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Prospective Undergraduates

Mother and child in The Gambia


Social anthropology draws on comparisons of past and present cultures to examine the principles of social life and development. The concerns of social anthropology include the full range, both historical and geographical, of human societies and cultures. Attention is paid not only to pre-industrial societies but also to the non-industrial sectors of more complex ones and to contemporary urban communities. Find out more information about social anthropology as a subject.


Studying Social Anthropology at Cambridge


Social Anthropology addresses the really big question – what does it mean to be human? – by taking as its subject matter the full range of human, social and cultural diversity: the amazingly varied ways that people live, think and relate to each other in every part of the world. What does this diversity tell us about the fundamental bases and possibilities of human, social and political life? Can it help us to comprehend the sheer unpredictability of how contemporary global changes manifest themselves in people’s lives across the world? So topics studied include love and intimacy in online worlds, how Amazonian communities respond to deforestation, how globalisation affects factory workers in India, how communities in the Arctic understand climate change; and how new media affect the workings of democracy in Africa.

Anthropologists study these questions by living with and participating in the lives of the peoples they study (‘fieldwork’) and writing in-depth accounts of their ways of life. If you do an anthropology degree, you will develop a profound appreciation of what all humans have in common as inhabitants of our complex and rapidly changing world, as well as how and why peoples and cultures differ.


What’s special about Social Anthropology at Cambridge?

The University of Cambridge was rated as the best in the world for Anthropology in the influential global rankings by QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) in 2018. The Department is also ranked first by the Complete University Guide and What Uni. We are a vibrant and friendly department, innovative and intellectually inspiring.

The teaching resources in Social Anthropology at Cambridge are unparalleled: the Haddon Library, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Social Anthropology’s own unique collection of ethnographic films. Being in the Faculty of Human, Social, and Political Science means there are opportunities to combine the study of Social Anthropology with Politics, International Relations, and Sociology, or borrow papers from Archaeology or Biological Anthropology.  We have strong links with centres for the study of Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and Mongolia and Inner Asia, as well as Development Studies.

Social Anthropology has been taught in Cambridge since 1900 and the University has been home to many of the most distinguished anthropologists in the history of the discipline. Today, we have a large and cosmopolitan body of teaching staff, each one at the forefront of their field. Their recent research includes: changes to intimate lives, love, and sexuality in Africa, India, and the UK; responses to climate change by communities in the Arctic, the Himalayas, and the central Asian steppe; citizenship and trade unionism in Latin America; biomedical ethics; youth aspiration and achievement in Southeast Asia; post-conflict reconstruction in Europe; transformations in socialist and post-socialist societies including Russia, China, Mongolia, and Vietnam; the inner workings of the European Union; new developments in Buddhism worldwide; and experiences of citizenship and democracy in Africa. Most undergraduates at Cambridge undertake research projects of their own, and write a dissertation based on the results, during their degree.


The structure of the course

Social Anthropology at Cambridge is located within the Human, Social and Political Sciences Tripos (also called “HSPS”).  HSPS is a general framework covering a broad family of social science subjects. From October 2017 the core subjects of the HSPS Tripos will be Social Anthropology, Politics and International Relations, and Sociology. Students interested in degree courses in Archaeology or Biological Anthropology should visit the pages about the new Archaeology Tripos.

The HSPS Tripos allows great flexibility for students who want to specialize in Social Anthropology, who may want to take an optional paper from another subject while studying Social Anthropology, or who want to combine Social Anthropology with either Politics or Sociology in their second and third years.  The great advantage of HSPS is that students start off with a broad inter-disciplinary base in the first year, and can either maintain that inter-disciplinarity (by combining subjects) or choose to specialise in one subject at the end of the first year.  The first year in the HSPS Tripos is known as “Part I”; years 2 and 3 are known as “Part IIA” and “Part IIB” respectively.

Year 1

In Part I, students choose Social Anthropology and three other subjects, at least two from among Politics, International Relations, and Sociology, and a fourth, which can be either another of those core HSPS subjects or alternatively an option from outside the Tripos, either Biological Anthropology, Archaeology, or Psychology. This enables everyone to try some new and unfamiliar approaches to the study of human, social and political life, before deciding how to specialise in the second and third years. A real strength of this course is its flexibility. It works well for students who think they will be interested in one or several of its subject options, but would like a chance to explore them first before they choose how to specialise. Equally, however, students who already have a strong interest in one subject can tailor the course to their interests from the start, while keeping other options open in case they wish to pursue them later.  The first year Social Anthropology paper focuses on questions of identity and difference, kinship, communities, nations and states; violence and forms of governance and the symbolic and the real.  It also includes lectures on anthropological theory, and ways of reading ethnographic film and visual media.  At the end of Part I, students can choose to specialize in Social Anthropology or combine Social Anthropology with either Politics or Sociology.

