While anthropologists in the United States developed cultural anthropology, the British developed social anthropology. In the present, despite the fact that social anthropology departments still exist in Great Britain and in other parts of the world, social anthropology existed as a distinct discipline only from the early 1920s to the early 1970s. Historically, social anthropologists rejected evolutionary anthropology as speculative rather than scientific and tended to study a society at a particular moment in time. Social anthropologists focused on social organization, particularly on kinship. Until recently, they did not deal with history and psychology as much as cultural anthropologists did.
Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) were the two main figures to develop social anthropology. Malinowski developed the functionalist approach, and Radcliffe-Brown developed structural functionalism. Influenced by French sociological thought, social anthropologists looked at social institutions. In particular, Emile Durkheim’s (1858-1917) organic view of society influenced social anthropology. This approach described society as an organism, in which the different parts of the society work to maintain the society. This led to a holistic approach, which said that you could not look at any institution in society in isolation from any other institution. Social anthropology took hold in the British Empire. It also developed as a specialized discipline in parts of the United States, particularly at the University of Chicago.
Malinowski developed the method of social anthropology, ethnography, during World War I, when he did intensive field research in the Trobriand Islands of Melanesia for 2 years. Intensive fieldwork, where the anthropologist lives among an exotic people, became a hallmark of social anthropology. Malinowski’s functionalism focused on human biological and social needs, ideas that followed those of W. H. R. Rivers (1864-1922). He said that people had primary needs for sex, shelter, and nutrition and that people produced culture to satisfy these needs and other needs that resulted from these primary needs. While his theory has lost popularity, his fieldwork method has become standard in anthropology. Malinowski wrote many books based on his fieldwork, the most famous of which is Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922). Early works based on Malinowski’s approach included Raymond Firth’s We the Tikopia (1936) and Reo Fortune’s Sorcerer’s of Dobu (1937). Later scholars criticized such ethnographies because the better they explained a particular aspect of society in relation to the whole society, the harder it became to compare that aspect cross-culturally.
Radcliffe-Brown’s structural functionalism used Durkheim’s ideas to a greater degree than Malinowski, and Radcliffe-Brown suggested social anthropology should be called “comparative sociology.” He got his ideas of social structure from Lewis Henry Morgan, Henry Maine, and his teacher W. H. R. Rivers. Radcliffe-Brown developed a more organic functionalism than Malinowski. He made the analogy that people of a society are like the parts of a human body. Social anthropologists who followed this analogy talked about kinship systems, political systems, economic systems, and other systems, which all worked to maintain a society’s social structure. They wrote about how each of these systems influenced one another, and when one changed, the others would change as well. Thus, some social anthropologists talked about how witchcraft beliefs are linked to social control, and, as Durkheim said, what religion you belong to correlates with the chance you will commit suicide. Examples of ethnographies produced that combined Malinowski’s fieldwork method with Radcliffe-Brown’s theoretical approach include Gregory Bateson’s Naven (1936) and E. E. Evans-Prichard’s Witchcraft, Magic, and Oracles Among the Azande (1937).
Early social anthropologists focused on social relationships in terms of social statuses and social roles. Social statuses are the different positions a person holds in a society. Each society has different social statuses a person can hold in a society, and there are behaviors associated with these statuses. Social roles are the behaviors associated with social statuses. They involve how people relate to each other in terms of their status, such as how a father relates to his children, a supervisor relates to her staff, or a chief relates to his followers. As people react together in relation to social roles, they define their social relationships. Social anthropologists discovered social relationships by looking at how people said they should relate to each other and observing how they related to each other in everyday life.
Henrika Kuklick points out another aspect of social anthropology; it was tied to colonial rule, and this influenced how people wrote ethnographies. Most social anthropologists described the societies they studied as harmonious and static. Social anthropologists for various reasons usually concentrated on egalitarian societies and wrote how in such societies consensus was the rule. She uses Evans-Pritchard’s writings on the Nuer to make this point, noting that Evans-Pritchard’s accounts show that some Nuer prophets had considerable power and leopard-skin chiefs also had power but Evans-Pritchard downplays this power. She says that the British anthropologists downplayed this inequality because they were also downplaying the oppression caused by their own rule.
In the 1940s and early 1950s, the focus of social anthropology changed to the study of social structure, the relationship between groups. Major works of this period were The Nuer (1940), by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, and African Political Systems (1940), which was influenced by classification systems by Lewis Henry Morgan and Henry Maine. In The Nuer, Evans-Prichard took a more cultural view than most earlier social anthropologists, since he said structures were cognitive maps of society, not actual social relationships. Then in the mid-1950s, some social anthropologists began to pay more attention to how society changed. This was reflected in the approach of Edmund Leach, who was influenced mostly by Malinowski, and in the conflict approach of Max Gluckman, who was influenced mostly by Radcliffe-Brown and Karl Marx. Major works that came out during this period were Edmund Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954), and the work of Gluckman’s student, Victor Turner, Schism and Continuity in African Society (1957).
After this period, the influence of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown began to decline as social anthropologists turned to the structuralist ideas of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and later the ideas of Americans like David Schneider and Clifford Geertz, who looked more at culture than society. And Americans were exposed to ideas of social anthropology as social anthropologists like John Middleton, Victor Turner, and Mary Douglas all came to teach in universities in the United States. Finally, theorists like Foucault and Derrida influenced both social and cultural anthropologists. Today, many American universities say they teach sociocultural anthropology, and social anthropologists now deal with culture as much as society.
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