Anthropology: Theory and Ethnography

This information is for the 2021/22 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Mathijs Pelkmans OLD 5.08 and Prof Laura Bear OLD 6.07


This course is compulsory on the MSc in Social Anthropology. This course is available on the MA in Modern History, 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 aim of this course is to examine the relationship between theory and ethnography in social and cultural anthropology in the context of colonial and post-colonial history.

During the Michaelmas term the course focuses on the development of anthropology before circa 1980 in the British, French and American schools. It will explore anthropological epistemology or the discipline’s forms and methods of knowledge production. Rather than outlining theoretical schools and their demise, it will explore the creation of key concepts that are the foundations for current debates. The course moves through time with a geneaological method or by tracing the ‘birth’ of concepts that shape the present and future of our discipline. It will also bring from the margins forgotten ancestors and their hetereodox ideas, which are not usually part of the canon. The emergence of key concepts will be linked to intellectual projects, fieldwork encounters and historical events. The unique quality of anthropology is that it is a qualitative social science committed to a ‘radical empiricism’ (Jackson) or ‘realism’ (Herzfeld) (unlike economics or sociology for example). In other words its concepts are driven primarily from dissonant encounters with the social and cultural world ‘at home’ and in ‘the field.’ Some of the key concepts we will explore will be: participant observation and evidence; culture and race; postcoloniality; relativism and surrealism; totemism and animism; magic, art and science, ritual; inequality; personhood, agency and ethics; kinship and gender. 

The second term covers topics which may include structuralism; practice theory; interpretive anthropology; postmodernism, affect theory 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.

This year, some or all of this teaching will be delivered through a combination of virtual lectures, classes and online interactive activities. The contact hours listed above are the minimum expected. 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.

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2021/22 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the differing needs of students in attendance on campus and those who might be studying online. For example, this may involve changes to the mode of teaching delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: Anthropology

Total students 2020/21: 63

Average class size 2020/21: 13

Controlled access 2020/21: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

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