MSc Social and Cultural Anthropology

About the programme

The MSc in Social and Cultural Anthropology is a flagship of cutting edge, research-led training in socio-cultural anthropology. Offering a flexible programme of study in the heart of London, the course provides a thorough grounding in anthropological theory and analysis, an understanding of ethnographic approaches to the study of contemporary society, and a strong foundation in anthropological research methods and their interface with professional practices in the world at large.

Four things that make this programme unique

While a number of other departments in the UK and elsewhere offer Masters’ courses in socio-cultural anthropology, four key features distinguish our programme:

  • It provides core teaching in two ‘study tracks, which students choose in Term 2. Track I, titled Theory, Ethnography and Comparative Analysis, continues the in-depth instruction in core anthropological topics provided in Term 1, and is intended for students interested in anthropology for its own sake, often with a view to pursuing a PhD later. Track II, titled Theory, Ethnography and Professional Practice, explores the relevance of anthropological research to professional practices (e.g. government, NGOs, development, business, the arts), and is intended for students who are interested in bringing their anthropological training to bear on their subsequent work in other professional fields.
  • As well as opportunities for fieldwork, the course provides opportunities for professional placements and internships and other volunteering opportunities in collaboration with UCL’s very active Careers Service, who help students match up their individual aspirations with potential employers seeking staff for paid placements and/or applicants for unpaid internships in the charity sector.
  • It offers a uniquely wide range of specialist options, including those taught by staff in social anthropology as well as colleagues in medical anthropology, digital anthropology, visual and material culture, human ecology, and evolutionary anthropology. This reflects UCL Anthropology’s distinctly broad-based approach, in which in-depth research and training in social anthropology is complemented by an understanding of other sub-fields within the discipline. Please note: Not all specialist option courses run every year. 
  • It allows students to participate in a plethora of Reading and Research Groups (RRGs). Conceived as open spaces for the exchange of ideas on topics ranging from Chinese philosophy and the work of Gilles Deleuze to the anthropological study of artistic performances or the contemporary sense of crisis, the RRGs are central to the collective intellectual life of the Department. In addition to their regular informal meetings, RRGs organise public events such as workshops, debates and conferences.

Studying Social and Cultural Anthropology at UCL

Our student body is diverse, welcoming students from across the world, and of different ages and stages of career. Together, they form a tightknit community during the course of their studies, and participate fully in the dynamic research environment of the Anthropology Department and UCL at large.

While offering intensive further training at postgraduate level for students who already have a background in anthropology, the course is designed also for students with little or no prior training in the field. Indeed, most of our students come to us with degrees in a range of other disciplines (from history, maths or music, to business management, architecture or the law), often after having worked in different professional fields for a number of years.

Regardless of their background or prior training, students leave this course with in-depth training in socio-cultural anthropology and a firm grasp of social scientific research and methods more broadly. They are equipped to deploy these insights and skills in diverse subsequent career paths, including further research in anthropology at Doctoral level. Indeed, a sizeable proportion of our students go onto PhD programmes in anthropology, whether staying on at UCL, or joining other leading international departments including, among others, Harvard, California, Cambridge, LSE, Oxford, Paris, and the Max Planck Institute. Others go on to pursue careers in a host of fields, including the civil service, the media, journalism, international NGOs, consultancies, the arts, and business.

The programme runs over one full academic year (mid-September till mid-September) for full time students and over two full years for part-time students. The programme comprises three basic elements:

  • The core course, which includes the core seminar in Critical Issues in Social Anthropology and the course in Method in Ethnography (this counts for 25% of your assessment).
  • Three specialist options (these count for 25% of your assessment). Students are free to choose option modules from across the department but we encourage students to take at least 1, if not more, option modules from within the social anthropology section. Please note: some Biological Anthropology options are restricted. 
  • The 15,000 word dissertation, which is based on original research conducted individually by each student during the spring and summer on an anthropological topic of their own choice (this counts for 50% of your assessment).

So the course’s structure for the two study-tracks (see below) is as follows:



The core course comprises two elements, both of which run on a weekly basis in Term 1 and 2 and together constitute the backbone of the course as a whole:

The core seminar in Critical Issues in Social Anthropology

The aim of the course is to provide comprehensive training in social anthropological theory, emphasising the discipline’s contribution to the comparative study of human beings in their diverse social and cultural formations.

In Term 1 (October-December) the course provides a thematic review of key analytical issues in social anthropology, examining fundamental debates and controversies that define the discipline. This includes introducing students to central concepts such as ‘culture’, ‘society’, the notion of the ‘other’, as well as the relationship between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, and local and global worlds.

