Anthropology: The landmark books

Last year I posted an open thread called “Anthropology: Five Books,” in which I asked readers to list the five books they feel best represent the discipline.  The responses were great.  I think it’s time to try another open thread along similar lines, but let’s take a bit of a different route.  During that last thread, I asked about books that both represent anthropology and appeal to general readers.  This time, let’s talk about the books that form your own personal anthropological canon.

Where did this idea come from?  I was just reading Eric Wolf’s “Pathways of Power,” which has a really fascinating intellectual autobiography (the introduction of the book).  Wolf lists three “landmark books” that he read early in his career that had tremendous impact upon his thinking:

The first was Karl Wittfogel’s Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Chinas (1931), an extraordinary, ecologically oriented study of the Chinese economy, which dissented from the view that China was merely feudal and saw it instead as an instance of the Asiatic-bureaucracy mode of production.  The second was Paul Sweezy’s The Theory of Capitalist Development (1942), which helped me systematize my understandings of Marxian political economy.  The third was C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins (1938), on the slave rebellions of Haiti in the wake of the French Revolution, one of the first attempts to write a history of a people supposedly “without history.”

So, following Wolf’s example, what are YOUR three landmark books?  What are the three books that most influenced how you think about, and practice, anthropology?  It might also be interesting to talk about the differences between books that have wide appeal, and those that have tremendous, long-lasting influence within the field.


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.

19 thoughts on “Anthropology: The landmark books

  1. How about two?

    Evans-Pritchard, E.E. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. (Abridged version) – this was the book that convinced me other cultures had their own logics as an undergraduate. I am sure that others have had the same experience with more recent books, but his story of the termites and the hut still seem like a very, very teachable account of cultural logics at work.

    Sewell Jr., William H. Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation – the most influential book I read in graduate school on what culture is and how and why cultural change occurs.

  2. For me the two books from my grad school (and before) days that were seminal would include Goran Hyden, Ujamaa in Tanzania, for his descriptions of the Tanzanian peasantry. I was working (often unsuccessfully) with Tanzanian peasants at the time, and the book resonated with me then. It does now, too, 25 or so years later.

    In grad school, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. I can read the sections borrowed from Benjamin Franklin’s enthusiasm for money-making, and the hopelessness of the modern condition today, and both resonate with my undergraduate students.

    William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples will be the third one on this list for now, even though I can think of four or five other books in the “ecological history” school which could qualify here. But Plagues and Peoples was the first book from this school I read–

  3. Thanks for the comments so far. My three:

    1. Europe and the People Without History by Eric Wolf. I was introduced to that book during my undergrad, but carried it around with me and gradually came to appreciate the methods and ideas behind that book more and more each year.

    2. Expectations of Modernity by James Ferguson. This was one of the key ethnographies that I read during my undergrad that really showed me what good ethnography can do.

    3. Toward an anthropological theory of value by David Graeber. This is the book that I have been re-reading and highlighting a lot the past year or so. Along with the work of Keith Hart, Graeber has opened up avenues in anthropology for me that lead to Marx, Mauss, and a renewed econ anthro in some really interesting and productive ways. Good stuff.

    Pretty hard to pick just three though.

  4. I find this brief insight into Wolf’s cannon quite interesting, particularly because of his interest in Wittfogel’s work on China which has taken quite a lashing over the years. But some slightly more nuanced historical political economies of China have helped give Wittfogel’s argument a bit more importance (In particular I’m thinking of Hill Gates’ China’s Motor but even Wittfogel’s contemporary Chi Ch’ao-ting who wrote Key Economic Areas in Chinese History which is still quite useful). But I’ll come back to China.

