Anthropology: Five Books

In the comments section to one of my recent posts about Jared Diamond, SM reader Michael asks:

Could anyone recommend some accessible anthropology literature? What would be 5 (or so) good books a generally educated person could read?

I think this is a great question.  I actually asked a similar question last August in this post, and while there were a few people who provided their 5 picks (here and here), I’d like to raise this question again to see what we come up with here.  If you had to pick 5 anthropology books that best represent the discipline, and that are also accessible to general readers, what would they be?  Just to get the ball rolling, here’s my new list:

  1. Debt, the First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
  2. Paradise in Ashes by Beatriz Manz
  3. Culture on Tour by Edward Bruner
  4. Righteous Dopefiend by Bourgois and Schonberg
  5. Behind the Gates by Setha Low

My list is by no means definitive, and it’s almost impossible to pick only five. My list also obviously has a socio-cultural anthropology slant.  So it would be great to see suggestions from linguistic anthropologists, biological anthropologists, archaeologists, medical anthropologists, etc.  What books would you pick?  Let’s hear it.

PS: Thanks, Michael, for bringing up this question.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

45 thoughts on “Anthropology: Five Books

  1. My books:

    Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz
    Facts on the Ground by Nadia Abu El-Haj
    Spent Cartridges of the Revolution by Daniel Nugent
    Skull Wars by David Hurst Thomas
    The Latino Threat by Leo Chavez
    Peasant Wars of the 20th Century by Eric Wolf

  2. Thinking Anthropologically by Philip Carl Salzman
    What Anthroplogists Do by Veronica Strang
    Baseball Magic by George Gmelch
    Death Be Not Strange by Peter Metcalf
    Anthropology for Dummies by Cameron M. Smith.

    (I’ve just finished undergrad – will be interesting to see if my list changes as I go further down the path of education).

  3. Sweetness and Power – Sidney Mintz (yeah, I saw it already up there…)
    Hunters and Bureaucrats – Paul Nadasdy
    With These Hands – Daniel Rothenberg
    Reflections of Fieldwork in Morocco – Paul Rabinow
    Seeing Like a State – James C. Scott

    I also agree with Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

    If we are talking about less “straight” anthropology but works that I think definitely have inspired anthropologists then you can’t forget Orientalism by Edward Said.

  4. Off the top of my head, including some oldies but goodies:

    Magic, Oracles, and Witchcraft among the Azande, E.E. Evans-Pritchard
    Wisdom Sits in Places, Keith Basso
    Crafting Selves, Dorinne Kondo
    Uncertain Tastes, Jon Holtzman
    The Innocent Anthropologist, Nigel Barley

  5. Plagues and Epidemics (Ann Herring and Alan C. Swedlund, eds.)
    Why I’m Not a Scientist (Jonathan Marks)
    Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong (Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson, eds.)
    The Enculturated Gene (Duana Fullwiley)
    Infections and Inequalities (Paul Farmer)

    Alright, maybe a little slanted. (Honorable mentions include Skulls Wars [good call!] and Death’s Acre.)

  6. Wisdom Sits in Places is a great book for both cultural and linguistic anthropology. I almost included it on my list but chose Hunters and Bureaucrats instead.

  7. Books I really liked when starting out:

    Skull Wars (David Hurst Thomas)
    Parallel Worlds (Alma Gottlieb and Philip Graham)
    Frauds, Myths & Mysteries (Ken Feder)

    And a book that a non-anthro friend also liked:

    Mothers & Others (Sarah Hrdy)

  8. My five – fairly conservative –

    Ruth Benedict – Patterns of Culture — she after all is the one
    who told the rest of the world what it was all about.

    Clifford Geertz – Local Knowledge

    Sidney Mintz Tasting food, tasting freedom: excursions into eating, culture, and the past
    Sidney’s great virtue is his wonderful sense of the concreteness of cultural things.

    John V Murra An Interview with John V Murra (Introduction by John Howland Rowe
    Hispanic American Historical Review 64(4) 1984

    George W Stocking Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology

  9. These are some of the books I always return to:

    Csordas: The Sacred Self
    Jackon: Paths Towards a Clearing
    Bruner & Turner (eds.): The Anthropology of Experience
    Lakoff & Johnson: Philosophy of the Flesh
    Rabinow: Essays on the Anthropology of Reason

    But Kurt Vonnegut, Paul Auster, Cormac McCarthy and D.F. Wallace inspire me as well when I think about anthropology.

