Ann Patricia Caplan (née Bailey) began her academic career studying for a BA in African Studies (Swahili Branch) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London between 1960 and 1963. This was followed by an MA in Social Anthropology in 1965 and a PhD in 1968 based on fieldwork carried out in Tanzania.
While studying at SOAS, Patricia Caplan met Lionel Caplan, a Canadian postgraduate, and they were married in 1967. At the end of 1968 Patricia and Lionel Caplan travelled to the Far Western Hills of Nepal to begin a project which formed part of a programme entitled 'Social Change in Nepal', directed by Professor Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf who was the head of the Anthropology Department at SOAS. This project, funded by the Social Science Research Council of Great Britain, was associated with the London-Cornell Himalayan Research Project and included fieldwork conducted by Nicholas Tomas (on Thulung Rai), Barbara Nimri Aziz (on two Buddhist populations) and Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf (on Sherpas of Khumu) from SOAS, as well as Alan MacFarlane (on Gurungs) and Lionel Caplan (on Dailekh Bazaar) from London-Cornell. This was the second of a number of trips Lionel Caplan was to make to Nepal, but the first and only fieldwork Pat Caplan carried out there.
Lionel Caplan's research was based in Dailekh Bazaar, while Pat Caplan was based in Bhurti Village, part of the Khursanibari Panchayat in Dailekh District. Bhurti Village was a mixed caste Hindu village with approximately equal populations of high castes, such as Upadhyas and Jaisis, and untouchable castes, including Sarkis and Damais, lying at 4,500 feet. The project ran from January to December 1969, with a three month interruption from June to September as a result of Lionel Caplan being taken ill and requiring a spell in Kathmandu.
With the help of two Nepalese research assistants and interpreters (Hari Prasad Koirala and Kagendra Malla), Patricia Caplan investigated inter-caste relations, land tenure, migration to India by low castes and new sources of cash income.
Patricia Caplan also carried out fieldwork on Mafia Island, Tanzania (1965-1967, 1976, 1984, 1994, 2002 and 2004) and made a number of fieldwork trips to Madras (later Chennai) city with Lionel Caplan (1974-1975, 1981-1982, 1987, 1991, 1996 and 1998). She also directed a large project on food and health in London and West Wales in the 1990s.
Patricia Caplan was appointed to a lectureship in Anthropology at Goldsmiths University of London in 1976, where she was one of the founding members of the Anthropology Department. She retired as a Professor at Goldsmiths in 2003 but subsequently remained active as an anthropologist.
Her main publications include: Priests and Cobblers (1972), Choice and Constraint in a Swahili Community: Property, Hierarchy and Cognatic Descent on the East African Coast (1975), Women United, Women Divided: Cross-cultural perspectives on Female Solidarity (1978), Class and Gender in India: Women and their Organisations in a South Indian City (1985), The Cultural Construction of Sexuality (1987), Gendered Fields: Women, Men and Ethnography (1993), African Voices, African Lives: Personal Narratives from a Swahili Village (1997), Food, Health and Identity (1997), Risk Revisited (2000), The Ethics of Anthropology: Debates and Dilemmas (2003), Swahili Modernities: Identity, Power and Development on the East African Coast (2004).