The discipline of social anthropology has been represented with its own institution at the Austrian Academy of Sciences since at least 1961 when the “Ethnological Commission” was founded. Already between 1955 and 1965, the Austrian anthropologist and archaeologist Robert Heine-Geldern had established a Southeast Asia research focus. In 1993, under the leadership of Walter Dostal, the “Ethnological Commission” and the “Arabian Commission” merged into the new “Commission for Social Anthropology”. As a result, two research areas emerged: social anthropology, and Arabic philology and cultural history of the Middle East. Also, the prior emphasis on Southeast Asia was complemented substantially by the two new regional foci in Southwest Arabia and Tibet/Mongolia.

In 2000, the awarding of the Wittgenstein prize to Andre Gingrich enabled further financial and personnel expansion. In 2007, the Commission for Social Anthropology was transformed into a research unit, which was finally expanded into the Institute for Social Anthropology in 2010.