  10. Graeber – Towards an anthropological theory of value
    Gell – Art and Agency
    Malinowski – Argonauts of the Western Pacific
    Bloch – How we think they think
    Busi – Sodomies in Eleven Point

    To Jan: wow, Lakoff and Johnson’s book is so antithetical to the others you chose

  11. If I may comment from the outside – and offer doubles rather than singles :

    Two texts that raise the interesting questions about what fieldwork involved *then*, and so give a base-line for *now* – Malinowski’s ‘A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term’, and, another account of one of anthropology’s founding moments, ‘My Dear Spencer’, the letters of Frank Gillen to Baldwin Spencer, which gives the lived background to ‘The Native Tribes of Central Australia’.

    Anthropologists owe some considerable debts to the people they wrote into the record. As Graeber’s book suggests, debts may, in the end, be unpayable, umeasurable by any monetary standard, demanding not closure but a continuing engagement. Malinowski’s Trobrianders, and Gillen’s Arrernte have both remained on the books, as it were, but I am more inclined to put two books on the Nuer on my list. One is, of course, Sharon Hutchinson’s ‘Nuer Dilemmas’, a fine piece of work that can stand on its own, while the other, Diana Shandy’s ‘Nuer-American Passages’ continues the story. Both these books summon political, historical, and sociological analysis in ways that Evans-Pritchard only hinted at, and are texts which encourage a reunification of the social sciences.

    For a third pair, in which we see anthropologists returning to the deep histories of the 19thC, and attempting to persuade readers outside the discipline that change is possible, and that sociologically informed attention to the world is one of the necessary conditions of change, I would suggest, as others have done here, Graeber’s ‘Debt’, but also the weird and rather wonderful rampage through archaeology, anthropology, social psychology, and whatever kitchen sinks the author finds handy to his story which is Chris Knight’s ‘Blood Relations’.

    A fourth set would include Chagnon’s ‘The Fierce People’ and Ferguson’s ‘Yanomami Warfare’, which together form a cautionary tale of some power.

    And finally, I am surprised that no-one has so far mentioned Michael Taussig. Perhaps he reminds you all too uncomfortably of how anthropology is, in the public mind, closely associated with stories of the shaman. But I think his ‘My Cocaine Museum’ or ‘The Magic of the State’ can both take their place on any reading list in your discipline.

    There would be another list for texts in French.

  12. ‘Structure and Function in Primitive Society: essays and addresses,’ by the ever earnest A. R. Radcliffe-Brown

    ‘A cognitive/cultural anthropology’ by Claudia Strauss and Naomi Quinn. A must-read primer on feminist (cognitive) anthropology. Included in ‘Assessing Cultural Anthropology,’ edited by R. Borofsky.

    ‘Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire,’ by Mr. Awesomeness David Graeber. A great one to get excited about the invisible potentialities of anthropology. *Attach as bonus author’s Prickly Paradigm booklet ‘Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology.*

    Assuming you’re sitting in a straight-back chair ‘The Protestant ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ by the dusty sociological genius that was Max Weber.

    And if you are lucky enough to have an entire Winter and a rocking chair ‘The Division of Labor in Society’ by Durkheim.

  13. Choosing just five is difficult. But these are some of my favorites…

    Guests of the Sheik – by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea
    She has a straightforward, descriptive writing style that is engaging and easy to read.

    Inuit Morality Play – by Jean Briggs
    Jean’s style of diary-like narratives followed by anthropological explanations make this book easier to read. Additionally, her focus on the adorable Chubby Maata rather than Inuit society as a whole makes the entire piece easier to relate to.

    Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork – by Allaine Cerwonka
    This book is the back and forth dialogue between a doctoral student in the field and her advisor. It is a wonderful window into how ethnographic fieldwork is done.

    Ants for Breakfast: Archaeological Adventures Among the Kalinga – by James Skibo
    I read this book in undergrad and loved it.

    My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student – by Rebekah Nathan
    My undergrad students particularly seem to like this one.

