The Anthropology of Amazonia - SE579

Sorry, this module is not currently running in 2019-20.


SE301 (Introduction to Social Anthropology) or equivalent I level course or better





Throughout the five hundred years of contact between Europe and the Americas, Amazonia has captivated the political, scientific and popular imagination of industrialized nations. To many people in our society, "the Amazon" epitomizes the mysterious, the wild, the uncivilized -- an image that anthropologists have variously exploited and criticized. Either way, they usually describe Amazonian societies as being either isolated from or opposed to "civilization" (i.e. the capitalist state). As Amazonians are incorporated into the nation-state and the global economy, however, it has become impossible to view them as either isolated or silent. Today, there is increased interest and concern relating to the place of humans in the environment and the future of indigenous peoples and the areas in which they dwell.

This course will employ several classic ethnographic studies of South America – by anthropologists, such as Claude Levi-Strauss, Pierre Clastres, Philippe Descola, William Fisher, Neil Whitehead and Michael Taussig – to examine how the Amazon has inscribed itself on the imagination of anthropologists, as well as how anthropologists have used their experiences in non-Western societies to contribute to broad debates in Western philosophy. Ethnographic case-studies will provide the basis for discussing issues of theoretical and topical importance, such as environmentalism; political ecology, ethnogenesis, gender relations, kinship and exchange. Ultimately, this engagement challenges some of the most basic categories of our discipline: "the state," "society," and "culture."


This module appears in:

Contact hours

24 hours


This module contributes:
BA Social Anthropology, (BA Social Anthropology with language programmes and joint programmes) BSc Anthropology

Method of assessment

100% coursework
Essay (50%)
In-Course Test (20%)
Critical Film Review (20%)
Seminar Participation and Performance (10%)

Indicative reading

Clastres, Pierre 1987 [1974] Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology. NY: Zone Books. La soci?_ contre l’etat. Editions de minuit.
Descola, Phillippe 1996 In the Society of Nature: A Native Ecology in Amazonia (Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology). Cambridge University Press.
Fisher, William H. 2000 Rain Forest Exchanges: Industry and Community on an Amazonian Frontier. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Hill, Jonathan 1988 Rethinking History and Myth: Indigenous South American Perspectives on the Past. Chicago: University of Illinois.
Levi-Strauss, Claude 1984 Tristes Tropiques. New York: Penguin.
Overing, Joanna y Alan Passes. (eds) 2000 The Anthropology of Love and Anger: The Aesthetics of Conviviality in Native Amazonia. London: Routledge.
Taussig, Michael 1987 Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wolf, Eric 1982 Europe and the People without History. Berkeley, University of California Press.

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

8.1 Understand the cultural diversity of Lowland South America.
8.2 Gain knowledge of the countries of the region and their important ecological and geographical features.
8.3 Gain knowledge of the principal ethnic groups and their livelihoods, kinship organisation, gender relations, epistemologies and broader social changes.
8.4 Understand how ethnography contributes to theory and how anthropologists form questions about ethnographic material.
8.5 Critically discuss key issues and debates in the Lowland South American ethnographic literature.
8.6 Understand Lowland South American groups and their communities in terms of social changes in the region.

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