    As for three canonical books…whew it is near impossible. But here it goes.
    1. Levi-Strauss’s The Elementary Structures of Kinship I find crucial because of his finesse in engaging with all of the great theoretical frameworks. His goal is not to critique them (with the exceptional ethnographic quibble here and there), but rather respect them for their importance at that point in time and to utilize them to formulate something wholly unique…a true synthesis of the material in the field at that time.
    2. Have to agree that Europe and the People Without History is crucial also for its attempt to de-center the anthropological perspective away from Europe.
    3. Finally there is a series of three articles published by William Skinner in the The Journal of Asian Studies titled: Marketing and Social Structure In Rural China, which I find to be the first systematic attempt to understand cultural variation in China. I do tend to show my colors in the China field though by bringing up Skinner as he’s been critiqued quite a bit over the years as well…perhaps because in the minds of some his work is not all that anthropological.

    Yet I suggest these three because I find that as a group they form the building blocks of what I consider modern anthropology: Systematic analysis, time, space, power and structure.

    But if I can indulge for just one second, there are four other books that I think are needed to round off the other foundations of the field (for me at least).
    1. Marshall Sahlins Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities
    2. Eugene Anderson Ecologies of the Heart
    3. Roy Rappaport Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity
    4. Fredrik Barth Cosmologies in the Making
    for their conceptualizations of agency, dynamics, emotion, spirituality (or in Rappaport’s terms numinosity) and pattern.

  5. Yikes, forgot to mention “exchange” as a building block…which is implicit (but occasionally also very explicit) in The Elementary Structures of Kinship, but of course Mauss’s The Gift also has special place in the heart of a recovering economist 😉

    BTW, I tried to start a post like this on the E-Anth Listserve this week and didn’t quite get as many responses as I’d hoped (a few nice off-list suggestions though). Looking forward to seeing what people come up with here.

  6. Can I point to three books read in graduate school? No, I have to mention four. But then I also have to note that what I am talking about is not so much books per se as ideas discovered in the four books I’ll mention. It is the ideas I remember, the books in which I found them not so much.

    1. I was persuaded by Clifford Geertz’s opening essays in The Interpretation of Culture that ethnography requires thick description. I was disappointed to discover no clear instruction on how to produce a thick description.

    2. One hint came from Claude Levi-Strauss, in the “Overture” to The Raw and the Cooked, where he recommends examination of “the logic in tangible qualities,” as opposed, that is, to the logic in abstract ideas on which my B.A. in Philosophy had focused.

    3. Another came from Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger. Here the idea was to look in the cracks, the gaps between categories and try to explain what was happening there, as opposed, that is, to obsessing over deductions from the categories themselves.

    4. The one who put it together for me was Victor Turner. For a short introduction I’d recommend his Morgan Lectures, The Ritual Process. Turner’s focus on process brought dynamics to static binary oppositions and fixed categories and sharpened my awareness of the polysemy and shifting nuance of language and symbols in social dramas. Turner also provided the recipe lacking in Geertz: (a) analyze the social structure within which social dramas take place; (b) look closely at what we see (=Levi-Strauss’ tangible logic); (c) listen to the native exegesis but do not consider any of (a), (b) or (c) as a sufficient explanation. Good ethnography must account for all three and the ways they fit together.

    That recipe has defined my approach to anthropology ever since.

  7. I find it interesting that all the comments so far are on the more culturally-focused books in the discipline. As I arrived at anthropology through classics (with archaeology as a middle ground), my top three books are slightly different, and I can think of one main book that structured mini-breakthroughs at each stage in my academic life.

    BA – Folk Housing in Middle Virginia by Henry Glassie. Seems a bit random, I know, but this structuralist interpretation of houses was unlike anything I’d ever read as a classicist. And yet structuralism deployed in this way made a lot of sense to someone who’d spent years studying the difficult grammar of Latin and Greek. This book opened my eyes to anthropological theory, making me realize there was more to archaeology than digging up Roman villas.

    MA – Europe and the People without History by Eric Wolf, for reasons similar to those given above. It made me think about American history and world history in a completely different way (which was impressive, since I’d been stuck in the classical world, where every small bit of society is seen as a precursor to our own modern Western existence). The sections about slavery and the slave trade were particularly eye-opening for me, as I feel like my southern upbringing gave me a very skewed view of the Civil War.

