Leisure Class as anthropology class

I don’t ever teach an Intro to Anthropology, a fact for which I wake each day thankful and perform several ritual ablutions and say long meandering prayers to as many culturally specific deities as I can remember. But if I did, I would start with Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class. In fact, I might even make it the only text for my awesome four-field anthropology class.

Thorstein Veblen
All you need is love. And one book by Veblen.

Economists think the book belongs to them–or those few evolutionary and/or institutional economists who take the book seriously (Geoffrey Hodgson leads this ragtag bunch of misfits and loyalists yearly into battle). But the book is anything and everything but economics. In fact, the book is a weird and wonderful combination of anthropology, economics, psychology, sociology and speculative phenomenology. One of the reasons people might not grok the fundamental wackiness of this book is that it, like most of Veblen’s work, contains 0 (zero) citations or references, despite being built on a kind of elaborate scaffold of everything the late 19th century had to offer.

The most obvious of these is that the book is pure Lewis Henry Morgan and Edward Burnett Tylor. Veblen borrows Morgan’s speculative system of stages from Ancient Society more or less wholesale to make his argument about how the Leisure Class develops and why people engage in comparisons of worth. So you can immediatetly spend a week talking about matrilineality in the Iriquois or the critique of technological periodization. Two of the chapters focus on “survivals” –ranging from hunting exploits and their survival in football games to survivals of religious life– so you can get your Tylor on and talk about the mechanisms of cultural change and the descent with modification of cultural traits. But it doesn’t end there– Veblen also draws on folks like John Lubbock and John McLennan to talk about the both the distant past and modern savages–he is especially fond of “marriage by capture” and the origins of property and civilization. Of course, it is now our duty to if not ignore Victorian anthropology of this sort, to at least denounce it, so to cleanse your undergraduates, you spend a diverting week talking about Franz Boas’ critiques of this stuff, and try to get the students to argue for the existence and reappearance of Conspicuous Consuymption without the ethnocentrist, unilinear version of progress.

I haven’t even gotten started, and we’ve managed to work in archaeology and biological anthropology–at least in their barbaric stages–into the class. When we want to come back to the present, we can teach anthropology of fashion (Ch. 7), anthropology of sport (ch. 10), anthropology of religion (11, 12, 13) and so on. Then of course, your upcoming can pre-empt you classes on Bourdieu with the chapters on invidious distinction and the last one, “The Higher Learning” (Homo Academicus avant la lettre, which was expanded by Veblen into a book of its own), on the foibles of the academic class. And Voila, fiat Anthropology. No more textbooks!

But what of Linguistic Anthropology you say– for that you have to read H.L. Mencken’s totally hilarious critique in Prejudices (ch. 5). This also allows you to teach about conservatism and its avatars, something we college professors are accused of never doing.

How you will fit Jared Diamond in is an exercise left for the reader, but I hear he has a very nice home in the hills of Los Angeles…


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

9 thoughts on “Leisure Class as anthropology class

  1. And inconspicuously priced at $0, courtesy of open access projects such as the Internet Archive and HathiTrust. Must have paper? $3.50 new from Dover.

  2. This could be a great class if you combined it with field observation work. The one danger I see is that it would come to be seen as “The Leisure Class” which you could skate by with reading one book (which has not citations at that!) and taking a couple of multiple choice test–you need rigor too, which indeed Anthropology, like any other course, can have plenty of.

    Why do you seek to avoid teaching Intro classes? These are among the most important in a department’s schedule. They are the basis for a discipline’s future, and require a back-to-basics approach which makes us accessible to the rest of the world. Related question: Does Jared Diamond teach Intro to Geography classes at UCLA? If he does, I suspect he is rather good at it!

  3. “The Leisure Class” would be followed of course by “Intermediate Leisure”, “Advanced Leisure” and “Special Topics in Leisure”. I bet I could siphon off the the entire undergrad population. Maybe I will start a company called “Of Coursera” and dominate THE WORLD!

    @Tony Oh I teach intro classes, what I said was I don’t teach intro to *anthropology* and I wouldn’t want to, but that is a different issue. I teach Veblen in an intro class called “History of Modern Thought”

  4. Perhaps for Intermediate Leisure, you could feature the readings from Marx on money’s essential powers–especially the one about “I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of uglihess–its deterrent power is nullified by money.” This could be followed up with one of the ethnographies about the beauty industry which should have plenty of four fields appeal. Who would want to be a Business major after that?

  5. What a fun idea! I teach Veblen in Economic Anthropology, although not with the angle you suggest here.

    I just have to say, though – I love teaching Intro to Anthropology, although I have the luxury of a class of only 35. There’s nothing better than watching students cringe over cross-cousin marriage and then realize why it might make sense, or work through how US kinship influence ideas about surrogacy, or just watching 18-21 year olds marvel at the idea that not everyone sees the world like they do. Priceless.

  6. Especially in light of Kerim’s recent posting on profiling in the US and India, and its mention that Oscar winner Forest Whitaker was stopped and frisked, and given H.L. Mencken’s critique of Veblen’s The Leisure Class and Menken’s comments on golf (comments which could easily be put into conversation with Adam Fish’s recent interview of Orin Starn and his book on Tiger Woods), I find it noteworthy that race has this far not figured into this discussion of how Veblen could be used to teach anthropology.

    So, again, the question of ‘anthropology as white public space’ (as raised by another UCLA colleague of Chris Kelty’s and Jared Diamond’s, anthropologist Karen Brodkin (and her co-authors).

    Especially given the imbrication of anthropology, especially at the time that Veblen was writing The Leisure Class, in colonial projects (including the internal colonialism of US racism), it is interesting that attention would not be paid to the race/class nexus, and Stuart Hall’s apt and pithy observation that “race is the modality in which class is lived” (especially in the US).

Comments are closed.