About the blog

"The “Anthropology for Beginners” blog by Suman Nath is one of the most user/reader friendly sites relative to such an endeavor." - Global Oxford "This blog contains lots of study materials on Anthropology and related topics" - University of Kassel University of Houston includes Anthropology for beginners in their recommended reading list. This is a humble endeavour to collect study materials on anthropology and then share it with interested others. How to use: 1. One can see materials by clicking "Blog Archives" which is arranged chronologically. 2. Or can search in the search box provided by using key words. I have not tried to be exhaustive, but its just elementary materials which will help newcomers to build up their materials better. Because of the rising number of requests from people across the world, Anthropology for beginners has started a youtube channel. Those who are willing to have some explanations to the materials available in this blog can subscribe to this link: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_cq5vZOzI9aDstQEkru_MQ/videos Watch the introductory video to get an overview of the youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RY9DOnD0Uxo You can write me about the posts. Feel free to write me at sumananthro1@gmail.com Best, Suman

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Social Stratification



"Social stratification" is the most general term used to describe the hierarchical division of a society whereby its members are ranked according to their relative power, wealth, or prestige. Although it is often used as a generic term applicable to all ranked societies, including caste societies and those based on social class, "stratification" is more generally used when the theoretical focus is upon individual action, so that the overall patterns of social stratification are regarded as the outcome of individuals' efforts to achieve social mobility. Stratification theorists can thus compare societies according to the nature and extent of vertical mobility within them, and can arrange them along a scale from the supposed rigidities of caste to the hypothetically completely open societies of the modern world   a scale that inevitably turns into an evolutionary sequence leading to modernization. (Dumont 1970).

The concept of stratification is particularly appropriate to structural-functional analyses of complex societies, where the theory assumes a mode of social integration around the common values of achievement and individual responsibility for social STATUS. The resulting hierarchy is then assumed to represent the distribution of individual talents, responsibilities, and appropriate rewards. This model of perfect individual social mobility then becomes the benchmark against which other societies are measured, a procedure adopted by sociologists employing sophisticated statistical techniques.


Strata may be nominal, constructed by sociologists, or real, reflecting actual social distances. Real strata are divided by social distances and systematic exclusions. Sociologists also distinguish closed stratification systems, such as the Hindu caste system, from open ones, such as ‘modern’ occupational/class systems. In the former, social mobility is discouraged and restricted by traditional conventions. In the latter, mobility is typical, intense, and socially approved. In the functional theory of stratification, sociologists portray stratification as socially beneficial and consensual. Conflict theorists perceive stratification as contested and accompanied by domination. Marxists see it as an outcome of economic exploitation engendered in class relations, while Weberians treat it as an outcome of multifaceted domination in combination with socioeconomic class, sociocultural status and sociopolitical power/authority hierarchies.

While there is a wide consensus that occupational and employment statuses form the backbone of modern stratification, it is accepted that social strata may also develop around other assets and locations:

        political influence, authority (as in Ralph Dahrendorf );

        ethno-racial status, prestige (as in W. Lloyd Warner or Edward A. Shils);

        education, skills, human capital, expert knowledge (as in Gary Becker and Daniel Bell);

        social networks, ties, social capital (as in James S. Coleman);

        “cultural capital,” taste, lifestyle, gender (as in Pierre Bourdieu);

        rights, entitlements, privileges (as in Bryan S. Turner).

Functionalist perspectives:

Basic assumption of functionalism is that society must address certain basic needs or functional prerequisites to survive.

Talcott Parsons

Order, stability and cooperation in society are based on value consensus -  a general agreement by members of society concerning what is good and worthwhile. Parson argued that stratification systems derive from common values. If values exist, then it follows that individuals will be evaluated and placed in some form of rank order. In other words those who perform successfully in terms of society’s values are ranked highly.

Kinsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore

For Davis and Moore stratification exists in every society. For them one of the functional prerequisites is effective role allocation and performance. Which simply means that

1.       all roles must be filled

2.       they must be filled by those best able to perform them

3.       The necessary training for them must be undertaken

4.       The roles must be performed conscientiously.

Therefore, society has some sort of mechanism to ensure such effective role allocation. The mechanism is known as stratification.