The course is taught in weekly 2-hour seminars, which run over the two teaching terms. To find out more visit the current year's reading list (though this may change from year to year).

In Term 2 (January – March) the cohort splits into to two study-tracks:

Track I: Theory Ethnography and Comparative Analysis (TECA)

Students interested in anthropology primarily for its own sake, often with a view to pursuing a PhD in the discipline later, tend to choose Track I. Here the core course essentially continues comprehensively the training in anthropological topics provided in the core course in Term 1 by examining fundamental forms of analytical inquiry: politics, economics, religion and kinship. For example, students are introduced to the role of politics in society, with a focus on the state, and diverse forms of power and authority; economic organisation centred around 'goods', 'gifts' and money; aspects of religious belief and practice such as witchcraft, magic and ritual, together with a focus on kinship and the way people construct their relatedness and engage in acts of exchange and alliance through marriage. 

Track II: Theory, Ethnography and Professional Practice (TEPP)

Students interested primarily in deploying a sound grasp of anthropological theory and method in relation to diverse fields of professional and policy-related practice (including governance, NGOs, health, environment and development, etc.) tend to choose Track II. Here the core course is dedicated to exploring the interface between anthropology and the professional world, emphasizing the relevance of anthropological research and methods to professional practice in contemporary society. This includes dedicated sessions on anthropological advocacy, the relationship between anthropology and policy-making, the critical role of anthropology in contemporary society and public debate, as well as case studies of anthropologists working at the interface with different professional fields, such as development, NGOs, the creative industries, environmental initiatives and so on. Students who arrange a placement through the UCL Careers Services placementsinternships and other volunteering opportunities may reflect on their experience in the context of this study-track’s core course, as well as in their dissertation (see below).


  • 2 x 2,000 word essays (the average of both marks counts for 8.3% of the degree)
  • 2-hour written examination (which also counts for 8.3% of the degree).

Method in Ethnography

This course examines the inspiration for the ‘ethnographic method’, its contribution, its limits, and the conditions for its successful performance. Grounding discussion in examples of anthropological writing past and present, and interrogating their insights through ethnographic exercises carried out by the students, the course will enable students to understand and contribute to the ongoing, collaborative project of building a comparative and ethnographically grounded study of human phenomena. The course will take the form of weekly seminars in the first half of Term One, followed by group mini research projects in the second half. 


  • Group presentation based on research mini projects (contributes 50% of overall mark for the module)
  • 1,500 word Methodology Report based on student’s prospective dissertation research (contributes 50% of overall mark for the module)

The entire Method in Ethnography module counts for 8.3% of the degree.

Specialist Options

Students are required to take three specialist options that are offered across the department every year, in Term 1 or in Term 2 (or in some cases in both Terms). While students are encouraged to take at least one or more options offered by Social Anthropology staff, they are free to take options also in Material Culture, Visual Culture, Anthropological film-making, Digital Anthropology, Medical Anthropology, Human Ecology or Biological Anthropology (although some Biological Anthropology options are restricted).

see full list of options available this year


While assessment methods do vary from course to course, most options are assessed by way of a 3,000 word essay due at the end of the course. Each option counts for 8.3% of the degree (together they comprise 25%).


The MSc dissertation is a 15,000 word thesis based on the student’s independent research and thought on a topic of their choice. It counts for 50% of the degree. It must use anthropological materials (i.e. theories, methods and/or ethnographic data) in some way. This is usually achieved at an empirical level (i.e. by presenting source or case materials that are clearly relevant to the discipline of anthropology), and at a theoretical level (e.g. exploring a body of anthropological theory), showing how the two levels are related. A good dissertation ideally demonstrates awareness of relevant anthropological research and situates itself critically in relation to what has come before. Fieldwork to collect primary ethnographic data is encouraged wherever it is practicable and relevant. However, when interested in topics for which fieldwork will be technically impossible or intellectually inappropriate, students should not feel discouraged from basing their dissertation primarily or exclusively on library research.

By the middle of Term 2 students are expected to have settled on a viable topic in consultation with their personal tutor, at which point they are assigned a Dissertation Supervisor, chosen from among the social anthropology staff according to the nature of the topic. Students’ relationships with their Dissertation Supervisors are a focal element of our Masters’ training and provide a forum for intensive tuition and support throughout the course. Fieldwork and/or library research is conducted during Term 3 (April-June) and the beginning of the summer. Students write up their theses in latter part of the summer (July-September) and submit it around the 15th of September, at the very end of the course.

Timeline and Part-time Study

The MSc is completed in one year of full-time study or two years part-time.

