Social anthropology is a branch of anthropology that studies social life and social systems throughout the world. In essence it is the study of people and their social interactions.
The title "social anthropology" was first used in Liverpool, England, in 1908, when Sir James Frazer (1854-1941) held an honorary professorship in the subject. The topic flourished in Britain after World War I, when opportunities arose for research in foreign (colonized) countries. In mainland Europe, social anthropology is referred to as ethnology or sociology.
Anthropology as a field of research was born during the Enlightenment period of the 18th century. It came about as a consequence of European exploration into other countries from the 15th century. As Europe learned more about the world, its people sought to explain why other humans and societies were different from their own. Anthropology grew to encompass a number of specialties, such as physical anthropology - generally, the biological study of man - or cultural anthropology, studying the differences among human cultures.
The subject is concerned with the organization of society and human culture and can take in both contemporary and historical societies. It is often studied alongside other branches of anthropology and can overlap with other subjects such as prehistoric archaeology or linguistics and human geography. The scope of social anthropology has changed since its inception. The increase of available information has helped balance out theoretical ideas in the subject, which in the past took an evolutional standpoint.
In a field of study that relies on empirical data, the ability for researchers to acquire their own information rather than relying on evidence from outsiders opened up new opportunities in the 20th century. This led to social anthropologists identifying new aims and methods for research. With the independence of the colonies and the liberation of politics of the 1960s, social anthropology became more aware of the politics of research. The increase of non-Western and indigenous anthropologists has led to cross-cultural comparisons rather than the ethnocentric-led research that led to criticism of the subject, particularly in its infancy.
Social anthropologists study social behavior such as family, kinship systems, political organization and legal procedures. In the 20th and 21st century, studies have become more complex due to the emergence of complicated urban societal structures and multicultural neighborhoods and workplaces. It has also come to focus more on the individual in society; individuals are believed to be less driven by their culture but instead interact with their society in such a way as to be able to change it in some way, or to use it to their advantage.
In the 21st century research has focused more on capitalist societies and the increasing influence of Western society on the world. Feminism led to the study of gender across the cultures and increasing authority has been applied to oral traditions. Social anthropology is even more relevant in a multicultural 21st century world. In large cities, it is not unusual for cultures to converge; in fact it is perfectly possible to encounter people from all five continents. In this context, knowledge of other people and their cultures is crucial.
In an ever-changing world, social anthropology can play an important role in predicting trends in society and identifying potential problems. Its success lies in the researcher having an equal footing with those he or she seeks to study. A social anthropologist may be able to assess the consequences of possible outside interference on a society's institutions. They do this by assessing the facts available to them and also through fieldwork, although their position must remain objective at all times.
Governments in the British Commonwealth, the United States and other countries have made use of social anthropologists. They have asked for their advice on matters such as labor migration, succession to political authority (particular in tribes) and the potential social consequences of land reforms. Their knowledge is of value to governments that seek counsel on particular problems where specialist knowledge is required. For example, when administrative changes are proposed to a country, it might be useful to employ someone who has inside knowledge of its political structure.
Social anthropology has a higher aim; that of contributing to the understanding of race relations. Physical anthropologists have already disproved early theories about intellectual inferiority between racial groups; it is hoped that social anthropology can help to eliminate discrimination further by bringing about greater understanding between people from different walks of life.