    PhD – The Body as Material Culture: A Theoretical Osteoarchaeology by Joanna Sofaer. It can be hard toeing the line between the science of bones and the theory of anthropology, but Sofaer does it, reconciling the processual with the post-processual. It’s a book I come back to and reread time and again, always finding something new and thought-provoking in it. Very short but indispensable.

    (This was a fun exercise. Maybe we can do it with articles in the future? I find that I hardly ever read an anthropology book anymore; in bioarch, the vast majority of info is in articles.)

  8. I’m going to list four books (simply because I can’t decide between 3 and 4).

    (1) Robert Netting’s Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Sustainable Agriculture. As a grad student at the University of Arizona, I had the opportunity to take several classes from Bob Netting. Before he knew me very well, I went to his office to talk to him one day, and left carrying the proofs of this excellent book. My own copy is dog-eared and contains several scraps of paper marking important passages. As an archaeologist whose primary interest is agriculture, the influence of this book on my intellectual development cannot be understated.

    (2) Eric Wolf: Europe and the People Without History, This book introduced to me a skepticism about the ethnographic record. In particular, to question the notion that any ethnographically described society is really “pristine.” I think I first encountered this book at the start of my second year of grad school, in the Culture Core (taught by Netting and Ellen Basso). Like others, I have periodically gone back to it, and gained additional insight from this book.

    These last two are in the order I encountered them:

    (3) Thomas W. Gallant: Risk and Survival in Ancient Greece: Reconstructing the Rural Domestic Economy. I stumbled across this book in the library while looking for another book (don’t recall what book I was looking for). The book sat on my shelves for several months, while I prepared for my prelims. At Arizona at the time, the prelims consisted of receiving five questions from your committee, and then having three weeks to prepare answers to those five questions. One afternoon during week one of this process, I was waiting on a repairman to arrive at my house. I picked up Gallant’s book, and, over the next 48 hours read the whole thing, and then, rewrote one of my answers based in large part upon what Gallant had to say about archaeology. His incorporation of both archaeological and ethnographic data into his reconstruction of rural life in ancient Greece was, for me, groundbreaking. It has influenced my approach to the archaeology of complex societies.

    (4) James C. Scott: Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed: This book was read relatively late in my graduate career, and did more to confirm ideas I already held, than to introduce distinctly new ideas into my brain. In large part it underscored my understanding that states (particularly pre-industrial states) were extremely limited in power. This limitation was and is particularly true when it comes to the knowledge the state has. Scott completely undermines the whole framework of the Oriental Despotic State, without even mentioning the model.

  9. Nice to see more comments rolling in.

    @Kristina: I like your idea about doing something similar to this, but asking about the key articles. That sounds like a good plan for the next open thread like this.

    I also like the idea of listing the books that were influential at different stages.

    Looking back, there were three books that I remember having a big impact when I first found my way to anthropology (I started off in archaeology). This was right when I started, back in my community college days. They were:

    1. The Handbook of California Indians by Kroeber.
    2. Aboriginal Society in Southern California by William D Strong
    3. Scenes from the High Desert: Julian Steward’s Life and Theory by Virginia Kerns.

    I used to check out the first two books from my local community college all the time. I found those books completely absorbing because they had so much information about the native people of California (especially socal). Those books started to radically reshape what I *thought* I knew about southern California, where I grew up. Those were the days when I found out just how little I knew about local history–Kroeber and Strong were talking about the kinds of histories that didn’t exactly get much air time in all of the historical societies, let alone my high school classes. There was this big void, and anthropology was where I went to see what that was all about.

    As for the book about Steward, I found that after seeing his name on a site form for a local rock art site, and wanted to know more about him. That’s a great book, and it really drew me into anthropology. It was a coincidental surprise to learn, just a couple years later, that one of my favorite books (the one about the people without history) was written by one of Steward’s students. Funny how things works out.