  14. Joseph Tainter The Collapse of Complex Societies
    Robert M. Sapolsky Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals [Hardcover]
    David Graeber Debt: The first five thousand years Published 2009-08-20
    (This is classic – so the idea of “original sin” is just part of the con game that brainwashes little kids into stifling their inborn outrage at injustice and putting up with highly unequal levels of socio-economic stratification, and… the violence that is always ready to back it up. Yuck. so much for the benefits of civilization… No self-respecting hunter-gatherer would have put up with this).
    Marvin Harris The Rise of Anthropological Theory
    Lee and Devore Man the Hunter

    Honorable mention (he’s a sociologist)
    William Catton Overshoot: the ecological basis of Revolutionary Change

  15. I might mention that Salposky has an undergraduate degree in anthropology, although he now billed as a neuroscientist, his outlook and overall approach is fundamentally anthropological.

    I have looked over the lists offered here and there is a lot of great reading there, but I find it very thin on the biological anthropology and archaeology subfields. I do like Skull
    Wars, and have used in teaching. I would have included it but so many others did already I didn’t bother. The old classic ethnographic works are great too, but they often do not go much beyond description, really. I think we owe it to humanity to firm up our scientific methodologies and push for more credibility and policy influence – humanity is entering one of the most critical evolutionary episodes of its existence and the next few decades are going to be terrifying and probably awful for a lot of human beings. If anthropology is going to do some serious good with all that the discipline has learned in the past hundred years or so, we ought to sharpen our focus and get it in gear NOW. The civil unrest we are experiencing as Arab Spring and Occupy movements, and riots in Greece… these are only the beginning. We are headed for an unprecedented period of rapid socio-economic change and cultural adaptation. We anthropologists have our work cut out for us if we are to track this as it happens and to understand it.

  16. The Savage Mind – Levi-Strauss

    Steps To An Ecology of Mind – Bateson

    The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value Transformation in a Massim Society – Munn

    Portraits of “The Whiteman” – Linguistic play and cultural symbols among the Western Apache – Keith H. Basso

    Ambiguous Harmony – Herve Varenne

  17. “The old classic ethnographic works are great too, but they often do not go much beyond description, really. I think we owe it to humanity to firm up our scientific methodologies and push for more credibility and policy influence”

    Many of the earlier texts were attempts to be more scientific, more positivist, (at least Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, and Durkheim) and the more recent writings (from the past 25-30 years) have been more humanistic and particular. Perhaps in biological anthropology or archaeology there can be some idea of objectivity but I personally think the arguments against such a thing in socio-cultural anthropology are too strong. That is actually why I included two of the books on my list, Hunters and Bureaucrats and Seeing Like a State both deal with the particular nature of people (and nature) and how you can’t try to force them in to some arbitrary paradigm without undermining or ignoring the agency of the people involved.

    “The civil unrest we are experiencing as Arab Spring and Occupy movements, and riots in Greece… these are only the beginning. We are headed for an unprecedented period of rapid socio-economic change and cultural adaptation.”

    I wouldn’t call it unprecedented, or even new. The Occupy movements and the riots in Greece could both be easily argued to be a part of the anti-neoliberal movement which has been going on, on a large scale, for the better part of 20 years all over the world. There are also people studying these movements who have been studying them for a decent while now and at least one of these books has been listed above with Graeber’s “Possibilities” but he is not the only one. Jeff Shantz is a sociologist who has written extensively on anarchy and anarchist involvement in movements and there are at least a few grad students currently doing dissertations on Occupy or social movements in general.

    I think socio-cultural anthropology is on a good path right now and the internet has provided an absolute amazing forum to help keep it in check. If there is one thing that I think needs to change it is the idea that it can only be valid if it is somehow scientific and objective, which is exactly why I chose the books I chose on my list.

  18. For the archaeological part of anthropology:

    Earle, Timothy
    1997 How Chiefs Come to Power: The Political Economy in Prehistory. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

    Flannery, Kent V. (editor)
    1976 The Early Mesoamerican Village. Academic Press, New York.

    Fletcher, Roland
    1995 The Limits of Settlement Growth: A Theoretical Outline. Cambridge University Press, New York.

    Smith, Adam T.
    2003 The Political Landscape: Constellations of Authority in Early Complex Polities. University of California Press, Berkeley.

    Trigger, Bruce G.
    2003 Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study. Cambridge University Press, New York.

  19. Hmm, I wonder about the actual accessibility of some of those listed.For instance, while I love Smith’s book on the Political Landscape, it is far from accessible. I think I’d include:

    “Cobble Circles and Standing Stones”, Jeffrey Quilter

    “1492”, Charles C Mann (not an anthropologist, but excellent research on anthropological archaeology)

    “The Leopard’s Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Catalhoyuk”, Ian Hodder

    “What Makes Civilization?”, David Wengrow

    Hope to see more archaeology in this post, but enjoying all the lists!

