In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Anthropology (British Tradition)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Textbooks
  • Anthropology before Anthropology
  • Surveys of Special Subjects
  • 19th-Century Case Studies
  • Turn-of-the-20th-Century Case Studies
  • 20th-Century Case Studies
  • Biographical Studies
  • Australia
  • Other Parts of the British Empire
  • Comparative Analysis of Anthropology in Britain and the United States
  • History of Anthropology According to British Anthropologists

Anthropology Social Anthropology (British Tradition)
Henrika Kuklick
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0061


Social anthropology has been one of Great Britain’s most successful intellectual exports. E. B. Tylor (b. 1832–d. 1917), the first person appointed to teach anthropology in a British university (at Oxford in 1884) is generally credited with articulating, in 1871, the discipline’s most fundamental notion: the idea of culture—“that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Bronislaw Malinowski (b. 1884–d. 1942), born a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and an ethnic Pole, came to Britain to become an anthropologist at the London School of Economics (LSE) and subsequently taught there for nearly all of his career. He is generally credited with being the first to put into practice the discipline’s core method, intended to facilitate understanding of a people’s way of life—participant observation, requiring the researcher (often accompanied by a spouse) to spend a sustained period among a population and embrace its lifestyle. For most of its history, British anthropology has been situated on a web of international connections. Arguably, British anthropologists’ international influence peaked during the interwar period of functionalist ascent; then, students came from all over the world to study with Malinowski at the LSE, and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (b. 1884–d. 1955) became an agent for dissemination of British views as he taught, in turn, at the universities of Cape Town, Sydney, and Chicago, before becoming the foundational professor of social anthropology at Oxford in 1937. An era of intense parochialism set in during the 1950s and 1960s, however, when British anthropologists were particularly concerned to establish their differences from Americans. Heralded by the organization of the Association of Social Anthropologists in 1946 (originally an exclusive, eleven-member group, led by E. E. Evans Pritchard [b. 1902–d. 1973]), this was an era in which anthropologists were a relatively cohesive body and their research was truly paradigmatic, achieving resolution of such questions as why specific sectors of a population became migrant laborers, or why some social types were likely victims of witchcraft accusations. In the early 21st century, by contrast, many British social anthropologists find intellectual affinities with their North American colleagues—perhaps not least because British academe in general now employs many persons with ties of some sort to North America—while other British anthropologists emphasize their affinities with European practitioners. These are tokens of academic internationalism, not of local weakness.

General Overviews

For most of the 20th century, British social anthropologists emphasized study of non-European peoples; before then, their discipline incorporated study of peoples everywhere, and it does so today. Thus, the distinction between folklore and anthropology was initially vague (see Dorson 1968). That Britain had an enormous empire was certainly critical in defining the discipline’s purview (see Barth 2005). It would be a mistake, however, to assume that anthropology developed either as the ideological rationale for imperialism or as a set of practical instructions for the management of subject peoples—although claims of practical value did figure in anthropologists’ rhetoric, justifying appeals for funds to support research until the empire became moribund (but note that many such appeals were unsuccessful). Moreover, after World War II, in the era of decolonization, anthropologists were quick to claim that their skills were useful in aiding erstwhile subjects to move toward independence (see Mills 2008, in particular). This is not to deny the existence of racist discourses (see especially Brantlinger 2003). But for the most part, anthropologists were not drawn from the elite class that benefited economically from the empire; nor were many of them drawn from the solid middle-class families that sent their sons to staff imperial bureaucracies. Indeed, many anthropologists had nonconformist religious backgrounds, or, after World War I, Jewish ancestry; they represented social types who were not welcomed in privileged circles. And anthropologists tended to be highly critical of colonial policies, both when viewed from afar when anthropologists were ensconced in their home locations, or on the ground when they were doing fieldwork and viewing the implementation of colonial policies from day to day. Indeed, when anthropologists’ substantive purview contracted, their intellectual aspirations enlarged. When early-20th-century anthropologists determined that they should study small, non-Western populations, their argument was that so-called simple societies were simple to study: the basic features of societies everywhere would be especially easy to recognize in a small-scale society, where the anthropologist could comprehend its workings in toto. That is, all societies shared certain fundamental characteristics. For all of the foregoing general points, see Kuklick 1991, Kuklick 2008, Stocking 1987, and Stocking 1995.

  • Barth, Fredrik. 2005. Britain and the Commonwealth. In One discipline, four ways: British, German, French, and American anthropology. Edited by Fredrik Barth, 3–57. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This is a useful survey by virtue of its enormous substantive purview.

  • Brantlinger, Patrick. 2003. Dark vanishings: Discourse on the extinction of primitive races, 1800–1930. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    An English professor, Brantlinger produced a classic historical analysis, exploring a theme that others subsequently pursued: the argument that so-called primitives were doomed to extinction, and that, therefore, the occupation of their lands by European settlers was just.

  • Dorson, Richard M. 1968. The British folklorists: A history. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Although ties between social anthropology and folklore became attenuated after World War I, they were extremely strong before then, as this study makes clear.

  • Kuklick, Henrika. 1991. The savage within: The social history of British anthropology, 1885–1945. New York and Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    As the title suggests, this is a social history, not a literary analysis.

  • Kuklick, Henrika. 2008. The British tradition. In A new history of anthropology. Edited by Henrika Kuklick, 52–78. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    This essay surveys an unusually long time period, beginning in the early 19th century and ending in the early 21st century.

  • Mills, David. 2008. Difficult folk? A political history of social anthropology. New York and London: Berghahn.

    Based on archival research as well as oral history and covering a period from the 1930s through the 1960s, this study is distinctive because it retrieves a complex past, noting choices made by individuals and groups.

  • Stocking, George W. 1987. Victorian anthropology. New York: Free Press.

    This is the classic intellectual history of this period, by the historian who virtually invented the history of anthropology as an academic specialty.

  • Stocking, George W. 1995. After Tylor: British social anthropology, 1888–1951. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

    This is an exhaustive intellectual history of the era it describes.

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