Is there an anthropological canon? Evidence from theory anthologies

Is there a canon of anthropological theory? Do we have a ‘disciplinary history’ of where we have been and where we are going? Sure, there are many grand narratives we tell of our discipline, but these stores tend to be tendentious and based on anecdotal. Can we find a more empirical, disinterested way to look for order in anthropology’s past?

In this post I examine anthologies of anthropological theory in order to see to what extent anthropology has a coherent, institutionalized canon. Is there a strong degree of agreement between these books? Do they tell the same stories? Do they include the same authors and readings? To answer this question, I asked our intrepid intern Angela to track down the contents of every edition of the main anthropological theory readers in North America.

What did I find? The short answer is that these anthologies strongly agree on this history of anthropology between the years 1850-1950. Agreement rapidly decreases after — wait for it — 1974. Why and how? Are these anthologies accurate indicators of the anthropological zeitgeist? Who gets included and who doesn’t? For answers to these questions, read on….

Method, approach, and assumptions

There are only three main anthologies of anthropological theory published in North America. High Points in Anthropology was the first such reader, and was originally published in 1973. A second edition came out in 1988. Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History took up the slack in 1996 and has been updated regularly since then. It is currently in its fifth edition. A competitor, Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory, began in 2001 and is now in its fourth edition.

There are other readers produced in the UK and other English-speaking countries (Oz, New Zealand) and of course there are a variety of readers in other countries. There are also readers themed around particular subfields, or which focus on anthropology and ‘social theory’. Here I want to start small and just examine a few key readers that fit a well-defined pedagogical niche.

In this blog entry, I’ll compare the most recent editions of these works, especially the fifth edition of Anthropological Theory (5 AP) and the fourth of Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory (4 RH). In a future blog entry I hope to trace their development across time. I should also say I am writing this based only on reading the tables of contents prepared for me by Angela. You can a find a comparison of theory anthologies here — I suggest you pull them up while you’re reading this so you can follow along.

export PNG

I have also read almost all the pieces anthologized, so I have a high degree of familiarity with this literature and assume you do too. However, if I actually read the editors’ introductions and other writings, I would probably be on more solid footing understanding why they’ve made the choices they have. So that’s a shortcoming of this approach. Still, I feel like this approach is a useful one.

My goal here is really to focus on authors rather than on particular pieces. Which anthropologists are considered canonical in anthropological history?

Anthropology’s beginnings: 1850-1950

Ok so: what is included and what is not? First, it’s clear that both 5 AT and 4 RH agree strongly on the prehistory of our discipline. Both begin in the late 19th century with the work of Spencer, Morgan, Tylor, Marx/Engels, Freud, Durkheim, Weber, and Mauss. 4 RH also includes Saussure. So far, so good: both works cover identical thinkers. There is a high degree of canonicity for the most distant past of our discipline.

5 AT then has a section labeled ‘the early twentieth century’ which it divides into ‘Culture and Personality’ (Benedict and Mead) and a larger category called ‘historical particularism’. This last includes both American and British thinkers (Boas, Kroeber, Whorf, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Gluckman). Personally, I think all of the British authors listed here would be terrified to see themselves listed as historical particularists. Radcliffe-Brown a particularist? But whatever.

4 RH, on the other hand, has a single section entitled ‘the earlier twentieth century’ which includes the same authors as 5 AT, but cuts Whorf and adds Lévi-Strauss, Sahlins, and Leach.

For the period from 1900-1950, then, it looks like there is a high degree of agreement about who the relevant authors are, with just slight variation. In some cases, 4 RH includes authors in this section that 5 AT includes in the next section — so there is a high degree of agreement regarding who canonical authors are, but some disagreement about how to periodize them.

Basically the present: 1950-2000

Both readers now move on to the heart of a disciplinarily distinct anthropology: the post-war period to the close of the millennium. How much agreement is there between the two readers here?

5 AT calls this section ‘theory at midcentury’ and breaks down into subsections labeled ‘reemergence of evolutionary thought’ (Steward and White), neomaterialism (Fried, Harris, Rappaport, Wolf), structuralism (Lévi-Strauss and Ortner), and ethnoscience (Conklin and Tyler).

