What to read to understand anthropology
This article is part of our Summer reads series. Visit the full collection for book lists, guest essays and more seasonal distractions. IF YOU ASK 100 anthropologists what they do you could easily get 101 different answers. The Greek roots of the word anthropology mean human being and study. Its central method of conducting fieldwork in communities is unlike those of other academic disciplines, including sociology, which draws on large data sets. Anthropologists spend years gathering their findings and their results are not replicable. As a result, the disciplines cultural relevance has diminished in recent years, along with money for universities anthropology departments. Yet, as the anthropologist Eric Wolf declared in 1964, anthropology is both the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences. As these books show, it still has much to tell us. In a time of polarisation and group-think anthropologys insights, gained from close study of how people actually live, can be a corrective. Businesses and governments are calling more often on anthropologists to help them understand the complexities of the societies in which they operate. A resurgence is overdue. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. By Bronislaw Malinowski. Benediction Books; 614 pages; $21.99. Taylor & Francis; 19.99 Before Bronislaw Malinowski, who worked mainly in the early 20th century, anthropologists mostly worked from the veranda or the armchair, using second-hand sources to study cultures in lands that their countries had colonised. They stayed away from the field to preserve their objectivity. Malinowski (pictured left) did the opposite. In June 1915, he pitched up in the Trobriand Islands, off the east coast of New Guinea. He spent two years there, living among the people and carefully documenting their lives. His methodology, which came to be known as participant observation, shaped modern anthropology. Malinowski argued that researchers must embed themselves in the world of the people they study to grasp the natives point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world. How else, he asked, could one study the imponderabilia of everyday life? Pioneer though he was, Malinowski shared the prejudices of his era. He called the islanders savages. His diaries, published posthumously in 1967, showed him to be a racist and narcissist whose fellow-feeling for the people he lived with was limited in the extreme, as one critic put it. Still, Argonauts of the Western Pacific remains worth reading, because it shows how anthropology began to free itself from the colonial project that gave birth to it. Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight. By Clifford Geertz. Daedalus; Fall 2005 Early in April of 1958 my wife and I arrived, malarial and diffident, in a Balinese village we intended, as anthropologists, to study. So begins one of anthropologys most famous and enchanting works. For Geertz, close observation of a cockfight, while not the master key, is a way of unlocking truths about Balinese society that go beyond the event. He writes that societies, like lives, contain their own interpretations. One has only to learn how to gain access to them. Geertzs method of thick description, which builds on and goes beyond Malinowskis participant observation, had great influence over how anthropologists practise their discipline. Not everyone agrees that societies are as comprehensible as Geertz suggests, even to observers as scrupulous as he was. But Deep Play, a chapter from a book published in 1973 that is reproduced in a more recent edition of Daedalus, a journal, brings readers as close to the fascinating culture of Bali as any outsider is likely to come. Explore more Summer reads: Beyond middle age, people tend to get happier as they get older. Why? Its the U-bend of life. You might get rich quick with a wonder stock, but the odds are against you. Instead, read these five books on the best approaches to being an investor. For people feeling burnt out, simply trying to relax doesnt always work. A psychoanalyst explains. Our correspondents recommend the finest books, old and new, in their areas of interest. Try them on your summer holiday. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? By Lila Abu-Lughod. Harvard University Press; 336 pages; $23 and 20.95 Muslim women do not need saving, contends Lila Abu-Lughod in a book that she wrote in response to the war on terror. Western countries used the oppression of women as one justification for invading Muslim ones. Ms Abu-Lughods work challenges what she views as the Islamophobic assumptions underlying that pretext. The women she encounters in her fieldwork in Egypt are devout and accept the norms of conservative Islam. When she tells Zaynab, who runs a small cafe in a village in southern Egypt, that she is trying to find out if Westerners are right to worry about the strictures that Islam imposes on women, Zaynab scoffs. Her real problem, she says, is the government. The police have just taken away her main waiter because he failed to treat them with deference. Her faith, she says, provides solace. Ms Abu-Lughod, a Palestinian-American, calls herself a halfiea scholar who straddles two cultures. In this classic of feminist anthropology she argues that liberal Westerners refuse to acknowledge the validity of Muslim womens expressions of faith. Their belief that Islam is the problem misconstrues the nature of the obstacles women face. Some readers will continue to feel that some Muslim women do need saving, if not from Islam then from the way some regimes use religion to subjugate them. In Iran women are protesting, and in some cases dying, to free themselves from norms imposed by a theocratic regime. But anyone who wants to understand the lives of women in Muslim countries will learn from Ms Abu-Lughods detailed and empathetic portraits of the women of southern Egypt. Self As Method. By Xiang Biao and Wu Qi. Translated by David Ownby. Springer Nature; 268 pages; $49.99 and 44.99 Although anthropologists are not at the centre of the academic conversation in the West, they command attention in China. That is in large part due to the work of Xiang Biao, a professor at Oxford University who is also director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany. His most recent book, Self as Method, which is based on conversations between him and Wu Qi, a journalist, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in China and was named the most impactful book of 2021 by Douban, Chinas most popular literary website. What struck a chord among young Chinese is its account of interlocking circumstances that make their lives difficult. Mr Xiang argues that involution, a term that anthropologists in the 1960s applied to agrarian societies, describes the plight of Chinese youth. To involute is to spiral inwards in a way that traps a person in place no matter how hard they try to push forward. It describes the experience of a generation beset by high unemployment, unable to buy property and unwilling to bear children. Involution topped lists of online buzzwords in China in 2020. As Mr Xiang has argued, it conveys a widespread feeling that people are in an endless cycle of self-flagellation. Anthro-vision. By Gillian Tett. Avid Reader Press; 304 pages; $18.99. Cornerstone; 10.99 That big data and modelling play little role in anthropology makes the discipline easy to ignore. Businesses and governments do so at their peril, writes Gillian Tett, a journalist at the Financial Times who has a PhD in anthropology. They need to widen the way they look at customers and citizens and their own operations. Anthropological ways of thinking can help them do that. The discipline tries to understand the context, rituals and implicit knowledge that constitute the systems in which any institution functions. With that understanding governments and businesses adapt better to constant change. Such thinking works best in tandem with lessons from other sciences, Ms Tett notes. The pandemic provides an example. Medical science suggested ways to overcome it, but policymakers did not understand how anti-masking and anti-vaxxing movements could delay putting those solutions into practice. Ms Tetts book shows that, although anthropologys prestige has diminished, it is still a source of insights from which the world can benefit. Also try Read our obituary of Claude Levi-Strauss, one of the 20th centurys greatest anthropologists. We wrote about how Javanese custom discourages conflict and promotes consensus in Indonesia. Here we interview David Graeber, an anthropologist who highlighted the plight of people toiling in bullshit jobs. Bartleby presents another anthropologists fresh perspective on the world of work. This review discusses the work of Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist who argued on the basis of his fieldwork that violence and brutality are part of human nature.