• Anthropology Degree

TSR Wiki > University > Choosing a Subject > University Courses > Anthropology Degree

“Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess.” Margaret Mead [1]


The first question you will probably be asked by eager friends and relatives on embarking on an degree in Anthropology is 'what is it?'. This is a difficult question to answer, not only because of the clear disappointment that you aren't embarking on a degree in Medicine, but because Anthropology isn't an easy subject to classify.

Well, that's a lie. The easy answer is 'people studies', but that isn't really worthy of an academically minded youth, and will serve only to add to the bitter disdain in the eyes of your loved ones.

Let us start at the beginning.


Some Information

Anthropology, in its 'current' [see Footnote 1] form, is a relatively recent constellation of practices. Indeed, the very ambiguity of what constitutes anthropology has become one of its chief tools, especially in the wake of the so-called 'post-modern crisis' of the 1970s and 1980s, where the traditional, Victorian objectivism of the discipline came into question. As the seminal literary critic come anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, has written, ethnography (i.e., the practice of producing monographs, or in-depth anthropological texts; our bread and butter) has "distinct literary styles" (1989: 2). In other words, anthropology concerns "making the unintelligible, intelligible" (a common epithet for the field), but it also concerns, often with a great deal of scepticism, a propensity for navel-gazing. What we must recall is that anthropology is a field that is concerned with the comparative study of society and culture. Looking at ourselves may seem a wasteful use of time, but it's important that we remember that the anthropologist lives within relations of power (something Talal Asad noticed, quite late, in his 1973 work Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter).

Early Days and Armchair Ethnologists

Anthropology is broad. Any time in history that one individual has observed the social structure, or cultural practices, of another, we often term it ethnology. Ethnology observes the recording of cultural practices, something Herodotus was doing as early as the sixth century BC. Arguably, however, much ethnology comes into focus during the 18th century, a function of the meeting between European scholars and the recently Colonised. The rich, artistic codexes' of the Spanish Conquistadores, concerning Aztec life and culture in the 1520s and 1530s, are thoroughly ethnological; they feature detailed drawings of Aztec dress, comments on religious practice, and the explanation of cosmological meanings, gods, and architecture. Such manuscripts become, in the 19th century, precision instruments, as natural historians begin to explore the cultures of America and of Africa. Much of this scholarship became nestled in the structures of social evolutionist thought, including the work of L.H. Morgan (1877 Ancient Society) and Henry Maine (1861 Ancient Law).

Furthermore, the curisoty of European scholars, for the "ethnographic object", was often couched in terms of racism; Ferdinand Regnault, an early experimentor with the new technology of film, produced reels of footage observing individuals from African societies. His impression concerned the hypothesis that, in terms similar to Spencer (another prominent social evolutionist) that different (i.e., less advanced, civilised, and so on) societies represented the "less evolved", or "survivals". Stocking and Stocking Jr. have argued that this thought was principally Darwinist, that "the notion of a hierarchy of human races" (1982: 113) domainted the physical sciences of humanity, and that these were used to reinforce concepts of 'race'. Today, physical anthropology is a seperate discipline, far removed from Racial Formalism of the 19th century. Contemporary physical (or biological) anthropology deals with issues such as human ecology (i.e., the relationship between the human organism and its environment), population genetics, evolution, and the fossil record. It does not propound the concepts of linear social progression (of the 19th century), but instead of Darwin's concept of stochaic evolution (i.e., change through time according to adaptive demands of the environment, not a 'step-ladder to civilisation').

Equally, in this era, scholars such as James Frazer produced monumental works, such as the Golden Bough (1890) which detailed the practices of various forms of 'religion', in a sort of progressive layer cake; i.e., ancient forms of fertility ritual have developed (as successive layers of the cake, or branches of the tree) into contemporary religious systems. Needless to say, much of his scholarship has been superceded, yet his pioneering work echoes into modern anthropology and popular culture.

Out of the Armchair, into the Fire

The advent of the 20th century witnessed the development of anthropology as a solid, coherent discipline. Big names of this early period (one of ethnography; i.e., the study and interpretation of other cultures, rather than "butterfly collecting") still have an influence in the modern discipline. The fulcrum of this entrenched "natural science of humanity" (as it often considered itself) was the development of the core and distinctive feature of the field; long term fieldwork. Bronislaw Malinowski [Footnote 2], a notable Polish anthropologist, keenly 'discovered' the benefits of living and working among the people under study. The introduction to his classic monograph, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, explains his theory;

Indeed, in my first piece of Ethnographic research on the South Coast, it was not until I was alone in the district that I began to make some headway [...] he [the ethnographer] ought to put himself in good conditions of work (1922; 2002 reprint: 6)

Furthermore, Malinowski believed that scientific objectives and systematic rigour were the key to unlocking the secret of a people. Of course, despite his academic prowess, Malinowski has come under flak in recent years; following the release of his diaries, he was found to be aggressive, contemptuous of the Trobriand Islanders, and often sexually frustrated. Despite the criticism surrounding him, his work was fortuitous in establishing a more credible base for the practice of anthropology today.

