Glossary of Terms

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The following is a list of terms commonly used in anthropology. The glossary was created by Simon Coleman and Bob Simpson. New entries will be added over time. If you have any suggestions for the glossary please email the RAI’s Education and Communications Officer.

Applied Anthropology

The use of anthropological expertise on a very practical level in trying to understand and alleviate human problems such as the impact of a new system of agriculture in a society, the causes of illiteracy among adults in a given group, etc.


When used in social anthropology, culture does not usually refer to high culture such as literature or the arts. It is taken to mean the sum total of a given people’s beliefs, customs, knowledge and technology. These are learned and constitute a dynamic system. This system exists outside the body and is not inherited through biology.

Cultural Anthropology

The term used to describe a style of anthropology linked more with North American than British scholarship, though this distinction may now be breaking down. This style often emphasises the need to focus on the shared meanings which allow members of a community to understand each other and co-operate successfully.


An adjective describing the condition of viewing and judging (often in pejorative terms) other cultures and societies according to the (usually taken-for-granted) assumptions of one’s own society. By way of contrast, anthropology is concerned not only to highlight our assumptions but also to show that other cultures and societies are different to our own, but not any worse or better.


The recording and analysis of a culture or society, usually based on participant-observation and resulting in a written account of a people, place or institution.


One meaning of this term refers to the now out-dated notion that societies are organised in terms of how far they have developed in terms of their social and cultural organisation. Some social evolutionists believed that all societies had to pass through certain stages over time as they moved from being simple to complex in their culture and organisation. In biological terms, however, it refers to the more current notion that human populations and other living creatures have genetically adapted to changing environments by descent through random mutation and processes of natural selection.


The anthropological perspective that stresses the need to look at societies as they work and are viable in the present, rather than trying to explain them in terms of their past.


Those who obtain food in ways that do not rely on agriculture; wild plants are gathered and animals hunted. To be contrasted with pastoralism and the gathering of food through agriculture.


The process by which individuals and groups in geographically separate societies are becoming increasingly interconnected through space by such means as communications media (books, television, the internet, etc) or physical travel.


Beliefs, attitudes and opinions that come together and link to form a world-view. In Marxist writings, ideology is related to economic organisation and usually entails the justification of social relations that benefit one social and economic class at the expense of others.


The body of ideas propounded by the nineteenth century philosopher Karl Marx (1818-83) and his followers. Marxists argue that the economic system of a society (capitalist, feudal, etc) has a considerable impact on the culture and social organisation of that society.


Many understandings of narrative exist in anthropology. One that is relatively common is the idea that it relates to a description (fictional or supposedly fact) of people and events that help give such events particular meaning and order for the narrator and/or audience.


The study of fossil animals and plants.


The study of a culture or society usually carried out by living for an extended period of time with its members. The participant-observer takes part in everyday life and carefully records such things as behaviour, events and conversations, in order to obtain a fully-rounded picture of beliefs, social groupings and customs.


A form of life where herding of animals such as sheep, goats or horses provides the major forms of subsistence, in particular food. To be contrasted with agriculture and hunting and gathering as a way of life.

Qualitative Research

Qualitative research involves the gathering of data through methods that involve observing forms of behaviour eg conversations, non-verbal communication, rituals, displays of emotion, which cannot easily be expressed in terms of numbers.

Quantitative Research

The gathering of data that can readily be expressed in numbers and therefore usually subjected to statistical analysis eg surveys of income per head of population, birth-rates, etc.


The ability to stand back and assess aspects of one’s own behaviour, society, culture etc in relation to such factors as their motivations, origins, meanings, etc.


A technique of communicating with supernatural beings or forces, usually carried out by ritual specialists. The technique may involve being possessed by spirits in a way that is controlled by the shaman.

Social Anthropology

The term used to describe a style of anthropology linked more with British than north American scholarship. This style often emphasises the need to focus on the shared social organisation that enables a group of people to co-operate and maintain order.

Social Change

Anthropologists attempt to to explain not just how societies are organised, but also how and why they change over time owing to such factors as new technology, influx of newcomers, internal revolution, etc.


A form of functionalism that stresses the interconnections between social institutions eg how the family structures of a society relate to the way economic activities are arranged (as in the use of child labour to boost household incomes), or how religious beliefs can reinforce political authority (as in the medieval idea that the king was divine).


A theory that argues that the organisation of culture and society can be related to some universal features of the workings of the human mind. This theory is most often associated with the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.


Any word, gesture or object which stands for or expresses something else is a symbol. Thus, a flag is a symbol of a country. Different cultures use different sets of symbols or forms of symbolism.