonial empires, the discipline arose concomitantly and its component i.e. practices and theories have gone through reformulation and questioning because of decolonization. The re-emergence of these issues as a transnational process is shifting the centrality of the nation-state to theories about power and culture.

Some of the questions that the discipline sets out to answer, such as those about cultural processes and theorizing what can be regarded as human nature, fall outside the lines of anthropology. However, most historical relevancy that involves looking at anthropological discoveries from a social and cultural perspective, began after researchers made biological and objective distinctions about artifacts.

Its historical roots trace it back to the 19th centurywhen it was part of a variety of different disciplines like folklore studies and ethnology. The work of James George Frazer and Edward Burnett Tylor is the discipline’s precursor and during the period from the late 19th century to early 20th century, it underwent substantial changes. These were relative to both theories and methods; there was more emphasis on long-termstudies in natural environments, original fieldwork, andholistic studies.

Bronislaw Malinowski was a crucial figure because of his influence on British social anthropology. He highlighted the importance of researchers immersing themselves in the local practices and working to observe new rituals.

Social Anthropology Around the World

In the UK, parts of Europe and the Commonwealth, social anthropology is regarded as a dominant constituent of anthropology. This applies most especially to France, where it is distinguished from the cultural branch of anthropology.

Social anthropology views culture and continuity as a dependent variable that’s incorporated in different social and historical contexts, rather than an independent variable. In comparison to cultural anthropology, this dependent variable includes a vast diversity of perspective, positions, and contradictions of social lives.

Famous Thinkers and Their Work on Sociocultural Anthropology

Mary Douglas

Born in 1921, Mary Douglas specialized in social anthropologyand was a popular anthropologist because of her writings on topics like human symbolism and culture. She used the approach of structuralism for analyses and made a huge contribution with books like ‘Purity and Danger’. Her analysis of social concepts like ritual pollution and purity from different times offers is thought to be a crucial text in the field.

Her second book was ‘The Lele of the Kasai’ and it comprises her writings on the anthropological fieldwork she did whilst among the Lele people, who lived near the Kasai River, which would fall in the south-western part of Belgian Congo. Her book goes into detail about the Lele people’s religious, social and economic lives.

She also introduced the group-grid pattern in her book ‘Natural Symbols’, which was later redefined in the study of cultural theory.  

Raymond Firth

The New Zealand-based ethnologist was born in 1901 and it was because of Raymond Firth’s work that real societal behavior was set apart from ideals and rules of how behavior was supposed to be in society.

He served as a professor at the London School of Economics after he succeeded Bronislaw Malinowski in the Anthropology department.  He completed fieldwork in parts of Malaya like Terengganu and Kelantan and developed a form of British Economic anthropology.

Claude Levi-Strauss

Born in 1908, the French ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote work that was crucial to developing theories of structural anthropology. Considered to be the father of modern anthropology, he had an argument that civilized minds have the same structure as what people referred to as a ‘savage’ mind.

Levi-Strauss argued that human characteristics are similar everywhere, and compiled his observations in ‘Tristes Tropiques’. He applied the structuralist school of thought to the concepts of myths and found a paradox; while mythical stories are quite unpredictable in nature, their contents are similar throughout different cultures and religions. He proposed that there are certain universal lawsthat govern mythical stories and thought, which produces myths in different cultures that sound the same.  

Ernest Gellner

A British Social anthropologist, Ernest Gellner was born in 1925 and was an important figure in the field of anthropology, as well as philosophy. He analyzedkinship patterns to write conceptual criticism and wrote frameworks to understand the political situation outside tribal areas of Morocco.

Audrey Richards

Born in 1899, Audrey Richards worked as a social anthropologist and conducted most of her fieldworkin parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In 1930, she went to Zambia and took up fieldwork until 1934 and again in 1957, when she mostly observed the people Bemba.

Around 1940, she went to South Africa in the region of Transvaal and from 1950 to 1955 she worked in Uganda. Even after returning to England, she continued an ethnographic study of the people living in Elmdon, a small village in Essex. Her calculated and careful studies of everyday life set a standard in the research fieldand brought focus to interdisciplinary work.

Research Methods Employed in Sociocultural Anthropology

Sociocultural anthropology focuses more on behavior, meaning, and organization, which creates the need for a different type of research method. In addition, the same techniques are used in different settings, whether it’s contemporary or not.

Participant Observation

A crucial method of research in the field of sociocultural anthropology, participant observation involves the ethnologist becoming a part of the society and observing the behavior that members display. Thisgives them an insider’s view into how the locals deal with problems and what kind of kinship patterns they follow.

