So true

The first review on the Amazon page for the well-known anthology “High Points in Anthropology”: is entitled “A conspiracy between universities, editors, and the publisher” and then goes on to trash the book in a wonderful and, to my mind, completely accurate fashion. It’s not for nothing that this volume is sometimes called “Low Points in Anthropology”…


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

7 thoughts on “So true

  1. I don’t buy it. There’s really only one target audience for a reader in anthropological theory, and that’s people taking anthropological theory classes. Sure, you can disagree with the choices and exclusions — which is the standard and necessary criticism of every reader, for which there’s never enough pages — but what really gets the reviewer’s goat is the lack of contextualization. Fair enough — but in an anthropological theory class, would you *want* context in your classroom reader? None of my readers, assembled by the profs back in the day when you could make your students photocopy the reading material, had any context in them — that’s what the prof is for, no? Why would I, as a prof, want to compete with my textbook, or spend my classroom time correcting the editors?

    I don’t have anything invested in the reputation of the book, I just find this kind of critique a bit facile — we’re never going to have one book that does everything. Else, how could we experience lack-as-desire…?

  2. I agree with the review. There are key theorists missing and there are no readings by others such as Bourdieu and Foucault who are important to anthropology. As a grad student I had Readings For a History of Anthropolgoical Theory edited by Paul A. Erickson and Liam D. Murphy. It’s cheaper ($54.95 at Amazon) almost 700 hundred pages.It includes the context in which some of the debates over theory took place and it also includes many people who influenced anthropology but were not anthropologists (Foucault, Freud, etc.) Yes, undergraduates aren’t going to read all of the articles in such a book but it’s something that will help them later in other anthro courses. In terms of value, I don’t see how anyone can argue that Highpoints in Anthropology compares to the Erickson and Murphy book or for that matter, a number of other cheaper (and longer) anthologies for Anthropology theory courses. (Of course since there is no “objective” measure of value, there has to be someone who thinks High Points in Anthropology is a deal.

    Side note: How do you go about underlining text in a reply (such as the title of a book).

  3. I think the Amazon review was too nice. I absolutely hate that book.

    I think it is useful to compare it with what I think is a relatively good anthology – and one that actually does what High Points purports to do: provide a historical survey of anthropological theory: Lessa and Vogt’s Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach.

    I think there is a reason this book does a better job at introducing one to anthropological theory: we see how different anthropological theories approach similar problems. I honestly don’t think there is much use in a less focused volume on anthropological theory, because anthropology is simply too diverse for such an anthology to work.

  4. That Ericson and Murphy book looks pretty good, especially compared to what else is out there — which really isn’t much. However ever since reading the Amazon review of Low Points I’m now obsessed with getting a copy of Merwyn Garbarino’s book, if only because the name “Merwyn Garbarino” is just fantastic.

  5. The Bohannan book does look awful in terms of its selections (McGee & Warms is another better collection), but it also exemplifies a problematic tendency in History of anthro course to end with Geertz (or, not much better, a couple of examples of something called “postmodernism”). Ideally, I think Hist of Anth should be a two semester course: First semester Locke, Smith, Herder, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Freud, Boas R-B, Malinowski, Mauss, Benedict, E-P, & Leach, second semester STARTING with Geertz & Turner, and moving through various critiques (the Hymes anthology, Asad, Said, feminist/queer, writing culture/reflexive ethnography), practice theory, historical anthropology, transnationalism/globalisation, anth of capitalism, to wherever the instructor sees fit. The point is that a lot has happenned since Geertz.

    Two semesters, as I said, is idael, but if I had to pick one of the above I’d pick the second. If you want to read a contemporary ethnography, or article (or write one), you need to be aware of that stuff. Most of us probably teach ethnography that reflects such concerns in intro, with the result that we are teaching a more sophisticated version of what anthropology is about in intro than we do to our majors in History of theory. I teach right now where there is a course resembling the first, ending-in-Geertz, half, and when our majors try to write senior theses they arent really well versed in the theoretical tools they need to write about the kinds of topics they are interested in.

  6. I think the ending-with-Geertz is a result of the antiquity of the people who come up with these volumes. At the very least the ‘writing culture’ moment was so strong and became so important its clearly now canonical and deserves to be included. In the most recent readers it looks like Appadurai’s “Disjuncture and Difference” article is ‘the end.’ That makes more sense. If I had two semesters I’d do Classic Social Theory in the first semester and an anthro class ‘from Boas and RB to the present.’

  7. Our MA core curriculum was like Comet Jo describes, only twice as much. A foundations course on Marx, Weber, Durkheim; a semester of American traditions, a semester of British and French traditions, and a semester of contemporary theory. Fur undergrads, though, I agree — seems like the concensus of undergrad History of Anthropology classes is that anthro ends with Geertz and Schneider in the US, Turner and Douglas in the UK. Is it that the later stuff — the “children of Malinowski”, the feminist and postcolonial theory, the deconstructionism and radical constructionism, the political economiy, etc. are considered too hard for soft undergrad minds, or is there — as in History of Anthropology as a field of study — a hesitancy to engage critically with the work of folks who are still active or whose students and heirs are still active? Or maybe an unwillingness to teach material that history has yet to judge definitively? (Geertz is canonical, whatever that means, but is Strathern…?)

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