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Write in Sociology and Anthropology

Similarities and differences in sociology and anthropology

At the most basic level, for instance, both sociology and anthropology seek to examine and understand human interaction and social processes as socio-cultural constructs rather than products of biologically-determined phenomenon.

Historically, sociologists have tended to focus on interpersonal dynamics and processes of social change in modern industrialized nation-states, while anthropologists, sharing similar epistemic concerns, have typically devoted their attention to traditional non-industrialized societies. In more recent years, however, the line separating these disciplines has blurred considerably, though important differences in regard to theoretical ambitions, methodological approaches, and relevant foundational canon nevertheless continue to distinguish the two areas of study.

So, what is a sociological theoretical perspective or appropriate research methodology?

If you recall from your sociological theory class, theoretical perspectives are interpretive frameworks that allow researchers to make certain assumptions about the world in order to facilitate social analysis. If sociologists are able to agree upon anything, it is that social analysis requires a plan – interpretive framework - to help begin making sense of the immense complexity that is characteristic of our social world. Researchers never conduct their work with a mental blank slate.

Within sociology, three major traditions dominate the discipline: (i) Functionalism, (ii) Conflict Theory, and (iii) Symbolic Interactionism.

Each of these traditions is associated with key founding figures and countless numbers of subsequent disciples and acolytes, including for instance, Emile Durkheim (Functionalism), Karl Marx (Conflict Theory), and George Herbert Mead (Symbolic Interactionism), to name only a few examples.

If theory can be understood as the lens we apply to social inquiry, then methodology refers to the underlying philosophical assumptions associated with the techniques of investigation, which is conceptually tied to the actual method/s deployed. Although most undergraduate essays are based on a secondary analysis of the literature, this does not preclude the student writer from engaging in a discussion on the principles and rationale used to obtain and examine "data."

While socio-cultural anthropology shares many similarities with sociology, including intellectual origins that trace back to the likes of E. Durkheim and K. Marx, there are also important differences that distinguish the two disciplines as well, particularly as one looks back to the early development of the discipline of anthropology.

Throughout this early period, the study of anthropology was influenced significantly by close dialogue between the discipline's four main sub-fields: archaeology, biological anthropology, socio-cultural anthropology and linguistics. Although some anthropology departments continue on with this four-field approach, it is not uncommon today to see many departments focus exclusively on one of these fields. For much of anthropology's history, three main theoretical orientations prevailed: (i) evolutionism, (ii) historical-particularism, and (iii) structural-functionalism (Barrett 1996). More recently, and influenced by current trends in social theory, other theoretical perspectives –namely feminism and post-structuralism— have contributed to redefining the anthropological imagination. In terms of methodology, anthropology is well known for a commitment to first-hand, empirical research.

Understanding a disciplinary perspective

One of the most common mistakes of undergraduate essays in disciplines like sociology and anthropology is to adopt a narrative style that seems to imply that all matters within the chosen topic area are well established and agreed upon. Often enough, these papers are overly descriptive and superficial, lacking clear engagement with core sociological/anthropological questions and concerns.

Writing within a disciplinary perspective is like joining in a pre-existing conversation with a community of researchers. As we listen to these researchers, we become aware of several things:

  • They don't always agree.
  • They don't always look at a problem through the same lens or from the same perspective.
  • The issues they talk about, as well as the dominant theoretical perspectives, change over time as some debaters leave the conversation and new ones enter.

As a student, you are expected to learn what the scholars in your discipline are speaking about, and as you read and listen you will become more and more familiar with the vocabulary of this new sub-culture. You too will begin to speak the language of sociology or anthropology. You will see that not only is there a common style, an acknowledgment of a shared tradition, but that there are current trends in the way people think. You will have to learn to adhere to the common styles, traditions, and be aware of the current trends.

The best way to do this is to listen carefully to the way your professor talks and to examine how they reason through a problem. To get a sense of what has been done, what is current, and where future research possibilities lie, read books and journal articles in the field.

Part of the process of obtaining an undergraduate degree in a particular discipline is becoming enculturated into the academic environment- the way these disciplines privilege some beliefs and values, establish methods and habits of research and patterns of thinking, and are influenced by particular theorists. This inter-disciplinary way of behaving changes with time as new attitudes and ideas are espoused. Another way to consider this point is to think of a discipline as a community of researchers who share a common language of expression, a discursive practice that constitutes a particular way of interpreting the world. You demonstrate this enculturation when you exhibit some competency 'speaking' the language of the discipline.

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