Social Anthropology: An Introduction (Online)


This course provides an exciting and dynamic introduction to the world of social anthropology. In brief, social anthropology is the study of how humans give meaning to the world through different social norms, values, practices and means of organisation. As such, the role of the social anthropologist is to explore and understand other cultures and societies, and in so doing, to better understand his or her own worldview as well. Through critical, sensitive debate and analysis, students will develop the analytical skills necessary to see the world in an anthropological way  to make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.

Listen to Dr Patrick Alexander talking about the course:

Over the duration of the course, students will explore a wide range of topics spanning many of the key themes of research in social anthropology. Units will include an introduction to thinking anthropologically, kinship, witchcraft, rituals and rites of passage, gender and identity, personhood, the anthropology of landscape, political organisation and the impact of globalisation on ethnicity.

For information on how the courses work, please click here.

Programme details

1. An introduction to social anthropology: key concepts

  • Culture, society, identity
  • Your culture, your society
  • Dealing with difference
  • Evaluating human developments and differences
  • Representation and derivation: anthropology of whom, from where, and why?

2. Kinship: given, or made?

  • Understanding kinship: an introduction to key ideas and terminology
  • Kinship diagrams: exploring your kinship
  • Case studies: Australia and the UK
  • Wombs for rent and dead sperm: New reproductive technologies and kinship in the twenty-first century

3. Witchcraft, religion and science: making sense of the world

  • Witchcraft and rationality: how do we make sense of misfortune?
  • Scientific rationality and the rationality of witchcraft
  • Case study: The Azande
  • Structural functionalism: What is the social function of witchcraft in Azande society?
  • Reflecting on your worldview

4. Gift exchange: is there such a thing as a free gift?

  • Gift giving in your culture
  • Understanding the structure of gift exchange
  • Case study: Malinowski and the kula ring of the Trobriand Islands
  • Analysing your own circles of gift exchange

5. Ritual and rites of passage: defining social status

  • Ritual and rites of passage: defining the terms
  • Understanding ritual
  • Circumcision, rites of manhood and coming of age
  • Anthropological theories for understanding ritual: structural functionalism, symbolism and the case study of the Ndembu
  • Analysing your own rites of passage

6. Political anthropology: power, authority and patterns of social organisation

  • Understanding the politics of your society
  • Anthropological perspectives of power and political organisation
  • Case studies: The Nuer and Melanesia
  • Case studies: The Nuer in the present
  • Build-your-own political structure

7. Humans and the environment: the anthropology of landscape

  • An ethnographic view of landscape
  • Nature and culture: the environment from an anthropological perspective
  • Multiple meanings of landscape
  • Anthropocentricity and consuming the landscape
  • Individual experiences of landscape

8. Personhood: what defines the category 'person'?

  • What makes a person?
  • Understanding personhood
  • Case study: The Gahuku Gama
  • Personhood and human rights: forum debate

9. Sex and gender: biology, identity and society

  • Markers of gender: the ‘female’ form
  • Feminist anthropology and the anthropology of gender
  • Case study: Third genders
  • Discussion: is biological sex also socially constructed?
  • The female form … revisited

10. Ethnicity and globalisation: understanding hyperdiversity

  • Globalisation and ethnicity: defining the terms
  • Understanding ethnicity and globalisation
  • Does globalisation make ethnicity more or less important?
  •  Globalisation: social implications
  •  Reflections on the course

We strongly recommend that you try to find a little time each week to engage in the online conversations (at times that are convenient to you) as the forums are an integral, and very rewarding, part of the course and the online learning experience.


To participate in the course you will need to have regular access to the Internet and you will need to buy the following texts:

Eriksen, T. H., What Is Anthropology? Anthropology, Culture and Society, (London, Pluto) You can purchase the first or second edition.

Eriksen, T. H., Small Places, Large Issues, 3rd edn (London, Pluto, 2010) OR Eriksen, T. H., Small Places, Large Issues, 4th edn (London, Pluto, 2015)

The 2023 edition of Small Places, Large Issues can also be used and a comparison chart is provided on the course to help with finding readings.

Please ensure you are able to access copies of any required textbooks prior to enrolling on a course.


Credit Application Transfer Scheme (CATS) points 

To earn credit (CATS points) for your course you will need to register and pay an additional £30 fee for each course you enrol on. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online. If you do not register when you enrol, you have up until the course start date to register and pay the £30 fee. 