  20. I’d have to think a little longer to come up with five, but just off the top of my head I’ll recommend one. I’m just wrapping up my BA in Anthropology and my focus was cultural (specifically Middle Eastern cultures, Islam, and gender), so I read more ethnographies than anything else. The best one I’ve ever read (in fact, it is on my list of all-time favorite books, not just ANTH reads) is called “An Enchanted Modern” by Lara Deeb.

  21. Most of mine have been named (esp. Wisdom Sits in Places), but I didn’t spot Return to Laughter, Laura Bohannan aka Elenore Bowen, maybe to pair with Rabinow, Reflections.

  22. I only started reading up on Anthropology since last summer but I already have a few favorites:

    Clifford Geertz- Thick Description
    Teresa P. R. Caldeira- City of Walls
    Renato Rosaldo- Culture and Truth

    I am only starting Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond because I heard it was really good. Has anyone read it? What did you think about it?

  23. Defining ‘anthropology’ broadly — that is, truthfully — the ones that stick out in my mind atm are:

    Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy
    Why We Cooperate, Michael Tomasello
    Guests of the Sheikh, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea
    Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict
    The Birthday of the World and Other Stories, Ursula K Le Guin

  24. I’m a warm-climate person — I’m boggled that by all the descriptions of snow. While Dispossessed is probably my all-time favorite, I just think BotW is so finely written, and the short stories present a wide varieties of cultures. “The Matter of Seghri” never fails to provide multiple teachable moments.

  25. Who owns native culture? by Michael F. Brown

    Between two armies in the Ixil towns of Guatemala by David Stoll

    A basketful of Indian culture change by Ted Brasser

    In small things forgotten by James Deetz

    The Tewa world by Alfonso Ortiz

  26. @Maluly — There are issues with Guns, Germs, and Steel. Read “The Human Web” by the McNeills instead.

  27. I’ve lent Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques, Mintz’ Sweetness & Power, and Graeber’s Debt to interested parties who found them readable, interesting, and accessible. I’ve also been known to share passages from Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic in an animated state over breakfast. Kathleen Stewart’s A Space on the Side of the Road and Elliot Liebow’s Tally’s Corner would probably round out my list of 5 as examples of both US-based fieldwork and the range of what anthropologists do/write about.

  28. Here goes my top five picks:

    Maya Intellectual Renaissance by Victor Montejo

    Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs by Michael D. Coe

    American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World by David E. Stannard

    Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest by Mathew Restall

    The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community by Catherine J. Allen

  29. these are the 5 books that (in my own, subjective view) should tell larger audiences what anthropology is all about. Word of caution, though, no old school anthropology here:

    Michael Taussig (1991) Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing
    Michael Taussig (2004) My Cocaine Museum
    Alan Klima (2002) The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand
    Steven Gregory (2006) The Devil behind the Mirror Globalization and Politics in the Dominican Republic
    Sabrina C. Agarwal and Bonnie N. Glencross (2011) Social Bioarchaeology

  30. Huge thanks to Ryan for starting this thread, and to everyone who has contributed. I am fascinated by the diversity of work being cited. At the same time, I observe a strong concentration on the Americas. Nothing so far on South or East Asia. Also a notable lack, except for one recommendation of Radcliffe-Brown, of classic social anthropology, with analysis grounded in local social structure. I find myself wondering how much people read outside their particular geographical and theoretical focus?

  31. @John McCreery

    I don’t think it’s necessarily a geographic focus for everyone. The only one I put geographically related to the region I study is Sweetness and Power, which I would have put regardless of whether my interests were in the Caribbean or elsewhere. I do think there is a tie to research interests though, not knowing what anyone else on here studies specifically, I know I can say that all of mine are related to environmental anthropology.

    As for the lack of emphasis on social anthropology, though I do count more than just the one reference to Radcliffe-Brown, (I also see two Malinowski works and Evans-Pritchard) I think it has more to do with accessibility. Some of those older books can be difficult to read without a theoretical or historical background of anthropology to place them in context.

    A few of the books are what I would personally consider new, or newer, classics. Sweetness and Power, Wisdom Sits in Places, and Debt are all powerful books with huge theoretical implications outside of a strict definition of culture.

