Social anthropology is one of the social sciences. Natural sciences deal with natural phenomena whereas social sciences deal with cultural as well as social data. The scope and subject matter of social sciences consists of social institutions, polity, economy, crime and several other aspects of society.
The objective of all the social sciences is to study the different aspects of society. On the basis of this study certain empirical generalizations are made, which in course of time, are formed into social theory. Same is the process with natural sciences.
Social scientists have tried to define their subject matter from time to time. In a broad sense, social sciences, namely, economics, political science, history, anthropology, sociology, and others focus on the study of man as a member of a group or society. Thus, the nature of social sciences is essentially mental and cultural.
Efforts have been made to classify the social sciences. There is a tradition of the classification of sciences in general inherited from Plato and Aristotle.
According to Comte, “the inorganic physical sciences deal with the most simple and universal phenomena. Next, the biological sciences, which presuppose that the phenomena of the physical sciences are more particular and complex.
Finally, come the social sciences, which presuppose the data of the organic sciences”. Spencer has gone a little ahead and distinguishes three levels of phenomena, namely, the inorganic, the organic, and the superorganic or social. Interpreting the classification or hierarchy of social sciences, David Bidney comments:
Superorganic phenomena were but extensions of organic phenomena into the social sphere, and hence, the former were not intelligible apart from knowledge as the kinds of organisms involved in any particular type of superorganic process.
Bidney has attempted to define social sciences considering varying classifications and says that “the social sciences are, as a matter of fact, empirical sciences. There has been a drastic change in our approach to the understanding of social sciences.
There has been a breakaway from the old ontological orientation of social sciences”. Now, all social sciences are considered to be empirical. These social sciences have their focus on two social aspects: (i) study of interrelationships in the society, and (ii) emphasis on culture.
Admittedly, social sciences deal with different aspects of society. Despite this common character, all the social sciences differ from each other. Each has its autonomous identity.
The difference that we can make out is in the degree of emphasis put by each discipline. Secondly, the difference also lies in the methodology adopted. Kroeber has explained the perspective and focus difference among social sciences in the following statement:
All the so-called social sciences deal with cultural as well as social data. Caesar’s reform of calendar was a cultural innovation. His defeat of the senatorial party was a social event, but it led to institutional and, therefore, cultural changes, just as it affected thousands of individual lives for better or worse.
When a historian analyzes Caesar’s character and motivation, he has, in fact, gone beyond both society and culture and is operating in the field of informal, biographical, individual psychology. In economics, the banking system, the gold standard, commerce by credit or barter are institutions, and hence, cultural phenomena.
Kroeber lays down in detail the scope and subject matter of social sciences in general. He argues that social sciences are highly culture- conscious. They aim to investigate human culture as such. Though his emphasis on culture study may be contested, the fact is that social sciences study all the specializations of a society.
When we look at the relationship of social anthropology with other social sciences, we are put to confusion and uncertainty.
Before we discuss the relationships of social anthropology with other branches of anthropology-physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, pre-history, linguistics-it is essential that we look at the different traditions of anthropology vis-avis other social sciences.