Postgraduate Course: An Introduction to Anthropological Theory (PGSP11049)
|School||School of Social and Political Science
||College||College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
|Credit level (Normal year taken)||SCQF Level 11 (Postgraduate)
||Availability||Available to all students
|Summary||This course aims to provide an intensive introduction to some of the most important theoretical perspectives in social anthropology and to show the ways in which they have been used in explaining social and cultural processes among particular peoples. Using a number of fieldwork studies, both classic and more recent, it also focuses on the intimate link between theory and ethnography, and attempts to elucidate the distinctive character of social anthropology: the questions it asks and the answers it supplies.
a. Academic Description
This course is not designed to present a complete history of the various theoretical developments or debates within anthropology. Instead, organized around a contrast between anthropologists who place the emphasis on 'society' and anthropologists who stress the importance of 'culture', it aims to provide an intensive introduction to some of the most important theoretical perspectives and to show the ways in which they have been used in explaining social and cultural processes among particular peoples. Utilizing a number of fieldwork studies, both 'classic' and more recent, it also focuses on the intimate link between theory and ethnography, and attempts to elucidate the distinctive character of social anthropology - that is, the questions it asks and the answers it supplies.
b. Outline Content
1. Introduction: The shaping of a discipline
This session introduces students to two different but related questions: what is social anthropology? And, How did it come into being? While not intended as a comprehensive history of the discipline, we will be addressing major lines of development. We¿ll also be focusing on both continuities and discontinuities between the early practitioners of anthropology and its contemporary development.
2. Kinship and Exchange
Drawing from classic studies by Malinowski, Fortes, and Levi-Strauss, this lecture explores how the theoretical perspectives which have come to be known as functionalism and structuralism were closely tied to the study of both kinship and exchange. We also approach how and why the study of kinship remains absolutely central to anthropological theorizing.
3. Cultural Relativism
As anthropologists increasingly embraced fieldwork in the early 20th century, scholars such as Franz Boas conceptualized culture and history in ways that challenged earlier social evolutionary thinking. His formulation of cultural relativism became a founding principle of modern anthropology that, despite subsequent critiques, persists in anthropological theories. Starting with Boas political writing on race, we will explore the theoretical, methodological and ethical implications of cultural relativism.
4. Universalism and Human Rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948, led to increasing uncertainty about the place of culture in the modern world. While cultural relativism has remained one of the key tenets of anthropology, debates about human rights and ethics have in some cases construed cultural differences and relativist thinking as obstacles to achieving universal rights. Rather than viewing relativism and universalism as irreconcilable positions, we will explore the ways in which both of these conceptual frameworks coexist in the contemporary world.
5. Nature, Society, and the Human
For a discipline conceived around the idea of studying human society, it¿s somewhat surprising how late anthropology came to interrogate the category of the human itself. Early precursors focussed on the nature/culture dichotomy, but important ethnographic work took us forward to contemporary ethnographic concerns about the post-human
6. Religion and the Secular
This session explores both anthropological approaches to religion, and those approaches which see ¿religion¿ as either an illusory object or somehow doomed to a religious past. In particular, we take a look at some of the debates about the complex relations of modern secularism to religion
7. Time, History, Memory
Focusing on the cross-cultural variability of modes of engaging the past, this lecture discusses some of the debates generated in distinguishing between myth and history, and between history and memory. Is history something which is universal, or just one mode of engaging with time among many?
8. Globalization and Modernity
While traditionally anthropologists studied small and seemingly isolated societies, anthropologists today have much to say about wider processes of globalization around the world. This week we look at how anthropologists analyze processes that transcend the local and the global. We will also discuss how anthropologists have been critical of concepts such as globalization, modernity and tradition. Is globalization leading to the eradication of cultural differences? What does modernity mean? How do foreign cultural forms come to have local significance?
9. Decolonizing Anthropology
For decades anthropologists have recognized the colonial contexts from which ethnographic fieldwork and writing has traditionally emerged. Today, diverse calls to decolonize anthropology point to the social and economic inequalities that have characterized social research and academic institutions more broadly. How might anthropology today become a more engaged, collaborative endeavor - a force for positive change in the contemporary world? These questions point to both practical and theoretical concerns that are central to contemporary anthropology.
10. Conclusion: Contemporary Turns
Our final session brings us up to the present by looking at two approaches or ¿turns¿ which appear to be at the cutting edge of contemporary anthropological theory: the affective turn and the ontological turn. We will discuss how these approaches, and contemporary theory more generally, are both continuous and discontinuous with all that went before.
c. Student Learning Experience
The course consists of one two-hour session a week for the whole of the semester. These sessions involve a mixture of lectures (including possibly some 'guest-lectures'), class discussions, debates, and student presentations. Throughout the various sessions, students are encouraged to explore the relevance of anthropological theory by creating links with their own interests and the kind of questions that first brought them to anthropology.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
||Other requirements|| None
Information for Visiting Students
|High Demand Course?
Course Delivery Information
|Academic year 2023/24, Available to all students (SV1)
|Learning and Teaching activities (Further Info)
Lecture Hours 20,
Programme Level Learning and Teaching Hours 4,
Directed Learning and Independent Learning Hours
|Assessment (Further Info)
|Additional Information (Assessment)
||The course is assessed through a combination of a short essay (20%) and a long essay (80%).
||The course is assessed by a combination of a short essay (word-limit: 1,500) and a long essay (word-limit: 4,000). I set essay questions/topics but, when it comes to the long essay, students can design their own in consultation with me. The overall aim of the assessment and feedback is to allow them to develop their own ideas, demonstrate their ability to focus on pertinent issues and analyse relevant evidence in an integrated as well as critical manner. As the short essay carries only a weighting of 20% and it is submitted very early in the semester, it is used to provide formative assessment and feedback that can help students identify their strengths and weaknesses - beyond providing individual written feedback, as well as general verbal feedback in class, students will be encouraged to seek further individual feedback during one-to-one meetings with the lecturer. In the form of long essay plans and student presentations that focus on issues closely related to the long essay topics, there are more opportunities for feedback throughout the course. The long essay will be returned with written comments providing individual summative feedback for each student at the end of the course.
|No Exam Information
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
- show a clear understanding of the main anthropological theories and a critical appreciation of their place with social anthropology
- reflect on the application of a variety of ethnographic theories to different ethnographic problems
- engage with the kind of questions anthropologists ask and some of the answers they offer, students should have a clear understanding of the anthropological 'mode of thought'.
- appreciate the intrinsic connection between anthropological theory and the methodological challenges embedded in ethnographic enquiry.
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Carsten, Janet. 2007. Introduction in Ghosts of Memory: Essays on Remembrance and Relatedness. London: Wiley-Blackwell.
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Bessire, Lucas, and Bond, David. 2014. Ontological Anthropology and the Deferral of Critique. American Ethnologist, 41(3): 440-456.
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Laidlaw, James. 2012. Ontologically Challenged Anthropology of This Century, 4. www.aotcpress.com
|Graduate Attributes and Skills
|Course organiser||Dr Stefan Ecks
Tel: (0131 6)50 6969
|Course secretary||Mrs Beth Richardson-Mills
Tel: (0131 6)51 1659