ANTHRO A2650 History and Theory of Social Anthropology - Proseminar





Professor: Mary Steedly

The Proseminar in Social Anthropology is a two-semester course required for all first-year Social Anthropology graduate students.  It provides an introductory overview of some of the major concepts and methods of modern social theory as these have been reflected in the field of social/cultural anthropology.  While emphasis will be placed on contemporary developments in the discipline, we will also trace the intellectual genealogies of key concepts and epistemological principles.  For the fall 2015 semester, the course will foreground the idea of culture and the practice of ethnography, as well as the relation between the two.

“Culture” is one of anthropology’s key epistemological concepts, even if there has never been much agreement as to the meaning of the term. In Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions (dated 1952), A. L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn listed 164 definitions of the term and another hundred or so “fragmentary” ones, rounding this off with supplemental discussions of the German idea of Kultur and the Russian kul’tura and Kul’turnost’. Over the past couple of generations “culture” has become a vexed concept, with anthropologists setting their sights “beyond culture,” writing “against culture,” and reflecting upon “the end of culture.” Meanwhile, the potency of  “culture” as an explanatory concept appears undiminished within the popular media and even in other disciplines.

This course offers a genealogy of this pivotal idea along with a consideration of some of its most significant dissenters and detours.  British and Continental anthropology was, for instance, more concerned with social structure than with the relatively amorphous “culture.”  Marxian approaches have emphasized social conflict and contradiction, and the material constraints on social possibility.

The course will be structured in four three-week modules:  Ethnography, Morality and rationality, Meaning, and Difference and Inequality.  Each session is organized around weekly readings in anthropology and modern social thought, many of them classics. Each module will additionally feature one or more representative ethnography that illustrates a sustained engagement between theory and empirical research.