Fakultät für Soziologie
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Portrait of the Research Group

The Research Group Social Anthropology (Arbeitsgruppe Sozialanthropologie) at Bielefeld University is both a part of the Transnationalisation and Development Research Center as well as a teaching programme within the Faculty of Sociology. As an academic discipline which has generated its own theories, methods, and research questions, social anthropology promises to widen horizons of students pursuing a degree in sociology, both at the BA and MA level. Regionally, we focus on the developing countries as well as on Western societies, and especially on translocal entanglements, which is approached through the multi-stranded analysis of ‘glocal’ processes.

Social anthropology emerged out of an engagement with non-European societies, which served to capture and represent 'the Other' in academic categories. Through extended residence in local societies and use of the method ‘participant observation’ (Malinowski), many findings about livelihood, customs and rituals of various peoples could be compiled. These early works resulted in some exciting and influential insights about 'the Other', which up until today enrich neighbouring academic disciplines as well. The social anthropological engagement with 'the Other' opens up fascinating vistas on one’s own society as well, on which the “view from afar” (Lévi-Strauss) has been increasingly turned over the last years.

However, some classic social anthropology texts also contributed to a simplistic and exoticizing image of the inhabitants of the former colonies. Through a long and intense debate over this colonial past, the discipline has changed directions today. This is visible not only in its fields of application, but also in the central role played by academics from the former colonies in contemporary scientific debate. One of the current tasks of anthropology, then, lies in its contribution to post-colonial discourse, especially concerning the relation between the West and the so-called developing countries, as well as the reflection on power-relations/asymmetries in local and global contexts.

Especially in exchange with development sociology, but also in dialogue with other related social sciences and humanities, social anthropology has increasingly turned to the dynamics of the social production of knowledge; here, the internal reflexion about knowledge gathering and knowledge distribution as well as academic representations present an intriguing subfield. Given the world-spanning research fields and professional contacts, approaches focusing on the theory and practice of communication have been gaining increasing relevance.

With the transnationalisation of the fields of social science and the ethnicisation of the political, and in the light of the booming notion of ‘culture’ (the supposed domain of social anthropology), new challenges have arisen. Whereas earlier scholars helped to entrench a particularistic understanding of culture, which presents cultures as homogeneous units with firmly established borders, current social anthropology explores how such boundaries are dissolved and/or reconstructed. In this approach, it sets itself against the essentialisms of ethnic leaders and the simplistic discourses found in the mass media.

In constant debates with development sociology, social anthropology here at Bielefeld engages in a comprehensive study of urban-rural, translocal and the so-called ‘trans-border’ dynamics and social change. The focus lies – within the larger frame of glocalisation studies – on new contexts of communication, as they are produced for example through world-spanning development cooperation, social movements and activism. Beyond conventional theories of cultural change, development processes are critically reflected upon and every-day conceptions of development are persistently questioned. In this process, the mutual interdependence of local and global actions and the tensions between them constantly come to the fore.

Bielefeld social anthropology has several main areas of interest. Regionally, the emphasis lies on South and Southeast Asia, East and West Africa. Thematically, the following subfields are best represented:

One specific feature of social anthropology at Bielefeld lies in its emphasis on practical experience. This focus is not only oriented to the topics of development studies (e.g. democratisation, human rights, good governance, conflict), but also dynamics of our own societies (e.g., minority and integration studies). Sociologists and social anthropologists have the opportunity to work together in the TDRC. The constant exchange both in the ‘joint colloquium’ (usually Wednesday, 4 p.m.) and in thematic lecture series allows participants to further refine their own research questions, as well as supporting a clearer appreciation of disciplinary boundaries and increasing sophistication of theoretical approaches. The well-established training research projects ('Lehrforschungen') are an important platform for students to jointly organise, plan and implement short research projects of their own, and thus become involved in ongoing research by the resident scholars.


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