4 RH doesn’t pause mid-century as 5 AT does. Rather, it continues on with ‘the later 20th century’. This section includes many of the same names as 5 AT’s ‘theory at midcentury’ (White, Harris, Wolf, Ortner). It also includes Sapir (who died a decade before the later twentieth century began), Turner, Lévi-Strauss, Geertz, Slocum, Gal, Said, Foucault, Bourdieu, Clifford and Marcus, and Lock and Scheper Hughes.

5 AT next moves to ‘the 20th century and beyond’ and breaks it down into sections: sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral ecology (E.O. Wilson and Bird and Smith), Anthropology and gender (Slocum, Leacock and Valentine), Symbolic and Interpretive approaches (Douglas, Turner, and Geertz), ‘background to postmodernism’ (Bourdieu and Foucault), postmodernism (Rosaldo, Abu-Lughod, and Hanson), and ends with ‘globalization, power, and agency’ (Appadurai, Bourgois, and Ted Bestor).

4 RH concludes with ‘the early twenty-first century, with readings by Appadurai, Marcus, Jon Marks, and Thomas Hylland Eriksen.

The two anthologies split the period from 1950-2014 in different ways, so to compare them we need to lump their two sections together. Once we do so, we find little agreement between them. There are 27 authors in 5 AT and 21 in 4 RH. Only 10 authors are anthologized in both books: Appadurai, Geertz, Wolf, White, Harris, Foucault, Bourdieu, Slocum, Ortner, and Turner. Both volumes seem to make missteps here: 4 AT does not include Marcus and Fischer or Clifford (clear choices for ‘postmodernism’ readings), while 4 RH includes Sapir, who died in 1939, as a post-war thinker.

RH includes Gupta and Sharma, Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Edwards, Sapir, Said, Marcus and Fischer, Clifford, Marks, Lock and Sheper-Hughes, and Sue Gal, all authors 5 AT omits.

AT includes Conklin, Hanson, Rappaport, Abu-Lughod, Tyler, Leacock, Rosaldo, Steward, Douglas, Fried, EO Wilson, Bird, Valentine, Bourgois, and Bestor. These are authors 4 RH omits.

There do appear to be solid ‘chunks’ of theoretical movements that both textbooks cover: ‘interpretive’ anthropology (Geertz and Turner), 70s era theory (Foucault and Bourdieu), and ‘postmodernism’ although what is included in that category varies (is it Renato Rosaldo and Abu-Lughod, or Marcus-and-Fischer and Clifford?)

Its also clear that the last quarter century of anthropology are more or less untouched by these recent anthologies, despite their occasional attempts to claim that they have a coherent narrative after 1986. Over a decade into the new millennium, can one really include Arjun Appadurai’s 1990 essay “Disjuncture and Difference” in a section entitled “the early twenty-first century” as 4 RH does?


In conclusion, the two main theory anthologies for our discipline show strong agreement on the early history of the discipline, but after — wait for it — 1974 their shared narrative loses coherence. Why?

There are many possible reasons. There is a genealogical relationship between High Points, AT, and RH: AT and RH are derivative of High Points (and RH of AT). As I hope to show in a future blog entry, an analysis of the development of these different editions over time may explain their current shape. It may also be that competition has driven the authors of these two anthologies to differentiate themselves from each other. But overall it appears that some of the core pedagogical texts in our discipline lack a shared narrative of our recent past, and are skittish about claiming to tell an authoritative tale of the last fifteen years in particular.

One might object that these are just two books, and they are not central to training graduate students (and hence the real reproduction of the discipline). Therefore, this exercise may have limited value. I take this point. But we must ask ourselves: what sort of discipline are we in if there is a strong disconnect between our undergraduate textbooks and basic expert knowledge about the shape of the field?


