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What is Social Anthropology?

Jukwa market, Ghana

Social anthropology is the study of all peoples everywhere – what they make, what they do, what they think and how they organise their social relationships and societies.

By living with people in different cultures and learning to talk and behave like them (‘fieldwork’), social anthropologists produce in-depth descriptions of their customs and ways of life (‘ethnographies’). They also compare different cultures and societies to explore their similarities and differences, to test the generalisations of historians, social scientists and philosophers, and to produce theories of how best to study and understand human nature.

Historians, sociologists, psychologists and philosophers have all drawn inspiration from anthropological writings. The subject has had a major impact on the way we deal with cultural and political issues in the contemporary world.


Find out more

If you’re interested in finding out more about Social Anthropology, we recommend the following as introductory reading.

General texts

  • Rita Astuti, Jonathan P Parry, and Charles Stafford (eds) (2007) Questions of Anthropology, Oxford University Press.
  • Thomas Hylland Eriksen (2015) Small Places, Large Issues, Pluto Press.
  • Michael Carrithers (1992) Why Humans Have Cultures: Explaining Anthropology and Social Diversity, Oxford University Press.
  • Ruth Benedict (1993) Patterns of Culture, Routledge and Kegan Paul.


  • Abu-Lughod, Lila (2000) Veiled sentiments: honor and poetry in a Bedouin society, University of California Press
  • Sharon E. Hutchinson (1996) Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, War, and the State, University of California Press.
  • Adam Ashforth (2005), Madumo: A Man Bewitched, David Philip.
  • Gayatri Reddy (2008), With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India, Yoda Press.
  • Karen Ho (2009), Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, Duke University Press Books.
  • Tom Boellstorff (2015) Coming of Age in Second Life, Princeton University Press

See also