Social Anthropology (British Tradition)

Henrika Kuklick

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online January 2012 | | DOI:
Social Anthropology (British Tradition)

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Social anthropology has been one of Great Britain’s most successful intellectual exports. E. B. Tylor (b. 1832–d. 1917), the first person appointed to teach anthropology in a British university (at Oxford in 1884) is generally credited with articulating, in 1871, the discipline’s most fundamental notion: the idea of culture—“that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Bronislaw Malinowski (b. 1884–d. 1942), born a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and an ethnic Pole, came to Britain to become an anthropologist at the London School of Economics (LSE) and subsequently taught there for nearly all of his career. He is generally credited with being the first to put into practice the discipline’s core method, intended to facilitate understanding of a people’s way of life—participant observation, requiring the researcher (often accompanied by a spouse) to spend a sustained period among a population and embrace its lifestyle. For most of its history, British anthropology has been situated on a web of international connections. Arguably, British anthropologists’ international influence peaked during the interwar period of functionalist ascent; then, students came from all over the world to study with Malinowski at the LSE, and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (b. 1884–d. 1955) became an agent for dissemination of British views as he taught, in turn, at the universities of Cape Town, Sydney, and Chicago, before becoming the foundational professor of social anthropology at Oxford in 1937. An era of intense parochialism set in during the 1950s and 1960s, however, when British anthropologists were particularly concerned to establish their differences from Americans. Heralded by the organization of the Association of Social Anthropologists in 1946 (originally an exclusive, eleven-member group, led by E. E. Evans Pritchard [b. 1902–d. 1973]), this was an era in which anthropologists were a relatively cohesive body and their research was truly paradigmatic, achieving resolution of such questions as why specific sectors of a population became migrant laborers, or why some social types were likely victims of witchcraft accusations. In the early 21st century, by contrast, many British social anthropologists find intellectual affinities with their North American colleagues—perhaps not least because British academe in general now employs many persons with ties of some sort to North America—while other British anthropologists emphasize their affinities with European practitioners. These are tokens of academic internationalism, not of local weakness.

Article.  8224 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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