According to Evans-Pritchard, social anthropology includes the study of all human cultures and societies. The basic idea is that it tries to find out the structure of human societies all over the world. What social anthropology seeks to establish is that all societies notwithstanding any country are an organized whole.
It is not just the separate customs or beliefs that are different, but the whole pattern of working, living, marrying, worshipping, organizing politically, and keeping order and so on. Everything is different from the way we do things because the structure, the plan and the ideas behind them are different.
Let us take the case of different tribal groups of India. The POI survey has identified 461 tribal groups in the country. In terms of customs, folkways, food habits and rituals no one tribe is similar to another.
Despite this diversity all the tribal groups constitute a society which may be called as tribal society. In this tribal society, there are some traits or institutions which bear a close similarity or uniformity.
There is a legitimate way of acquiring a mate, some system of succession and some kind of polity. It is here that social anthropology, on one hand, accounts for the social and cultural variations among the different tribal groups, but on the other hand, it also conceptualizes the similarities found between tribal social systems and human relationships.
As a matter of fact, when we try to understand the tribal economy as a particular group, say Santhal, we try to find out how this economy is connected with other aspects of the Santhal society.
If we are required to define social anthropology in a comprehensive way, we would say that this discipline seeks to find out institutional relations within the society and relations between societies.
In other words, we try to find out the social institutions of the Santhals as connected with the tribe and also the relations of these institutions with the institutions of other tribes and the wider non-tribal society or the national society.
The British social anthropology, as Evans-Pritchard observed, is a branch of sociology. He writes:
When people speak of sociology they generally have in mind studies of particular problems in civilized societies. If we give this sense to the word, then the difference between social anthropology and sociology is a difference of field, but there are also important differences of method between them.
The social anthropologist studies primitive societies directly, living among them for month or years, whereas sociological research is usually from documents and is largely statistical.
Evans-Pritchard, by comparing social anthropology with sociology, brings out a clear definition of social anthropology. According to him, “social anthropology has primitive societies as its subject matter.
In other words, it is concerned with the affairs of the primitive, indigenous people, hills and forest people, scheduled tribes and other such groups of people”.
Another part of the definition of social anthropology is the fieldwork. Data in social anthropology are generated in the field and not on the desk of a study room in a library. It is because of this that M.N. Srinivas lived for months together in Rampura village. Similar fieldwork was done by Mackim Marriot in Kishangarhi of Aligarh district.
The definition of social anthropology, as given by Evans- Pritchard is as under:
It is the relation of this general body of theory to primitive social life which constitutes the subject of social anthropology. In other words, social anthropology studies: (1) primitive societies, and (2) generate data by doing fieldwork.
John Lewis, another British social anthropologist, has also defined social anthropology on the pattern of the definition given by the British social anthropology school. In a very straightforward manner, he says that anthropology is the study of the way of life of primitive people as they can still be found today, or not too much altered by contact with civilization.
Lewis has defined social anthropology in a very conservative style. He argues that social anthropology studies primitives but these primitives are qualified by a statement that they should remain unaffected by social change.
In other words, only those primitives according to Lewis need to be studied who remain outside the impact of social and cultural change. Such a study would bring out only those characteristics of the tribal society which are queer and rigid.
For Lewis, anthropology is nothing but the study of other cultures, as advocated by John Beattie. This makes social anthropology a comparative discipline of the study of social institutions. However, despite limiting the field of social anthropology to the study of primitive communities, Lewis suggests for establishing a pattern of indigenous society.
Eriksen puts all emphasis on the study of small places in social anthropology. He argues that social anthropology intensively is concerned with the small places. But these small places relate to large issues. Defining social anthropology in a new perspective, Eriksen writes:
One may, therefore, say that anthropology asks large questions, while at the same time it draws many of its insights from small places it has been common to regard social anthropology’s traditional focus on small scale non-industrial societies, compared with other subjects dealing with culture and society.
However, because of changes in the world and in the discipline itself, this is no longer an accurate description. Practically, any social system can be studied anthropologically and contemporary anthropological research displays an enormous range, empirically as well as thematically.
Eriksen’s definition of social anthropology contests Lewis’ definition. Lewis says that social anthropology studies primitive people as they can still be found, uninfluenced by social change.
Eriksen rejects it, objects to it and says that social anthropology does not remain restricted to primitive people; it studies any social system, the qualification of such a social system is that it is of a small-scale non-in- dustrial kind of society. Thus, according to Eriksen, social anthropology studies:
(1) Small-scale society,
(2) Non-industrial society, and
(3) Small and larger issues of the society.