to the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at St. Olaf College.

About the Major

Our disciplines invite you to think critically about the world around you, whether it is definitions of health and illness, the politics of film and photography, the structure of kin relationships, global exchanges, social movements, or the experience of disasters. They enable you to explore the meaning of social differences, offering you tools to grasp how gender, race, class, sexuality, and more shape behavior and relations of power in the U.S. and the world. Majors take two courses in social theory, covering both anthropological and sociological approaches, as well as two hands-on research methods courses as well as a senior seminar on ethics. This mix of analytical reasoning, research skills, and critical reflection prepares students for a host of possible professions. Our graduates go on to careers in social services, marketing, health care, education, public policy, and indeed have a wide range of options.

Sociology & Anthropology

Distinct Disciplines
Most people beginning their college careers are unfamiliar with the disciplines of sociology and anthropology. While everyone has heard these terms, few are able to define them or explain how the two disciplines differ from each other and from other social sciences. The following will help you better understand sociology and anthropology and how our major brings them together.  Sociology and anthropology are distinct areas of study, with separate histories and different ways of looking at the world.

Sociology is the study of social life and the social causes and consequences of human behavior. In the words of C. Wright Mills, sociology looks for the “public issues” that underlie “private troubles.” A sociologist understands unemployment, for example, not as the problem of one person who can’t find a job, but as the interaction of economic, political, and social forces that determine the number of jobs and who has access to them.

Anthropology is concerned with how culture influences every aspect of human life and society. Regardless of the topic studied — indigenous medical practices, conflict resolution, kinship patterns — the goal of anthropology is to understand the way culture patterns life and gives meaning to people’s lives. By comparing the cultural practices of different people, anthropologists develop a general understanding of what it means to be human.

Much in Common
Notice that while sociology and anthropology have different emphases — one examines social structures, the other focuses on culture– there is much that they have in common.  Both disciplines examine the “big picture,” both are interested in the way society influences people’s lives. Recognizing these similarities, our major blends the two areas of study. For those with a strong interest in one discipline or the other, it is possible to select courses with a primary focus in either, but we encourage our majors to explore and draw on the insights from both disciplines.

Having two disciplines in one department allows us to offer unique learning situations:

  • Our curriculum includes a number of courses that combine sociological and anthropological thinking, including courses on social movements, health and healing, global interdependence, religion, family, and social justice.
  • We provide an outstanding (and rigorous) year of research that allows students to learn and practice both quantitative and ethnographic methods.
  • We provide a year of studying theory, both sociological and anthropological.
  • All majors complete a senior seminar where the experiences and course work of students are brought to bear on the study of a particular topic.
  • We offer an opportunity for students to study abroad in Thailand and another to compare immigration issues in Miami and Amsterdam.

Career Opportunities

Sociology and anthropology offer valuable preparation for many careers in private firms, government and non-governmental agencies, or non-profit organizations. For example, students who concentrate their course work in areas such as social inequalities, human rights, race and ethnic relations, gender issues, social problems, development, or social movements are prepared for work in a government agency and non-governmental organizations that promote human welfare. Students interested in business careers with private or non-profit firms can emphasize courses in law, occupations and professions, industrial sociology, or the sociology of work. Students preparing to work overseas in voluntary or development agencies can benefit from area studies courses and courses in global interdependence and human rights. The joint sociology/anthropology major also prepares students planning to enter professional schools in education, social work, public health, law, medicine, business administration, urban and public policy, and theology, as well as sociology and anthropology.

The study of sociology and anthropology will enhance your opportunity for employment or further study because:

  • Sociology and anthropology provide distinctive ways of looking at the world, generating new ideas and assessing the old.
  • Sociology and anthropology offer a range of research techniques that can be applied in several arenas — whether one’s concern is with the environment, crime and criminal justice, client satisfaction in a business firm, the provision of medical care, or the problems of poverty or marketing.

A strong undergraduate major in sociology/anthropology provides a competitive advantage in the search for employment. Our majors are prepared for work in management of human resources, marketing, program evaluation, public policy, and a variety of other positions that require an understanding of human culture and behavior. Students greatly benefit from the study of ethnographic and quantitative research methods — a special strength of our joint major.


Level One – Entry Level Courses

Though Sociology and Anthropology are two distinct disciplines, at St. Olaf College they are part of a joint major.  First year students who are interested in the major, or who simply wish to satisfy the HBS general education requirement, are encouraged to enroll in one of the “100” level (Level 1) courses, which serve as introductions to college level sociological or anthropological analysis.  SOAN 121 examines themes such as how social inequality becomes structured along racial, ethnic, religious and gender lines, how human culture shapes behavior and beliefs, and how children are molded by social roles into complete human persons through socialization.  SOAN 128 is our introductory course to cultural anthropology.  Central to anthropology is the comparative study of cultures. Through exposure to how other societies organize family and kinship, religion, art and technology, we come to understand human differences as well as commonalities.

Level Two – Area and Topical Courses

Having grasped the basics of sociological/anthropological studies, students who wish to continue in sociological or anthropological research begin to focus on  specific problems or areas of the world.  The general theories and methods learned at the 100 level are put to use,  as students study topics ranging from examining post colonial conflicts in Northern Ireland, to exploring globalization and the benefits and pitfalls of approaching the world as a “global village.”

Level Three – Core Courses

Typically reserved for majors, courses at this level provide a capstone for the study of sociology and anthropology at St. Olaf.  Majors learn the methods and skills needed to do their own quantitative and qualitative research, as well as fine tune their understanding of the disciplines.