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Durham University

Department of Anthropology

Research Showcase

This showcase highlights areas in which the Department of Anthropology has particular research strengths across our three research groups, and examples of where our research has made demonstrable real-world impact.

Energy and Society

A major challenge facing society today is how to manage our use of energy, particularly in the current transition to a low-carbon energy economy. Anthropologists play a crucial role in addressing this challenge. We see energy systems as socio-technical, that is, co-produced through relations between constituent social and technical elements.

Energy is central to the research of several members of the Department of Anthropology, including Dr Simone Abram, Prof Catherine Alexander, Dr Sandra Bell, Dr Ben Campbell, Prof Paul Sillitoe, and Dr Thomas Yarrow. Much of this research is conducted through the Durham Energy Institute, which has a dedicated research cluster for Energy and Society comprising several members of the department. We also run an MSc in Energy and Society, a 12-month taught programme combining anthropological and interdisciplinary perspectives on energy use.

Cultural Evolution

Cultural evolution is the theory that cultural change is a Darwinian evolutionary process that shares fundamental characteristics with biological evolution. This means that evolutionary concepts (e.g. selection, adaptation) and tools (e.g. mathematical models, phylogenetic methods) can be applied to cultural domains including technology, language, knowledge and beliefs. Cultural evolution has emerged in recent years as one of the most exciting and rapidly expanding interdisciplinary fields of study, linking the biological and social sciences.

The evolutionary anthropology group at Durham has one of the largest and most active groups of cultural evolution researchers in the world, including Dr Jeremy Kendal, Dr Rachel KendalDr Alex Mesoudi, Dr Jamie Tehrani, Prof Robert Layton, Dr Thom Scott-Phillips and Dr Malcolm Smith. The Centre for the Coevolution of Biology and Culture serves as an intellectual hub for our work, and provides interdisciplinary links to other departments. Our MSc in Evolutionary Anthropology and MA in Research Methods (Anthropology) with Cultural Evolution pathway provide dedicated masters-level training in cultural evolution theory and methods.


As anthropologists we have a responsibility to not only understand the world we live in, but also to conserve it for future generations. Our work in conservation links several research groups, and several meanings of the term ‘conservation’ - conservation of species, conservation of political heritage, and conservation of material culture.

Primatologists Dr Russell Hill, Dr Jo Setchell and Dr Rachel Kendal work to improve relations between humans and wild populations of non-human primates and other species. Social anthropologists Dr Thomas Yarrow and Dr Nayanika Mookherjee work in the area of heritage politics, examining how societies choose to conserve memories of major cultural events such as wars. In the area of material culture, Dr Jamie Tehrani, Dr Paolo Fortis, Prof Bob Layton and Dr Alex Flynn study the conservation of physical artifacts in museums and art galleries, and how societies interact with such institutions.

Parent-Infant Sleep

The impact of our research on society can be seen in the work of Prof Helen Ball’s Parent-Infant Sleep Lab. Prof Ball and her team of researchers study all aspects of parent-infant sleep, including Sudden Infant Death and sleep environments, circadian rhythm development, and the risks and benefits of bed-side cribs. The results of this research have been used to inform professional recommendations and guidance provided by organisations such as UNICEF, the National Health Service (UK) and the Royal College of Midwives (UK). In recognition of this impact, in 2013 Prof Ball was awarded an ESRC award for Outstanding Impact in Society and in 2017 Durham University was awarded the the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher Education for ‘leading influential research on parent-infant sleep with a widely-used public information service’ (for a video of the event see here).

Transport and Mobility in Africa

Dr Gina Porter and Dr Kate Hampshire have conducted extensive research into mobility and transport in rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa, highlighting the transport and mobility challenges that must be addressed to improve economic and social wellbeing in such communities. The aim is to provide an evidence base strong enough to substantially improve policy and to change thinking across Africa.

One major project looked at mobility and transport issues in children in Ghana, Malawi and South Africa, while a current project is looking at the impact of mobile phones. Recommendations from this research have been adopted by the World Bank, Ghana’s education service, Help Age International, the UK Department for International Development and more.

Indigenous Knowledge and Development

Prof Paul Sillitoe has led a team of researchers highlighting the pressing need to include indigenous knowledge in development practice and sustainable resource management.

Prof Sillitoe helped to establish an NGO-based network, the Bangladeshi Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge (BARCIK), which has empowered local people in Bangladesh and helped to promote agricultural resilience and sustainable livelihoods (e.g. by preserving seed bio-diversity). Development practitioners at Bangladeshi universities and UNESCO have implemented practices informed by the work of Durham anthropologists.