Social Anthropology: Understanding Our Place in the World


This is a CPD (Continuing Professional Development) course supporting those teaching or hoping to teach the SCQF Level 5 course ‘Social Anthropology: Understanding Our Place in the World’.

Course Tutor: Dr. Siobhan Magee

8 x 1-hour classes

GBP £150

Starting date: Thursday 7th March 2024, 16:00 UTC

Please email with any questions or if you are interested in booking a place on this course.


This course has been developed as CPD for school teachers and FE staff working in the Scottish system. Participants should work at a Scottish school or college, and be either teaching or considering teaching the SQA unit noted above.




Key words: Social Anthropology; SCQF Level 5; CPD; Anthropological Methods; Teaching Anthropology; Ethnography; Reflective Research; Gender Studies; Religion Studies; State and Society; Kinship; Material Culture; Home and Belonging; Animals in Anthropology; Interdisciplinary Approach


Course objective 

This is a CPD course supporting those teaching the SCQF Level 5 course ‘Social Anthropology: Understanding Our Place in the World’. It explains some of Social Anthropology’s key methods, ways of constructing research questions, and methods of communicating findings. By exploring key themes and terminologies, it helps those teaching Social Anthropology units to develop clear and concise ways of explaining concepts to learners.

The course presents Social Anthropology as a two-pronged process: we reflect on places, communities, and ideas with which we are familiar (and learn about the histories of these places, and variations in them); we learn about places, communities, and ideas that don’t seem so familiar.

The course has been designed to fulfil the Learning Outcomes specified by the SCQF unit that it supports:
‘On successful completion of the Unit the learner will be able to:
1. Compare their own close relationships with examples of different cases.
2. Discuss the value and meaning of special occasions in their life.
3. Explain how people’s attitudes to places contribute to a sense of belonging.’

This CPD course discusses anthropological research on these topics. It has the related core objective of including reflective and small-scale research exercises that might be used in the classroom.


Course structure 

The course will comprise of 8 sessions, carried out online in a small group. The course instructor will encourage participation from learners, including through pair-work using online ‘breakout’ rooms. Learners are encouraged to ask questions both throughout the sessions and at a specially-allocated slot for questions at the end of each session.

The weekly themes will be:

  • Class 1: What is Social Anthropology?
  • Class 2: How do we describe our relationships?
  • Class 3: What is a special occasion?
  • Class 4: How do people make homes?
  • Class 5: Why are Social Anthropologists interested in animals?
  • Class 6: What do clothes do?
  • Class 7: How does the meaning of food change as it moves between places?
  • Class 8: The places around us


Tutor biography

Dr. Siobhan Magee is currently a Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. She earned her PhD from the same institution in 2013. Following her doctoral studies, Dr. Magee served as a design anthropologist on a collaborative project involving UCL, the University of Edinburgh, and Oxfam UK. Subsequently, she held the position of Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities from 2014 to 2015. Prior to her current role, she also taught at the University of Groningen.

Dr. Magee's extensive fieldwork experience spans various locations, including Poland, where she focused on fur clothing, small businesses, entrepreneurship, and intergenerational relationships. In the UK, her research centered on charity shops and societal perspectives regarding secondhand objects. Additionally, she has conducted research in the United States, exploring legal and political changes related to marriage, as well as the experiences of individuals in different marital statuses, including married, divorced, widowed, and single individuals.

Her primary research interests lie in the ethnographic examination of kinship and relatedness, encompassing diverse aspects such as relationships, sexuality, gender, reproduction, memory, and the ways in which individuals provide material support to their loved ones. Dr. Magee is particularly intrigued by how people situate these so-called "intimate" aspects of life within the context of global, national, and local histories and politics. She explores this dimension through discussions of social change and engages with the legal and political aspects of contestation, activism, and advocacy.

Read more about Dr Magee's work here:



Further information about classes:


Class 1: What is Social Anthropology?

This class introduces Social Anthropology’s key methods (participant observation, ethnography, comparison, historical contextualisation) and situates Social Anthropology in relation to both related disciplines (Sociology, Geography, Philosophy, History) and other anthropological sub-disciplines (including Cultural Anthropology). Emphasis is placed upon ironing-out points of confusion that arise when teaching Social Anthropology, such as the difference between ‘ethnography as method’ and ‘ethnography as product’.

We will explore how social anthropologists decide what to study and how they design their research. In particular, we will think about the kinds of questions social anthropologists ask about the world around them. We will learn about the different ways social anthropologists might express and tell about their findings – through written ethnographies, but also through film and art, and sometimes through policy work or advocacy.
We will also discuss the politics of Social Anthropology- the discipline’s roots in colonialism, its relationship with social movements such as feminism, and the representational challenges and opportunities provided by writing ethnographically. To this end, the concept of ‘reflexivity’ will be introduced.


