What is Sociocultural Anthropology?

To properly understand what Sociocultural Anthropology is, it is necessary to understand what Cultural Anthropology is on the one hand and Social Anthropology on the other. Although it is true, that many authors use them as synonyms, since both have many points in common, these two tendencies have different origins because, as the Argentine anthropologist Lischetti says,  “The discipline as a whole was never homogeneous in terms of interests and perspectives. ”  (Lischetti, M: 2001, p.14) or as the Peruvian anthropologist Rodrigo Montoya tells us: “There is no Anthropology,” Anthropology “is an abstraction. What exist are different anthropological trends that vary from country to country and within each of them. English Social Anthropology is not the same as North American Cultural Anthropology or French Ethnology ”  (Montoya, R: 1975, p. 24)

  1. Boas. Founder of the American School of Cultural Anthropology

Cultural anthropology

Its origin is in the American continent, specifically in the United States , where the research initially focused on Native Americans and was strongly influenced by the particularistic descriptive approach of Franz Boas’s ethnography , anthropology came to be associated with culture , that “All complex” (in the words of Edward Tylor) encompassing customs, language, material culture, social order, philosophy, arts, and so on.

Thus, cultural anthropology focuses on culture  as the central concept of the discipline and analyzes human reality based on this concept.

Social anthropology


AR Radcliffe- Brown. Founder of the British School of Social Anthropology

Its origin is in Europe ,  specifically in Great Britain. Social anthropology is more closely related to economics, history, and political philosophy than to physical anthropology and archeology, which are often taught in separate programs.

As social anthropology evolved in Europe, it became associated with the studies of non-Western peoples’ economics, ecology, politics, kinship patterns, and social organization, particularly in colonial Africa and Asia.

The British approach to anthropology was strongly influenced by French sociology, so one of its founders, Radcliffe-Brown , associated it with sociological (especially functionalist) and, more recently, historical approaches.

Thus, many social anthropologists – including Radcliffe-Brown – openly expressed that they considered social anthropology a branch of sociology, since they did not consider culture as a central concept but rather social structure.

This in turn caused many cultural anthropologists to mention that social anthropologists are not “red-bone” anthropologists interested in culture, but sociologists.

Why did this schism happen?

Following the Spanish anthropologist, Esteva Fabregat:

“I think that the contemporary expansion of Social Anthropology is a historical reaction against Ethnology, and I also understand that Great Britain originally, from AR Radcliffe-Brown who understood this discipline as a branch of Comparative Sociology, not only the influence and epistemological approaches of Émile Durkheim appeared, but there was also a fund of reaction against the «foreigner» B. Malinowski. The latter, due to his European tradition, was more ethnologist or culturalist than social or sociological. In many ways, Radcliffe-Brown’s rivalry with Malinowski meant the more or less open fight for control of the corresponding British academic institution. (…) Malinowski’s presence would represent the European ethnological tradition, but the demand for phenomenological analysis for the practical resolution of colonial problems also imposed this type of practical anthropology. In it, the semantics and meaning of social relations would have prevailed as a practical factor on comparative ethnography and, of course, would have prevailed over the historical consideration of cultural problems. For my part, I think that Social Anthropology not only originates from Durkheim and its Radcliffe-Brown epigone, but actually concerns an intellectual expansion hosted by a covert fund of nationalist representations, typical of the competitive British empire. , (Interview with Esteva Fabregat in Colobrans, Martínez and Prat.:1996, p.23)

The key method of social and cultural anthropology

  1. Malinowski. Inventor of the central method of collecting data from social and cultural anthropology: Ethnography

Whether cultural or social anthropology, the primary method of data collection is ethnography, that is  the written description of a human group.

Ethnography has undergone many changes since it began with field reports of missionaries and colonial officers.

The pace of change has increased since the 1960s, as recognition of global ties has become standard, other scientists have adapted ethnographic methods, and postmodernism has imposed stricter criteria for self-reflection on writers.

The methodological partner of ethnography is ethnology, the comparative study of societies.


In its early decades, anthropology established the ideal that a comprehensive ethnographic record of world cultures would allow comparative studies leading to generalizations about the evolution and functioning of all societies.

Intercultural studies remain one of the distinctive aspects

The differences are complementary:  sociocultural anthropology

Soon American and British anthropologists realize that the differences are actually complementary, and that both British and American could learn from each other, hence the current talk of sociocultural anthropology.As a way of joining both schools, since in the end there is no greater difference than the emphasis given to one concept or another. In summary, we can conclude with what was written by the Spanish anthropologist Llobera: “Because of the emphasis it places on cultural aspects, the discipline is known in the United States as cultural anthropology (…) Because of this specific approach to social structure, a concept to which it refers, the discipline will be considered in Great Britain, and now also in most of the European continent, as a social anthropology, however, the differences between cultural and social anthropology are more a matter of emphasis than of content. ”(Llobera, J: 1999, p.13, p14)

It can be said, then, that

” Sociocultural anthropology studies human societies and cultures, trying to discover, as a matter of priority, shared elements and differences, with a holistic strategy, that is, focused on globality … The position that is adopted when naming this discipline sociocultural anthropology agrees with both more widespread denominations (social anthropology and cultural anthropology) and, above all, it refers to a theoretical and methodological elaboration that is common. Both, the social and the cultural, largely coincide in their object and refer to problems and solutions that belong to both. This explains why, in academic contexts, the name of social anthropology and cultural anthropology participate in an accepted synonym ”(OCW University of Cantabria. Anthropology)


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