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Durham University

Department of Anthropology

Social Anthropology

Social anthropology is the study of social and cultural life in the various forms this takes in relation to the many contexts where this is found. As social anthropologists, we aim to answer questions of broad interest through the comparative study of particular people and places. We are especially interested in investigating people in contexts of everyday social life and in understanding these practices from the perspective of those involved. We use a range of ethnographic methods to do this, including participant observation, interviewing, and archival research.


Our research falls into four main areas, which closely intersect.

1. Many of us are carrying out research into the environment from quite different angles. We are interested in how people create natural, built and historic environments and are shaped through their various engagements with these contexts. The way we study energy highlights the politics inherent in its production and consumption and covers topics from domestic consumption and small-scale biogas production to nuclear energy. Our research into wildlife conservation brings together concerns and approaches from social and biological anthropology. Addressing questions of sustainable livelihoods requires an understanding of how indigenous knowledge creatively adapts to changing worlds.

2. We have an international reputation for our research on aesthetics, art and material culture. In various ways we are interested in the aesthetic dimensions of social life, including practices of art, craft and design, as well as the uses of imagery and narrative in public culture, political life, and the exercise of power and persuasion. Our research also sheds light on the many ways people are shaped through interactions with the material world such as experiences of museums, heritage, and other more everyday artefacts.

3. Much of our research focuses on the production and circulation of expert knowledge. We are interested in the social and institutional conditions that produce this and the ways in which others are shaped by and respond to this. Our research in this area has produced vital insights of practical and theoretical significance, including in relation to the expertise of scientists, planners, state bureaucrats and professionals in the areas of international development, heritage, energy and global public health.

4. Cross-cutting these three key areas, and as a key focus of research in its own right, our research is centrally concerned with the political dimensions of social and cultural life. Our work sheds light on both the various forms inequality takes and how this is perpetuated, negotiated and transformed through practice. We emphasise the politics of cultural representation, for example, in relation to ethnicity, religion and identity. Our research illuminates how power is exercised through the everyday practices of the state and through various responses to this such as conflict and violence, social movements, and the politics of relations between indigenous peoples and nation sates.

The Social Anthropology Research Group is large, lively and welcoming. We meet weekly for seminars and provide support for individuals’ grant applications and research development through workshops, reading groups and discussion groups. Many of our staff are also closely involved in the University's interdisciplinary research institutes such as the Durham Energy Institute, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience, the Durham Global Security Institute and the Centre for Visual Arts and Culture, which provide an even larger community of scholars to engage with in thinking through common problems and interests.

Find out more about social anthropology at Durham through members' websites, recent projects, our Postgraduate Opportunities page and a showcase of recent publications.