What is Anthropology?
What is Anthropology at Queen’s?
Anthropology encompasses the biological and social study of humans as complex organisms with the capacity for language, thought, and culture. Its commitment to the integrated study of both diversity and commonality among people throughout the world gives it a distinctive place in the field of learning. Anthropology is a subject that seeks to be holistic and comparative as well as critical and reflexive.
Anthropology can be located in the humanities, social sciences and the life sciences, and has been described as the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences. As a humanities subject at Queen’s University Belfast, anthropology here is predominantly ‘social’ and focuses on the uniqueness of each group and their cultural products.
The Nature and extent of Social Anthropology at Queen’s
Social Anthropology at Queen’s is a subject concerned with the study of the social and cultural diversity of humans. Social Anthropology at Queen’s covers virtually every aspect of human social activity, from kinship, material culture or cognition to economics, politics and religion. In general, anthropologists focus on human interaction: with other humans and with animals, gods, and machines. They may study the organisation of social life in small rural communities as well as in large metropolitan cities. They work at various levels of scale, ranging from individual biographies to studies of nations, regions or transnational networks.
Anthropology's focus is on the relations that connect social and cultural phenomena, including seemingly disparate entities - from poetry, gift exchange or gender to bureaucracy, mass media and nationalism. It thus characteristically links or cross-cuts the subject limits of other disciplines. Social anthropology is therefore well-placed to defy conventional wisdom. Where other disciplines might assume regularity (for example, in economic behaviour) anthropologists have found diversity; where others might assume difference (as in racial designations), anthropologists have found regularity.
Anthropologists are characteristically interested in the practical workings and effects among ordinary people of large-scale social phenomena such as state plans, nationalisms, or religious ideologies. In a contemporary so-called 'global' world, they seek to identify local differences of understanding and interpretation, while recognizing ways in which local processes are shaped by wider forces. Many anthropologists engage in applied and policy aspects of the subject and advise government and non-government organisations, health, social welfare and development agencies, the media and legal professions. Anthropologists at Queen’s – staff and students – make a unique contribution to Northern Ireland society.
Relative to the size of the discipline, anthropology had a disproportionate influence on many social, economic and political policies for much of the twentieth century, and can be expected to do so in the twenty-first century. Social anthropology explores the role of meanings, ambiguities and contradictions of social life, patterns of sociality, violence and conflict, and the underlying logics of social behaviour. Anthropologists are particularly skilled in the interpretation of narrative, ritual and symbolic behaviour not merely as 'text,' but with communication examined in relation to action, practice, and the historical context in which it is embedded. Anthropologists address the diversity of positions and perspectives to be found within any social group.
Social anthropology is distinguished from subjects such as economics or political science by its holistic range and the attention it gives to the diversity of culture and society across the world, and the capacity this gives the discipline to re-examine Euro-American assumptions. It is differentiated from sociology both in its main methods (based on long-term participant observation and linguistic competence); its commitment to the relevance and illumination provided by microstudies; and its extension beyond strictly social phenomena to culture, art, individuality, and cognition.
Specialisations within social anthropology shift as its objects of study are transformed and as new intellectual paradigms appear; ethnomusicology is a well-defined specialism at Queen’s. Ethnomusicology is the study of world musics, relating sounds, practices and ideas to their broader social and cultural contexts. Through fieldwork and participant observation as well as musical analysis, it investigates styles and genres, composition and performance, to illuminate issues of aesthetics, gender, power, meaning and social organisation. At Queen’s we have a world-recognised strength in the ethnomusicology sub-specialization – around the Department, we sometimes call it ‘the Blacking tradition’ in honour of one of our founding Professors: John Blacking.
Other emergent areas within social anthropology include the relation between cultural diversity and new findings in cognitive development; social and ethical understandings of new technologies; emergent forms of 'the family' and other new socialities modelled on kinship; the ongoing social fall-out of the demise of state socialism; the politics of resurgent religiosity and the cognitive science of religion (see our Institute for the study of Culture and Cognition is run by cognitive anthropologist Dr Paulo Sousa); analysis of audit cultures, bureaucracy and accountability; conflict relations and cross-community work (see our Institute for Irish Studies is housed within our School of History and Anthropology and run by social anthropologist Dr. Dominic Bryan).