Marxist perspective:

Marxist perspective is a radical alternative to functionalist perspective. They regard social stratification as divisive and not integrative as suggested by functionalists. Marxists focus on social strata rather than social inequality in general.

From a Marxist perspective, systems of stratification derived from the relationships of social groups to the means of production. A class is a social group whose members share the same relationship to the means of production.

There is a historical analysis of class relations and progress of society in Marxian analysis. Class relations, i.e. relationship of classes with means of production if gets changed, society or whole social system undergoes changes through stages (as shown in the figure).

 Weberian perspective:

Weber also saw social stratification as classes in terms of economics. He argued that classes develop in market economies in which individuals compete for economic gain. He defined a class as a group of individuals who share a similar position in a market economy.

Perhaps one of the most valuable contributions made by Weber is by bringing the dimensions of status situation (often known as prestige) to show an alternative form of stratification in society. Occupations, ethnic and religious groups, and most importantly lifestyles, as Weber observes, are accord different degrees of prestige which is another dimension of stratification.

Stratification in contemporary usage

Contemporary students of social stratification typically combine class, occupational status, and authority dimensions into synthetic gradations (stratification schemes and class maps). Anthony Giddens (The Class Structure of the Advanced Societies, 1973) and Ralph Dahrendorf (The Modern Social Conflict, 1988), for example, draw stratification maps that include occupational classes, elites, and socially marginalized strata (underclasses). Similarly, John Goldthorpe (Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain, 1987) synthesizes class and occupational schemes into an elevenclass map. Erik Olin Wright (Class Counts, 1997), in turn, juxtaposes class analysis to a study of race and gender stratification. His class/stratification schemes also incorporate the dimensions of managerial control and skill/expertise. Finally, Bell (The Coming of Post Industrial Society, 1973) and Gøsta Esping-Anderson (Changing Classes, 1993) accommodate in their postindustrial class maps the dimension of power/authority (elite or political directorate), economic integration, and citizenship rights (outsiders and underclass). With advancing globalization, many sociologists see the whole world as stratified, typically along the economic/developmental and power dimensions. 

Social Stratification - a brief introduction (bilingual, meant for my students)

Social Fact


Social Fact

In Durkheim’s sociology, a social fact is a social phenomenon that has a coercive effect upon the individual. Thus, although, social facts may originally be the product of human action, they have developed an autonomy from their creators (i.e. human beings) to confront humans as something external  to them. They have an objectivity close to that of natural objects and physical laws. For Durkheim (1895) the goal sociology is the study of social facts. Durkheimian sociology considers social fact both as an object and approach of studying society.   

Therefore, social fact may be defined as any way of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint.


The concept of social fact has intricate connection with Auguste Comte’s ‘positive philosophy.’ For him there is a hierarchy of sciences (see the figure).

 He was confident enough to argue that scientific knowledge of society is possible. It could be accumulated and used to improve the human existence so that society could be run rationally without religion or superstition getting in the way of progress.

For Durkheim the scientific study will be the study of social facts. His celebrated work on Suicide (1890) exemplifies the positivistic approach in studying society.

As positivist Comte believed that the scientific study of society should be confined to collecting information about phenomena that can be objectively observed and classified. Comte argued that sociologists should not be concerned with the internal meanings, motives, feeling and emotions of individuals. Since these mental states exist only in the person’s consciousness, they cannot be observed and so they cannot be measured in any objective way.

Durkheim agreed that sociologies should confine themselves to studying social facts. He argued ‘the first and most fundamental ruls is “consider social facts as things” (Durkheim 1895). This means that the belief systems, customs and institutions of society – the facts of the social world – should be considered as things in the same way as the objects ane events of the natural world.

However, Durkheim did not believe that social facts consisted only of those things that could be directly observed or measured. To Durkheim, social facts included such phenomena as the belief systems, customs and institutions of society. Belief systems are not directly measurable or observable, since, they exist in consciousness of humans. Nevertheless, Durkheim saw them as existing over and above individual consciousness. Individuals did not choose them and they could not be changed at will.

