Sociocultural Anthropology and Ethnography
Sociocultural anthropologists conduct long term research in one or more communities and participate in daily activities while they observe and engage with community members. This approach is always collaborative, grounded in conversation rather than in distanced and decontextualized analysis. This approach and the knowledge it generates are intensely local, “on the ground” and “in the weeds” with the peoples it studies – yet synthesizing and critical of received canons and theories. Its disciplined, participatory, long-term, and self-reflexive methods mean that ethnographic knowledge is hard-earned and unique. At the same time, sociocultural anthropologists often employ methods from the humanities and other social sciences to complement their ethnographic research.
Sociocultural anthropologists embrace the humanities when they investigate realms as far-reaching as expressive culture (music, performance, material arts, texts, architecture, film, and other semiotic media); religious practices and movements, moral values, ethics, and human rights; history, heritage, and memory practices (how the past has made and is recollected in the present); stories and storytelling; knowledge formations, the construction of (multiple) realities through practices involving entities as various as the dead, deities, non-human life forms, and things; consumption and tourism; and nature, biomedicine, and other sciences and technologies.
Members of the Program thus study history, memory and everyday life in Japan; memory practices of how the past is made and recollected in the present, and how intellectual property law is interpreted in Southeast Asia; expressive religious experience among African Americans; psychiatry as a globalizing form of knowledge and practice in South Asia; and meanings and modes of evidence within emerging forms of technologized embodiment in biomedicine.
Sociocultural anthropologists attend to the social sciences when they examine the enacted and performed divisions, solidarities and alliances that mark interactions between individuals, groups and communities of different ethnicities, classes, genders, sexualities, and nationalities, and generate different forms and meanings of power. They thus consider relationships of caste inequality; class antagonisms and alliances; ethnic conflicts and chauvinisms; processes of race and state formation, citizenship, and sovereignty; the function of economic institutions (e.g. markets), and the processes of production, consumption, distribution, exchange and waste disposal; the asymmetries of gender and different sexualities; urbanization and transnational migration; the making of democratic and nondemocratic politics; social movements and their knowledges; political leadership, parties, factions and interest groups. As they do so, sociocultural anthropologists reflect critically on the Western (and sometimes ethnocentric) premises of much prevailing social science scholarship, and seek to advance it in more innovative directions.
More specifically, members of the Program study the negotiation and contestation of colonial processes by sovereign indigenous peoples in north America; gender, race, and sexuality in changing cultural, political, and economic contexts in Latin America; the processes through which reproductive health strategies contribute to liberalize post-Soviet Russia; the relations between ethnic identities and class and state formation in Southeast Asia; the ways Andean communities use heritage and place to defend entrepreneurial activities; social movements and activism in Latin America, the Caribbean and North America; and how people’s identities and behaviors express experience, society and history through race, religion and class in the Caribbean, among other research foci.
Sociocultural anthropologists confront the emergent natural, biological and technological systems that condition human life, social relations, and the making of cultural meanings, when they turn to the ecologies of rural and indigenous peoples; the study of common property regimes (“the commons”); the ecologies of disease transmission; the interplay between natural disasters and human responses; the emergence and endurance (or not) of complex adaptive systems (e.g., of resource use); the relationship between anthropogenic climate change, social relations, meaning and inequality. As they do so, sociocultural anthropologists are keenly aware of the imperative for reconceptualizing the relationship between the natural sciences and anthropology, given the many studies by sociocultural anthropologists of the interactions between the human species and nature, between human intentional social change and biochemical processes (e.g., warfare and pollution), between human beings and the technologies they create, and between the human species and the nonhuman species on which humans depend for life and survival. Sociocultural anthropology recognizes that we are embodied animals in complex relations with other living beings. Human practices do not just respond to but reshape and generate nature, in areas as diverse as anthropogenic climate change; the genetic manipulation of life forms; and intervention in human biological process of birth, development, and death.
Thus members of the Program study household dynamics and global change in African drylands; the intersections of nature and society by studying human-animal relations; political ecology in South America and North America; common property regimes in Latin America and North America; and globally mobile experts, technologies and organizations in relation to crisis and human needs, among other research areas.
Sociocultural anthropology therefore unifies its interests in meaning and power, social relations, and interactions between humans and natural processes in its central focus on ethnographic fieldwork. The capacity of ethnography to provide integrative, reflexive, long-term, participatory, and hard-won knowledge of specific peoples, cultures, locales and natural contexts is its great strength. Toward achieving this potential, Sociocultural Anthropology faculty teach undergraduate courses in ethnographic methods. They also offer a variety of graduate seminars, starting from the Sociocultural Theory and Ethnography core courses, and extending to such courses as “Human Rights and Humanitarianism,” “Researching and Writing Lives,” “Power,” “Transcultural Psychiatry,” and “Current Issues in Participatory Research,” among many others. Sociocultural anthropologists are active in the Participatory Research Certificate Program, and in several working groups (e.g., the Moral Economies of Medicine Working Group), and sponsor lectures and workshops on selected research problems and social issues.
Developing and employing the strengths of the ethnographic approach and related methods are crucial in light of accelerating challenges to human welfare, such as growing economic and social inequalities, new technologies, industrialized warfare, and global climate change.
Many UNC sociocultural anthropologists commit to scholarship that cuts across traditional categories of teaching, research, and service. They join with other colleagues in the Department in this endeavor. They develop projects in consultation with communities, write for wider audiences, and support knowledge creators who work outside the university.
One practical expression of that commitment has been the involvement of the Department’s faculty in UNC’s Graduate Certificate in Participatory Research.