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

14 thoughts on “Is there an anthropological canon? Evidence from theory anthologies

  1. A really interesting perspective – and it certainly started me thinking, particularly since I was studying anthropology until 1972 at university and returned in 1980 to do an MA and there had been a sea change in anthropological referencing. But your comments triggered two thoughts (and I am talking from a UK perspective) – firstly pre 1974 there was a much more set presumption about key anthropological texts – the authoritative tale was laid out even though we were all questioning it hugely. This leads me to a second thought – that in some way the changes after 1974 (as you define it) may in fact be much more about a more diverse and more multi-dimensional representation of anthropology than any lack of a central canon?

  2. Thanks for this interesting exercise. The world changed in the 1970s, not just anthropology. Itt is fun to argue about the event/date in that decade that was the truning point: dollar goes off gold (1971), invention of money futures (1972), energy crisis and Yom Kippur war (1973), US defeat in Vietnam, end of Portugeuse empire (1975), stagflation, punk rock (1974-77), the Volcker shock (1979-80), election of Thatcher and Reagan (1979-80). In any case, by the end of the decade the world had passed from th epostwar era of developmental states to neoliberalism.

    I would say that anthropology turned in that decade, with the period 1974-77 epochal. Before then the was a real sense of belonging to a single discipline, so that developments in economic anthropology, for example, (from the F-S debate to French Marxism) had resonance for anthropologists in general. After that turning point, anthropology became a series of disconnected subdisciplines — medical, development, feminist etc — and economic anthropology (which I mention only because I have reviewed its history) became a marginal niche field in a fragmented discipline, to be revived mainly as the study of money in the current world economic crisis.

    Anthropology was not immune to general developments after the 70s. The blurring of the categories organizing the Cold War (state capitalism, market socialism) was reflected in poststructuralism, postmodernism and deconstruction. After the Cold War, at least until 2001, globalisation became the keyword and anthropologists discovered they could ply their trade anywhere in a world unified by capitalism. They clung to local ethnography as their method, but lost sight of what object and theory might make doing fieldwork anthropological.

  3. What I’ve learned about citation analysis in information science is that the relevance of a document (in this case an anthology) is directly related to the frequency at which the works that it cites are cited by others. So if we were going to construct an ideal anthology of anthropological theory a good place to start are with articles that have been cited the most. This is a partial explanation why some pieces are present in the anthology you’ve looked at and other pieces are not. They are popular and have a history of being cited a bunch.

    On the question of whether a lack of consensus in the late 20th C is indicative of something negative about the discipline, that anthropology doesn’t have a coherent story to tell or that there is a coherent story and the editors haven’t articulated it properly, I think this is actually typical of textbooks in general. If we were to survey experts in a variety of fields we might find that many of them see shortcomings in the leading textbooks of their disciplines. Perhaps this can be related to the fact that writing textbooks, however influential they may be, is not considered to be high prestige labor by leading scholars?

  4. Thanks for that: it’s very useful and well done. I have worked on a similar project for visual culture studies. Sorry it’s not online. (Link below.) The salient point is that visual studies has long claimed to represent the entire of the visual world (including visual anthropology) but it has a demonstrably narrow range of theoretical sources and methodologies. And in art history there isn’t quite a parallel to your study, but there is some literature on whether or not art history should be counted as being comprised of methods and theories at all. (That’s also in some published material that isn’t online.)

  5. Thanks for these comments all. Matt I think your comment highlights the amateur status of my post — in fact, its uninformed by any of the advanced training you’ve received. I plan to think more about these issues in the future, so maybe I can learn from you as I write more on this.

    It may be true that anthropology textbooks are like other disciplinary textbooks in not having a coherent story to tell. I’d actually be really interested in comparing sociology anthologies (I know Andrew Abbott has some unsavory things to say about them) or biology textbooks to see if this is true. I mean I trust you when you say it is, Matt, but it would be interesting to get the details. If we value canonicity, then maybe anthropology should not be satisfied with being as broken as other disciplines?

    The other question is whether we should value canonicity at all. If anthropology is a discipline where no one knows what the big picture is, is that a bad thing? I personally think so… but honestly I feel like I might talk myself out of that belief in the course of thinking these issues through. And I can see why others aren’t interested in constructing some sort of coherent canon. For the record, it isn’t obviously ‘negative’ (to use a term Matt used) that anthropology lacks a canon.