However, to avoid ethnocentrism, researchers will have to explicitly compare it with a number of other different cultures at different times. Aside from adding their observations to an ethnographic record, sociocultural anthropologists also need to interpret behaviors and come up with a theory as to why locals respond to certain events in a specific way.

This method is used tolearnmore about a group of people who are closed off an inaccessible unless the researcher approaches them physically. With participant observation, it’s crucial that the researcher conducts observation over a long period of time so as maintain validity. Despitethe high degrees of validity, there are issues with regard to objectivity.


This quantitative method of research is preferred for groups of people who can be easily accessed through mail, telephone or the internet. It is most commonly employed in contemporary settings; companies and brands use it as a way to learn more about their audience and what they prefer.

 It involves asking people about their experiences and relying on the information they provide, rather than experiencing it for oneself. Although this information will be more reliable i.e. no matter how many times the researcher conducts the survey, they’ll get the same results over and over again, it won’t be completely valid; people can give false information, or lie about their experience. It’s far more objective, but it would require the researcher to get a well-representative sample.

Areas of Focus

Mainly, sociocultural anthropologists are concerned with the versatility ofdifferent populations, which leads researchers to turn towards cultural relativism. It’s founded on the notion that the way people adapt to their environments is what helps in creating a culture over time. In this discipline, relativism is the concept of giving value to all cultures. This contrasts with ideas of sociocultural evolution. Sociocultural evolution is based on the idea that all societies are on a certain stage in the evolution timeline and this is determined based on this culture. Despite the different contradictions in the discipline, there are some main areas of focus.


For starters,sociocultural anthropology is invested in learning about ancient and historic kinship patterns that allowed humans to stay together and ultimately develop families. There is a majorfocus on studying the ways in which humans create relationships with one another, and how they function within a social organization.

Kinship studies themselves fall outside the lines of sociocultural anthropology and into the subfields of public, feminist and structural anthropology. As explained by Patrick McConvell, this is because of kinship’s fundamental aspects; kinship forms the basis of every human society as we recognize people who are closest to us in the form of parents, siblings, spouses, andmany other complex relationships.

Kinship studies are mainly concerned with topics relating to marriage, procreation, anddescent. Researchers have written numerous records and texts about the variety of martial practices practiced in other cultures. Anthropologists have uncovered stark differences between practices, but there is much more fieldwork required.

Social Institutions

Aside from family and kinship patterns, sociocultural anthropology also looks into different institutions that came more recently. This includes religious, political and government institutions, which had an influence on the individuals who would choose to become part of them. In this area, researchers look at the relationship between the individual and the institution, or the institution and the environment.


Another area that sociocultural anthropologists look into is where our values come from. Humanistic traits that we like to call as values have been passed down from generations agowhen they were regarded as a crucial quality. Nowadays, we recognize traits, positive aspects, andvalues such as honesty, leadership, and selflessness to be heavily praised.

However, each ancient culture had its own set of values that they developed as a means ofsurviving in a particular environment. This would explain why certain cultures emphasize bravery and courage, while others rely on wit and intuition.

Careers in Sociocultural Anthropology

Sociocultural anthropology is a fascinating subject to study and a degree can definitely get you accepted to a number of positions in different career fields. From a professorship to a curatorship in a museum, there are a lotof positions suitable for someone who has a major in sociocultural anthropology.

Academic Field

In the academic field, you can actually teach a range of students about subjects like history, and even anthropology itself. You can work as an assistant professor before applying for the position of professor. With a background in sociocultural anthropology and psychology, you can get a job as a student counselor too.

Museum and Libraries

Working at a museum can be very interesting since you get to look at artifacts and relics firsthand. You can apply for a curatorship but you’ll need to have knowledge about other fields and branches of anthropology as well.  There are administrative positions, and you can work as an exhibit organizer as well. In public and university libraries, you can get a position as an archivist, or even an interpreter to explain historical texts.

Research Departments

If you’re specialized in non-natural science research methods, you can be a valuable asset to research departments in various fields. You can conduct fieldwork to observe communities or take surveys for tech companies as part of a research organization.

Sociocultural anthropology has a lot to offer; not only does it develop research methods to learn about social groups and settings but it also provides critical information about how human behavior has changed over centuries. Although sociocultural anthropology is more concerned with societies and cultures of today than ages ago, it’s possible that new findings will help researchers discover about our ancestors’ cultures and societies.

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