    Depending on how you define South or East Asia, to cover that region, I would happily swap Seeing Like a State with The Art of Not Being Governed by the same author in my own, personal list.

  32. Indeed, a wonderful post. Considering the difficulties of choosing only 5, I will list the ones I like the most regarding teaching purposes (undergraduate & postgraduate), and with a special *bias* since they are translated in Spanish –mostly classics and ethnographically oriented.

    – El cultivo de la tierra y los ritos agrícolas en las islas Trobriand. Los jardines de coral y su magia (B. Malinowski)*
    [Coral Gardens and Their Magic (…)] *ok, ‘Baloma’ as well

    – Un pueblo de la Sierra, Grazalema (J. Pitt-Rivers)
    [The people of the Sierra]

    – Brujería, magia y oráculos entre los azande (E.E. Evans-Pritchard)
    [Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande]

    – Ensayo sobre el don. La forma y la razón del intercambio en las sociedades arcaicas (M. Mauss)
    [Essai sur le don (…)]

    – Hacia una teoría antropológica del Valor. La moneda falsa de nuestros sueños (D. Graeber) –my translation: forthcoming!
    [Toward An Anthropological Theory of Value (…)]

  33. @Tony

    For Japan — Dorinne Kondo’s Crafting Selves and Theodore Bestor’s Tsukiji:The Fish Market at the Center of the World.

    For China — Ellen Oxfeld’s Blood, Sweat, and Mahjong: Family and Enterprise in an Overseas Chinese Community and Aiwha Ong Flexible Citizenship.

    Ong’s prose can be a bit postmodern. But what all four of these books have in common is the use of ethnography to illuminate global issues, who we tell ourselves we are(Kondo), what we eat and where it comes from (Bestor), what it means to be an “us” in others’ place (Oxfeld), and how legal and cultural identities, class and country intersect to make the world a global field on which cosmopolitans play (Ong).

    It is not, I think, accidental that three of the authors are women. Two are at least bicultural (Kondo, Japanese-American and Ong Malaysian-Chinese) and the third, Oxfeld, is an American Jew who married a Bengali man, conducted her initial research on a Hakka (Chinese minority) community in Calcutta and has followed its members both back to its founders home in China and, for some of them, their new home in Toronto. As an example of anthropology thoroughly involved in the modern world, it is hard to imagine a better example.

  34. Some that aren’t on the list already:
    Going way back to the tentative beginning of anthropology, Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa is long but very accessible. It gives a view of a time before cultural relativity, and must be read with that understanding. It’s a bit more travelogue than ethnography, but a chapter in the latter part of the book gives a peek into her ethnological studies that is fascinating. She studies “fetishes” as well as fish.
    Mules and Men, Zora Neale Hurston … I’m sure that she has other great books, but I’ve just started to read her.
    In Sorcery’s Shadow, Paul Stoller and Cheryl Olkes … more of a memoir than an ethnography, but it’s one of the first things I read that got me interested in anthropology. (Fusion of the Worlds: An Ethnography of Possession Among the Songhay of Niger is Stoller’s ethnography from that time.)
    Thunder rides a black horse : Mescalero Apaches and the mythic present, Claire R. Farrer
    Western Apache Language and Culture: Essays in Linguistic Anthropology, Keith. H. Basso

  35. Some that haven’t made it to the list, but have always stood out for me…

    As I see it, accessibility qua good story-telling is an excellent way to show what anthropology is capable of. Ergo, my list (for socio-cultural anthro, at least):

    (1) Edmund Leach, Political Systems of Highland Burma
    (2) Victor Turner, Schism and Continuity in an African Society
    (3) Marshall Sahlins, Historical Metaphors, Mythical Realities
    (4) Claude Lévi-Strauss The Story of Lynx
    (5) Ruth Benedict, Chrysanthemum and the Sword

    and for good measure…

    Franz Boas, “The Study of Geography” and “On Alternating Sounds”

  36. Anything by Wade Davis
    Beyond the Milky Way – Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff (Eastern Tukanos)
    Les Indiens Kogis: La memoire des possibles – Tag name eric julien
    The Art of Tantra – Philip Rawson (not an anthgist but interesting)

  37. @ Nicolas I would argue that Wade Davis is at least as problematic as Jarred Diamond. He’s using his talent for writing in the most cunning way, and perpetuates the myth of the noble savage. Perhaps this is why he is the anthropologist of choice for National Geographic and TED.

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