Social and Cultural Anthropology

… is devoted to the study of societies worldwide, with a central focus on the human being (anthropos) in her/his cultural environment.

In research and teaching, the department is concerned with both contemporary and historical subject matters, so as to gain an understanding of social phenomena as processes and expressions of varied dynamics. Non-European societies have long been a focus of research at the Frankfurt Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology; today, however, the emphasis has largely shifted to those global interconnections of people that are the result of migration, transnational relations, global economies, and the social impact of worldwide processes of profound change.

In order to achieve that objective, the department provides regional expertise based on anthropological fieldwork in Africa, Central and South Asia (India), South-East Asia, the Americas, Oceania, as well as the Islamic world. The scholars engage in empirical and comparative studies particularly on the close interconnections – but also the lines of demarcation – between religion, kinship, economy, politics and law, culinary culture, material culture and museums, and migrations. Another field of research is the history of the discipline.

The focus of the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Goethe University Frankfurt is on the following range of topics which are also regularly addressed in teaching:

Social Orders & Social Practices

Based on empirical research on human actions, the department engages in studies of culturally specific ideas and values that form the foundation of social orders. For example, acts of exchange depend on the moral concepts of a society while at the same time revealing social equality or inequality and shedding light on individual strategies and practices. One research focus is the interplay between social orders created by humans on the basis of kinship ties and bureaucratic or state-based orders. In that context, the so-called “new kinship studies” are an important field of research because they look into the impact of state legislation and new reproduction technologies on concepts and practices of “being relatives”.

Global as well as local processes of change always pose a challenge to existing social orders and social practices whose dynamics (emergence, establishment, and abandonment or disintegration) are studied at the department. This includes, for example, research on cultural and political actors throughout the world who use the “invention of traditions”, the adaption of global discourses, or the spread of – usually religion-based – expectations of salvation for their visions of statehood, society, or community.

Materiality & Representation

The study of “materiality” focuses on ways of dealing with objects, goods, or technological aspects, as well as on the diverse manners in which they are culturally appropriated. Research is conducted on the qualities, properties, and meanings that are attributed to the objects due to their specific materiality. “Representation”, in turn, includes the use of material culture – for example, in and by museums as well as in the social environment – as a means of inward and outward (self-)representation. This includes contemporary non-European art, tourism, and representation in the media. An important field of research is the study of the immaterial aspects of material culture. For example, the department not only engages in research on the impact of intellectual property rights, particularly in the global and (post-)colonial context, but also on the production of knowledge and impacts of, and on, indigeneity and ethnicity. In many respects, these studies require close cooperation with archaeologists and historians.

Mobility & Plural Societies

An important field of research results from the observation that the increasing mobility both of humans and of the social networks surrounding them gives rise to a translocal, or transnational, movement of goods and things, of capital, knowledge, ideas, and practices. All this has an impact on the patterns of action of contemporary societies.

These complex phenomena and their causes are studied at the department. This is done, for example, on the basis of cultural practices and biographies of migrants, or by looking at competing world orders or at discourses on changes caused by environmental, political, or economic factors. This also spawns research on the various types of transnationalism and the effect, or impact, of migration both on people themselves and on their living together in increasingly plural societies.

Religion & Ritual

In many societies religious, or cosmological, concepts are closely interconnected with social, economic, and political aspects, as well as with people’s definitions of their identity. Studies in this field of research address the social meaning of rituals and performances, the relationship between state and religion, as well as the currently observable “resurgence” of religion(s). Hence, the focus of research is on concrete phenomena such as pilgrimages, religious (mega-)events, and discourses on sacral practices, as well as on global conflicts that are associated with the vigorous emergence of religious identity (e.g., “Islamism”). Another particular emphasis of research is on the economic preconditions for ritual practice, as well as on the impact of rituals on economic concepts and actions.