Full-time students take the core course (Critical Issues in Social and Cultural Anthropology) throughout Term 1 (September – December) and Term 2 (January – March). The two-hour written exam for the core course takes place in the beginning of Term 3 (usually in late April). Students make take their three specialist options in either term, but it is discouraged to take more than one in Term 1. The bulk of dissertation research and writing is conducted between May and August, with submission in mid-September.

Part-time students generally only take the core course in their first year (with the exam in term 3 of that year), and then take their specialist options and conduct their dissertation research and writing in the second year. All core course components are taught on two days in the week (typically Tuesdays and Wednesdays) to allow part-time students to combine the course with a part-time job. The timing of the specialist option courses varies, however, and students are advised to consult the timetable and discuss the scheduling of seminars with tutors at the beginning of the second year. NB: the course is too intensive to combine with a full-time job throughout the two years.

Research seminars and activities

UCL Anthropology runs no less than six seminar series on a weekly basis throughout Terms 1 and 2, covering the full spectrum of anthropological research conducted in the department. In our weekly Social Anthropology Research Seminar, which is open to all, runs through both terms, well-known researchers in the field of social and cultural anthropology present their most recent findings. MSc students are highly encouraged to attend and participate in the discussion.

In addition to one-off special events throughout the term, there is also a wide array of Research Reading Groups that are run within the department, offering students and staff an informal and productive alternative intellectual environment for generating new ideas and developing critical, engaged thinking on topics that interest them – RRGs in recent years have explored themes ranging from the relevance of Asian Philosophy to anthropological research or the anthropological dimensions of works of the French philosopher Gilles Deluze, to the understanding of financial crises in Southern Europe and the interface between indigenous cosmologies and contemporary research in Astrophysics. RRGs change every year, so keep checking the webpages for news.

Our main on-line research platforms, Subjectivity and Cultural Imagination (SCI) and LabUK provide an overview of the wealth of research and collaborations currently taking place in the department under the aegis of the social anthropology group.

Current Section Staff:

Dr Allen Abramson

Contact: a.abramson@ucl.ac.uk

Field research in Fiji focusing on gender and sexuality; property relations, land rights and land rites; and cultural dimensions of economic development. Field research in Britain, Europe and New Zealand on landscapes of risk, latter-day epic and dangerous games.

Dr Marc Brightman

Contact: m.brightman@ucl.ac.uk

Filed research in Amazonia, focusing on questions of leadership, environmental politics and indigenous forms of property (particularly in the context of UN-REDD), the political role of music and ritual, and the relationship between art objects, social space and group solidarity.

Dr Rebecca Empson

Contact: r.empson@ucl.ac.uk

Conducts research in Inner and East Asia, especially Mongolia, focusing on personhood and subjectivity, the politics of memory, exchange across bodily and territorial boundaries, new religious economies, migration and diaspora communities, visual and material culture.  

Prof Martin Holbraad

Contact: m.holbraad@ucl.ac.uk

Conducts research is in Cuba, focusing on Afro-Cuban religions and socialist politics. Themes of research include myth, consecration, cosmology, imagination, political subjectivity and the relationship between anthropological and philosophical analysis.

Dr Jerome Lewis

Contact: jerome.lewis@ucl.ac.uk

Working with Central African hunter-gatherers and former hunter-gatherers, Jerome's research focuses on socialization, play and religion, egalitarian politics and gender relations, and techniques of communication.

Dr Ruth Mandel

Contact: r.mandel@ucl.ac.uk

Fieldwork on Turkish, Kurdish, and Greek migrant workers in Berlin, in conjunction with fieldwork on returned migrants in Turkey and Greece. More recent work in post-Soviet Central Asia, primarily Kazakhstan.

Dr Alex Pillen

Contact: a.pillen@ucl.ac.uk

Field research in Sri Lanka and on Kurdish communities in London, focusing on the anthropology of war and violence, linguistic anthropology, socio-linguistics and discourse analysis, medical anthropology, and the anthropology of gender.

Prof Charles Stewart

Contact: c.stewart@ucl.ac.uk

Research on folklore and religion in Italy and Greece. Current interest in Greek dream narratives from an original perspective combining historical testimonies from antiquity and the middle ages with accounts of contemporary informants.

Prof Michael Stewart

Contact: m.stewart@ucl.ac.uk

Field research among Hungarian Roma (Gypsies) and Romanian shepherds and farmers. Focus on political and economic anthropology, historical anthropology, the anthropology of genocide, socialist and post-socialist transformations, and cognitive anthropology.

