The Academic Profile of Cultural & Social Anthropology

Cultural and Social Anthropology is the science of human culture in general and individual cultures in particular. The term “culture” embodies the entirety of material and ideational expressions of human existence, from objects and techniques to modes of economic operation and social forms of organization, to knowledge, religion, art and education – hence, the term’sscholarly usage transcends that of everyday language.

Cultural and Social Anthropology is above all interested in the culture of daily life, of which it is able to draw perhaps thebest pictures,compared with other sciences. It is assumed that individual cultural domains do not coexist in an unrelated way, but mutually influence one another and cannot be viewed appropriately without looking at the cultural whole of which they form a constituent part – that is, the interplay of institutions, behaviours, ideas and artefacts(holism). These domains moreover interact with non-cultural influences such as the prevailing natural environments or the biotic outfit of human beings. Cultural and Social Anthropology seeks both to describe the particular manifestations of culture in specific societies (ethnography) and to arrive at overarching theoretical propositions for individual cultural spheres or culture as a whole (Cultural and Social Anthropology in the narrower sense). It is thereby important to initially refrain from any valuation and from making one’s own cultural perspective the measure of all things in dealing with the foreign (cultural relativism). 

As a child of the colonial era, Cultural and Social Anthropology first focussed on small, rural, illiterate societies outside of Europe. These still remain of central importance, but in more recent times, urban and industrial societies have increasingly been spotlighted, just as one’s own society has become a vital theme. Contrary to some preconceptions, Cultural and Social Anthropology primarily investigates present-day phenomena, but to understand these it is often essential to know about their history. Ethno-history thus constitutes a well-established branch of the discipline. In principle, the endeavour is to depict and explain cultural phenomena in all places and at all times, with extensive local studies in contemporary societies carrying the most weight. 

The most important procedure employed inethnographic research is participatory fieldwork – involving at least a one-year stay in the society being studied, as well as active participation in its daily life as the backdrop for applying the actual (qualitative and quantitative) research methods. Fluency in the respective language is considered imperative to that end. Ethnologists use both hermeneutic (interpretive-understanding) and analytical (explanatory-reasoning) methods, with intercultural comparison also playing a major role. The contemplation of forms and conditions of ethnographic research has likewise been given broad scope in recent years. 

Cultural and Social Anthropology is a smaller discipline in Germany than in countries with a pronounced colonial past or with greater ethnic diversity in their populations such as, say, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Mexico, and above allthe United States, today regarded as the stronghold per se. In these countries, Cultural and Social Anthropology is customarily also referred to as “cultural anthropology” (USA), “social anthropology” (GB) or simply “anthropology” (France). The term “anthropology” is sometimes also used in German, but is not as explicit as “Cultural and Social Anthropology” since other sciences or their sub-fields are also designated as such (e.g. physical anthropology, philosophical anthropology,or anthropology as the integral science of man). 

A typical feature of the Cologne Institute of Cultural and Social Anthropology, compared with other German institutes, is its enhanced socio-scientific orientation coupled with distinct theoretical interests, which are in turn guided bythe Anglo-American notions of cultural and social anthropology. In Cologne, regional priority is given to Africa and Asia, although several of the Institute’s lecturers are specialized in other regionsas well (e.g. Central America). 

Cultural and Social Anthropology is distinguished from the neighbouring disciplines of sociology, social psychology and ethnic studies (sometimes also called European Cultural and Social Anthropology or cultural studies) by its inclusion of non-Western societies and its emphasis on field research. Unlike history or prehistoric archaeology, its focus moreover is on the present. In contrast to disciplines such as psychology, educational science, geography, philology, political science, art history, musicology orreligious studies and the like, Cultural and Social Anthropology takes a holistic perspective encompassing all cultural domains and attaches majorimportance to intensive local studies. 

Finally, as a world-embracing science, Cultural and Social Anthropology transcends the regionally confined subject areas of such disciplines as African studies, Egyptology, Jewish studies, Indology, Semitic studies, Latin American history and European philologies, and tends to stress language and literature somewhat less.