Nature And Scope Of Social Anthropology

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Nature And Scope Of Social Anthropology


1) Generally speaking, social anthropology aims at the study of human society as a whole. It is essentially a holistic study and covers all parts related to human society. Culture naturally comes under this, as it is an integral part of human society. Therefore, the basic objective of social anthropology is to study human as a social animal. Thus, in order to fulfill its purpose, it explores a wide area, covering almost every aspect of human social life.

2) Modern social anthropology aims not only to study human society but also to understand the complex issues of modern human life. As primitive people have been the focus of anthropological studies, the problems faced by these people in the process of development in modern days become very important for the study of anthropologists.


3) Anthropologists not only study these problems but also try to find their solutions. Developmental anthropology and functional anthropology are specialized fields within social anthropology that deal with such problems. Therefore, we can say that the scope and objectives of social anthropology go together; affects each other. As the scope increases, a new target emerges.





To trace the origin of the term social anthropology, we also need to trace the theoretical framework to some extent. Along with this, the term cultural anthropology will also come in our discussion, because these two terms have a close interpretation. Sometimes these two terms overlap in the field of practice.

Though we have subjective debate on the term social anthropology and cultural anthropology, sometimes we find the use of these two terms interchangeably. People use the term socio-cultural anthropology to interchange these two words. But historically the ideology of these two terms has been debated and as a student of anthropology we need to know these issues.

There are basically two major schools of thought in anthropology. One is British ideology and the other is American ideology. British school of thought divided anthropology into three basic branches


1) Biological or physical anthropology.

2) Social Anthropology.

3) Archaeology.



The American School defines four branches of anthropology:


1) Physical Anthropology

2) Cultural Anthropology.

3) Archeology

4) Linguistic Anthropology.



Thus, we see that there are many issues related to terminology. It is surrounded by many historical debates. We will try to unfold these debates in our next sections.




  1. Physical Anthropology: Physical anthropology studies the human body, genetics and the position of man among living beings. Some of its definitions are as follows:
  2. JE Manchip White: “Physical Anthropology is the study of the physical appearance of man.”
  3. Hobel, “Physical Anthropology is therefore the study of the physical characteristics of human

Race like this”.

  1. M.H. Herskovits, “Physical anthropology is, in essence, human biology.”
  2. Piddington, “Physical Anthropology is concerned with the physical characteristics of man.”

Now physical anthropology is divided into the following five branches according to the specialization of study.

  1. Human Genetics: Human genetics is that branch of physical anthropology that studies the origin of man. Human genetics is the study of human heredity. It studies human physical characteristics that are transmitted from generation to generation through heredity.
  2. Human Paleontology: Human paleontology studies old human skeletons of different stages. It also studies the history of the Earth’s development. According to Webster’s New International Dictionary, “Human paleontology is the science that deals with life of past geological periods. It is based on the study of the fossilized remains of organisms.”
  3. Ethnography: Ethnography studies human races. Ethnography classifies human races and studies their physical characteristics. Ethnography is based on anthropometry and biometrics, as they both measure racial characteristics.



  1. Anthropometry: According to Herskovits, anthropometry can be defined as the measurement of human beings. Anthropologists have determined certain characteristics by the measurement of which human races can be classified. Anthropometry is again classified into two branches, the study of physical structures of living humans and the study of human fossils.
  2. Biometry: In the words of Charles Winick, biometry is the statistical analysis of biological studies particularly applied to areas such as disease, birth, growth and death. Thus biometry is the statistical study of biological characteristics.
  3. Cultural Anthropology

Cultural anthropology studies human cultures. Man invents, develops and establishes some kind of system to run his personal and social life. This whole system is culture. It is a social heritage. However, it is not transmitted through heredity. It is learned through imitation, experience and understanding. cultural anthropology human customs, rituals, traditions, common

Geology studies life, religion, art, science, literature, and economic and political organization. According to

E.A. Hobel. “The phase of anthropology which focuses its attention on the customs and manners of mankind is

called cultural anthropology”.

