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Department of Social Anthropology


Social Anthropology Front Entrance


Social Anthropology at Cambridge is a leading centre globally in anthropological teaching and research. Both in the UK and beyond, a large number of anthropologists teaching in major university departments received their doctoral training here, and the current faculty members are engaged in some of the most innovative frontline research in the human and social sciences today.

Cambridge anthropologists have always been at the forefront of developments in the discipline. The foundations of modern anthropology were laid by such Cambridge figures as Henry Maine, James Frazer, Alfred Haddon, and William Rivers. Through the middle decades of the twentieth century, as anthropology emerged as a coherent university discipline, it was Cambridge anthropologists such as Audrey Richards, Rio Fortune, Meyer Fortes and Edmund Leach who pioneered innovations in the study of kinship, political systems and religious practice and symbolism. Jack Goody and Alan Macfarlane developed influential syntheses of comparative anthropology and large-scale history in the 1970s. In the 1980s and 90s, Ernest Gellner continued these interests, and was a major pioneer in the study of nationalism, as resurgent nationalist and ethnic identity movements rose to prominence across the globe. Both Gellner and Caroline Humphrey also helped found the anthropological study of socialist and then later post-socialist societies. Marilyn Strathern’s writings on Melanesia and on English kinship helped reshape the discipline, with new approaches to knowledge, relationality, and ethnographic description. In recent years our research has grouped around five broad themes: Morality, Subjectivity, and Emotion, which takes up issues of self, personhood and ethics and explores them in relation to both subjectivity and social action; Political Life, Crisis, and Possibilities, which focuses on political praxis at a moment where the world is undergoing unprecedented crises on virtually every front: economic, ecological, and humanitarianEnvironment, Infrastructure, and Care, which looks at how humans live within the accelerating feedback loops of environment and infrastructure in the Anthropocene, and explores their shifting possibilities for care and wellbeingMateriality, Knowledge, and Media, which focuses on the materiality of signs and the semiotics of matter; and Economy, Work, and Social Reproduction which focuses on the unique insights that anthropological perspectives can generate about peoples’ engagements with economy.

We have a cosmopolitan body of teaching officers, each one at the forefront of his or her field. Their research ranges across the world and focuses on a broad range of topics. We are also fortunate to bring together an ever-changing group of extremely talented post-doctoral researchers, many of whom work on projects hosted in the Department, or hold research positions funded by research councils or at Cambridge colleges.

The Department of Social Anthropology is part of the Faculty of Human, Social and Political Science. It houses the University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit, a highly successful centre for research on Mongolia, Tibet and other parts of that region. We also work closely with the Centres of African, Development, Gender, Latin American, and South Asian Studies, and with colleagues in the Faculties of Divinity and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.

We maintain a strong tradition of broad-based undergraduate education, covering all the main core sub-disciplines in the subject. Our Undergraduate degree is part of the Tripos in Human, Social and Political Sciences (HSPS Tripos), an interdisciplinary programme that we run jointly with Politics and Sociology.  The Social Anthropology track, in this degree, allows students to gain a mastery of the discipline that provides a basis for proceeding directly to front-line doctoral research. We also offer joint-honours degrees in Social Anthropology with Politics, Sociology and, we offer a joint degree in Modern Religion combining papers taught in Social Anthropology (HSPS Tripos) and in the Faculty of Divinity (Theology, Religion and Philosophy of Religion Tripos). 

At graduate level, we offer three Master’s degrees, an MPhil in Social Anthropology, which can serve as a conversion course enabling graduates in another subject to gain a thorough grounding in anthropology; and the MPhil in Social Anthropological Research, which can serve as a preparation for doctoral research.  We also run the interdisciplinary MPhil in Health, Medicine and Society with the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Department of Sociology, which is designed to provide students with combined advanced skills in the social and historical analysis of health and medicine.  Our large and varied body of research students, studying for the MRes and PhD degrees, make us one of the most important centres of doctoral training in the subject. Cambridge social anthropology PhDs have gone on to teach at universities across the world, and to distinguished careers in a wide range of professions from the media to international development.

Our pre-eminence in our field has been recognised by excellent ratings in the last two Research Assessment Exercises and our teaching is rated Excellent by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).