Written by Karam Filfilan, Editor, Graduate Prospects, January 2012
Whether it’s emulating Bruce Parry and investigating the tribes of the Amazon or staying closer to home, an anthropologist becomes an expert in human culture.
A postgraduate degree in social anthropology is all about investigating and examining why humans behave the way they do.
‘To me, social anthropology is the study of how people behave in a variety of contexts,’ says Keir Martin, a lecturer at the University of Manchester.
‘In a nutshell, it means that if you really want to understand something about the way that people do the things that they do, it helps to actually take part in those activities with them and get used to the context within which they act.’
The wide-ranging nature of anthropology means that you could find yourself spending lots of time abroad, in far-flung countries working with people very different from yourself.
Keir’s own research has taken him to Papua New Guinea, where he spent two years studying the effects of globalisation and social change on the country’s customs. He also became fluent in two Papua New Guinean native languages.
‘My work in Papua New Guinea remains at the heart of everything I do as a researcher. There is no substitute for the lessons you learn from living alongside people. An event can have a range of different interpretations and meanings, which at first might seem unimportant. However, by living with people you get to understand why these little things are so important to them, and it really informs your research.’
A social anthropology postgraduate course is open to almost anyone, regardless of what you may have previously studied. The MA course at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) accepts graduates with a 2:1 in any subject, and caters for both students with previous experience and without.
Students take a core module on how to conduct studies on societies and cultures, but are then free to choose extra modules on subjects as diverse as science fiction films and West Africa.
You can search for learning opportunities in our postgraduate course search.
Anthropologists are increasingly prominent in both the public and private world. As well as informing business organisations, anthropologists are also in demand as consultants and experts. As Keir points out, the financial journalist Gillian Tett was one of the few analysts to predict the credit crisis – a fact she largely attributed to her studies in social anthropology, saying it was a ‘brilliant background’ for looking at finance.
Many graduates go on to work in international development roles for both big and small companies. Research and marketing, governmental jobs and charity work are also popular destinations.
Jessica Kendall is researching a PhD on Ethiopian circus acrobats, focusing on the politics of race in the international circus arena.
‘I initially wanted to focus on the relationship between training acrobatics in China and then performing them abroad, but things changed after I got there. I began to meet students from Africa who were there on a cultural exchange learning acrobatics. I was instinctively intrigued and ended up following this group of Ethiopian circus performers around the globe. This meant I had to adopt an approach of spontaneity to place and methodology in the field as I watched this group navigate their careers on an international scale.
‘My research has taken me around the world. I’ve conducted fieldwork in China, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Ethiopia, although China was the only trip that I was able to plan out ahead of time.
‘I think the most important thing for an anthropology student to think about is there topic of research. It’s very important to feel passionate about your work, so pick a subject that will carry you through the entire research process from beginning to end.’
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