Cultural anthropology is classified into the following two categories:

  1. Prehistoric Archaeology: Literally speaking, archeology is the study of ancient times. Thus it studies ancient things. Archeology studies ancient history that has no written records. The things and articles discovered by archaeological excavations give us an idea about the culture of the people who used them. It also records the cultural achievements of a particular era and the area of its expansion.
  2. Social Anthropology: Social anthropology, as the name suggests, studies social organization and social institutions. According to Firth, “One of the broadest ways of defining social anthropology is to say that it studies human social processes comparatively.”

Physical anthropology and cultural anthropology are closely related. The various branches of physical anthropology have a profound influence on the study of social anthropology, a branch of cultural anthropology. Again archeology has been helpful in the study of various branches of physical anthropology.

social Anthropology

Social anthropology is an important branch of anthropology. Social anthropology is social. This meaning of the word ‘social’ is sufficient to show how the scope and approach of social anthropology differ from other branches of anthropology. Some definitions of social anthropology are as follows:

  1. Piddington: “Social anthropologists study the cultures of contemporary primitive communities.” This definition of social anthropology is a bit narrow because anthropology does



Not only studies primitive cultures but also studies contemporary cultures. From this point of view, S.C. The definition of social anthropology given by Dubey is more appropriate.

  1. SC Dubey: “Social anthropology is that part of cultural anthropology which focuses its primary attention on the study of social structure and religion rather than on the material aspects of culture.” It is clear that social anthropology studies various aspects of social structure such as social institutions, social relations and social phenomena etc.
  2. Penniman: “That part of cultural anthropology which deals with social phenomena is called social anthropology”.
  3. M.N. Srinivasa: “It is a comparative study of human societies. Ideally, I

T includes all societies, primitive, civilized and historical. Dr. Srinivas has given a fairly detailed definition of social anthropology.

  1. Charles Winick: “Social anthropology is the study of social behavior, especially

Approach to the systematic comparative study of social forms and institutions.

In short, social anthropology is the comparative study of social behavior and social phenomena of men of all countries and ages.

Scope of Social Anthropology

In defining social anthropology, Beals and Hoizer write that “it is concerned with culture, whether that of the primitive men of the Stone Age or the European city-dwellers of today.” Although this is more properly a definition of cultural anthropology, yet it shows definitely and clearly that the scope of social anthropology is very wide. It includes the study of various parts of culture, social institutions, and economic and political administration. The main branches of social anthropology are given below:

  1. Ethnography
  2. Family Anthropology
  3. Economic Anthropology
  4. Political Anthropology
  5. Symbolism and Linguistics
  6. Ideas and Art
  7. Ethnography: Ethnography is the main area of social anthropology. As its name suggests, it studies the human race. Its scope also includes the study of cultures of different castes.
  8. Family Anthropology: The family is the basic institution of the society. Social anthropology, therefore, also studies the family. This branch of social anthropology is known as family anthropology. It makes a comparative study of families of different cultures and societies. It studies the various forms as well as the progression of the family. The family is based on marriage. family



Hence anthropology includes the study of various forms of marriage. This includes marriage as well as other blood relations.

  1. Economic Anthropology: Economic laws act as an important art in social organization. Along with the change in economic administration, there are some radical changes in the social structure. Social anthropology, therefore, closely studies the economic administration of primitive and civilized human societies and the different levels of development in them.
  2. Political Anthropology – Political anthropology has an important place in economic administration as well as in social structure. So social anthropology studies all kinds of political administration, laws, governments and rules of punishment etc. This branch of social anthropology is known as political anthropology.
  3. Symbolism and Linguistics: The study of various symbols of human behaviour, which are the present n languages of different societies, provide many important facts for the study of society.

