What is Sociocultural Anthropology? (An Introduction)

How is research in sociocultural anthropology carried out? What are the areas of focus? I also discuss the history of this discipline as well as famous anthropologists and their work. Towards the end, I review careers in the field.

We can understand the discipline better when assessing the two branches of study that form it. On one hand, cultural anthropology applies to learning about ethnographic records that give a holistic view about how culture influences an individual’s experience. It also aims to provide a well-rounded perspective of a society’s customs and knowledge. So, what is sociocultural anthropology?

On the other hand, researchers apply social anthropology to study ethnographic records and isolate details that refer to social relationships in political, economic and domestic spheres. This field of study also prioritizes how social life is organized, and considers cultural phenomena to be secondary compared to issues of social scientific inquiry.

Although the combined study of sociocultural anthropology includes aspects of the linguistic branch, it focuses on how there are differences and similarities between human populations.

What is Sociocultural Anthropology – History of the Discipline

Along with Europe’s expansion of its colonial empires, the discipline arose concomitantly and its component i.e. practices and theories have gone through reformulation and questioning because of decolonization. The re-emergence of these issues as a transnational process is shifting the centrality of the nation-state to theories about power and culture.

Some of the questions that the discipline sets out to answer, such as those about cultural processes and theorizing what can be regarded as human nature, fall outside the lines of anthropology. However, most historical relevancy that involves looking at anthropological discoveries from a social and cultural perspective, began after researchers made biological and objective distinctions about artifacts.

Its historical roots trace it back to the 19th centurywhen it was part of a variety of different disciplines like folklore studies and ethnology. The work of James George Frazer and Edward Burnett Tylor is the discipline’s precursor and during the period from the late 19th century to early 20th century, it underwent substantial changes. These were relative to both theories and methods; there was more emphasis on long-termstudies in natural environments, original fieldwork, andholistic studies.

Bronislaw Malinowski was a crucial figure because of his influence on British social anthropology. He highlighted the importance of researchers immersing themselves in the local practices and working to observe new rituals.

What is Social Anthropology – Influence Around the World

In the UK, parts of Europe and the Commonwealth, social anthropology is regarded as a dominant constituent of anthropology. This applies most especially to France, where it is distinguished from the cultural branch of anthropology.

Social anthropology views culture and continuity as a dependent variable that’s incorporated in different social and historical contexts, rather than an independent variable. In comparison to cultural anthropology, this dependent variable includes a vast diversity of perspective, positions, and contradictions of social lives.

What is Sociocultural Anthropology – Famous Thinkers and Their Work on Sociocultural Anthropology

Mary Douglas

Born in 1921, Mary Douglas specialized in social anthropologyand. She achieved poopularity as an anthropologist because of her writings on topics like human symbolism and culture. She used the approach of structuralism for analyses and made a huge contribution with books like ‘Purity and Danger’. Douglas’ analysis of social concepts like ritual pollution and purity from different times offers contributed to her placement as a crucial text in the field.

Her second book was ‘The Lele of the Kasai’ and it comprises her writings on the anthropological fieldwork she did whilst among the Lele people, who lived near the Kasai River, which would fall in the south-western part of Belgian Congo. Her book goes into detail about the Lele people’s religious, social and economic lives.

She introduced the group-grid pattern in her book “Natural Symbols.” The book and her work for it redefined in the study of cultural theory.  

Raymond Firth

The New Zealand-based ethnologist was born in 1901. Because of Raymond Firth’s work, real societal behavior created a distance the ideals and rules of behavior was supposed to be in society.

He served as a professor at the London School of Economics after he succeeded Bronislaw Malinowski in the Anthropology department.  He completed fieldwork in parts of Malaya like Terengganu and Kelantan and developed a form of British Economic anthropology.

Claude Levi-Strauss

Born in 1908, the French ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote work that was crucial to developing theories of structural anthropology. Considered to be the father of modern anthropology, he had an argument that civilized minds have the same structure as what people referred to as a ‘savage’ mind.

