What is anthropology?
What do anthropologists do today? Who are they talking to? And who listens to them?
Anthropologists question what is assumed, challenge what is common sense, and critically engage with human creativity. We explore our home contexts and elsewhere, the past and the present, with research partners throughout the world. As Professor David Mosse explains in this video, the wide-ranging curiosity of anthropologists is what makes them distinctive.
Anthropology: What Is Distinctive About It? by David Mosse
Anthropology at SOAS today
Anthropology was a discipline born of the colonial world. That world has changed and so too has anthropology at SOAS.
Beyond the classroom, we speak to audiences all over, in government and civic groups, through Ted talks, and in the field of development and mental health. We've gathered on this page videos and interviews with some of SOAS’ anthropologists explaining their research.
Challenging common sense and exploring context
In this video, Professor Edward Simpson talks about what lies below and beyond the everyday common sense of roads, as they shape borders, boundaries, and human experience in multifarious ways.
Anthropology and Roads by Ed Simpson
Dr Catherine Dolan, an anthropologist with expertise in development and East Africa, researches the serious gendered dimensions of poverty in relation to menstruation, another seemingly common sense phenomenon that is “natural as a heartbeat” but dangerous for many. She has found that better sanitary care and reproductive health education for poor schoolgirls, delivered over two years, improved attendance at school, and argues that period poverty is an issue for everyone. Explore more from Dr Dolan on the issue of period poverty and her research.
Anthropologists are helping us understand a lot about religion today, exploring what is distinctive about different religions. The Department of Anthropology at SOAS has a great deal of expertise on Islam specifically. See Professor Marloes Janson’s discussion of whether Nigeria is the most religious country in the world, how she understands religion as a form of development, and her analysis of democratic political developments in Gambia.
Dr Kostas Retsikas explains something about Islamic charity to the Muslim Institute based on his research in Indonesia. In this interview, he also questions the search for equivalence in establishing cross-cultural dialogue, asking whether Islamic practices of giving and taking as relating to zakat and sedekah are translatable to what the Euro-American world understands as charity and/or philanthropy.
Anthropologists have much to say about the past, too, and particularly how we think about and act upon the past in the present. Dr Lori Allen’s research on Palestine helps us understand more about the political past — as in this aricle about a century of Palestinians’ refusal of the Balfour Declaration — and how we can research the past in the present, as in this reflective piece about working in archives. Anthropologists also sometimes see what’s coming, as explained in this description of Dr Allen’s writings about the potentials and limits of human rights in Palestine and elsewhere.
Health and Medicine
Anthropologists have particular insights to offer about mental health, opening up questions about what behaviours are considered pathological, and what contexts lead to mental illness. Dr Orkideh Behrouzan — physician, medical anthropologist, and poet — tell stories of childhood memories and war to disrupt how we usually think about mental health, the Middle East, and the relationship between individual and collective memories.
Rethinking Mental Health and the Afterlife of War
Anthropologists understand the workings of politics from unique angles, questioning common categories and approaches. Below, you can listen to Professor Ruba Salih’s TedX talk reflecting on who is a refugee, and the dangers of benevolence.
Refugees. The Danger Of Benevolence
Anthropologists also look at politics and institutions in a variety of ways, and provide briefings in their areas of expertise. Anthropologists have been researching parliaments and advising about how to engage with them in order to hold the UK government to account.
- The following short briefing provides guidance about how to give evidence to select committees (PDF); also watch this YouTube video to learn more about this research on parliaments.
- Read Dr Janson's briefing for the African Research Institute on Gambia
- Read Professor David Mosse's research on caste in Britain supported the work of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the UK (PDF)
Anthropology and research
Anthropologists regularly collaborate with researchers across their research sites. An example of this is Professor Emma Crewe’s project on parliament and people, which is enabling researchers, artists and activists from everywhere to discuss and imagine what democratic politics might look like in a more engaged and inclusive political world.
Some anthropologists share their insights through creative writing, too. 2020 marked the 40th anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq War. Dr Orkideh Behrouzan speaks with Azadeh Tajpour about the war and how these experiences are represented in her creative and scholarly work. In particular, this interview centers two of her creative pieces: the short story 'The War We Lived' and the poem 'Leica'. Both pieces bring to light the impact of war and militarism on one’s experience of gender and youth. In the following links you can find more of Dr Behrouzan’s writings and theatrical adaptations.
Find out more about Anthropology Research at SOAS