Let’s know So social anthropology studies all these also. The entire linguistic field comes under this branch of social anthropology. The major branches of linguistics are given below:

  1. i) Descriptive Linguistics: It studies individual and regional languages;
  2. ii) Historical Linguistics: It is the historical study of languages;

iii) Comparative Linguistics: It studies comparative facts about language;

  1. iv) General Linguistics: It studies the difference between minimal and maximal roots of some languages.
  2. Ideas and Art: The study of ideas is very important in theoretical studies. The idea includes religion, magic, science, and even legends. Social anthropology is the comparative study of all these things in ancient human societies. Art is an important part of culture and culture reflects the inner part of the society. Social anthropology studies sculpture, metallurgy, and even dance and instrumental and vocal music.

Social Anthropology and Cultural Anthropology

Dr. D.N. Mazumdar and other contemporary anthropologists have considered social anthropology as a part of cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropology studies the way of life of contemporary primitive man. There are four branches of cultural anthropology, e.g. linguistics and symbology, thought and art, economic anthropology and social anthropology. Social anthropology studies different types of social life and its development. Thus, according to Dr. Majumdar, linguistics, iconography, economic anthropology and thought and art are outside the purview of social anthropology.


According to this view, family anthropology and political anthropology are only part of social anthropology. This is clear from the aforesaid discussion about the scope of social anthropology. But family anthropology and political anthropology are closely related to other branches. Morgan, an American anthropologist, was the founder of social anthropology. Social anthropology and cultural anthropology differ more in their subject matter than in their method and concepts. While cultural anthropology studies cultures,



Social anthropology is the study of social structure, social organization and social relations. Morgan studied anthropology through the study of society. Durkheim showed

Social relations differ from psychological relations and in either case social anthropology studies anthropology in the context of society. According to contemporary American anthropologists, social anthropology is only a branch of cultural anthropology because culture is a broader concept than society and is far broader than what is involved in the study of social life.

Nature of Social Anthropology

Social Anthropology is a science and to know this fact it is necessary to understand what science is. Some people start considering a particular subject matter as chemistry or engineering etc. Common people differentiate between science and art in this sense. But it would be better to let the scientists explain what science is. Some definitions of science are given below:

  1. Besanz, J. and Besanz, M. (2010). It is the attitude rather than the content that is the test of science.
  2. Green is a method of science investigation.
  3. White. Science is scientific.
  4. Weinberg and Shabat. Science is a special way of looking at the world.
  5. Carl Pearson. The unity of science lies in its method, not in its nature.

Apart from these scientists, Karl, Churchman, Acoff, Gillin and Gillin and many social anthropologists have also considered science as a method. It is because of method that it is different from art. It is because of method that all sciences, even if they have different fields, are called sciences.











Social Anthropology in India


1) André Beteille (1996) used the term ‘Indian anthropology’ to mean the study of society and culture in India by anthropologists, regardless of their nationality. Indian society and culture is being studied by various anthropologists inside and outside the country.

2) In the context of world anthropology, Indian anthropology appears to be very young.


3) However, the origin of anthropology dates back to the late nineteenth century with the ethnographic compilation of the traditions and beliefs of various tribes and castes in different provinces of India. Anthropological data was collected only during the British colonial rule.


4) Government officials and missionaries collected some anthropological data for the first time in the eighteenth century without any academic interest. But, the motive behind this was not to study Indian societies and cultures, but to help the British administration for smooth governance. The missionaries had a religious motive. However, both the administrator and the missionary were


5) He was amazed when he came across such a wide variety of people with completely different cultures. He tried to communicate his strange experience through writing, by describing the people and their facts. In the late nineteenth century, administrators and missionaries in India wrote extensively about the Indian people and their lives. Trained British officers such as Risley, Dalton, Thurston, O’Malley, Russell, Crookes, Mills etc. and many others who were posted in India wrote compendiums on the tribes and castes of India.

6) During this period some British anthropologists like Rivers, Seligman, Radcliffe-Brown, Hutton came to India and did anthropological fieldwork. Anthropologists in India progressed successfully throughout the century that followed. Indian anthropologists borrowed ideas, frameworks and procedures of work from western anthropologists and practiced these while studying their own culture and society rather than those of other cultures.

