How to write an anthropology book that people will read?

Many thanks to Kerim and Alex for inviting us to Savage Minds to share our experiences writing Seeing Culture Everywhere, a book that explicitly targets a general audience. Over the next two weeks we’ll be writing both about the pervasive use of the concept „culture“ in a broad range of global, national and interpersonal settings, as well as about the challenges and successes we encountered in our effort to popularize anthropological perspectives in two settings, Germany and the US.

Our involvement with the „culture of cultures“, as Marshall Sahlins has called it, dates in Joanas case back to her anthropology studies at Berkeley in 1989/90, where she also participated in some intercultural communication trainings and was struck by the complete disconnect between the way „culture“ was used in the anthropology discourse on the one hand and workshops organised for the employees of multinational companies on the other.

After teaming up with Pál, who was at the time researching Chinese migrants in Hungary, we decided to introduce our anthropological perspective into the German management scene and published (in 2001) an article in a leading management journal, critizicing the „intercultural communication industry“ (ICI) for perpetuating reductive views of cultural difference that were based on false premises and, rather than helping bridge cultural misunderstandings, often amplified them.

Where is the alternative?
The article created quite a stir within the German “IC community.” But one reason why intercultural „experts“, as well as books such as Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, were so successful was that they were offering very hands-on advice, whereas we as anthropologists had just been able to deconstruct simplistic notions of cultural differences without offering alternative visions that were as clear and accessible. A growing number of anthropologists — among them Thomas Hylland  Eriksen and Ulf Hannerz — had recognized this as an urgent problem and called for anthropologists to find their way back to the coffee table (our term, not theirs).

Finding a publisher
With two chapters written, we started thinking about publishers. After some tentative questions addressed to famous colleagues who published bestsellers and not getting encouraging answers, we realized we didn’t know how to find a commercial publisher in English – even though this had been our aim. So we gave up and turned to the University of Washington Press, where Pál had good experiences publishing an earlier book. Fortunately (and a bit surprisingly, considering we were not targeting an academic readership), they were interested.

Meanwhile, we approached Joana’s literary agent in Germany and almost immediately received an offer (and an advance) from Campus, a well-known mainstream German publishing house. We weren’t used to this kind of speed: we signed the contract in the summer of 2007 and the book came out in time for the Leipzig Book Fair in March 2008.

Dealing with commercial publishing was a new experience – especially for Pál. A few weeks into our contract, Joana received a phone call from a very agitated editor: She had just received news that the „price winning“ German author, Ilija Trojanow, was about to publish a book also dealing with „culture“ and arguing against a Huntingtonian determinism. We were told that our  topic had thus been taken and the public certainly wouldn’t buy a book about a similar topic a few months later.

A completely new storyline
The editor now wanted a much „lighter“ and shorter version, in which the whole story line was changed. Pál bristled at this, but thanks to Joana, who had had positive experiences with popular presses before, we persevered and ended up with a manuscript less than half the original length. The positive side is that we had a very constructive exchange with the editor and were forced to concentrate on the main messages we wanted to convey and to be as clear as possible.

Fighting about titles
The original English title of the book was going to be “Because It’s Their Culture!” The editor would not have it and in a brainstorming session with marketing reps came up instead with a title we hated. After dozens of rejected counterproposals, we gave in to another title we found embarrassing at best and misleading at worst: Maxikulti. Der Kampf der Kulturen ist das Problem – zeigt die Wirtschaft uns die Lösung? (Maxikulti. The clash of civilizations is the problem – can business show us the solution?) The last part of the subtitle was supposed to resonate with managers — Campus‘ core clientele — and could be vaguely justified by the fact that our last chapter presents the use of ethnography in corporate settings as an alternative to the generally prevalent abstract notions of culture.

Meanwhile, we received a very positive initial response from UWP. But it took another 20 months until we finally, in November 2009, held a first copy of Seeing Culture Everywhere in our hands. Working with UWP was smooth: constructive comments on the book‘s substance and no conflict about titles.

Did we succeed?
While Seeing Culture Everywhere was a success at the AAA book exhibit, it is too early to say anything about its reach and impact. We are very curious to find out whether we have managed to reach a broader readership than professional anthropologists, the „converted.“ Yes, we would love to get reviewed in the NYRB!

The results of the German book are already in. Unfortunaltely, ingratiating ourselves with „the general reader“ didn’t pay off. The book received a number of positive reviews in major German newspapers and radio interviews and was toured through bookstores and universities but still sold badly (We don’t have the current figures, but in the first year only a fraction of the minimally envisioned 4 – 5 thousand copies were sold).