Durkheim believed that society is not simply a collection of individuals acting independently in terms of their particular psychology or mental state. Instead, collective beliefs, values and laws direct member of society – by social facts that have an existence of their own. Social facts therefore make individuals behave in particular ways.
This is a brief introduction to the concept of social fact (bilingual, meant for my college students)

Further reading:

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Community - a basic anthropological concept




The concept of community concerns to a particularly constituted set of social relationships, based on something which the participants have in common – usually a common sense of identity. It is to remember Talcott parsons, frequently used the term to indicate a wide ranging relationships of solidarity over rather undefined area of life and interests. There was a symbolism of community in the 19th century thoughts, which identified this form of social association of people with a good society and with all forms of relationships that are characterised by high degree of personal intimacy, emotional depthness, moral commitment, social cohesion and continuity in time. At the arrival of urban industrial society a fear of loss of community became central to the thought about society and culture.

Classical anthropological approaches:

One of the renowned attempts of conceptualizing community belongs to that of Robert Redfield (1960), who identified four key qualities in community:
1.      a smallness of social scale;
2.      a homogeneity of activities and states of mind of members;
3.      a self-sufficiency across a broad range of needs and through time; and
4.      a consciousness of  distinctiveness.
Nevertheless, in 1955, Hillery could compile 94 social-scientific attempts at definition whose only substantive overlap was that all dealt with people (1955:117)! To overcome this problem, community is often further specified by a qualifying or amplifying phrase: the ‘local community’, the ‘West Indian community’, the ‘community of nations’ or ‘souls’. But this would seem only to beg further questions.
In anthropology, one might usefully isolate three broad variants of traditional approach. ‘Community’ is to be characterized in terms of: (i) common interests between people; or (ii) a common ecology and locality; or (iii) a common social system or structure.
For example, Frankenberg (1966) suggests that it is common interests in achievable things (economic, religious, or whatever) that give members of a community a common interest in one another. Living face-to-face, in a small group of people, with common interests in mind, eventuates in community members’ sharing many-stranded or multiplex relations with one another; also sharing a sentiment towards the locality and the group itself. Hence, communities come to be marked by a fair degree of social coherence.
For Minar and Greer (1969), physical concentration (living and working) in one geographical territory is the key. The locale will throw up common problems and give rise to common perspectives, which lead to the development of organizations for joint action and activities, which in turn produces common attachments, feelings of inter-dependence, common commitment, loyalty and identity within a social group. Hence, communities come to exhibit homogeneity: members behaving similarly and working together, towards common aims, in one environment, whatever their familial or generational differences.
For Warner (1941), meanwhile, a community is essentially a socially functioning whole: a body of people bound to a common social structure which functions as a specific organism, and which is distinguishable from other such organisms. Consciousness of this distinction (the fact that they live with the same norms and within the same social organization) then gives community members a sense of belonging. So long as the parts of the functioning whole (families, agesets, status-groups, or whatever) work properly together, the structure of the community can be expected to continue over time.
Whether it be in terms of interests, ecology or social structure, then, anthropologists have traditionally emphasized an essential commonality as the logic underlying a community’s origination and continuation. Communities have been regarded as empirical things-in-themselves (social organisms), as functioning wholes, and as things apart from other like things. This was in turn the logical basis of ‘the community study’: the tradition in anthropology of basing research on what could in some sense be treated as a bounded group of people, culturally homogeneous and resident in one locality, because this ‘community’ would provide a laboratory for the close observation of the interrelations, the continuing interfunctioning, between interests, sub-groups and institutions; and also serve as a microcosm of a bigger social picture which might prevail as societies grew in size and complexity. Anthropologists conventionally studied communities (villages, tribes, islands) because these were regarded as the key structural units of social life: what the elementary structures of kinship gave onto; what the complex structures of society were composed of.