Without reducing this cursory history to an over-view of ethnographic theory (which is bound up tightly with its history), it is sufficient to indicate that Malinowski headed up the first major school in anthropological thought; the functionalists. Functionalist anthropology strove to indicate that social institutions (ritual practices, magic, marriage rites, rites-de-passage, gifting, etc) existed for being socially functional. Therefore, society existed to fulfill the needs of individuals within. Obviously, this methodology has been criticised on several grounds;

  • Social institutions are often contradictory, or may be negatively useful, such as warfare.
  • Individuals' are not led singularly by the fulfillment of biological needs (as functionalism indicated)
  • Society was assumed to be static, outside of time, simply a positive feedback loop.

Despite this, and as indicated in Footnote 2, many of Malinowskian ideas are coming back into vogue; principally, that individuals' are led by personal, subjective needs, that they play social games in order to achieve them. This reflects the work of Giddens and Bourdieu, which I shall discuss, in time. A parallel movement in America, headed up by Franz Boas, were known as the cultural relativists. These scholars favoured the notion that there was no inherant superiority of society or culture, that there was no concept of "more" or "less" developed. Roger Sanjek has written that, "the lesson that Boas learned on the Northwest Coast -that race (biological traits), language and culture were not linked to each other- is unobjectional today" (1996; 2007 edition: 73), yet these lessons were at the time unspoken, particularly in the light of the earlier mentioned works of Spencer, Morgan and Maine.

I mention that once anthropologists had left their classrooms, they encountered anxieties. These revolve around several issues, some of which are still being fleshed out today. Nominally, there was a great degree of disagreement within the British Social Anthropological school, headed by men such as Radcliffe-Brown, Fortes and Evans-Pritchard. Principally, these men tussled with the "problem" of how society was maintained, particularly, so they noted, without recognisable institutions such as a judiciary, a Parliament, or any sort of coercive police force. This school was noted as the Structural-Functionalists, whose object was to identify that society could be perceived as a series of mutually and structurally related elements; Evans-Pritchard's classic monograph, The Nuer, defined structural function in this manner;

"The structural form of clans remains constant, while actual lineages at any point in time are highly dynamic, creating new bifurcations and merging old ones. They may therefore be presented as trees. But a presentation more useful for sociological analysis is in terms of structural distance" (1940: 200)

As you can see, analysis was partially mathematical in composition, concerned with creating often elaborate and sophisticated tables, charts and diagrams, observing society as a machine for maintaining social order (therefore, institutions have a structural function). Structural-Functionalism has, again, come under a number of criticisms, including the invisibility of individuals, the over-systemisation of culture, its ahistoricism, and the ignorance of the ethnographers' relation of power to the people under study. Evans-Pritchard was a paid member of the Colonial services, producing monographs to assist in the efficient governance of the Sudanese region. Of course, a closer reading of his work (this is, at least, my spin on it) reveals that Evans-Pritchard was playing clever language games with the Colonial Authorities; his systematic account seems like a warning to Colonial authorities, a reminder that Nuer society works quite nicely without their intervention, "thank-you-very-much".

'La Pensee Suavage'

By the 1960s, the establishment of anthropology as a coherent discipline had been largely accepted, with the formation of numerous anthropological institutions and a range of University Departments. However, much was to change in the 1960s, as the popularity of Structuralist logic, headed by the scholar Claude Levi-Strauss (and later adopted by ethnographers such as Sherry Ortner, and Edward Leach), and influenced by de Saussere's linguistic structuralism (i.e., that signifiers, words, and signified, the object identified, were arbitrarily connected), were established. Levi-Strauss' project was to identify the Universalist nature of all thought, that social institutions followed structured patterns, where cultural variation was a "variation on a theme", entoxicatingly interesting icing upon a Universal bun. Structuralist logic proposed such ideas as the binary oppositions (i.e., that all individuals categorise in terms of binary opposites; life and death, male and female, inside and outside), that all humans thought in the same way, that certain practices followed a number of distinct forms, much like formula. Structuralism has its proponents today, those who attempt to create formula of social life, or where binary oppositions are discussed. Ultimately, however, structuralism came under critical attack for being too eurocentric; i.e., it is naive to assume that all societies think in terms of Enlightenment philosophy, such as Nature vs. Culture, and may have entirely different systems of logic. McCormack and Strathern, in their highly influencial Nature, Culture, Gender, argued that (for example) women’s sublimation in society was the result of historical processes, not natural categories (1980: 20). Indeed, structuralism erred on many of the points of earlier philosophy, namely the propensity to lift society outside of time and change.