The subject has been enlivened by, and has contributed to, approaches from other disciplines, such as philosophy (eg ethics, phenomenology, logic), the histories of science and art, politics, geography, psychoanalysis and linguistics, and plays a central role in interdisciplinary fields, such as science and technology studies, cultural studies and development studies.
Knowledge and understanding in QUB Anthropology
A Queen’s Social Anthropology graduate will gain detailed understanding of the following:
- an understanding of social anthropology as the comparative study of human societies
- an appreciation of the importance of empirical fieldwork as the primary method of gathering data and as a basis for the generation of anthropological theory
- a detailed knowledge of specific themes in social anthropology and the intellectual debates concerning them, such as gender, religion, kinship, nationalism, exchange, material culture, performance
- a realisation that knowledge is contested; that anthropology by its nature is dynamic, constantly generating new priorities and theories; and that the peoples with whom anthropologists have traditionally worked may have studies of themselves from which we might also learn
- an informed awareness of, and sensitivity to, human diversity, an appreciation of its scope and complexity, and recognition of the richness of experience and potential that it provides
Social anthropology at Queen’s
At Queen’s, our students will be expected to develop a large degree of the following:
- an acquaintance with the theory and history of anthropology, including the achievements associated with British, French and North American scholarship
- a knowledge of the values, ethics and traditions of different cultures, including a detailed knowledge of particular areas of the world presented as regional courses (such as Caribbean and South Asian anthropology, European ethnography, the anthropology of Ireland, Australia or Brazil, even the ethnography of Japan)
- an awareness of social and historical change (based in the School of History and Anthropology, we recognize this as another of our unique strengths)
- an ability to recognise and analyse contexts in which relations of power, gender, ethnicity, racism and exclusion affect the forms taken by human communities
- an appreciation of the interconnections between various aspects of social and cultural life, belief systems, global forces, individual behaviour and the physical environment
Subject-specific skills and generic skills
QUB Anthropology graduates will be able to demonstrate high levels of competence in the following:
- an ability to understand how human beings are shaped by, and interact with, their social, cultural and physical environments, and an appreciation of their social, cultural and biological diversity
- the ability to formulate, investigate and discuss anthropologically informed questions
- a competence in using major theoretical perspectives and concepts in anthropology
- the capacity to provide an ethnographic description and analyse it
- the ability to engage with cultures, populations and groups different from their own, without forgoing a sense of personal judgement. An awareness of cultural assumptions, including their own, and the ways in which these impact on an interpretation of others
- the ability to read and interpret texts (print, oral, film, multimedia) within their historical, social and theoretical contexts
- a recognition of the politics of language, indirect forms of communication, forms of power, theoretical statements and claims of authority, and an ability to analyse them
- the ability to apply anthropological knowledge to a variety of practical situations, personal and professional
- the ability to plan, undertake and present scholarly work that demonstrates an understanding of anthropological aims, methods and theoretical considerations
Generic skills, employable abilities and qualities of mind in a Queen’s anthropology graduate
Student attainment will include some or all of the following:
- an ability to understand their strengths and weaknesses in learning and study skills and to take action to improve their capacity to learn
- the capacity to express their own ideas in writing, to summarise the arguments of others, and to distinguish between the two
- independence of thought and analytical, critical and synoptic skills
- information retrieval skills in relation to primary and secondary sources of information
- communication and presentation skills (using oral and written materials and information technology (IT))
- scholarly skills, such as the ability to make a structured argument, reference the works of others, and assess historical evidence
- time planning and management skills
- the ability to engage, where appropriate, in constructive discussion in group situations and group-work skills
*(amended from the 2007 Anthropology Benchmark statement)
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Contact Dr Jonathan Skinner: email@example.com