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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

Serene Chan chose anthropology for her undergraduate study as she was keen to know different cultures up close.

‘I was interested in knowing more about different cultures. Rather than understanding cultures from afar, anthropology encourages people to experience them first-hand through fieldwork. As a result, when I was learning about other cultures, I did not feel distant.’

And CUHK is the only academic department in Hong Kong which offers an undergraduate programme in this subject.

Now a final year student, Serene is convinced that she has made the right choice. ‘Anthropology has helped me to understand that all people are shaped by the cultural environments they are in, which leads me to become more compassionate and thoughtful about others and their circumstances.’

‘Moreover, anthropology allows me to see how we can be blinded by metanarratives from society. Understanding society is ultimately understanding ourselves as social and cultural beings. More than that, anthropology challenges the way we see the world, asking “Why are we living the way we are?”. Why monogamous relationships? Why the Hong Kong “Lion Rock spirit”? Why speak a national language? I have been inspired by teachers and classmates in this programme to ask the questions that cannot be answered easily, which provide me a new way of reimagining the world.’

Anthropology is a broad discipline which covers a great span of time—from the prehistoric to the contemporary era. Apart from the classic image that anthropologists only travel to some faraway 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 online world. Anthropologists take interest in any topic that relates to people’s daily lives.

‘Anthropology teaches us about the great variety of ways that human beings live, both in the contemporary world and in the past. What is life like for a real estate trader in Mumbai, India, or a farmer in China? What is it like to be an ethnic minority in Hong Kong, in England, in Brazil, or in Japan? How do the economic roles men and women traditionally adopt vary across time and around the world?’ explained Prof. Andrew Kipnis, head of the Department of Anthropology.

‘Anthropologists do research about particular groups of people, but always have ideas about how the group of people they are studying compares to other groups of people around the world. Studying anthropology helps you understand people from different backgrounds and also understand more about yourself, your own family and your own society.’ Prof. Kipnis pointed out.

Prof. Kipnis’s research focuses on how China is changing as more and more people move to large cities. His research has taken him to some surprising places, such as funeral parlours. Funeral parlours are a type of business that only exists in urban areas, as rural people mostly conduct their own funerals without assistance from businesses. So the business of funeral parlours tells him something about the process of urbanization. It also gives him insights into discrimination, as people who work there are often stigmatized.

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, and
  • other contemporary issues.

‘I am very glad to have chosen this subject. Unlike other departments, anthropology in CUHK is comparatively small. Relationships between teachers and students are closer, creating an open and welcoming atmosphere, which has sparked many interesting and inspiring conversations,’ said Serene.

‘Anthropologists are good at dealing with people from a wide range of backgrounds and this skill can be useful in careers in both the public and private sector. Our graduates have got jobs at museums, in social welfare organizations, in government and even in the financial sector. Graduates tell me that they summon the skills learnt in anthropology whenever they need to imagine how the people they are interacting with think, or understand their hopes and fears,’ remarked Prof. Kipnis.

In 2016–17, a new interdisciplinary archaeology minor was initiated in the department to meet the students’ longstanding desire 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 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 field trip is arranged for undergraduate students every year. In summer 2017, students visited Cambodia and enjoyed the opportunity to curate an exhibition about their overseas field trip. In 2018, students conducted their field work by staying in a psychiatric hospital in Taiwan to explore 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.

Serene 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 2020