  6. Speaking of sociology anthologies, in grad school I completed the one semester sociology core theory course the semester after I completed the two semesters of anthropology theory. It was really remarkable how much they overlapped in terms of authors while they diverged in the works.

    When we covered Durkheim in anthro we did Elementary Forms while in soc we did Division of Labor. When we did Weber in anthro it was The Protestant Ethic while in soc it was Class, Status, and Party. When we did Marx it was the same Tucker reader, but the page numbers were different. Bourdieu in anthro was Outline but in soc it was Distinction. Etc.

  7. Ah, thanks for posting that. I’d love to try to learn more about the method used there. I think the difference between this post and that one is that the co-citation data comes from ISI (which I don’t think tracks anthropology as well as it could) and sees who has actually been cited. What I tried to do here is try to figure out, when we teach history of anthro courses, who we tell our students are important — which may be different from who has actually been cited!

  8. Really interesting blog post.
    After writing, and then erasing, too much about just trying to find Science of Custom in ISI and the problems that presents, just understand that ISI would be pretty worthless for this project. ISI is about journals, and canonical literature tends to be reproduced and then cited from anthologies which makes finding all the citations very difficult.
    Google Scholar is a better tool here, but you run into the same problem – you can’t just type “anthropology” and get meaningful results. You could type in authors and look for the most cited works, but GScholar sorts by relevance (read – hidden algorithm) instead of times cited. But you can find that Patterns of Culture has been cited 5361 times, Outline of a Theory of Practice 25,272 times and Discipline & Punish 40,568 times. But you keep running into the anthology problem, search for “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy” in GScholar for a good example. And you’re not counting any foreign language citations.
    So, I don’t think citation counting is a good choice for this project as Rex aptly notes in his last comment. But the nature of anthropology citation patterns is useful in one sense. Although old, Garfield wrote about Anthropology’s literature and found the cited and citing half-life is more than ten years for many Anthropology journals. This just means the field has a long tail for citation, so it’s not surprising that there is disagreement and hesitancy to incorporate modern works into the canon. (Garfield –
    At root, there is no way to publish the canon of anthropology in 600 pages and there’s a tension between what is important and what is precious due to many canonical works being in the public domain. Exploring the different editions is the idea I’m most interested in hearing about because it is certain that older works are being dropped for newer material. For example, Durkheim’s The Cosmological System of Totemism and the Idea of Class was dropped btw. the 4th & 5th ed of AT and EEEP’s Self Interest and the Social Good was dropped btw. the 4th & 3rd eds of RT (if you search for the EEEP work in GScholar, the top hit is 4th ed RT, discussing its omission – again, citation counting is not the way here). Is this due to growing consensus of their non-importance, their displacement by new theory, or making a marketable book? In AT’s case is having two public domain works of Durkheim that are widely available for free really a good way to use your precious pages? The connection between a canon and marketability is pretty fascinating.

  9. In the background of this entry (as well as SMOPS) is my larger project of open accessing the anthropological canon, and rethinking it at the same time. But more on that later. Thanks so much for these comments Ian.

  10. I think the best place to look is in the reading lists of History of Anthropology courses; afterall, that is the site at which most anthros are introduced to the sacred histories and creation myths of the discipline, where we learn to imagine ourselves.

  11. Have you checked out “Anthropology in Theory” edited by Henrietta Moore and Todd Sanders? It might be an interesting counterpoint; it’s got a thematic rather than chronological organization, and it includes much more recent stuff. A “cannon” is about constructing a story of the discipline, as you say. Looking at how the story changes between framing choices like “chronological” and “thematic” might be interesting.

  12. Good point Carmen. I do know that volume and it doesn’t quite fit the frame I’ve used here. Its interesting and the selection of articles is really sophisticated. Given my interest in history I’m not sure I’d use it, but I’d definitely recommend it to others considering a theory course.

Comments are closed.