Skip to content

SC2031 Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Introduction

Ended 18 Mar 2021

Sorry! The enrolment period is currently closed. Please check back soon.

Full course description

Course Overview

Social and cultural anthropology studies human lives in all their diversity. Situated somewhere between the humanities and the social sciences, what makes anthropology unique is its commitment to long-term, deep engagements – often of a year or more – with the communities and cultures it studies. Although traditionally associated with “exotic” places far from its home in the “Western” universities of Europe and the USA, anthropologists are now as likely to study “at home,” making field sites out of their own back yards.

Over eight weeks, this course will journey through Amazonia, Melanesia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Europe in order to track the complex history of anthropology as a discipline and to attempt to understand the various ways that humans make their lives around the world today. We will interrogate anthropology’s beginnings as a tool of colonialism, through to its discovery for the West of the true complexity of non-western ways of life and systems of knowledge, and finally its transformation into a critical tool for uncovering racism, oppression and inequality. Participants of this course will gain a deeper and theoretically informed appreciation of the stunning diversity of ways of being human; at the same time, they will also discover principles – political, spiritual, emotional, physical – that seem common to the human experience across space and time.

Anthropology is the greatest academic tool for gaining a thorough understanding of what life is like for people other than oneself and one’s own culture. The extent to which the study of other societies and cultures uncovers the contingency of what one has long considered an absolute truth is fascinating. In the year 2020, it is now perhaps more important to understand the complexity and the value of other peoples’ lives, aspirations and problems than it has been for decades. The rise of right-wing nationalism, hate speech, and xenophobia are fueling violent incidents around the world as formally outward-looking states are cutting ties with international communities. Anthropology aims to understand and critique these processes directly and responsibly. The course is for anyone interested in issues surrounding race, identity, gender, bodies, power, religion, and how a deeper appreciation of these themes can be gained by studying them cross-culturally.

This course is unique in its mixture of academic and non-academic texts in order to produce a well-rounded appreciation of how anthropological knowledge is immediately applicable to the world around us. To deepen an understanding of the course material – and to act like anthropologists! – the course also contains mini field elements such as noting changes of land use in your locality, or noting the role of different objects – food, phones, flowers – in mediating your various relationships. The mixture of academic text with current events, popular culture, and real-world engagements allows students of this course to receive an intensive and well-rounded introduction to the world of anthropology, and to anthropology through the world!

Course Schedule 


Classes will be delivered online on Thurdays 7-9pm for eight weeks from 28 January to 18 March.


Week 1 What is anthropology?

This week will introduce anthropology as a discipline, discussing its relationship to European ideas of cultural “Others” going back to ancient Greece. We will also discuss key attributes of doing anthropology today and will orient it in relation to other humanities and social sciences.

Week 2 Anthropology and “primitive” peoples

During the 19th century anthropology was very much part of the colonial enterprise and anthropologists were concerned with the recording of “primitive” non-Western societies. Bit by bit, however, anthropologists discovered the astonishing complexity of alternative ways of life and that it is impossible to study another culture through the concepts familiar to one’s own. This week we analyse this important moment in Euro-American thought, introducing key concepts such as evolutionism, ethnocentrism, and assessing what this knowledge might mean for an understanding of contemporary racism and cultural stereotyping.

Week 3 Anthropological fieldwork

This week presents the early 20th century transformation of anthropology from an “armchair” discipline to one that is committed to long term engagements with field research – now a defining feature. We will discover how anthropologists learn about people by spending time with them, sharing their daily lives, learning their languages, and so on. This week introduces some of the key methods of anthropological research and analyses political considerations with respect to their use.  

Week 4 Nature and culture

When does something stop being natural and start being cultural? The association of nature with “non-human” and culture with “human” has been a defining feature of Western thought for hundreds of years. In the beginning, anthropologists traditionally took humans as the focus of their studies while ignoring the non-human elements of their fields. Is this tenable, however, if the people studied make no such distinction? This week we will unpack the nature-culture divide and, in doing so, will confront some of the hidden presumptions of Western worldviews to reveal alternative knowledge about the relationship between humans and their environments.

Week 5 Ritual and religion

Many of the milestones of our lives – adulthood, childbirth, marriage, death, religious transformations, and so on – are marked with a ritual of some sort. Why? What is it about different rituals that legitimises such changes? This week we look at the different social, political and spiritual powers that rituals harness. We also examine how anthropologists have approached different religions by focusing on how they interact with the wider cultural systems of which they are a part.

Week 6 Kinship

Kinship is the study of relationships. One of the early interests of anthropologists, how people consider themselves relatives and the different obligations and opportunities these relationships create varies considerably across different societies. In this week we will consider how anthropologists have approached concepts of descent, marriage, and ancestry to learn about the varied roles that relationships play among different peoples around the world.

Week 7 Consumption and Exchange

This week we will examine different systems of exchange to see what we can learn about economic behaviour around the world. All humans attempt to maximise their ownership of resources and compete to do so. This is a key assumption of economics, but is it true in all cases? By observing and participating in a vast array of exchange systems around the world, anthropologists have often contended that economic theory and “the market” are not universal truths but are rather objects of Western capitalist culture. If this is true, they are not capable of analysing and predicting as widely as currently used.

Week 8 Power and the state

Does power work in the same way everywhere? What is the relationship between leaders and their subjects? One of the key contributions of political anthropology is its use of comparative analyses of power in different societies to critique Western political philosophy that presents its concepts as universally applicable. This week we will analyse statecraft and political movements past and present to assess how legitimacy, leaders, and revolution are produced.

Course Lecturer

David Whyte is an anthropologist who specialises in the study of coastal communities, community development, activism, and the anthropology of Ireland. He qualified with a BA in Philosophy before crossing over to study an MSc and PhD in social anthropology. David is active in various social justice, pro-democracy, and environmental movements. With his “teaching-as-activism” philosophy, he tries to bring this experience to the classroom, ensuring the learning experience is as critical and subversive as possible. 

Entry Requirements

Applicants must be at least 18 years old at course commencement.


Short courses are not assessed. Students will receive a UCC Certificate of Attendance upon completion.

Closing Date for Application

Monday 18 January

Contact Details for Further Information

Regina Sexton, Phone: 021-4904700, Email: