Cultural anthropologists in the department share a belief that study and research must be firmly grounded in rigorous training in general social and cultural theory, both in contemporary writings and in the classics of anthropology and sociology. The faculty also believes that basic ethnography remains the cornerstone on which all cultural anthropology rests and are concerned with the representation of anthropological knowledge in writing and film. There is a commitment to an understanding of complex societies that is informed by a comparative perspective and knowledge of smaller-scale settings. Recent field research by faculty and students has been conducted in East and West Africa, North and South America (including research among Native Americans), Australia, the Caribbean, China, Eastern and Western Europe, Melanesia, the Middle East, Polynesia, South Asia, and the former Soviet Union. Faculty interests converge around gender relations, emotion, religion and belief systems, expressive culture and performance, the anthropology of history, colonialism and post-colonial nationalism, the cultural context of legal and political institutions, transnational processes, and urban life. Much faculty research focuses on the mediation of identities though popular and public cultural forms - such as art, television, indigenous media, urban space, regional cultures, and ideologies of language use - in a variety of changing social contexts.
Sociocultural Anthropology Mission Statement
Sociocultural anthropology, which we understand to include linguistic anthropology, is concerned with the problem of difference and similarity within and between human populations. The discipline arose concomitantly with the expansion of European colonial empires, and its practices and theories have been questioned and reformulated along with processes of decolonization. Such issues have re-emerged as transnational processes have challenged the centrality of the nation-state to theorizations about culture and power. New challenges have emerged as public debates about multiculturalism, and the increasing use of the culture concept outside of the academy and among peoples studied by anthropology. These are not "business-as-usual" times in the academy, in anthropology, or in the world, if ever there were such times.
Questions about cultural processes and theorizing about "human nature" escape the boundaries of anthropology as a discipline. The major paradigms framing cultural difference and human universals are profoundly contested; migrations, political collapses and social reorganizations transform the context in which the production of cultural meanings and theories of culture have been embedded and reproduced. For many of us, this is a moment in which it is necessary to take up the sort of broad challenges with which our disciplinary predecessors struggled -- to redefine the field of inquiry and research in relation to debates that have enormous significance in our own lives and those of the people we study.
Like our colleagues elsewhere, we are working to place contemporary social anthropological practice in the cross-currents of a burgeoning interest in culture and cultural differences. This is part of the changing historical conditions of the analysis of cultural practice in anthropology, shaped by a shifting of boundaries between those who study and those who are the objects of study, as well as the reorganization of disciplines and their location in the world. Our collective enterprise is to help make an anthropology that grapples with the changing situations of contemporary life. The worlds in which we work, both inside the academic institution and outside, demand more than ever a rethinking of basic concepts and methods and formulation of research projects to engage a range of changing ethnographic objects. At NYU there has been extraordinary cooperation in engaging with these issues, reformulating anthropological traditions of study in order to conceive new problems and comprehend changing circumstances in the world outside the academy.
However much anthropology might need to be transformed in the light of criticism, what holds us together is a firm grounding in the traditions and methods of the field focusing on two key disciplinary commitments. The first is the commitment to "fieldwork" -- a coeval presence with social actors -- as a way of challenging one's embeddedness in systems of theoretical knowledge. We recognize the need to retheorize this kind of practice, but continue to regard it as the foundation of anthropological knowledge. The second commitment is to the study of cultural processes and practices through which human action is individually and collectively mediated -- that is, to the study of people doing things, of action and practices, rather than the study of culture as an object. Our interest is in how actors (or agents) constitute themselves and organize social life with particular attention to material culture, performance, and expressive media.
Some of us began our research careers with ethnography in small-scale societies, but we all recognize the difficulty of any anthropological project now that would disregard the way such social worlds are embedded in economic, political, and cultural processes of a larger order. The shared project of the sociocultural faculty concerns the problems of how to develop an anthropological approach to such complex sociocultural phenomena. There has clearly been a movement among students and faculty to pursue research at the level of what are commonly known as "complex societies," and especially an interest in the development of anthropological approaches to the study of ‘Western’ society (France, Spain, the U.S.), but we are deeply committed to the view that such study should be informed by a comparative perspective and the knowledge of small-scale societies developed within anthropology. The faculty believes that basic ethnography remains the cornerstone on which all cultural anthropology rests; that study and research must be firmly grounded in rigorous training in general social and cultural theory, both in contemporary writings and in the classics of anthropology and sociology; and that we need to examine what is at stake in representations of anthropological knowledge in writing and media.
A distinctive emphasis has emerged in this department around the study of "cultural mediations": religion, ritual, language, art, poetry, indigenous and mass media, music, and cultural spectacles -- as they mediate social relations at many levels of social action. Faculty interests fall into three interrelated configurations. The first concerns the study of a range of signifying practices--language, emotion and personhood, art and material culture, media, museums, music and popular culture, religion and ritual, and history and "social memory." These interests intersect with a second configuration around urban space, nationalism, historical processes, cultural policy, language ideology, social movements, and transnational processes such as migration, the circulation and consumption of cultural capital, and tourism. Faculty and student research that has focused on the mediation of national, diasporic, and indigenous identities through popular and public cultural forms in a variety of changing social contexts has brought many of us to participate in both of these configurations. The development of the Program in Culture and Media -- with its rigorous training in theory, production, and ethnography of media -- has been a particularly vital component of this configuration, as a site for rethinking the relationships among different kinds of cultural production.
A third configuration is now being developed by several faculty in Medical Anthropology and Science Studies. Ongoing research projects are examining the intersection of reproductive technologies and the medicalization of social practices; the construction of genetic knowledge in labs, clinics, and genetic support groups; the social construction of diagnoses of emotion-related disorders and their relationship to the production of psychotropic drugs; ways in which social formations come to grips with the revolution in genetics and the effects of the production and dissemination of new scientific knowledge; and the remaking of the public sphere -- from policy to social movements -- as new media, information technologies and neo-liberal economies transform these arenas. Crosscutting all of these configurations is a record of strength and continuing work in linguistic anthropology, feminist anthropology and gender and sexuality studies.
Departmental emphases draw on the great benefits that come from being at a large, first-rate urban university. We have important cross-disciplinary formations in area studies (the Institute of French Studies, The Center for Caribbean and Latin American Studies, the Kevorkian Center and Middle East Studies, Africana Studies, Asian/Pacific American Studies, American Studies, and East Asian Studies) as well as in other areas including our collaborative arrangements with Cinema Studies and the Film School; Museum Studies; Linguistics; and the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge--giving students access to a broad range of expertise.
Special Resources and Facilities in Sociocultural Anthropology
The Annette B. Weiner Fellowship in Cultural Anthropology supports ethnographic fieldwork by graduate students in the Department of Anthropology. The fellowship carries on the inspiration and dedication that Annette Weiner gave to the field of anthropology, so that her vision will be carried forward to the next generation. Applications for the fellowship are invited each April. Doctoral students who anticipate doing socio-cultural or linguistic fieldwork in the upcoming year and who wish to be considered should normally submit a recent example of a fieldwork grant application. Post-Master's preliminary fieldwork applications will be considered, but on a lesser order of priority.