Levi-Strauss argued that human characteristics are similar everywhere, and compiled his observations in ‘Tristes Tropiques’. He applied the structuralist school of thought to the concepts of myths and found a paradox; while mythical stories are quite unpredictable in nature, their contents are similar throughout different cultures and religions. He proposed that there are certain universal lawsthat govern mythical stories and thought, which produces myths in different cultures that sound the same.  

Ernest Gellner

A British Social anthropologist, Ernest Gellner was born in 1925 and was an important figure in the field of anthropology, as well as philosophy. He analyzedkinship patterns to write conceptual criticism and wrote frameworks to understand the political situation outside tribal areas of Morocco.

Audrey Richards

Born in 1899, Audrey Richards worked as a social anthropologist and conducted most of her fieldworkin parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In 1930, she went to Zambia and took up fieldwork until 1934 and again in 1957, when she mostly observed the people Bemba.

Around 1940, she went to South Africa in the region of Transvaal and from 1950 to 1955 she worked in Uganda. Even after returning to England, she continued an ethnographic study of the people living in Elmdon, a small village in Essex. Her calculated and careful studies of everyday life set a standard in the research fieldand brought focus to interdisciplinary work.

What is Sociocultural Anthropology – Employed Research Methods

Sociocultural anthropology focuses more on behavior, meaning, and organization, which creates the need for a different type of research method. In addition, the same techniques utilize in different settings, whether it’s contemporary or not.

Participant Observation

A crucial method of research in the field of sociocultural anthropology, participant observation involves the ethnologist becoming a part of the society and observing the behavior that members display. Thisgives them an insider’s view into how the locals deal with problems and what kind of kinship patterns they follow.

However, to avoid ethnocentrism, researchers will have to explicitly compare it with a number of other different cultures at different times. Aside from adding their observations to an ethnographic record, sociocultural anthropologists also need to interpret behaviors and come up with a theory as to why locals respond to certain events in a specific way.

This method is used tolearnmore about a group of people who are closed off an inaccessible unless the researcher approaches them physically. With participant observation, it’s crucial that the researcher conducts observation over a long period of time so as maintain validity. Despitethe high degrees of validity, there are issues with regard to objectivity.


This quantitative method of research is preferred for groups of people who can be easily accessed through mail, telephone or the internet. It is most commonly employed in contemporary settings; companies and brands use it as a way to learn more about their audience and what they prefer.

 It involves asking people about their experiences and relying on the information they provide, rather than experiencing it for oneself. Although this information will be more reliable i.e. no matter how many times the researcher conducts the survey, they’ll get the same results over and over again, it won’t be completely valid; people can give false information, or lie about their experience. It’s far more objective, but it would require the researcher to get a well-representative sample.

What is Sociocultural Anthropology – Areas of Focus

Mainly, sociocultural anthropologists are concerned with the versatility ofdifferent populations, which leads researchers to turn towards cultural relativism. It’s founded on the notion that the way people adapt to their environments is what helps in creating a culture over time. In this discipline, relativism is the concept of giving value to all cultures. This contrasts with ideas of sociocultural evolution. Sociocultural evolution is based on the idea that all societies are on a certain stage in the evolution timeline and this is determined based on this culture. Despite the different contradictions in the discipline, there are some main areas of focus.


For starters, sociocultural anthropology is invested in learning about ancient and historic kinship patterns. Patterns allow humans to stay together and ultimately develop families. There is a majorf ocus on studying the ways in which humans create relationships with one another. Relationships help explain how they function within a social organization.

Kinship studies themselves fall outside the lines of sociocultural anthropology and into the subfields of public, feminist and structural anthropology. As explained by Patrick McConvell, this is because of kinship’s fundamental aspects; kinship forms the basis of every human society. As humans, we recognize people who are closest to us. Relationships naturally form with parents, siblings, spouses, and many other complex relationships.

Kinship studies are mainly concerned with topics relating to marriage, procreation, anddescent. Researchers have written numerous records and texts about the variety of martial practices practiced in other cultures. Anthropologists have uncovered stark differences between practices, but there is much more fieldwork required.

Social Institutions – Understanding What is Sociocultural Anthropology

Aside from family and kinship patterns, sociocultural anthropology also looks into different institutions that came more recently. This includes religious, political and government institutions, which had an influence on the individuals who would choose to become part of them. In this area, researchers look at the relationship between the individual and the institution, or the institution and the environment.