    Anyway, keep em coming…

  10. Hi, I’m a high school student completing a major work (called a personal interest project) on some area of society and culture, and as stated, the topic is of my own choosing. The work has to have both a micro and macro focus and, having scrutinised my life and the lives of those around me, I haven’t come up with anything. I have come to the conclusion that:
    a) I’m really boring! and
    b) I need a topic!

    If you have anything in mind that would be fairly accessible to a high school student or young university student, and is interesting and topical (i’m sure that goes with saying 😀 ) then I would be really appreciate a comment back.

    Note: my inability to find a topic is also not for want of trying – I’ve read many of the posts here and researched across the web to find something.

    Thanks and sorry that I couldn’t contribute to your list.

  11. Sometimes you just happen to encounter books that fall in perfectly with your own state of mind. Some of my mind-breaking books are Lois Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus for its focus on the Indian caste system and more importantly his discussions on “socio-centrism”, critiquing the point of departure from Western sociological paradigms when analysing “the other”. Edward Said’s Orientalism advanced this discussion, questioning the hegemonic Western scientific paradigm in analysis. Further, I think that Bruce Kapferer and for example his Legends of the People, Myths of the State, has done a lot to develop and advance fresh, new and daring ideas in the areas of relativism, ethnocentrism, and anti- orientalism.

  12. Just to add to my comment above:

    the scope of the project: about 4-5000 words. I have to conduct some of my own primary research as well. 😀

    I am looking for novel ideas, for instance, your discussion of comic books a few posts back but also things with uh, “intellectual depth”, for instance, previous girls have done projects on “feminism among chinese adolescents.”

    Again, I’m so sorry if this seems like spam from some lax student who is not *bothered* to develop their own ideas.

    Thanks, Betts

  13. Hi Betts! You might check out PopAnth and Sociological Images for some blogs that might have interesting research ideas. If you were interested, you could track down the authors to discuss more.

    And my list:

    I struggled through “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” (Erving Goffman) at age seventeen, simply because a lecturer mentioned it as an aside. I could barely understand it, but couldn’t get enough of the analysis of social interactions.

    “The Red Riviera” (Kristen Ghodsee) was the first modern ethnography I found in which I actually enjoyed the process of reading. Clear, direct, thoughtful, and profound. I didn’t know anthropologists could write clearly, and I appreciate that she continues to develop both fiction and nonfiction in her latest book, “Lost in Transition.”

    And “Debt: the First 5000 Years” (David Graeber) stands out as a provocative, wide-ranging work that attempts to engage popular audiences, and also quite well written; the sort of thing I’d love to attempt someday.

  14. I’m going off the beaten path for the books that influenced my anthropological outlook and the way I research.

    1. Death Without Weeping, Scheper-Hughes
    2. Dancing in the Streets, Ehrenreich
    3. Wisdom Sits in Places, Basso

    These were not the first texts I read, far from it, but I must say they were the ones that most influenced my development and considerations in the field.

  15. I loved the last post, and this one is great too. As an historical archaeologist, my foundational books were ones that linked history, materiality, and cultural dynamics together in interesting ways. So, aside from Wolf’s “People without history” (better described by @ryan, @edwin, @Kristina, and @Jeff than it coudl be by me), here are my titles:

    1.)David Harvey’s “The Condition of Post-Modernity”. This book is subtitled “An inquiry into the origins of culture change”, and I learned a lot about how to theorize the relationship between space, cultural forms, and political-economic processes from reading it. Despite its focus on the 20th century, I have found its framing of capitalism as a spatial and cultural system to be useful in my investigations of the 18th and 19th centuries in New England. A bizarrely high number of Historical archaeologists that I know cite this book frequently.

    2.)”The Country and the City” by Raymond Williams. The idea that urban and rural life formed a symbolic and material structure in the development of capitalism was really important to me, particularly as I was trying to read through the often parochial and descriptive historical literature on rural Massachusetts. It also has one of the cleverest opening chapters of any scholarly book I’ve ever read–Williams uses the way in which modern writers about rural life refer to a historical rural golden age to keep jumping backwards in time, looking for that golden age, only to find more writers lamenting its passing.

