Scope of Social Anthropology

Scope of Social Anthropology

According to Evans–Pritchard (1966), social anthropology includes the study of all human cultures and society. In basic, it tries to find out the structure of human society.

Social anthropology considers every human society as an organised whole. Customs, beliefs whole pattern of working, living, marrying, worshipping, political organisation – all these differ from society to society. As the structure and the idea working behind it are different, societies also vary a lot. Social anthropology first tries to find out these differences and then tries to establish the similarities as well. As we can see different cultures and societies, we also see similarity among these different cultures and societies. So, anthropologists study these differences as well as the similarities.

Basically, the study revolves around the social structure. We can take up the example of studying religion. People in different parts of the world practice different religions. Every religion has different rituals to perform and people perform these rituals according to their own religious roles. The common thing among these different religions is the matter of social anthropology.

Evans-Pritchard, by comparing social anthropology with Sociology, states that Social anthropology has primitive society as its subject matter. In other words, it is concerned with the study of the primitives, indigenous people, hills and forest people, scheduled tribes and other such groups of people. Fieldwork is another integral part of social anthropology. Data in social anthropology are collected from the field. Thus, social anthropology can be defined in respect of two broad field of study –

(1) Primitive Society

(2) Fieldwork.

John Beattie (1964) advocated that social anthropologists should study other cultures. This makes Anthropology a comparative discipline of the study of social institutions. Thomas Hylland Eriksen (1995) supports the study of small places in social anthropology. Eriksen says that social anthropology does not remain restricted to primitive people; it studies any social system and the qualification of such a social system is that it is of a small scale, non-industrial kind of society. According to Eriksen, social anthropology studies:

1) Small scale society
2) Non-industrial society
3) Small and larger issues of the society.

its matter of study– the primitive society. Morgan postulated Evolutionary theory and propounded the study of evolution in human society. According to him human society has come across three basic stages – savagery, barbarism and civilisation. With such evolutionary approach social anthropologists started examining human society in the light of evolution. The theoretical framework of structural – functionalism became a popular approach in Britain. The British anthropologists using the term Social anthropology have emphasised on the concept of society, which is aggregate of individuals who live in face to face association and share same common sentiments.

Different social interrelationships and interactions are their object of study. Functionalism propounded the functional study of social institutions. On the other hand, American anthropologists preferring the term Cultural anthropology have concentrated on the concept of culture which is the sum total of human behaviour, verbal or non-verbal, and their products- material or non-material. Cultural anthropologists try to analyse each and every intervention and interrelationship by judging the value behind it.

The term civilisation was known to Anthropologists since the postulation of evolutionary theory, but it was the pioneering work of Robert Redfield, who brought a movement in the history of development of social anthropology by introducing the study of civilisation. He made study of folk villages and urban centers and attempted to understand the patterns and processes of interception between them. Thus, he developed the concept of folk society, urban society and folk–urban continuum.

Since then the study of village as a unit of rural civilisation and town as a center for urban civilisation came into existence. Thus, Anthropology is not the study of primitive people only. The subject matter of social anthropology covers a vast area. It studies tribal society as well as urban society. It studies change as well. No culture and society regardless of circumstances, is beyond change. Isolated / primitive societies also change over time. Sometimes with due pressure of circumstances also society does not change. It follows strictly a traditional path, constantly trying to keep alive the tradition. Social anthropology studies why or why not society/ culture changes.

But, change is must, whether it is a remote and isolated village or industrialised city, everywhere people experience a variety of changes in their pattern of living, which is manifested with the passage of time.

The life of man has several dimensions and the attempts to study each one in detail has resulted in the origin and growth of several sub-branches from the elementary branch of Social anthropology such as Economic anthropology, Political anthropology, Psychological anthropology, Anthropology of Religion and so on and so forth. Many new sub-branches are also coming up like – Communication and Visual anthropology, with the new demands of society. Social anthropology has to accommodate all the new changes in human society to maintain the relevance of its study. Thus, new areas would expand its field.