7) Sc Roy, D.N. Mazumdar, G.S. Ghurye, SC. Dubey, N.K. Bose, L.P. Student and S. Sinha tried to trace the origin and development of social anthropology in India. SC Roy’s paper Anthropological Research in India (1921) refers to works on tribes and castes published prior to 1921. Anthropological accounts included the writings of British administrators and missionaries, as anthropological work in India before 1921 was mainly done by these people. After this DN Majumdar tried to trace the development of anthropology in India. This effort was made after twenty five years of work by SC Roy.


8) DN Majumdar tried to link the developing discipline of anthropology in India with the theory of culture that originated in Britain and America. American influence was first recognized in addition to the work of British administrators and missionaries.

9) GS Ghurye in his article The Teaching of Sociology, Social Psychology and Social Anthropology (1956) wrote, ‘Social anthropology in India has not kept pace with developments in England, Europe or America. Although social anthropologists in India are, to some extent, familiar with the work of important British anthropologists or some continental scholars, their knowledge of American social anthropology is by no means inadequate. SC Dubey (1952) discussed this issue in the light of research oriented issues.


10) He said that Indian anthropology needs more attention from social workers, administrators or political leaders, so that research oriented issues are properly dealt with. NK Bose discussed the progress of anthropology in India in 1963 – prehistoric anthropology, physical anthropology and cultural anthropology. Recent trends like village studies, caste studies, study of leadership and power structure, kinship and social organization of tribal village and applied anthropology came to the Indian scene in the 1970s and


11) LP Vidyarthi discussed these issues to trace the development of anthropology in India. He felt the need for an integrated approach from various disciplines for a proper understanding of man and society. His main emphasis was on ‘Indianness’. According to him the ideas of Indian thinkers as reflected in the ancient scriptures were full of social facts and therefore could be traced in the understanding of India’s cultural process and civilizational history. Surjit Sinha (1968) L. Endorsing P. Vidyarthi’s view, he said that Indian anthropologists responded promptly to the latest developments in the West but they gave logical priority to the Indian situation.


12) In India, anthropology began with the work of missionaries, traders and administrators, where the main focus was on the different cultural backgrounds of the Indian people. The rich tribal culture attracted the study of social anthropology. Tribal culture became a major area for social anthropological research. It continued with the changing trend and accommodated the study of village system, and Indian civilization. Other social institutions like religion, kinship, marriage etc.





The diversity of customs and diversity of Indian culture has created a unique field of research among social anthropologists of India. Various ideas such as dominant caste, sacred precincts, tribe-caste continuum, minor and major traditions, sanskritization etc. emerged, which gave a new direction to Indian anthropology.


Thus, a body of strong Indian anthropological thought was created. Indian anthropology continues to grow with new ideas. Emerging areas like ecology, developmental studies etc. are also coming up. Anthropologists in India take a keen interest in tribal studies. New challenges are also emerging in the era of globalization and Indian social anthropologists are focusing on that.


After independence, when the new government assumed power, India was faced with new challenges of social reform. The whole notion of Indian culture had to be remade, as diverse cultural spheres came under one roof. Various tribal societies and cultures were unable to cope with this changing situation.


  Apart from administrative policies, Indian social anthropologists took initiative to overcome such crisis and showed interest in the study of diverse cultures in India under the common roof of Indian civilization. Government policies were influenced by these social anthropological works as these works were related to sensitive issues like tribal development. This trend continues in the field of Indian anthropology. Today, in the era of globalization, social anthropologists in India deal with new challenges faced by tribal communities.


Along with development studies, identity and gender issues are popular among them. The study of folk culture is a major area. Along with development studies, issues such as tribal displacement and resettlement also come up.

Rajik has been a major focus for anthropologists. Tribal art, the study of indigenous knowledge systems, etc. are gaining popularity with new global issues such as global warming.







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