See more information on CATS point

Coursework is an integral part of all online courses and everyone enrolled will be expected to do coursework, but only those who have registered for credit will be awarded CATS points for completing work at the required standard. If you are enrolled on the Certificate of Higher Education, you need to indicate this on the enrolment form but there is no additional registration fee. 


Digital credentials

All students who pass their final assignment, whether registered for credit or not, will be eligible for a digital Certificate of Completion. Upon successful completion, you will receive a link to download a University of Oxford digital certificate. Information on how to access this digital certificate will be emailed to you after the end of the course. The certificate will show your name, the course title and the dates of the course you attended. You will be able to download your certificate or share it on social media if you choose to do so. 

Please note that assignments are not graded but are marked either pass or fail. 


Description Costs
Course Fee £385.00
Take this course for CATS points £30.00


If you are in receipt of a UK state benefit, you are a full-time student in the UK or a student on a low income, you may be eligible for a reduction of 50% of tuition fees. Please see the below link for full details:


Concessionary fees for short courses


Dr Seamus Montgomery

Seamus is a social anthropologist and Postdoctoral Affiliate in the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford whose research has been primarily with and about EU civil servants. His doctoral thesis concerned itself with European identity and bureaucracy among policymakers in the European Commission in Brussels. Since 2015, he has collaborated with early career researchers across Europe on publishing policy-focused research papers for the Foundation for European Progressive Studies. He received his MA in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago and his BA in English, Anthropology and Comparative History of Ideas from the University of Washington. He has worked as a college tutor here at Oxford since 2018, running introductory courses on social anthropology and ethnographic methods for 1st- and 2nd-year undergraduates. Broader areas of interest include: identity and modernity; anthropological engagements with the future; Europeanization and elite bureaucratic cultures; emotional labour and moral agency; the history and consumption of modern popular culture.

Dr Alejandro Reig

Alejandro Reig (DPhil, MPhil in Social Anthropology: Oxford 2014, 2006; Philosophy BA Universidad Central de Venezuela 1989) is a researcher, teacher, consultant and applied researcher focused on Society-Environment interactions, from the perspectives of Social and Environmental Anthropology. He is currently a Research Affiliate at the School of Anthropology of the University of Oxford, where he has taught anthropological methods courses; and a Research Associate at CAICET, a tropical medicine institution of the Venezuelan Amazon.

His research interests include Spatial Anthropology, the Anthropology of Health, Development and Environmental Humanities, Human mobility, and the Anthropology of Lowland South America. He has recently co-authored with Roger Norum Migrantes, (Ediciones Ekaré, Barcelona, 2019) a book on global migrations for a wide audience.

Course aims

This course aims to introduce students to the discipline of social anthropology, presenting key themes, theoretical debates, the historical development of the discipline, and ongoing questions of anthropological inquiry that remain crucial to our understanding of contemporary culture and society.

Teaching methods

  • Guided reading of texts
  • Group discussions of particular issues
  • Questions to be answered in personal folders
  • Students will be directed to websites relevant to each session (occasionally as a requirement, usually as optional additional reading)

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course you will be able understand:

  • An overview of the key fields of research in social anthropology
  • An overview of the historical development of social anthropology, and an awareness of how anthropology related to contemporary society
  • An overview of key theoretical trajectories in social anthropology
  • An overview of the primary methods of anthropological research (ethnography)
  • The strengths and limitations of anthropological research

And you will have developed the following skills:

  • Develop the ability to think 'anthropologically': making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange
  • Develop critical thinking skills
  • Develop the ability to analyse ethnographic data
  • Develop the ability to discuss and debate issues of anthropological significance in a critical but sensitive manner

Assessment methods

You will be set two pieces of work for the course. The first of 500 words is due halfway through your course. This does not count towards your final outcome but preparing for it, and the feedback you are given, will help you prepare for your assessed piece of work of 1,500 words due at the end of the course. The assessed work is marked pass or fail.

English Language Requirements

We do not insist that applicants hold an English language certification, but warn that they may be at a disadvantage if their language skills are not of a comparable level to those qualifications listed on our website. If you are confident in your proficiency, please feel free to enrol. For more information regarding English language requirements please follow this link:


Please use the 'Book' or 'Apply' button on this page. Alternatively, please complete an Enrolment form for short courses | Oxford University Department for Continuing Education

Level and demands

FHEQ level 4, 10 weeks, approx 10 hours per week, therefore a total of about 100 study hours.

IT requirements

This course is delivered online; to participate you must to be familiar with using a computer for purposes such as sending email and searching the Internet. You will also need regular access to the Internet and a computer meeting our recommended minimum computer specification.