Year 2

Two core papers in Social Anthropology give a grounding in the fundamental subject areas of the discipline: the study of states and political processes, diverse and changing forms of economic production, exchange, and consumption, the cross-cultural study kinship, marriage, gender, and sexuality, and the anthropology of religion, myth, and ritual, as well as the study of anthropological theory and methods. Each student also chooses a third paper on an ethnographic region of the world (e.g. South Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America) to study in depth. In this year students also take a fourth optional paper either from within Social Anthropology or from one of the other subjects in the Faculty.  If you choose to combine Social Anthropology as a joint degree with Politics or Sociology, you will take two core papers from each subject.

Year 3

Year 3 (Part IIB) places students at the coalface of the most pressing debates and issues in the discipline today. Two core papers in Advanced Social Anthropology address cutting-edge questions in the fields of thought, belief and ethics, and political economy and social transformations. These papers put anthropological studies into direct dialogue with the latest research in fields as diverse as cognitive science, economics, moral and political philosophy, and social theory. In this year, students may choose two optional papers; either two from within Social Anthropology or one from within Social Anthropology and a second from the other related subjects. One of these optional papers may be substituted with a dissertation, based on your own fieldwork.

Optional papers include the anthropology of: city life, gender, colonialism, law, development, medicine and health, and media and visual culture; and also choices from other related subjects.

If you chose to combine Social Anthropology with Politics or Sociology for your second and third years, then at IIB you would choose two papers from amongst the specified Social Anthropology papers and two from the other subject.  One of these papers can include a dissertation in Social Anthropology.

Joint tracks

In the second and third years, we offer joint degrees with all the other subjects within HSPS, i.e. Social Anthropology and Sociology, Social Anthropology and Politics. 


The course is taught by academics of Social Anthropology.  You will have a series of lectures for each course and during the eight week Cambridge term, you might have around two lectures a week per course, and one or two seminars.  In addition, Cambridge also offers every student small group supervision in the Colleges.  Every undergraduate student reading Social Anthropology is attached to a college that serves as a home, and a place to study, learn and meet academics who are based at your college (“Fellows”) and students who are outside of your immediate academic discipline.  Additionally, your college will have a Director of Studies who will meet you regularly, get to know your academic interests, guide you throughout your time reading Social Anthropology and arrange supervisions for you on your different papers.  These supervisions are held regularly throughout term and consist of an essay on a topic that is part of your course of study.  Your supervisor will help you improve your understanding through detailed feedback on your essays and will provide continuous face-to-face opportunities for you to really develop your interests, to ask questions about the lectures you attend, to delve more deeply into aspects of the reading that interest you, and to develop your skills in both written and oral argument and debate.  The Haddon Library serves as a specialist library for all Social Anthropologists in Cambridge and students can also avail of their own college libraries as well as access to the University Library that is one of six copyright libraries in Britain.  In addition, we have access to the specialist and archival resources of the libraries of Mongolian and Inner Asian Studies, South Asian Studies, Latin American Studies and African Studies.  These provide invaluable opportunities for further reading and research.


Admissions and How to Apply

If you want to read Social Anthropology at Cambridge, you should apply for admission to HSPS.  We do not expect you to have a prior background in Social Anthropology to apply to read it at Cambridge. Typical offers for the course are A*AA at A Level, or 40–42 points out of 45 with 776 or 777 at Higher Level in the International Baccalaureate. Equivalent qualifications are also considered and you should contact your prospective College Admissions office to enquire about eligibility for other qualifications.

Admission to the Human, Social and Political Sciences Tripos is managed by the Colleges. Therefore, if you decide to apply for HSPS at Cambridge you will need to choose a College to consider your application (or decide on an open application).

More information on applying to the HSPS Tripos can be found on the HSPS website. Further information about applying to the University is available from the Undergraduate Study website.


Careers and Opportunities

Whatever route you choose through HSPS, you’ll graduate from Cambridge having specialised in one or two subjects but will also have the advantage of a broad background across the human, social, and political sciences, reflecting the inter-disciplinary world in which we live.  Employers recognise the strengths of the Cambridge degree because it teaches you how to learn, it trains you to think independently and creatively and it requires you to base your observations and analyses on sound argument and evidence. The broad-based knowledge of how societies and cultures work and the informed appreciation of cultural diversity which the study of Social Anthropology provides, together with the transferable skills developed in a rigorous and challenging degree course, mean that our graduates have a wide range of career options open to them.  A majority stay in academia, largely within anthropology or closely related social sciences. Others go on to work in NGOs, international organisations and development work, policy analysis and advocacy, arts and the media, law, finance, consultancy, industry, politics, and the Civil Service, and museum curatorship.  A degree in Social Anthropology is an excellent way to prepare yourself for a wide range of possibilities in professional and artistic careers.