Essentialism manifests itself in a diversity of forms and is used in multiple ways. Yet it is always potentially dangerous — even when it is mobilised strategically and in apparently worthy forms for purposes of overcoming oppressive structures. As the first in a collection of articles focused on various manifestations of essentialism, this article offers a brief historical outline of how social anthropology deployed essentialist thinking, even amongst its canonical exponents. It examines how Durkheimian theorisations and the structuralist traditions to which they gave rise — in particular assumptions of the singular and homogeneous symbolic classification of society — lent themselves to essentialism. It considers the example of South Africa where essentialist social theories contributed to inhumane political formations. Given that essentialism always carries a latency to be used for pernicious ends, the article concludes by considering social anthropological approaches that might permit an understanding of individuals and society in ways that neither lead to nor need essentialist thinking, and instead recognise the contradictoriness, flux and incompleteness inherent in social life.