Class 2: How do we describe our relationships?

Since the beginnings of the discipline, Social Anthropologists have been struck by how the names that people give those around them (family, friends, community) them vary a lot. Social Anthropologists have explored how the expectations and obligations that come with these names vary a lot too.

We will do two activities that will be suitable for both learners on the CPD and learners in classrooms.
a) We will draw a very simple ‘kinship diagram’ in which we situate ourselves in relation to those who matter to us.
b) We will spend 10 minutes writing about a person who is meaningful to us. We might consider how we formed a relationship with them and if we have a particular name for them.

We will then compare these two ways of reflecting on and telling about relationships. We might discuss how we can describe relationships with people who have died, or with animals.


Class 3: What is a special occasion?

What, in any given time and place, counts as a special occasion? What might people do to mark its specialness using food, music, clothes, important people and places? We will draw upon Van Gennep’s work on ‘rites of passage’ while also looking at contemporary examples of instances in which people mark life course transitions for themselves and – importantly – for those around them.
Learners will bring to the class an object associated with a special occasion in their life, enabling us to discuss material culture as an important anthropological lens for learning about people and places.
Discussing birthdays, weddings, funerals, and coming of age celebrations such as Bar and Bat Mitzvahs will let us discuss the ways in which religions, governments, or other political entities may be present in special occasions.


Class 4: How do people make homes?

‘Home’ is an important and complex idea for human beings. It can evoke attachments to different places – including different countries – and it can remind us of different people we know or have known. Many of us have more than one place that we consider to be home.

In this class, we focus on home as a feeling and a place (or places) but always as a process. What do we do to make ourselves feel at home? How might this involve objects, foods, music, decoration, routines, and interactions with our local communities?


Class 5: Why are Social Anthropologists interested in animals?

It might seem surprising that Social Anthropologists – as people who ask questions about what it is to be human – are so interested in animals. However, whether through pets, agriculture, symbols, or food, Social Anthropologists find that animals tell us a lot about human experience, from economy to relationships. Some newer ethnographies experiment with trying not to privilege the perspective of humans over non-humans at all.

As part of this session, learners will engage in a short writing activity in which they describe an animal that they think tells other people about the place where the author lives. This could be a pet or a farm animal, but it could also be an animal that appears in local myths. It could also be a ‘pest’ species or a type of so-called ‘wild’ animal.


Class 6: What do clothes do?

Ethnographic accounts of clothes provide an excellent example of how Social Anthropologists’ interest in exploring what is fascinating about seemingly quite mundane aspects of life. Clothing can protect us from the elements, and help us keep up with local ideas of social acceptability about which parts of our bodies to cover, but they can also be a way of expressing ourselves. Sometimes clothing is one of the ways in which people live out their adherence to a particular religion.

In this class, learners will practice interviewing others. They will talk to another member of the class for five minutes about their favourite item of clothing. As a class, we will discuss what this tells us about useful interviewing techniques (e.g. the differences between ‘why’ questions and ‘how’ questions). Using the information gained from the interviews, we will discuss how Social Anthropologists use individuals’ experiences and opinions to build arguments about society.



Class 7: How does the meaning of food change as it moves between places?

In this class, we will discuss the variety of lens through which Social Anthropologists have explored food: religion, gender, migration, inequality, technology, colonialism- to name but a few. In particular, we will explore what we can learn from looking at a food’s ‘commodity chain’, or, how the meaning and value of food changes as it moves from producers to consumers, and often through different parts of the world. Sidney Mintz’ work on sugar will be discussed as a key example.
Learners will work together to design a multi-sited research project on a food of their choice. Which food would they learn about? Where would they go? Which methods would they use?


Class 8: The places around us

Reflecting upon and discussing places gives learners the opportunity to think deeply about their daily, weekly, and annual routines and contrast them with those of both classmates and people living in other parts of the world.

In this class, we will do two exercises. Firstly, we will each make a list of places other than the place where we live that we have been in the past week (only including places we are comfortable having other learners in the class know about). We will then talk about classification and classify these places into categories that make sense to us (e.g. ‘religion’, ‘leisure’, ‘nature’). Having discussed Mary Douglas’ work on ‘purity and danger’, learners can discuss some of the rules that exist in these places.

Secondly, we will talk about what this list of places tells us about where we live- especially about its politics and economy. What kinds of places do you wish were in your local area but are not? Why aren’t they there? Has this always been the case? Which anthropological methods might we use to find out?


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