Social Anthropology

Social Anthropology

Anthropology is the study of humankind. As a branch of the Social Sciences, anthropology aims at investigating the various forms of human existence and experience in all their breadth. It aims at establishing the general and particular principles governing cultural differences and similarities among human societies.

Anthropology enables a critical inquiry of culture. This critical orientation is primarily substantiated by the wider observation of all human cultures and by comparative and cross-cultural study. It is the anthropologist’s conviction that “other” cultures can provide a beneficial insight into issues of utmost importance for humankind; this belief in turn validates the thorough and attentive study of these cultures. Moreover, this conviction, which has prevailed in the European anthropological tradition since the dawn of the 20th century, explains why less attention has been paid to certain fields such as Biological Anthropology or Prehistoric Archaeology. This Department is primarily concerned with the ways in which human societies organize their everyday experience and with the meanings they attribute to their actions.

The subject of anthropology is cultural diversity or heterogeneity. Historically, Anthropology has been the systematic, “insider’s” and in situ knowledge, based on participant-observation, of “other” peripheral societies, which inhabit the margins of the industrialized world in Africa, Asia, South America, Australia or Melanesia. By means of the distance which knowledge of the “other” creates, anthropology also turns to the study of the “familiar” and especially to the investigation of the so-called “Western” industrialized societies.

The comparison between the different and the familiar discredits whatever is taken for granted and refutes what is commonly considered as “natural.” Hence, anthropology contests the stereotypical notions and attitudes prevailing in contemporary social life. For instance, anthropology critically questions theories based on generalizations about “human nature,” many of which reflect deeply rooted Western prejudices concerning family life, the social identity of gender and sexuality, ethnic and social conflicts, social stability, notions of time or space.

The anthropologist’s work attests the extent to which these theories are conditioned by historical and cultural factors and reveals the ways in which such prejudices limit and distort the understanding of the human past and present. At the same time, it shows the cultural constraints and dependencies of human practice in important areas, such as economic development, communication, administrative structure, food production, health care, or even natural disasters; thus, it contributes towards tackling human hardships.

Anthropology takes a stance against “ethnocentrism,” that is our tendency to construe and assess other cultures or unfamiliar forms of social life on the basis of notions and social values of our own culture. The comparative, cross-cultural knowledge produced by anthropology has repeatedly proven that many social science theories cannot claim universal validity despite contentions to the contrary.

In many European and American Departments, including our own, the emphasis placed on the relation of anthropology to non-industrial, “exotic” cultures is counterbalanced by systematic reference to the Western world. Thus, students are called upon to investigate issues that are relevant not only to “other” societies but to their own as well: to trace and discuss continuities and discontinuities between rural and urban areas, and between the so-called “developing” and “developed” nations.

Anthropology attributes special significance to a particular type of research, “fieldwork,” which allows the researcher to become involved in a direct, daily, and long-term interaction with the people s/he studies. This research practice, as it has been applied in Greece, constitutes the basic characteristic of the Postgraduate program at the University of the Aegean. Since its inception, the Department developed a strong research orientation at the Postgraduate level and sought to systematically combine teaching with research.

The extensive experience of the faculty in the study of Greek society, the doctoral dissertations completed by Postgraduate students, and the international recognition accorded to the research carried out in the Department account for the latter’s substantial contribution to the Anthropology of Southern Europe and the Balkans.