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MIT Course Catalog 2014-2015

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Anthropology studies humankind from a comparative perspective that emphasizes the diversity of human behavior and the importance of culture in both describing and explaining that diversity. While the discipline encompasses the biological nature of our species and the material aspects of human adaptation, it takes as fundamental the idea that we respond to nature and natural forces in large part through culture—that is, the system of practices and signs through which people interact and communicate. Anthropology, then, is the study of human beings as cultural animals. Sociocultural anthropology, the focus of the MIT program, draws its data from the direct study of contemporary peoples living in a wide variety of circumstances, from peasant villagers and tropical forest hunters and gatherers to urban populations in modern societies, professionals in technological organizations, as well as from the history and prehistory of these peoples.

Anthropology at MIT offers students a broad exposure to scholarship on human culture and is distinguished from other humanities and social science disciplines by its insistence that you must work and live with the people you study in order to understand their lives. This immersion—often described as ethnography—reveals the multiple positions and perspectives that constitute social worlds, providing contextual resources for work in engineering, science, and other fields in the humanities, social sciences, and management. MIT’s Anthropology Program provides both introductions and intensive study to areas of faculty specializations: environmentalism, agriculture and food production, the organization and cultures of science, medicine, and technology, religion and symbolism, law and human rights, gender studies, as well as nationalism and ethnic identity.

Excluding Independent Study, Thesis, and Special Subjects, the Anthropology curriculum is divided into seven topic clusters that provide depth on related topics:

  • 21A.00 and 21A.01 are core subjects.
  • 21A.100 to 21A.199 address general issues related to culture and identity.
  • 21A.200 to 21A.299 concern religion, belief, myth, and magic in different cultures.
  • 21A.300 to 21A.399 examine health, disease, medicine, and biology in global and local settings.
  • 21A.400 to 21A.499 investigate issues and conflicts related to the environment, law, and human rights.
  • 21A.500 to 21A.599 focus on science, technology, and media in various institutional, economic, and political contexts.
  • 21A.800 to 21A.899 are methods and theory subjects.

For additional information, see

Students taking a concentration in anthropology should enroll in either 21A.00 Introduction to Anthropology: Comparing Human Cultures or 21A.01 How Culture Works, and two other subjects. Anthropology subjects qualify for several interdisciplinary concentrations, including those in Women's and Gender Studies, Latin American and Latino Studies, and Science, Technology, and Society.

Bachelor of Science in Anthropology/Course 21A
[see degree chart]

The undergraduate program leading to the degree of Bachelor of Science in Anthropology (Course 21A) provides a thorough grounding in cultural anthropology.

Majors learn about the concept of culture and the processes by which humans make meaningful transactions, the nature of ethnographic fieldwork, and the connections between anthropology and the other social sciences. Majors study the theories explaining human behavior as well as the range of methods anthropologists use to analyze empirical data. Students can focus on geographical areas, such as Latin America or modern western society, and on issues like neocolonialism, ethnic conflict, human rights, environmental movements, globalization, or expressive, medical, or scientific cultures.

The anthropology student comes to understand that the hallmark of the discipline is the comparative study of human societies. Emphasis is on understanding diversity and the importance of the concept of culture in explaining that diversity, as well as on learning about the universals of behavior that may underlie diversity.

Minor in Anthropology

The Minor in Anthropology consists of six subjects arranged into three tiers as shown below. Students create individual programs with the help of the minor advisor to ensure that they gain a coherent introduction to the methods, approaches, and some of the results of the discipline.

Tier I   One subject:
21A.00   Introduction to Anthropology: Comparing Human Cultures
21A.01   How Culture Works

Tier II   Four subjects with a unifying theme
(not to include 21A.00 or 21A.01)

Tier III   One subject:
21A.852   Seminar in Anthropological Theory
21A.802 Seminar in Ethnography and Fieldwork

Joint Degree Programs

Joint degree programs are offered in anthropology in combination with a field in engineering or science (21E, 21S). See the joint degree programs listed under Humanities.

Either 21A.00 or 21A.01 is strongly recommended as a preliminary subject for all anthropology degree programs.

HASTS Graduate Program

The Anthropology Program, the History faculty, and the Program in Science, Technology, and Society collaborate in the graduate program History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society (HASTS) leading to a PhD; see the description under the Program in Science, Technology, and Society,

Subjects in anthropology are described in the online MIT Subject Listing & Schedule, Further information on subjects and programs may be obtained from the Anthropology Office, Room E53-335, 617-452-2837.

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Faculty and Staff

Faculty and Teaching Staff

Stefan G. Helmreich, PhD
Elting E. Morison Professor of Anthropology
Section Head


Ian Condry, PhD
Professor of Media and Cultural Studies
Section Head, Global Studies and Languages

Michael M. J. Fischer, PhD
Professor of Anthropology and Science and Technology Studies
Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities

Heather A. Paxson, PhD
Professor of Anthropology
MacVicar Faculty Fellow
Director of Graduate Studies, History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society Program

Susan S. Silbey, PhD
Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, and Behavioral and Policy Sciences
Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities
(On leave)

Associate Professors

Manduhai Buyandelger, PhD
Associate Professor of Anthropology
(On leave)

Erica C. James, PhD
Associate Professor of Anthropology
(On leave, spring)

Graham M. Jones, PhD
Lister Brothers Career Development Associate Professor of Anthropology

Christine J. Walley, PhD
Associate Professor of Anthropology

Research Staff

Postdoctoral Fellows

Arthur Chia, PhD
Maria L. Vidart, PhD
Ben Wurgaft, PhD

Research Affiliate

William Bushell, PhD

Professors Emeriti

James Howe, PhD
Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus

Jean Elizabeth Jackson, PhD
Professor of Anthropology, Emerita

Arthur Steinberg, PhD
Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus


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