Evolutionary approaches:

For those social scientists looking at community as a firm of integration characterised by high degree of social cohesion, it represents a stage in social evolution. In particular they are associated with the work of the German sociologist Ferdinand Toennies, who, in 1887 [1957], posited the transcendence of ‘community’ (Gemeinschaft) by ‘society’ (Gesellschaft). What he hypothesized was that the traditional, static, ‘naturally’ developed forms of social organization (such as kinship, friendship, neighbourhood and ‘folk’) would everywhere be superseded (in zero-sum fashion) by associations expressly invented for the rational achievement of mutual goals (economic corporations, political parties, trade unions). This was not an unmixed blessing, for while community relations might be moral, sentimental, localized, particular, intimate, ascribed, enduring, conventional, consistent, and based on intrinsic attachments (to blood, soil, heritage and language), societal relations were artificial, contractual, interested, partial, ego-focused, specialized, superficial, inconsistent, fluid, short-term and impersonal. And yet, community was inevitably (and absolutely) losing out to the advancing society of capitalism and individualism.

The Personal and Moral Nature of Social Ties within a Gemeinschaft

According to Tönnies, Gemeinschaft, or community, is comprised of personal social ties and in-person interactions that are defined by traditional social rules and result in an overall cooperative social organization. The values and beliefs common to a Gemeinschaft are organized around appreciation for personal ties, and because of this, social interactions are personal in nature. Tönnies believed that these kinds of interactions and social ties were driven by emotions and sentiments (Wesenwille), by a sense of moral obligation to others, and were common to rural, peasant, small-scale, homogenous societies. When Weber wrote about these terms in Economy and Society, he suggested that a Gemeinschaft is produced by the "subjective feeling" that is tied to affect and tradition.

The Rational and Efficient Nature of Social Ties within a Gesellschaft

On the other hand, Gesellschaft, or society, is comprised of impersonal and indirect social ties and interactions that are not necessarily carried out face-to-face (they can be carried out via telegram, telephone, in written form, through a chain of command, etc.). The ties and interactions that characterize a Gesellschaft are guided by formal values and beliefs that are directed by rationality and efficiency, as well as by economic, political, and self-interests. While social interaction is guided by Wesenwille, or seemingly naturally occurring emotions in a Gemeinschaft, in a Gesellschaft, Kürwille, or rational will, guides it.
This kind of social organization is common to large-scale, modern, industrial, and cosmopolitan societies that are structured around large organizations of government and private enterprise, both of which often take the form of bureaucracies. Organizations and the social order as a whole are organized by a complex division of labor, roles, and tasks.
As Weber explained, such a form of social order is the result of "rational agreement by mutual consent," meaning members of society agree to participate and abide the given rules, norms, and practices because rationality tells them that they benefit by doing so. Tönnies observed that the traditional bonds of family, kinship, and religion that provide the basis for social ties, values, and interactions in a Gemeinschaft are displaced by scientific rationality and self-interest in a Gesellschaft. While social relations are cooperative in a Gemeinschaft it is more common to find competition in a Gesellschaft.

Symbolic approaches:

