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Durham University

Department of Anthropology

South Africa Field Course

Soutpansberg Mountains, South Africa


This field course – the only one of its kind in the UK – is unique in its attempt to encourage a reflection on fieldwork at the intersection of biological and social anthropology. In so doing, the course builds on and takes forward the insights on methodology, interdisciplinarity and the different conceptual traditions of biological and social research that you have developed in your degree. The course will introduce you to two very different meanings of the term ‘fieldwork’. Biological and social anthropologists both go to the field – yet what they mean by this term and what they do there is rather different. The biological aspect of the field course gives you first-hand experience in collecting and analysing field data relating to primate behaviour and ecology; the social anthropological side prompts you to take an ethnographic, reflexive view of the biological field site itself and your own learning experiences there, together with elements of its local South African context. In sum, the module provides an introduction to the very different kinds of knowledge which biological and social anthropologists draw from the field, and a rounded understanding of the procedures and contexts of field science. Currently offered at Level 3 of both BA and BSc programmes, the module will likely become part of the broader field course offering proposed for Level 2 from 2018.


Our primary focus is to provide first-hand experience of collecting anthropological field data. Precise activities differ from year to year, but all students will experience collecting data on primate behaviour and ecology, through behavioural observations of habituated samango monkeys, feeding (giving up density) experiements and habitat surveys. Baboons, vervet monkeys and samango monleys all live in close proximity to the camp and you may also see thick-tailed bushbabies and lesser bushbabies at night. You will also gain a broader experience of the methods used by projects at the Anthropology Field Station, as well as gaining experience of elements of the local South African context. As a consequence you may engage in environmental education visits to local schools, camera trapping to monitor predator populations, boma building in local communities or helping with predator diet assessments. Students also have a 2-night residential homestay in the villvage of Indermark. Traditionally the field course ends with a visit to Sterkfontein caves on our journey back to the airport.


We stay at the Wilderness Camp at the Lajuma Research Centre, a camp just 100m from the Anthropology Field Station. The camp consists of a thatched living area (containing kitchen and dining facilities as well as space for research equipment and talks), and eight separate sleeping areas each containing 2-4 beds and bathroom facilities (hot water and showers along with sinks and conventional flush toilets). The camp has electricity from a generator (that normally runs until 9-10 pm), and gas refrigeration is used in the kitchen. A resident cook oversees catering arrangements with meals a mixture of international and local cuisine, including traditional South African meals such as poitjiekos (game stews), bobotie and braais (barbeques). The Soutpansberg is also a subtropical fruit area.


Appreciation for the interdisciplinarity of the course:

"… got to actually experience both biological and social anthropology, and it also gave me an appreciation of how hard fieldwork can be. You really can't get an appreciation for what trials that occur when you're simply reading about it" (2012 student)

I hugely enjoyed this module and it was a great experience to see a research station in action … I really liked biological/social overlap and the two parts of the course fitted together well allowing you get a broader idea of what the area is like” (2013 student)

[The best thing about the course was] the interdisciplinary nature of experiencing both biological and social sides” (2014 student)

a unique opportunity to conduct both biological and social anthropological fieldwork” (2015 student)

Feedback on the module:


“It has been my favourite module over the last 3 years, not only because of the experience and the context in which the course took place but also thanks to the quality of the teaching”

“Definitely my favourite aspect of the anthropology degree”

“Absolutely fantastic module, my favourite by far!”

“The experience was amazing and I learnt so much more than I would have if this module was back in Durham. I really allowed me to develop my skills in a very different way than I have previously.”

“It was an incredibly unique experience, one which I'll remember for the rest of my life”