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Anthropology is the study of human cultures and societies. It examines cultural differences around the world by studying human values and social practices. To better understand various aspects of cultural life, anthropologists adopt a holistic viewpoint and systematic research methods. They use both qualitative and quantitative methods of social science in their endeavour to understand the views and experiences of the people under study.

Anthropology equips students with a cross-cultural perspective, a broader vision of the world and a critical mind-set, all of which facilitate an understanding of the needs and conflicts of various societies and the reasons for cultural differences. Anthropology students learn to see Hong Kong and Chinese culture in a new light, and also learn about other cultures in Asia and the rest of the world.

In studying cultures that no longer exist, they use archaeological methods.

Dare to be Different

When Annabelle Lee was choosing a major for her undergraduate study, she was concerned it might not be easy to find a programme that suits her academic interests.

‘I was looking for an academic programme that allows me to explore the nature of humankind and its various cultural systems.’

She finally decided to study Anthropology in the only academic department in Hong Kong which offers an undergraduate programme in this subject—CUHK.

Now a final year student, Annabelle is convinced that she has made the right choice. ‘The programme has transformed my understanding of the world. Before studying Anthropology, I used to think that culture is a rather independent topic, but now I have become more aware of the connection between culture and many major contemporary issues, such as globalization, healthcare and even food safety.’

Anthropology is a broad discipline which covers a great span of time—from the pre-historic to the contemporary era. Apart from the classic image that anthropologists only travel to some far away exotic places to study the culture of indigenous peoples or to unearth some artifacts from ancient historical sites, anthropologists nowadays are investigating a wide variety of contemporary cultural phenomena such as consumer behaviour and social activities in the on-line world. Anthropologists take interest in any topic that relates to peoples’ daily lives.

‘Anthropologists study the similarity and diversity of different cultural systems and attempt to investigate the nature of human existence by living and working with people in a wide variety of social environments—from aboriginal villages, religious temples, homeless encampments, to 7-Eleven or even Chungking Mansions,’ explained Prof. Gordon Mathews, Head of the Department of Anthropology.

Professor Mathews has lived in Chungking Mansions over a period of time to complete an anthropological account of people who reside and work in the legendary building. According to him, a desire to understand the world beyond books is one of the most important qualities to study or pursue a profession in Anthropology.

‘In our Department, students not only learn about Anthropology as a body of facts, but also as a way of seeing the world,’ he said.

The undergraduate programme offered by the Department focuses on social and cultural anthropology, as well as archaeology. The courses cover a wide range of topics, including

  • the principles and research methodology of anthropology
  • ethnographic studies of China, Hong Kong and the world
  • other contemporary issues

For Annabelle, the flexibility offered by the programme is what she finds the most precious. ‘Our professors always encourage us to be more innovative when selecting topics and methodologies for our field studies and research projects. We are exposed to infinite possibilities,’ she said.

By interacting or even living with people of various socio-cultural backgrounds during her field studies, Annabelle has also become more ready to listen to and respect different opinions.

‘Employers are increasingly attuned to the benefits of anthropology, in that it trains graduates to be culturally sensitive and to know how to understand and analyze social situations,’ remarked Professor Mathews.

Recent anthropology graduates are working in museums, NGOs, media and public relations agencies, in secondary schools as liberal-studies teachers, or in various local and overseas universities as graduate students, researchers and professors.

In 2016–17, a new interdisciplinary Archaeology Minor was initiated in the Department to meet the students’ longstanding desires for in-depth archaeological training.

The Department accepts around 20 new undergraduate students each year and every new student is assigned a full time teaching staff as his/her advisor during the freshmen year. The Anthropology Students’ Society holds social gatherings regularly, bringing students, professors and alumni together to share their experiences in research and work.

The programme also encourages students to step outside their comfort zone and learn abroad. A summer fieldtrip is arranged for the undergraduate students every year. In summer 2017, the students visited Cambodia and enjoyed the opportunity to curate an exhibition about their overseas fieldtrip. In 2018, the students conducted their fieldwork by staying in a Psychiatric hospital in Taiwan to explore the topic on psychiatric rehabilitation and community mental health.

In terms of practical skills, at least half of the students of Anthropology have worked as interns in local and overseas museums, as well as other institutions.

As an undergraduate student, Annabelle has already thought of how she would like to contribute to the society after graduation,

‘I look forward to utilize the skills I have learnt in Anthropology to advocate mutual understandings and resolve conflicts,’ she said.

She also wants to encourage secondary school graduates who are interested in Anthropology to make the unconventional decision:

‘Anthropology may not be one of the most popular academic disciplines in Hong Kong. But if it is what you are interested in, I’d say it is definitely worth making it your major in the university. The undergraduate programme in Anthropology at CUHK will sharpen your critical thinking and communication skills, as well as offer you the opportunities to cultivate an open mind and a compassionate attitude, which would be extremely beneficial for any career path you may take in the future.’

Published: Summer 2017
Last Updated: Summer 2019