I interviewed Dr Chihab El Khachab, Associate Professor of Visual Anthropology at the University of Oxford about his work. Dr El Khachab was born in Egypt, but grew up in Montreal, and specialises in the anthropology of film and drama, specifically in the world of Egyptian cinema.

Could you start by explaining what anthropology is?

Dr El Khachab: Anthropology is a social science subject similar to sociology. Like sociologists, we’re interested in people: how they behave and think about the world. But what’s specific to anthropology is that we’re interested in smaller groups than sociologists, for example, families. We typically study these groups through observation and interaction with them as opposed to using statistics to learn how a whole society works. Anthropologists are more about the small picture. 

Do you do a lot of primary research as an Anthropologist, then?

Yeah, absolutely. There’s Anthropologists in lots of different lines of work, so not all of them are academics. There’s some who work for the government for example, and some who work for companies to do market research. But academic anthropologists do lots of primary research wherever we’re researching, where we tend to spend several years and forge long-term connections with people. 

Can you explain what the difference is between society and culture?

The simple way to put it is that sometimes society and culture are used interchangeably and mean how people relate to each other. But other academics think of them as radically different. Here society is regarded as being the ‘hard’ aspects of life- like politics, economics, gender, or class, whereas culture is to do with interpretation- the so-called ‘soft’ dimensions of life. For instance, the church is a part of society, because it’s an institution with an established hierarchy, but the idea of spirituality and the meaning that people derive from religion is considered cultural. This isn’t a fashionable distinction to make anymore because it crumbles around the edges when you start studying actual examples. Things that are social can also be cultural and vice versa. Over time, people have also realised that within a society there are so many different people with different perspectives that you can’t assume one point of view can represent the whole society. However, there are some things shared by groups, and this is what anthropologists look at. 

When you’re analysing a film, what things would you be looking at?

My way of approaching film as an anthropologist is a bit different from the way you’d approach it in Film Studies. In Film Studies you’d analyse a film by thinking about the message, representation, visuals, and historical context. But when anthropologists watch a film, we think more about the people behind it: the director, the camera operators, and the producers. We also think about the people who consume them. Different groups of people watching films will give a different interpretation as to what the film does. A simple way to illustrate how films move on beyond the text itself is meme culture. Lots of memes are excerpts from films that then acquire a new meaning and are shared over and over in a way that has little to do with the original context. It grows a whole social life beyond what the film is, that film studies students won’t necessarily be interested in, but we, as anthropologists are.