SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Contemporary Trends in the Study of Society

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 3
Taught in:
Full Year

The course is taught in two sections, both of which address contemporary trends in the social sciences with special reference to the impact of post-structuralism, postmodernism and arguments around globalization upon Anthropology. This course is 1 and a half units to take account of the scope and importance of the subject matter:

  • One section of the course considers the philosophical aspects of the current intellectual scene. Students will address the problem of explanation in the social sciences in general, and anthropology in particular. Contemporary issues in anthropology are reviewed in the light of critiques from post-structuralism, but will move beyond these to examine more recent trends in the social sciences. Consideration will also be given to how historical narratives on the past continue to shape our present perceptions, through an engagement with a series of ‘critical events’ such as The Holocaust, September 11th, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the war in Iraq, in our current age of neoliberalism. Topics covered include: the idea of history as ‘catastrophe’, post-structuralism, human nature, the politics of utopia and political subjectivity, representation and agency, and ideology,
  • The other section explores issues raised by changes in global political economy with special reference to Africa and Asia. Although postmodernism is a notoriously unclear term, it is taken to express a contemporary intuition that the world we inhabit, and (what is partly the same thing) the way in which we imagine it, have changed. The changes have been pervasive - affecting politics, economics and culture on global and local scales. Topics covered include: the idea of the postmodern condition, social constructivism, globalization, transnationalism, the body, and violence.


Core unit for single-subject and recommended for two-subject students.

Contemporary Trends is NOT a core unit for BA3 joint honours students, only for single honours. Joint honours are encouraged to take it.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

Learning Outcomes:

  • Students are introduced to a range of issues and areas of questioning in anthropology which are fundamental to the study of society today. Students will be expected to build on their ability, developed in previous years on the programme, to read independently, closely and critically
  • Students are trained to develop the ability to look at complex situations ethnographically, teasing out the particular norms or principles which condition or shape them.
  • This includes (a) learning to look for the specifically social in everything (even and especially in the “natural”) and (b) learning how to form an anthropological problem – that is to distinguish an anthropological problem from a mere topic or area of interest.
  • Independent and innovative thinking is developed during class discussion as students come to engage with theoretical perspectives that might be new to them. Emphasis is placed upon the continuing relevance of anthropological thinking to the understanding of contemporary social life.

Method of assessment

  • Two 3,000-word essays (20% each)
  • One 4,000-word essay (50%)
  • Seminar participation (10%)

Suggested reading

Sample Readings:
  • B Anderson Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (London: Verso, 1991)
  • M Biagioli The Science Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 1999)
  • M de Certeau The practice of everyday life (Berkeley: University of California, 1984)
  • T Docherty Postmodernism: a reader (Cambridge: Harvester, 1993)
  • Most of the relevant philosophers for the course (e.g. Agamben; Butler; Derrida; Deleuze; Foucault; Spivak; Zizek) are included in the Routledge Critical Thinkers series.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules