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We carry out research into a diverse range of topics covering social anthropology, evolutionary anthropology and the anthropology of health. In each of these fields we are opening up new areas of enquiry and have world-leading expertise in a range of topics such as primatology, aesthetics, the evolution of brain and cognition, cultural evolution, rhetoric and public persuasion, energy use, and infant sleep.

Examples of our projects include:

Object of Conservation

This project explores how the historic environment is produced through the intersecting activities of a range of people. Ethnographic research led by Tom Yarrow focuses on the everyday working lives of UK conservation professionals, including architects, archaeologists, bureaucrats, scientists and craft practitioners, highlighting how they understand and value the past, and how these orientations are objectified through interventions and assessments. The project sheds new light on the complex social negotiations through which the past is ‘made to matter’, highlighting the ideological and ethical dilemmas that are central to this work.

Transitory Lives

Led by Elisabeth Kirtsoglou, this ESRC-funded collaborative comparative study of migration flows in emergency contexts focused on the central and south eastern Mediterranean migration routes covering the channel of Sicily and the eastern Aegean islands. Since 2015 these areas have been receiving increased numbers of asylum seekers. The study addressed refugee reception issues by bringing a network of academics with long term regional expertise together with practitioners and NGOs directly involved in humanitarian aid and support in order to fill an important gap in knowledge about recent migration emergencies. It addressed the social effects of high-risk crossings upon asylum-seekers and receiving communities, documented the shortcomings and strengths of policies and structures, and facilitated further development of comprehensive research and policy responses to migration emergencies.

Forms and Fears of Failure

The trope of failure dogs contemporary British political and public discourse from the catchphrase ‘Broken Britain’ to public services being tagged as failed or individuals feeling vulnerable to ever-increasing expectations. Catherine Alexander’s ethnographic project funded by the Leverhulme Trust excavates this discourse asking what failure and its identification do? What measures are used to avoid or contain failure and do they disable the very things they are meant to allow, particularly in publicly-funded undertakings that are trammelled into goal-driven, measurable projects? What is failure’s salience in the lives of those animating such work, for, where lives and careers are also translated into projects, then ideas of a life well lived may also be vulnerable to sharpened expectations of achievement. Through three, large, complex organizations, often respectively labelled as a ‘success’, a ‘failure’ or seen as ‘barely surviving’, the project traces the proliferating forms and fears of failure and their entailments, across domains and scales from the intimate to the geopolitical.

Energy and Society

A major challenge facing society today is how to manage our use of energy, particularly in the current transition to a low-carbon energy economy. Anthropologists play a crucial role in addressing this challenge. We see energy systems as socio-technical, that is, co-produced through relations between constituent social and technical elements. Energy is central to the research of several members of the Department of Anthropology, including Simone Abram, Catherine Alexander, Sandra Bell, and Ben Campbell. Much of this research is conducted through the Durham Energy Institute, which has a dedicated research cluster for Energy and Society comprising several members of the department.


Scientific Properties of Complex Knots (SPOCK) is a Leverhulme Trust funded collaboration to create new computational tools and mathematical techniques for the analysis, synthesis and exploitation of knotted structures in a wide range of complex physical phenomena. We are interested in the evolution of knot diversity observed in human material culture. Led by Jeremy Kendal and Jamie Tehrani, our aim is to develop a suitable mathematical framework to characterise variation in knots, and investigate the processes of innovation and cultural transmission that gave rise to them. The cultural evolution of knotting will be addressed through a combination of mathematical, statistical and phylogenetic modelling, in addition to experiments simulating the cultural transmission of knot tying.

Cultural Evolution

Cultural evolution is the theory that cultural change is a Darwinian evolutionary process that shares fundamental characteristics with biological evolution. This means that evolutionary concepts (e.g. selection, adaptation) and tools (e.g. mathematical models, phylogenetic methods) can be applied to cultural domains including technology, language, knowledge, and beliefs. Cultural evolution has emerged in recent years as one of the most exciting and rapidly expanding interdisciplinary fields of study, linking the biological and social sciences. Our research plays a leading role in the Durham Cultural Evolution Research Centre.


We have a dynamic group of primatologists. Our research interests encompass a broad range of topics in primate behaviour, ecology and evolution as well as primate conservation. Our specific research areas include, but are not limited to. primate socioecology, ecology, sexual selection, life history, reproduction, growth and ontogeny, signalling, communication, predator-prey interactions, cognition, social learning, morphology, biogeography, welfare and rehabilitation, and palaeoprimatology. We also conduct ethnoprimatological research on interactions between humans and other primates.

Ecological Modelling

This research focus includes the application of evolutionary models to large behavioural, morphological and ecological datasets to understand the evolutionary past across humans and animals including the coevolution of cultural intelligence, life history traits and brain size of innovation and technical intelligence, and brain size and behavioural ecology in primates.

Primate Olfaction

Research involving Jo Setchell has shown that chimpanzees’ sense of smell is more sophisticated than previously thought. Chimpanzees were thought to rely more heavily on sight rather than olfaction, with primates often assumed to have a poor sense of smell. In an experiment published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the results showed that chimpanzees can use their sense of smell to identify strangers, who represent potential danger, and kin, who might be useful allies, but should be avoided as mates. The ability to recognise kin is thus crucial and this research helps us to understand the evolution of primate chemical communication and highlights that we need to pay more attention to olfaction in apes.

Life of Breath

Breathing isn’t just a bodily function. The personal and cultural meaning of breathing goes beyond the simple act of keeping us alive. Breathlessness is also a very personal experience. It can be fleeting or a sign of something more serious. Some people deal with breathlessness better than others. As a result, doctors find it hard to measure and difficult to treat. This interdisciplinary team led by Jane Macnaughton and Havi Carel (Bristol) are working together to find new ways of answering questions about breathing and breathlessness and their relationship to both illness and wellbeing.

Pesticide Regulation and Public Health

This GCRF-funded project led by Tom Widger will advance our understanding of the social, economic, and political factors that shape uncertainties around agrochemical science and policy, and how best to support farmers seeking to transition to sustainable alternatives. The project focuses on glyphosate, the world’s most popular herbicide, which has come under significant regulatory pressure since the WHO concluded it was carcinogenic in 2014. The project will focus on three countries around the world where glyphosate has come under scrutiny in recent years - El Salvador, Malawi and Vietnam. In each country, project outputs will help to build capacities in pesticide regulation and public health.

Animals, Livelihoods and Wellbeing in Africa

Animals are central to the livelihood strategies of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. However, entanglements between humans and animals often have deeply problematic consequences for health, wellbeing and the environment in terms of threats to biodiversity; risk of zoonotic disease transmission; and farming practices that threaten to exacerbate anti-microbial resistance. Meanwhile, against a backdrop of climate-change induced pressures, development projects try to change human-animal relations in order to enhance productivity and economic resilience. This project led by Hannah Brown seeks to reappraise the role of animals for contemporary livelihoods; the implications of human-animal relations for the wellbeing of multi-species communities; and the mechanisms of governance that seek to manage human-animal relations. A deeper understanding of human-animal relationships has important implications for sustainability across species and will help to shift thinking around health and livelihoods in Africa towards a post-humanist vision that enables multi-species stewardship.