    3.)”Foucault’s Pendulum” by Umberto Eco–I read this book when I was 18, and it really blew my mind, and continues to. It was my introduction to post-modernism, and it has shaped my thinking about cultural analysis ever since. It’s a rollicking adventure and conspiracy story that disguises it’s more subtle teardowns of the non-fiction conspiracy genre, deconstruction, and the history of intellectual life post-1968. Every time I read it, I learn something new, and I find myself thinking in a slightly different way about history, power, and the dangers of playing with either as an intellectual game.

    An honorable mention goes to Lester Bangs’ collection “Psychotic reactions and carburetor dung”. Bangs was a brilliant music critic, but he was almost anthropological in his insistence on tying music to its particular historical, cultural, or social circumstances. His pieces on Reggae, racism in punk rock, and the death of Sid Vicious (respectively) are all brilliant cultural analyses that could easily fit into a variety of introductory anthropology courses. I started reading bangs right when I started grad school, and his insistence on giving artistic credence to “low culture” remains a touchstone for me.

  16. Reflecting on this, I realise my trajectory is quite erratic:

    1) Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Martian chronicles’, a book which predisposed me to taking the notion of ‘different worlds’ seriously. I think I got my interest in archaeology from this, rather than from the tv-programmes or popular science books, and I’m very glad of that.

    2) Colin Renfrew’s ‘The emergence of civilisation’, a book applying what I would call a humanistic version of system theory to the emergence of complex societies in the 3rd millennium BC. This book made me value holism and taking a comparative approach in archaeology.

    3) Gordon Childe’s ‘Society and knowledge’, which deals with knowledge past and present from a (humanist) Marxist perspective. It’s a much better way to deal with causality and holism than is system theory or anything that has been developed since. I do not agree with everything, but it is still a very fertile point of view to me.

  17. My list is very different from the others, probably because I’m not an anthropologist in the same sense as everyone else:

    1. Understanding Media, by Marshall McLuhan.

    2. Djanggawul.

    3. The Real Eve, by Steven Oppenheimer.

  18. Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols / How Institutions Think. Douglas revisited many times her grid/group analytic and in HIT she looks back on some of the problems with her earlier stuff.

    Mary Douglas, Risk and Blame. Subversive and worthy of criticism, but shaped the way I view political discourse, which is very often a discourse about danger.

    Marilyn Strathern, Reproducing the Future. Most people would say Gender of the Gift, but RtF distilled many of the insights of Gender of the Gift into a form that made them clearer to me as an undergraduate, and did so through a pathbreaking look at biotechnologies A very inventive collection of essays that is usually overlooked (in favor of After Nature, Partial Connections, or GoG). RtF is out of print and hard to find.

    Marshall Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason. I run to this when I feel defeated in conversations with historical materialists. Still useful now that certain strands of vulgar political economy approaches appear to be making a comeback.

    Marilyn Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing. An incredibly difficult text, partly because it is (as its reviewers indicated), too High Theory-laden. It’s not a classic, and I really didn’t like the book when I first read it. But it got under my skin, and I think influenced much of the way I understand modernity and culture. The way it reinvented ethnographic topics after the Writing Culture/Predicament of Culture type critiques was important.

  19. 1. Harri Englund: Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor (2006) and Human Rights and African Airwaves: Mediating Equality on the Chichewa Radio (2011)

    2. Marilyn Strathern -Gender of the Gift (1988)

    3.Allen Feldman: Formations of Violence (1991)

    I’m going to include two others I recently read that are very fresh in my mind:

    Samuel Martinez: Decency and Excess: Global Aspirations and Material Deprivation on a Caribbean Sugar Planatation (2007)

    Edward LiPuma and Benjamin Lee: Financial Derivatives and the Globalization of Risk (2004)

Comments are closed.