Philosophy of Anthropology

This course crosses many fields, including sociology, cultural theory, linguistics, ethnography, psychology and evolutionary theory and considers the growing area of Engaged Anthropology which seeks to address the concrete challenges facing local communities in an increasingly global world. The aim of the course is to understand the principles which made an ‘anthropological’ way of thinking possible, and to follow the development of the domain through its many changes over history. We will begin in the 19thc with works such as James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890). We will then move to the great sociologists of the early 20thc such as Émile Durkheim, Primitive Classification (1903), Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man (1911) and the field work of Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa, (1928).


  • Face-to-Face / Online



  • Robert Harrison, The Prophet of Envy: On the Enduring Relevance of Rene Girard, 2018

  • Kenneth Guest, Cultural Anthropology, 2019

  • Charles King, The Reinvention of Humanity, 2020



  • Introduction to Anthropology: We will begin by defining the area of study and introducing specific terms. Cultural anthropology, for example is the study of how people who share a common cultural system organize and shape the physical and social world around them, and are in turn shaped by those ideas, behaviours, and physical environments.

  • Origins of Anthropology: The philosophical interest in non-European societies, as a means of defining the human condition, has a long history. We will discuss the concepts behind this interest, considering texts such as: Thomas Henry Huxley, Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863), and the theory of Franz Boas. Cultural historicism is a principle that was established as axiomatic in anthropological research by Franz Boas and later popularized by his students. Boas first articulated the idea in 1887: "...civilization is not something absolute, but ... is relative, and ... our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes." Although Boas did not coin the term, it became common among anthropologists after Boas' death in 1942,

  • Myth, Rituals, Primitivism: The interest in the myths and rituals of non-European societies may have begun with a fascination in ‘exoticism’, but eventually led theorists to a deeper understanding of the structure of all human religions. Texts will include: James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (1890) and Émile Durkheim, Primitive Classification, (1903)

  • The Sociological Turn: The founders of sociology gave anthropology a working theoretical structure. We will examine the philosophy behind this structure in works such as: Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, (1905) (English translation: 1930) and Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man, 1911

  • Anthropology in the Field: Early field workers, such as Margaret Mead, later came into some disrepute for their western bias. However, given that cultural bias is inevitable in any cross-cultural work, has history been too harsh on these early pioneers? Bronisław Malinowski, ‘Sex and Repression in Savage Society, (1927), Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa, (1928) and Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, (1946)

  • Structuralism - Claude Lévi-Strauss: Structuralism transformed many areas of philosophy, linguistics, and Anthropology we will study the monumental work: Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, (1958)

  • Post-Structuralism: The Post-Structural movement can be considered as either a reaction against Structuralism or as an extension of it. There are many important philosophers in this movement, such as the later writings of Wittgenstein, and the Postmodernists: Foucault, Derrida. We will look at its impact on Anthropology, in texts such as: Edward Said, Orientalism, (1978)

  • Urban Anthropology: Urban Anthropology turns its attention to the study of urban groups, often sub-cultures within larger city environments. The group need not be racially, religiously, or ethnically different to the major culture. This work enabled a broader perspective on Western societies. We will take a range of studies in this area.

  • Contemporary Debates: The 21st century has produced both a considerable expansion of the domain of Anthropology into many new areas, but also a claim that the domain is in theoretical crisis. We will consider both sides of the story.

  • Engaged Anthropology: We will take a number of case studies in this new area of Anthropology. For example: Field Anthropologist Edith Turner’s work began with an interest in documenting the religious healing practices of indigenous Inupiat people of Alaska, but during her research she uncovered an undisclosed nuclear waste dump in their area. The group reported high levels of cancer, and the indifference of governments to hear their case. Turner was able to help take their case to the UN.



By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Describe the origins of Anthropology and its historical development.
  2. Comprehend the philosophical ideas which form the basis of the Anthropology movement.
  3. Discuss the impact which Anthropology had on other developing disciplines, such as the social sciences, psychology and evolutionary theory.
  4. Relate Anthropological ideas to contemporary debate concerning issues of race, ethnicity, and religion.
  5. Apply Anthropological theory to the broader philosophy of identity politics.

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