Anthropology: Theory and Ethnography

This information is for the 2018/19 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Mathijs Pelkmans OLD 5.08 and Prof Deborah James OLD 6.06


This course is compulsory on the MSc in Social Anthropology and MSc in Social Anthropology (Learning and Cognition). This course is available on the MSc in Anthropology and Development, MSc in Anthropology and Development Management, MSc in China in Comparative Perspective, MSc in Law, Anthropology and Society and MSc in Social Anthropology (Religion in the Contemporary World). This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Course content

The main aim of this course is to examine the relationship between theory and ethnography in modern social and cultural anthropology; the course focuses mainly on the development of anthropology before circa 1980 during the MT, and after that date during the LT. The course starts with a mapping of the geneaologies of British, French and American Anthropology. Tracing the origins of anthropology in social theory (Durkheim, Marx, and Weber) and, linguistic analysis (Boas, Saussure). It covers topics such as the origin of the concept of the social sciences as a distinct branch of knowledge, and  key concepts and themes (for instance,  'kinship,' 'religion,' 'politics,' 'economy' or 'capitalism'). It also explores specific schools of thought such as functionalism/structural functionalism; methodological individualism; conflict and the critique of functionalism; class consciousness and ideology, ethnic group and social stratification; and the 'elective affinities' between cultural predispositions and economic action. It locates these in the historical experiences and debates of the time. The significance of foundational concepts  for an understanding of current anthropology and key stages in its development  is also a focus of the course. The second term covers topics which may include structuralism; practice theory; interpretive anthropology; postmodernism, affect and actor network theory. The precise emphasis and distribution of topics may vary from year to year. 


10 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the MT. 10 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the LT. 2 hours of workshops in the ST.

The course has a reading week in Week 6 of MT and LT.

Formative coursework

Formative coursework consists of participation in weekly seminars, and the opportunity to discuss one formative essay in each of the MT and LT with the course convener or the student's academic mentor, as per normal departmental arrangements.

Indicative reading

A. Callinicos, 2007, Social Theory; a historical introduction; A Kuper, 2005, The Reinvention of Primitive Society: transformations of a myth; H L Moore and T Sanders (eds.), 2006, Anthropology in Theory: Issues in Epistemology; D McLellan, 1977, Karl Marx: Selected Writings; A. Giddens, 1971, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory; A. W Runciman, 1978, Weber: Selections in Translation; S Lukes, 1973, Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work; B Malinowski, 1922, Argonauts of the Western Pacific; EE Evans-Pritchard, 1971, Nuer Religion; E Leach, 1954, Political Systems of Highland Burma; M Gluckman, 1958, Analysis of a Social Situation in Modern Zululand; M Bloch, 1983, Marxism and Anthropology; C Lévi-Strauss, 1966, The Savage Mind; M Sahlins, 2000, Culture in Practice; P Bourdieu, 1972, Outline of a Theory of Practice; C Geertz, 1973, The Interpretation of Cultures; B. Latour. 2005. Reassembling the Social; H.Moore, 2011, Still Life: hopes, desires, and satisfactions; Y. Navaro-Yashin. 2012. The Make-Believe Space: Affective Geography in a Postwar Polity. Detailed reading lists are provided at the beginning of the course.


Exam (100%, duration: 3 hours) in the summer exam period.

Key facts

Department: Anthropology

Total students 2017/18: 52

Average class size 2017/18: 13

Controlled access 2017/18: No

Lecture capture used 2017/18: Yes (MT & LT)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills