701 Contemporary Anthropological Theory

Key information

Start date
End date
Term 1
Module code
FHEQ Level

Module overview

This module guides students through key concepts and theories that have underpinned the discipline of social/cultural anthropology over the last five decades, with particular attention to how theoretical concerns and orientations are continually rethought and retooled to address contemporary conditions. The module consciously departs from the conventional "canon" (i.e., the "founding fathers" approach) to offer a more inclusive and vibrant picture of the discipline’s (post-1960s) theoretical shifts. But it does so without overlooking the reverberations of anthropology’s past colonial entanglements, and without giving up its older core question: what does it mean to be human?

Weekly class sessions and readings address a variety of topics across the anthropological spectrum, without diluting their analytical and empirical richness. In recent years these have included, for example, statecraft, kinship, religion, death, the occult, archival power, imperial debris, posthumanism, informal work, and more. Each topic is considered through a host of interrelated concepts and relevant theorists to demonstrate the contribution of anthropological thinking to understanding social life. Across the diverse topics addressed, the underlying aim is to show how anthropologists ask serious, big questions about politics, history, economy, culture, and society, but they do so in a way that is explicitly attentive to particularity and complexity. Actively linking theory with practice, concepts with narratives of real-life situations, this module breaks down the mystique of anthropological theory, making it accessible and immediately applicable.


Compulsory module for all students on:

  • MA Social Anthropology
  • MA Social Anthropology + Intensive Language
  • MA Anthropology of Food
  • MA Anthropology of Food + Intensive Language
  • MA Anthropology of Global Futures and Sustainability
  • MA Medical Anthropology and Mental Health

Guided option for students on:

  • MA Migration & Diaspora Studies
  • MA Migration & Diaspora Studies + Intensive Language
  • MRes Social Anthropology
  • MRes Social Anthropology + Intensive Language

This module is also a School-wide Open Option. No prerequisites.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

  • Grasp the theoretical underpinnings and orientations of social anthropology as a field of inquiry, and the ways they have been rethought in the face of emerging conditions
  • Use anthropological concepts to describe and discuss contemporary concerns
  • Identify and evaluate complex situations ethnographically, teasing out the particular norms or principles which condition or shape them
  • Strengthen their ability to read independently, creatively, and critically
  • Understand the diversity and dynamism of anthropological theory and practice, and be able to relate them to real life situations
  • Articulate an anthropological problem - that is to distinguish an anthropological problem from a mere topic or area of interest
  • Be able to see and articulate the relevance of anthropological thinking to the understanding of contemporary social life

Suggested reading

Representative readings:

  • Behar, R. (2007) Ethnography in a Time of Blurred Genres. Anthropology and Humanism 32 (4):145-55
  • Kohn, E. (2013) How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human (University of California Press)
  • Khayyat, M. et al. (2018) Pieces of Us: The Intimate as Imperial Archive. Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 14 (3): 268-291
  • Kirksey, E. & Helmreich, S. (2010) The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography. Cultural Anthropology 25 (4)
  • Navaro-Yashin, Y. (2002) Faces of the State: Secularism and Public Life in Turkey (Princeton University Press)
  • Pandian, A. (2019) A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times (Durham: Duke UP)
  • Stoler, A. L. (2013) Imperial Debris: Ruins and Ruination (Duke UP)
  • Tsing, A. (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton UP)
  • Wedeen, L. (2019) Authoritarian Apprehensions: Ideology, Judgement, and Mourning in Syria (University of Chicago Press)
  • Weinbaum, A. E. (2019) The Afterlife of Reprodcutive Slavery: Biocapitalism and Black Feminism's Philosophy of History (Duke UP)


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules