Cultural and Social Anthropology


The diversity and commonalities of human cultures and societies lie at the heart of social and cultural anthropology. Anthropologists study the ways of life of local communities, as well as the regional, national and global interdependencies in which these communities are involved. Thus, anthropologists investigate global processes such as capital flows, migration, health projects or digitisation initiatives, but give particular attention to their negotiation in local contexts. Anthropology aims to describe and understand these contexts and to explain specific aspects of human life and co-existence.

Openness to interdisciplinarity and international cooperation are central to our research and teaching. We regard the cultural and social sciences — which have grown together from different research traditions — as a joint, transnational undertaking. We seek new ways of collaboration, in particular with institutions and individuals in those regions where we conduct research (see Links).

Anthropology contributes greatly to current debates on cultural diversity and the relativity of values. It promotes critical thinking as well as sensitivity towards different ways of life and perspectives — key competencies for participation in the globalised world of the 21st century. Our team is therefore also committed to the public communication of anthropological perspectives and their social relevance.

Core Areas

In addition to courses addressing theoretical, methodological and regional issues, the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology offers courses in the following core areas: 1) Politics and Economics, 2) Medicine and Technology, 3) Intimate Social Relations. Events and lectures by guest researchers complement our programme. Our teaching emphasizes the close linkage between research and teaching: We use problems and results from ongoing research projects as examples in our teaching and encourage students to develop their own projects and to participate in field studies and research excursions.

1. Politics and Economics

On the one hand, political and economic anthropology focuses on the political and economic organisation in a diverse range of societies. On the other, anthropologists examine how local dynamics are influenced by national and global political and economic processes. Furthermore, anthropologists are increasingly investigating these processes themselves, for example, the nation state, bureaucracies, and the establishment of capital-intensive large-scale projects. Among other issues, we explore the consequences of large-scale plantations and mining in different areas of the world. But we also ask: How is public health insurance in India planned and implemented for poorer sections of the population? Or how do capitalist logics prevail and restructure health care? 

2. Medicine and Technology

Examining medicine and technology from an anthropological perspective involves considering these phenomena (often conceived as “objective” or “natural”) as objects of study and to subject them to social science analyses. We do this through close interdisciplinary exchange, for example, with science and technology studies or the history of science. In which ways are medicine and technology present in daily life? How are they produced, perceived, used and possibly reinterpreted in specific contexts? To what extent are these experiences shaped by historical, political and economic influences, and how do they relate to social inequalities? Our research explores the ideals of universal health care, health policy, biotechnologies and digitalisation mainly in South Asia and East Africa. We also focus on global entanglements, especially in the form of South-South relations.

3. Intimate Social Relationships

Ever since its beginnings as a specific discipline, anthropology has taken great interest in how those relationships that are central to both everyday life and the reproduction of collective life are organised: family, households, extended kinship, and living together in settlements or neighbourhoods. These close relationships form one basis of further dimensions of social organisation, such as economic and political life. At the same time, they respond to historical transformations. When these relationships change, other areas of social life also change. Today, for example, we ask ourselves: How does international migration change social relationships? Or what happens to family relationships when new reproductive technologies change the possibilities of having children?

Regional Activities

Our staff undertake research in Southeast Asia, the Pacific, South Asia and East Africa. However, some of our Master’s and PhD students also work on aspects of social life in Switzerland.