Change, equally, has been a growing concern within the discipline. Edmund Leach, in his critically influencial Political Systems of Highland Burma, observed that "every real society is a process in time" (1954). Where earlier anthropology had considered society as something inert, a self-reproducing mechanism, or organism, cutting-edge anthropology exploded both the idea of stasis, and the concept of the bounded society (i.e., as one that is unaffected from the outside). Anthropology now concerned itself with the ambiguity of social life, the transformation of cultural practices, and, rather than the elucidation of entire, coherent societies, the analysis of singular events, of individuals. Much of this is considered by the school of Symbolic Anthropology, populated by scholars such as Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz. Their concern is both with meaning and with subjective experience. For instance, Turner, in his Forest of Symbols (1967), observed that, among the Ndembu, certain rituals were 'multivocal' (that is, they had many, often contradictory, meanings). We see, then, a paradigm shift in terms of discussing coherent, bounded social entities, to a concern with ambiguity, and ultimately with culture.

Change and Change Again

By the 1970s and 1980s, anthropology became both self-critical and 'smaller scale'. Its concern became with flux, as well as with new concepts not previously considered; these included identity formation and maintainence (see Barth Ethnic Groups and Boundaries 1969), gender (Lila Abu-Lughod "Veiled Sentiments" 1986), power and resistence (J. Scott Weapons of the Weak 1985), epistemology (Clifford and Marcus Writing Culture 1985), post-colonialism and colonialism (Said Orientalism 1978; Asad Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter 1973), as well as a range of sub-disciplines, including ethnomusicology, the study of material culture, social memory, and the media. Indeed, in recent years increasingly intensive work has concerned itself with internet society, the role of television, and consumer culture in terms of identity formation and power.

Ethnography remains diverse, yet political; anthropologists are now consulted in a range of government projects, employed within NGOs, and used as cultural interpreters. Their role in the aftermath of war, equally, has an ambiguous reception among some.

[Footnote 1] I say current, because it's always changing, evolving. If we take the commonly-held liturgy of anthropologists about modern society, that it's constituted by "seriously contested codes" (Clifford's words, from his edited volume, Writing Cultures), then anthropology itself is continually developing, keeping up to speed as new social formations are constituted, as they interact and change.

[Footnote 2] If you take up anthropology as a degree, you'll hear of this chap sooner rather than later. Indeed, his day has come again for some anthropologists, where his theories concerning action and agency, overlooked during much the 20th century, appeal to more modern social science.


It's Greek.

Anthropos meaning man or human, ology being a suffix meaning science.

Literally 'human science', but that's another subject entirely, and one not nearly pretentious enough to go in for ancient Greek.

Different Forms

Anthropology is often theorised to have arisen from the development of greater empirical study and rational thought in the Age of Enlightenment. With the Victorian era came evolutionary thought and understanding primitive societies was believed to be essential in understanding our own, a glimpse into our past, thus early anthropology was rife with the assumption that all societies were progressing along a similar trajectory towards modernity.

Anthropology emerged as a single discipline but has split of into several sub-disciplines. In the UK the main divisions are known as Social Anthropology, Biological Anthropology and Material Culture/Archaeology.

Social anthropology being the study of cultures (a social science), and the diversity of contemporary human societies.

Biological anthropology is the study of human evolution/physiology (a natural science), sometimes including the study of primates.

Archaeology is the study of how people lived in the past focusing in particular on how objects relate to human experience, material culture is the study of how objects relate to people in the present day.

Other prevalent forms include forensic, medical and linguistic anthropology.

Course Structure

Anthropology at British Universities is usually Social, the other forms being rarer, and a combined degree even more so.


At the time this article was written Anthropology was being offered at undergraduate level at the following Universities:

University of Aberdeen (A20)

University of Birmingham (B32)

Bournemouth University (B50) (Archaeology and Anthropology. Sociology and Anthropology. Archaeological, Anthropological and Forensic Sciences.)