Full list of staff in the Department of Anthropology at UCL

Recommended readings

  • Keesing, Roger. 1997. Cultural Anthropology: a Contemporary Perspective. New York and London: Harcourt Brace (a broad and very well put together introduction)
  • Eriksen, Thomas H. 2001. Small Places, Large Issues: an Introduction to Social and Cultural anthropology. London: Pluto Press (a readable 101-type text)
  • Kuper, Adam. 1991. Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School. Routledge London (good as an introduction to the development of social anthropology in Britain).
  • Kuper, Adam. 2000. Culture: The Anthropologists’ Account. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press (useful, though polemically critical, account of the development of cultural anthropology in the US)
  • Layton, Robert. 1997. An Introduction to Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (good on theoretical approaches in anthropology)
  • Borofsky, Robert (ed.) 1994. Assessing Cultural Anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill (useful, if a little dated, collection of key writings by key anthropologists)
  • Astuti, Rita, et al (eds.) 2007. Questions of Anthropology. Oxford: Berg (a more recent collection of introductory essays on key topics by British anthropologists)
  • Ingold, Tim (ed.) 1996. Key Debates in Anthropology. Oxford: Berg. (collection of annual debates on anthropological topics held in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s – excellent as introductions to each topic. For more recent debates visit the Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory (GDAT) web page)
  • Gay y Blasco, Paloma & Huon Wardle. 2007. How To Read Ethnography. London: Routledge (an excellent introductory account of the significance of ethnographic writing in anthropology)
  • Barnard, Alan & Jonathan Spencer (eds.) 2004. Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology Routledge: London (extremely useful encyclopaedia on key terms and topics, updated regularly – look for most recent editions)

Some works by our staff

  • Abramson, Allen & D. Theodossopoulos (eds.) 2000. Land, Law and Environment: Mythical Land, Legal Boundaries. London: Pluto Press
  • Brightman, Marc. 2012. ‘Maps and Clocks in Amazonia: the Things of Conversion and Conservation’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18(3): 554-71
  • Empson, Rebecca. 2011. Harnessing Fortune: Personhood, Place and Memory in Mongolia. Oxford: Oxford UP
  • Freeman, Luke. 2007. Why are some people powerful? In Questions of Anthropology, Astuti, Parry & Stafford (eds.) Oxford: Berg
  • Holbraad, Martin. 2012. Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination. Chicago UP
  • Lewis, Jerome. 2008. Ekila: Blood, Bodies and Egalitarian Societies. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14(2): 297-315
  • Mandel, Ruth. 2008. Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany. Duke UP.
  • Michelutti, Lucia. 2008. The Vernacularization of Democracy: Politics, Caste and Religion in India. London: Routledge
  • Pillen, Alexandra. 2003. Masking Terror: How Women Contain Violence in Southern Sri Lanka. Pennsylvania University Press
  • Stewart, Charles. 2012. Dreaming and Historical Consciousness in Island Greece. Harvard University Press
  • Stewart, Michael. 1997. The Time of the Gypsies. Boulder: West View Press

Places to visit online

Some key journals in anthropology

Key Information

Programme starts

September 2018

Location: London, Bloomsbury


Recent graduates of this degree have pursued careers in fields including government, business, development, social research and consultancy, and the media, as well as in academia as professional anthropologists.

Recent career destinations for this degree
  • Junior Research Executive, BDRC Continental
  • PhD Researcher, Max Planck Society
  • PhD in Anthropology, UCL
  • Editor, Xinhua News Agency
  • History of Crime, Université Catholique de Louvain (Catholic University)

In addition to the analytical, interpretative and writing skills honed by its core academic training, the degree includes a unique orientation towards the interface between anthropological research and professional practice, allowing students to focus on the anthropology of professions including medicine, development, education, the law, the creative industries. Our close co-operation with UCL’s bespoke careers services, provides opportunities for internships and placements during the programme or following its completion.

Careers data is taken from the ‘Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education’ survey undertaken by HESA looking at the destinations of UK and EU students in the 2013–2015 graduating cohorts six months after graduation.

Students who complete the MSc in Social and Cultural Anthropology have a large number of career options available to them. These include:

  • working as an anthropologist academically within the discipline of anthropology or other social science field
  • working as an anthropologist in an applied professional setting in the UK or elsewhere, particularly with NGOs and development agencies in developing country contexts, or within government agencies or other national or international policy bodies, think-tanks etc.
  • working in a variety of professional fields, such as law, media, creative arts, business and finance, local or national government, in which the specialist knowledge and research techniques gained through the degree enables graduates to operate more effectively in different or cultural settings and with diverse populations.

Some of our recent graduates have gone on to secure jobs academia, social services, international aid, government, non-governmental organizations, media, the creative industries and a variety of other professional fields. The skills taught in the course relate to field techniques and approaches to the analysis of data with an emphasis on qualitative methods and analysis.