Perhaps the most positive outcome so far is that, through constant arguments with each other and the publisher about the level of nuance needed in order to write such a book, we realised that what we, as anthropologists, deem accessible and relevant, may be cryptic and marginal to the public at large.

Calls to write for a broader audience are regularly made and debated among anthropologists (we recall a post by Lisa Wynn on Culture Matters). It is clear that such writing is done more often and more successfully in some places (notably Scandinavia) than in others. We would be interested in hearing about other experiences with such publications.

Joana Breidenbach (Berlin), Pál Nyíri (Amsterdam)

4 thoughts on “How to write an anthropology book that people will read?

  1. I sympathise with the desire to create a “coffee book” of cultural anthropology, but wonder if there is more to it than just educating the masses. Sure, physical anthropology sells well, and archaeology does equally well.The failure of cultural anthropology to find its authors on the best seller list seems to perhaps stem from their subject matter, “culture,” having been co-opted by writers focused on politcs or economics. Is “Freakonomics” just plain economics? Or the many published political analyses on macro-strategies involving international actors, is this just plain politics? Once upon a time, cultural texts were hot sellers (Mead, Benedict, Harris, Malinowski), but that time has come and gone–perhaps the more relevant question to ask was why was Said so popular, although for many readers his works are difficult?

    Whom does anthropology teach? Is it better to teach anthropology in the class room and leave off “educating” the general reader? I’m sure I won’t get a very solid understanding of quantum physics by reading a popular work. So why should I expect to get a good understanding reading a popular work about culture? And how much of popular works we read for pleasure really stick in the old brain? Perhaps the fear stems from a feeling that if one’s field is not recognized in the popular press it looses some legitimacy? Would Levi-Strauss be Levi-Strauss without his popular writings?

    I look forward to reading “Seeing Culture Everywhere.”

  2. On a separate but related post, Laura Wagner, a Ph.D candidate in Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill who recently survived the Haitian earthquake has written a striking piece at; it is, in my view, an excellent piece of public anthropology and an important intervention into public framings of the crisis in Haiti – although the comment thread is interesting in that many favorable comments call the piece journalism….the piece is posted at, title “Haiti: A Survivors Story”

  3. On a separate but related note, Laura Wagner, a Ph.D Candidate in Anthropology and a survivor of the Haitian earthquake has written a powerful piece over at,com entitled “Haiti: A Survivor’s Story” – it is, in my view, a fine piece of public anthropology, and an important intervention in trying to reframe dominant media narratives on Haiti. The comments thread is also interesting in that many of the favorable comments describe it as journalism. Another sign of anthropologies lack of public visibility? Well worth a read.

  4. I would argue that there is no ‘popular audience’ – YET.

    It occurs to me that even the people who read ‘non-fiction’ written by PhDs are social and cultural “elites”, in terms of education and access, and in the minority. The so-called popular book industry is more about affluent knowledge-technocrats pandering to affluent, leisured consumers, than it is about an effort towards public education or authentic civic debate.

    Your points about writing for those outside the halls of the universities are good ones (and important), but what I would like to see, rather, is the construction of ‘new objects’ of knowledge – besides books and outside the dominant publishing industry – which bridge the several different gaps between specialist knowledge (of various strains) and public discourse.

    Documentary filmmaking has been somewhat effective in this, and some musicians embody a certain trans-conceptual intellectualism, but I’d like to see academics and intellectuals (and political radicals) develop more diverse expressive tactics which ‘speak’ to workers, immigrants, youth, people with disabilities, etc., in more meaningful and accessible ways. [Perhaps things like: street performance, random acts of discourse, video games featuring the work of people like Foucault, Darwin, Emma Goldman, and others, or other as yet unthought projects of outreach?] I would like to see intellectuals expand outwards from book-culture and digital media to create projects and objects that interject into daily life – unmediated by television or film – and more fully engage the imaginations of various people and populations, and all aspects of public life.

    This, of course, would be tough enough considering how popular culture often aims at, and taps into, our most primal and vulnerable motivations – but the opportunities created by intellectual engagements (and new objects of knowledge) can assist us towards evolving more enriching forms of social participation.

    Innovative and critical expressive engagement might just be our only defense for avoiding the mind-numbing effects of the glut of irrelevant and superfluous information swirling through so much contemporary media.

    Such is the cultural ecology inherent to the hyper-perspectivist, surplus and consumer reality of modern urban living…

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