University of Bradford (B56)

University of Bristol (B78) (With Archaeology only)

Brunel University (B84)

University of Cambridge (C05) (Joint Degree with Archaeology only)

University of Central Lancashire (C30) (With Forensic Science Only)

University of Dundee (D65) (Forensic Anthropology only)

Durham University (D86)

University of East Anglia (UEA) (E14) (Combined only)

University of East London (E28)

University of Edinburgh (E56)

University of Exeter (E84) (With Archaeology only)

Goldsmiths College (University of London) (G56)

University of Hull (H72) (Available only with Sociology and French, Gender Studies, Geography, German, Italian, Spanish)

University of Kent (K24)

University of Liverpool (L41) (Evolutionary Anthropology)

Liverpool John Moores University (L51) (Forensic Anthropology only)

London Metropolitan University (L68)

London School of Economics (LSE) (University of London) (L72)

University of Manchester (M20)

University of Oxford (O33) (With Archaeology only)

Oxford Brookes University (O66)

Queen's University of Belfast (Q75)

University of Roehampton (R48)

School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) (University of London) (S09)

University of Southampton (S27) (Applied Social Sciences)

University of St Andrews (S36)

University of Sussex (S90)

University of wales trinity saint david (T80)

University College London (UCL) (University of London) (U80)

University of Southampton

Life as an Anthropology Student

  • Get used to having your answer to the question "so, what is it you study?" being met with a confused look and a response somewhere along the lines of "oh! interesting... so what do you want to be?" ie: they have no idea what anthropology is, but don't want to tell you that.
  • At the start of first year your lecturer will spend time trying to shock you by challenging everything you ever considered to be normal about life. Men can get pregnant, pregnancy isn't the result of sex- sex is only an aid, and the child spirits cause it, or a man can marry his mother.
  • By the end of your first year, many of your conversations with strangers will result in you saying- "yes, but what is normal exactly? what do you mean by that?" or "you only believe that because its what your culture tells you to believe"
  • By the end of second year you will be refering to many a case study with your responses to ^^^ by chatting about Levi Strauss, Malinowski and Evans Pritchard as though they are house hold names which everyone understands. Clearly too much reading has taken its toll!
  • By third year, you think the lecturers are funny when they make jokes about the Mead scandal, or give a Geertz interpretation of something, and you actually laugh later with your friends about their wit, perhaps even retelling the jokes adding in extra puns relating to Boasian thought or surrealism. Your flatmates will not share your enthusiasm!
  • Your week will consist of spending as fewer hours as possible in lectures, and thinking that you should be spending as many as possible in the library reading for your next tutorial. This won't happen and you'll spend your next essay explaining why XXX is all culturally relative anyway and we shouldn't be so ethnocentric as to believe Y, when we can use the case of Z to contradict that as normality.

Graduate Destinations and Careers Prospects

But what will you do when you've drained your parents and the state to gain your insight into the inner (and outer) workings of humanity?

Well, I'm reliably informed that Anthropology attracts original minds, and I've directly observed that it attracts original hairstyles, so I'm sure you have a million and one ideas.

No? Look below for a handy guide to... guide you.

Firstly, any job that requires a degree, but doesn't specify. This option is perfect for those who realised what a huge mistake it all was in first year but were carried along by pride.

Career Anthropologists are notorious for not being well-paid in general, but it's still number one on the list. It's obvious; If you're interested in the studying people, why not take it up as a career? For this you'll need further schooling and either skill in obtaining grants or financial backing from friends and family impressed by your explanation of the subject.

The Business World. Businesses often hire anthropologists (or so I'm reliably informed) so they are better able to understand local cultures or the inner workings of their employees minds, most likely for nefarious purposes. Sell your soul if you must, someone has to make money.

Aid work. Unleash your inner socialist, one (wo)man can make a difference etc.. The NGO's will love you.

The Civil Service. Enough said.

Other popular career paths are: Journalism, museum work, and Travelling-Around-Not-Doing-Much-At-All (I don't recommend this last for more than a year or so, unless your finances are solid or your explanation of Anthropology managed to be both incredibly impressive and misleading).

In Conclusion:

There you have it. It's the best of subjects, it's the worst of subjects. Don't expect people to know what it is, and don't despair at the ignorance of the subject prevalent among everyone of your acquaintance, and you'll be fine. Chin up little one, you're about to embark on a course of knowledge and discovery, and at times anger. You may become sick of the term 'relativism' and annoyed at way anthropologists don't allow themselves to say the word 'primitive' without you being able to hear the quotation marks. But, at the end of the day you'll never be bored. Or you may be bored on occasion.

And most importantly of all: beware the dreadlock.

Also See

Try Learn together, TSR's study area

revision notes




a study planner

of discussions

How would you describe the quality of the digital skills you're taught at school?

The Student Room, Get Revising and The Uni Guide are trading names of The Student Room Group Ltd.

Register Number: 04666380 (England and Wales), VAT No. 806 8067 22 Registered Office: International House, Queens Road, Brighton, BN1 3XE