Instead of structural-functional explanations, as anthropologists have come to regard social life as largely symbolic-cognitive in nature notions of ‘community’ have changed. Conceptions of something reifiable, essential and singular have been replaced by a focus on how ‘community’ is elicited as a feature of social life, on how membership of community is marked and attributed, on how notions of community are given meaning, and how such meaning relates to others. In place of the reified notion of community as a thing-in-itself, then, comes the realization that, as Gregory Bateson put it succinctly: things are epiphenomena of the relations between them (1951:173); or as Barth elaborated, social groups achieve an identity by defining themselves as different from other such groups and by erecting boundaries between them (1969). In terms of their field research, anthropologists have come to admit a distinction between the locus of their study and their object of study: they may study in villages (on islands, in cities, in factories) but not villages per se.
Applying these ideas fruitfully to the concept of community has been Anthony Cohen (1985). Community, he argues, should be seen as a symbolic construct and a contrastive one; it derives from the situational perception of a boundary which marks off one social group from another: awareness of community depends on consciousness of boundary. Hence, communities and their boundaries exist essentially not as socialstructural systems and institutions but as worlds of meaning in the minds of their members. Relations between members represent not a set of mechanical linkages between working parts so much as ‘repositories of meaning’ (1985:98), and it is these which come to be expressed as a community’s distinctive social discourse. In short, membership consists not so much of particular behavioural doings as of thinking about and deliberating upon behaviour in common; here is attachment   to a common body of symbols, a shared vocabulary of value. Moreover, it is the ambiguities of symbolic discourse which allow members to unite behind this vocabulary when facing what they perceive to lie beyond their boundaries but also, when facing inward, to elaborate upon differences in its interpretation and hence affirm a variety of cherished individualities. Community is an aggregating device which both sustains diversity and expresses commonality.
Furthermore, to say that any understanding of ‘community’ must be situational, that the concept is a matter of contingent symbolic definition, is also to talk about ‘community’ in relation to other types or levels of sociation. Here, Cohen continues, community can be understood to represent that social milieu—broader than notions of family and kinship, more inclusive, but narrower, more immediate, than notions of society and state—where the taken-for-granted relations of kinship are to be put aside and yet where the non-relations of strangerness or the anti-relations of alien-ness need not be assumed; community encompasses something in between the closest and the furthest reaches of sociation in a particular context. Hence, the notion of community encapsulates both closeness and sameness, and distance and difference; and it is here that gradations of sociality, more and less close social associations, have their abiding effects. For, members of a community are related by their perception of commonalities (but not tied by them or ineluctably defined by them as are kinsmen), and equally, differentiated from other communities and their members by these relations and the sociation they amount to. In short, ‘community’ describes the arena in which one learns and largely continues to practise being social. It serves as a symbolic resource, repository and referent for a variety of identities, and its ‘triumph’ (Cohen 1985:20) is to continue to encompass these by a common symbolic boundary.

Contemporary usage:

Whatever the evolutionary prognosis, needless to say, (whatever ‘advances’ capitalism may have made over the past century) ‘communities’ have continued to flourish; as an idea, community has continued to possess both practical and ideological significance for people. Indeed, recent decades have seen an upsurge in ‘community consciousness’, ‘community development and rebuilding’ and ‘community values and works’ (at the same time as there has been a vaunting of migrancy and globalization). Whether that community is defined in terms of locality, ethnicity, religion, occupation, recreation, special interest, even humanity, people maintain the idea that it is this milieu which is most essentially ‘theirs’, and that they are prepared to assert their ownership and membership, vocally and aggressively, in the face of opposing ideas and groups (cf. Anderson 1983). Thus, anthropologists have continued to be interested in this idea in use, while Robert Redfield’s counsel (1960:59) remains timely.
Anthropologists, in short, continue studying ‘community’ (Pitt-Rivers 1974; Meillassoux 1981; Cohen 1987) because this is what their subjects inform them that they live in and cherish.

This material prepared from
1.      Rapport, N. and J. Overing. (2004). Key Concepts in Social and Cultural Anthropology. London: Routledge

A brief idea of community (bilingual, meant for my college students)

Monday, 1 October 2018

Society - a basic anthropological concept

In classical sense society refers to a group of people who share a common ‘culture’, occupy a particular territorial area and feel themselves to constitute a unified and distinct entity (Frisby and Sayer 1986).
For Zinsberg “a society is a collection of individuals united by certain relation or modes of behaviour which marks them from others who do not enter into these relations or who differs from them in behaviour.”
W Green has defined the society as “a largest group to which any individual belongs. A society is made up of a population, organisation, time, place and interest.”
McIver defines society as “a system of usage and proedurs, of authority and mutual aid of many groupings and divisions, of control over human behaviour and of liberties. This ever changing and complex system is society. It is a web of social relationships.
In its classical sense, Society entails a number of characteristics:
1.      Society is a network of social relations
2.      A society exists on social interactions and interface
3.      A sense of mutual awareness exists among the members of a society.
4.      There is a direct or indirect forms and varieties of interdependece among the members of a society.
5.      While one cannot image to have a society without collection of individuals similarly, one cannot have human beings without forming a mutual social relations.