Another area that sociocultural anthropologists look into is where our values come from. Humanistic traits that we like to call as values have been passed down from generations ago . Values emerge when they were regarded as a crucial quality. Nowadays, we recognize traits, positive aspects, and values such as honesty, leadership, and selflessness to be heavily praised.

Each ancient culture develops its own set of values that they developed as a means of surviving in a particular environment. This would explain why certain cultures emphasize bravery and courage, while others rely on wit and intuition.

Sociocultural Anthropology head housing a globe

What is Sociocultural Anthropology – Careers in the Field

Sociocultural anthropology is a fascinating subject to study. A degree in sociocultural anthropology can earn you a number of positions in different career fields. From a professorship to a curatorship in a museum, there are a lot of possible positions. For someone who has a major in sociocultural anthropology, the possibilities are endless.

Academic Field

In the academic field, you can actually teach a range of students about subjects like history, and even anthropology itself. You can work as an assistant professor before applying for the position of professor. With a background in sociocultural anthropology and psychology, you can get a job as a student counselor too.

Museum and Libraries

Working at a museum can be very interesting since you get to look at artifacts and relics firsthand. Individuals apply for a curatorship, but you’ll need to have knowledge about other fields and branches of anthropology as well.  There are administrative positions, and you can work as an exhibit organizer as well. In public and university libraries, individuals earn positions as an archivist, or even an interpreter to explain historical texts.

Research Departments

If you’re specialized in non-natural science research methods, you can be a valuable asset to research departments in various fields. You can conduct fieldwork to observe communities or take surveys for tech companies as part of a research organization.

Sociocultural anthropology has a lot to offer; not only does it develop research methods to learn about social groups and settings but it also provides critical information about how human behavior has changed over centuries. Sociocultural anthropology is more concerned with societies and cultures of today than ages ago. It’s possible that new findings will help researchers discover about our ancestors’ cultures and societies.

What is Sociocultural Anthropology – How the Field Informs Us About Humans

Something many understand is the role societies play in our development. Without societies human progress halts centuries before its present progress. Many study sociocultural anthropology for its dynamic influence on the world. As we review history, progress develops into a non-linear tale of social groups and learning. Even today, we learn in groups in formal and informal ways. Even from a young age, students taking classes group together in small collectives. Teachers develop a number of minds at once, and students work together in the process. If you review the history of mankind, then you see that this method helps to contribute the best learning process. So, what does sociocultural anthropology teach us about humans?

When asking what is sociocultural anthropology, one understands something vital to the field of study. Firstly, humans understand one another to be dependent. Even if you live alone, you are still likely dependent on others. Dependency develops in the form of income, safety, and resource distribution. You can go a whole day without talking to another person, but you are still relying on others. Secondly, humans help one another as instinct. So, what does all of this mean?

Human History as a Form of Predicting the Future of Society

We cannot see into the future. Sociocultural anthropology looks to at least provide historical context for predictions. For starters, we know humans continue to rely on one another. Scholars can see a clear pattern of human interdependency throughout societies and cultures. Concepts like politics and religion scare us because beliefs can conflict with one another. Does this mean politics fails to provide a reason for its practice? Of course not. We must find ways to develop politics further for the betterment of society. Where does a feat like this begin? In short, scholars in sociocultural anthropology argue it starts backwards. To explain, the history of humanity is a blueprint for our future.

Technology develops more and more each day. For this reason, hope in humanity cannot disappear or deplete. Scholars work endlessly to understand past civilizations to uncover patterns and themes. Storytelling is a key element of almost every civilization and society. Likewise, many human groups utilize beliefs and values to organize their lives. Changes do not develop out of nowhere, and history teaches us to analyze the key elements and differences of each group of people. Through this method, scholars depict best practices for furthering humanity. Looking ahead, sociocultural anthropology provides people with a path forward in life.

David A. Smith at Dave4Math

David Smith (Dave) has a B.S. and M.S. in Mathematics and has enjoyed teaching precalculus, calculus, linear algebra, and number theory at both the junior college and university levels for over 20 years. David is the founder and CEO of Dave4Math.

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