Sociocultural anthropology seeks to interpret and to explain the similarities and differences in human ways of life. Universals are as important as local specificities in understanding behaviour and culture in a comparative perspective, but careful and detailed descriptions of particular cultures must always be the starting point. Although good knowledge of regional ethnography sets the context (see –> regional research interests) for particular research projects, the discipline takes it for granted that practices and meaning are defined primarily by local contexts. Nevertheless, topical specialisation (see –> topical research interests) is also central to research and teaching within the discipline. Our team is committed to the discipline’s roots in the furtherance of anthropological research and as a basis for interdisciplinary work.
Openness to interdisciplinarity is integral to our research and teaching, as is international cooperation and collaboration. We regard the social sciences, growing together from different research traditions, as an international collaborative endeavour. Sociocultural anthropology, in the postcolonial era, is especially concerned to establish new means of exchange, partnership and discussion with institutions and individuals in the regions where it conducts research (see for example "partners").
Anthropology has much to contribute to contemporary discourses and debates on cultural diversity and the relativity of values. It fosters a critical reflexivity and sensitivity to perspectival differences that are so crucial to effective participation in today’s globalized societies. Our team is therefore committed to the public communication of anthropological perspectives as relevant to contemporary affairs.
In addition to offering general, regional and topical courses, the department offers a range of courses in the fields in which its members specialise: kinship and social reproduction, psychological/cognitive anthropology and human-environment-relations. Students benefit from one-on-one guidance from experienced specialists who are actively engaged in research and scholarly publication. Our courses are further enriched by lectures and presentations from visiting scholars. Our teaching philosophy emphasises the close connection between research and learning. Ongoing research projects, problems and results are used as examples in teaching and students are encouraged to craft their own research projects and to participate in fieldwork excursions.
1. The Political Economy of Kinship and Social Reproduction
Humans are the most social of beings; yet the particularities of human sociality are culturally varied and historically consequential. Research on the ways patterns of sociality are established and maintained has been at the heart of sociocultural anthropology from its beginning. Under normal circumstances, all humans initially acquire their culturally specific endowments in the context of intimate family interactions, so understanding kinship relations and the behavioural norms associated with them is fundamental to theories of social reproduction. And since these interactions and practices, as well as the social and corporeal dispositions they inculcate, also entail relations of power, they are implicated both in local differences (between genders and social strata, for example) and in social change. Primary socialisation, through its complex links with family structures, the domestic economy and wider political structures, is an integral part of a dynamic process that simultaneously produces human individuals and reproduces—or transforms—the patterns of relations that constitute a culturally specific social form. The changes in socio-economic conditions, on local, regional and global levels, that late modernity has produced (involving, for example, migration and the rapid flows of capital, natural resources and material goods, including labour) inescapably implicate issues of social reproduction and the power relations of which they are an integral part. Current research projects by members of the department, in the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, focus on social reproduction and the configuration of kin and other fundamental social relations under conditions set by the globalization of the neoliberal economic policies, which increase economic inequalities and transform local patterns life.
2. Psychological (Cognitive) Anthropology
Psychological anthropology traditionally focused on inter- and intracultural variation in psychological characteristics and their development, as well as in the culturally specific concepts in which these are defined and normalised. More recently, researchers have also focused on cultural variations in aspects of cognitive processing itself (perceiving, learning, remembering, thinking, deciding and speaking). However, socialisation and learning, which are crucial to broader patterns of identity and behavioural dispositions, have been always been central to the discipline of anthropology. For that reason, psychological anthropology has sometimes been less evident as a separate stream of research, but the advent of cognitive science has reinvigorated the field, as questions are raised about the effects of local cultural patterns on basic aspects of cognitive functioning. (Psychoanalytical anthropology, a theoretical subfield of psychological anthropology, has a long tradition in Swiss anthropology.) Ongoing research in this area includes studies of the senses in the Philippines (Visayas), among the Wampar of Papua New Guinea, and in migrant communities in Europe..
3. Human-environment relations
Human-environment relations are the main topic of environmental anthropology (sometimes also referred to as "ecological anthropology" or "cultural ecology"). Anthropologists working in this field probe the various interactions between humans and their environments across the wide range of socio-cultural variation and from the earliest human societies to the contemporary global system. Environmental anthropologists, therefore, focus on the mutual shaping of natural environments and the human cultures that subsist within them. Accordingly, environmental anthropologists face the difficult challenge of disentangling the complex web of interdependencies between humans and their culturally modified "natural" environments. This perspective is also of great significance to an understanding of environmental changes and the policy initiatives developed by international organisations that address them.
Because human cultures subsist within environments that are categorised and cognised in specific local terms, studies of environmental interactions require knowledge of local understandings no less than knowledge of relevant scientific disciplines. This dual perspective is therefore necessary if we are to develop an appreciation of the human dimension of ecological interactions and the environmental histories (including, sometimes, the problems) of which they are part. Accordingly, this dual perspective is also necessary to an analysis of the sometimes conflicting positions adopted by various stakeholders in global discourses on climate change.
Empirical investigations by environmental anthropologists, and theoretical accounts of the culturally constructed nature of human-environment relations, provide them with a strong platform from which to contribute to debates in such neighbouring fields as geography, environmental studies, resource management, archaeology, human evolution, law, and policy analysis.
Ongoing departmental research in the field of human-environmental relations includes work on societal impacts of climate change and the perception of the environment (with case studies); research on economic patterns and resource management in the Philippines; and work on skills, conventions and rituals in the context of resource claims on the south-west coast of Madagascar. In addition, members of the team examine environmental politics, national and international policies and governance.
Regional Research Interests
Sociocultural anthropology is a comparative social science so regional specialisation is an important basis for in-depth ethnography and the analysis of geographically specific patterns of variation. Furthermore, regional competence is an important qualification for students on the international job market (see "Partners").
Team members work in Southeast Asia and in the Pacific while maintaining research interests in other regions. Several, PhD and MA students carry out research on migrants in Switzerland (for example, on Philippine transcultural families and their children).