Society has been the central theoretical object of much European anthropology, especially *British social anthropology, so that any history of the theoretical use of the term swiftly becomes a history of anthropological theory. In that history, various tensions and oppositions appear and reappear: society and the state, society and the individual, society and culture, society and nature, primitive society and modern society. In recent years, as the particular use of the term to denote a specific group of people and their way of life has grown ever more problematic, while some of these tensions have approached breaking-point, anthropologists have started to suggest abandoning the very idea of society as a theoretical construct.
There are different positions occupied by social scientists in explaining society. These are

Society in essentialist approach:

Society can be seen as a basic, but not exclusive, attribute of human nature: we are genetically predisposed to social life. Becoming fully human depends on interaction with our fellow creatures; the phylogenesis of our species runs parallel to the development of language and labour, social abilities without which the organism’s needs cannot be met.

Society in Constructivist approach:

Society can also be seen as constituting one particular, exclusive dimension of human nature (Ingold 1994), our dependence on the rules of our particular society. The very idea of social agency is revealed in behaviour which is not founded in instincts, selected by evolution, but instead in rules which have their origins in history rather than in the requirements of the human organism. The notion of ‘rule’ may be taken in different senses: in structural-functionalism it is moral and prescriptive; in structuralism or in symbolic anthropology it is cognitive and descriptive. Despite this important difference, in both cases an emphasis on rules expresses the institutional nature of the principles of social action and organization. The rules of different human societies vary in time and space, but there are rules of some sort everywhere (Lévi-Strauss 1969 [1949], Fortes 1983).

Singular and Plural senses:

The idea of a ‘society’ is applicable to a human group having some of the following properties: territoriality; recruitment primarily by sexual reproduction of its members; an institutional organization that is relatively self-sufficient and capable of enduring beyond the life-span of an individual; and cultural distinctiveness. In this sense, society may denote the group’s population, its institutions and relations, or its culture and ideology. Therefore, in its singular sense it represents a group of people or a particular type of humanity.
While in its plural sense of the term society is equivalent to ‘social system’ or ‘social organization’, the socio-political framework of the group is important: its morphology (composition, distribution and relations between the subgroups of society), its body of jural norms (ideas of authority and citizenship, conflict regulation, status and role systems), and its characteristic patterns of social relations (relations of power and exploitation, forms of co-operation, modes of exchange).
One of the ways to handle the relation between the two senses of ‘society’ has been to divide anthropology into ‘ethnographic’ description and interpretation, focusing on the analysis of the particular and emphasizing the differences between societies; and ‘theoretical’ comparison and explanation, which attempts to formulate synthetic propositions valid for all human societies. In spite of efforts to define the two activities as methodologically complementary ‘stages’, anthropology has tended to polarize between ‘ethnography’, which deals with specific societies, and ‘theory’, which deal with society in its abstract and general sense. The universalist perspective predominated in the early years of anthropology, with an emphasis on the ‘comparative method’ and on the definition of major types of society. The golden age of the ethnographic method was the period of culturalism and functionalism, in which ethnography was used polemically to demolish speculative typologies (by *Boas) or as the royal road to the universal (for Malinowski). The structuralisms of Radcliffe-Brown and Lévi-Strauss, and American neo-evolutionism (†White, †Steward), in turn shifted back to comparison and generalization.
Since the 1960s this polarization has intensified. On the one hand, the interest in meaning and interpretation has restored ethnography to a pre-eminent position, privileging the actor’s perspective and seeking a critique of the anthropologist’s concepts in the different emic views of society. Society in the general sense came to be subordinated to society in the specific, plural sense. On the other hand, developments in sociobiology, the psychological study of cognition, and cultural ecology have led to ambitious hypotheses concerning ‘sociality’ as a genetic property of the human species, along with behavioural and cognitive universals (eventually attributing the ‘phenotypic’ diversity of the human ethogram to such extrinsic variables as the *environment). This polarization between ever more specific culturalist interpretation and ever more grandiose naturalist explanation has ultimately emptied the concept of society of any significance, reducing it either to particular representations or to universal behaviour.

A brief introduction to the concept of Society (bilingual, meant for my students)