Department of Anthropology

History of the Department

Anthropology at Sussex: The First Fifty Years (1964-2014)

Historically, anthropology defined itself by its subject matter - in the broadest sense non-Western cultures and societies, in their pre-colonial, colonial, and then post-colonial guises.

Nowadays, however, our methodology and comparative perspective make it as applicable to Europe as much as to Africa or Asia. Nowadays, too, anthropologists are very much concerned with how the contemporary world impacts on every aspect of the societies we study, and how reciprocally the local interacts with the global.

This has been an outstanding feature of the Department of Anthropology at Sussex from its inception in 1964, initially in research in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, then in Latin America and Europe, more recently in East Asia, often undertaken with colleagues from other disciplines – history, politics, geography, development studies, migration studies.

This has led us into numerous fields where our innovative research has been able to make a significant contribution to the social sciences at large.

Sussex faculty were involved in the international and comparative study of gender and society, for example, from the early 1970s, indeed they were instrumental in getting it off the ground and shaping its agenda.

This was also the case with the anthropology of development, i.e. of the development process broadly defined.

Together with anthropologists and other researchers in the Institute of Development Studies and other groups at Sussex we have long been, and remain, one of the strongest centres for this type of research in the world, and this is reflected in the extent to which colleagues are regularly consulted by national and international agencies.

Our work on gender, economic liberalisation and land, for instance, has changed the way in which international organisations (the UN, the World Bank and the EU) approach land policy, and our anthropological approach to environmental issues, notably in Africa, has had a similar impact.

Other long-standing concerns have included research on cities in Africa, Latin America and Europe (especially in the 1960s and 1970s), and on rural-urban migration in countries such as Zambia and Peru.

There has also been significant research on the international migration of workers and their families in search of employment or security, for example between India and the Gulf states, from Bangladesh to Britain, and from North and West Africa to France and Italy.

In many cases migrant families have settled in the countries to which they have moved, but do not lose touch with the villages and towns where they originated; modern technology and means of communication enable them to live simultaneously ‘here’ and ‘there’.

What this implies for multicultural Europe has been another big theme.

From the 1990s, researchers in the department have also been engaged with the anthropology of medicine, science and technology, notably with regard to the impact of contemporary reproductive technologies.

Violence and conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, and the anthropology of human rights and citizenship have received close attention as have labour relations and global production networks, in industries such mining and garment manufacturing.

The politics of the international food chain and ‘of fair trade’, and their significance for both producers and consumers have come under scrutiny.

Sussex anthropology is thus distinctive in its interdisciplinary thinking, and in combining empirical and theoretical enquiry with a commitment to interpret and intervene in an increasingly complex, changing and materially unequal world.

From the beginning this has involved a focus on social, economic and political transformations, and the claims and contestations over power and meaning that animate social and cultural phenomena.

We share with other anthropologists a perspective which seeks linkages between all aspects and levels of human activity, and emphasises both how people construct their social and conceptual (and religious) worlds, and the material conditions in which that takes place.

But throughout our work has also been informed by a sensitivity to global processes and transnational linkages, to the forms of social differentiation, including gender, that configure them, and to the historical trajectories in which they are embedded.