How to Think Like an Anthropologist

How to Think Like an Anthropologist

by Matthew Engelke


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From an award-winning anthropologist, a lively, accessible, and irreverent introduction to the field

What is anthropology? What can it tell us about the world? Why, in short, does it matter? For well over a century, cultural anthropologists have circled the globe, from Papua New Guinea to California, uncovering surprising insights about how humans organize their lives and articulate their values. In the process, anthropology has done more than any other discipline to reveal what culture means and why it matters. By weaving together examples and theories from around the world, Matthew Engelke provides a lively, accessible, and at times irreverent introduction to anthropology, covering a wide range of classic and contemporary approaches, subjects, and anthropologists. Presenting memorable cases, he encourages readers to think deeply about key concepts that anthropologists use to make sense of the world. Along the way, he shows how anthropology helps us understand other cultures and points of view—but also how, in doing so, it reveals something about ourselves and our own cultures, too.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691193137
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 06/18/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 287,699
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Matthew Engelke is an anthropologist at Columbia University, where he directs the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life.

Read an Excerpt



Culture is the most significant concept in anthropology. It is also the most difficult to sum up. I can't offer you a pithy definition. Let me try the next best thing, though, which is to tell you a story from my fieldwork that conveys something of how it should be understood.

My first fieldwork project was in Zimbabwe. While the majority of my research was in urban areas, I spent a lot of pleasant time in Chiweshe, first as an undergraduate exchange student. An hour's drive north of the capital city, Harare, Chiweshe is a beautiful part of the country, marked by rolling hills and rocky outcrops, dotted by small groups of thatched huts, each comprising a homestead (or musha, in the local Shona language). During that student exchange, I stayed with a family in Chiweshe for a week and quickly befriended my host brother, Philip. We stayed in regular contact after that, and I visited the musha many times over the course of the 1990s.

It wasn't a busy time of year for the farming work that Philip's family had to do, so we got to spend the days leisurely. We took several walks up into the hills behind his homestead, where we could look out across the lower-lying areas and watch the troupes of baboons lounging around. His English wasn't great; my Shona, at the time, was even worse, and so conversations were quite basic. We would do what two people from radically different places often do, which is talk about what it's like where we come from. He wanted to hear about America and I wanted to hear about life in rural Zimbabwe.

At one point in one of these low-level, culturally motivated chitchats, Philip asked me if I liked cricket. Just like that: Do you like cricket? Being an attentive student of colonial and postcolonial history, and well aware of the popularity of the sport among Zimbabweans, an image popped into my mind of a bunch of men standing around in white sweaters with something that looked vaguely like a baseball bat held by one of them, while another pitched (or, as I'd recognize now, bowled). As an American, though, I knew absolutely nothing substantive about the game, other than that it made baseball look fast-paced and exciting. (I also had a vague sense that cricket matches were stopped when it got cloudy and that they lasted several days.) But like any reasonable and well-meaning person thrown in the deep end of a student-exchange program, I muttered a half-hearted, polite "yes" to Philip. Why not?

He immediately popped up. "Right!" he said and beckoned me to follow him back down the slope to his homestead. I assumed I was about to be handed a bat or a ball (if not a white sweater) and that we'd knock around a bit. Back in the homestead, he disappeared into the kitchen hut where his mother and grandmother were engaged in the seemingly endless cycle of preparing meals for the family. I didn't think much about that fact — that it was the kitchen hut; lots of Americans keep their sports equipment in the environs of the kitchen or at the back of the house, so to speak. But when he emerged, he wasn't carrying a bat or a ball. He was carrying a small metal bowl that contained, as I clearly saw, a cricket — an insect, that is. It had been fried in oil. He had a smile on his face.

I had really messed up. Total category mistake. Customs of hospitality are common enough around the world that, had I been offered the cricket otherwise, I probably would have accepted it. Of course, it all made sense now. I knew that caterpillars were a local delicacy — why not crickets? Indeed, crickets come even higher on the list of delicacies because they are extremely difficult to catch. I was being honored.

As I picked up the creature and brought it to my mouth, a year and a half of anthropology courses came rushing into my head: Food is a cultural construct. You know some people eat dog meat, and horse meat, and even monkey brains. You can handle this, you're an anthropology major.

All the book learning in the world, though, can't undo twenty years of life — learning of another kind. As I put the cricket in my mouth, chewed (it was too big to swallow whole), and choked it down, my body shook, my chest folded in, and within what must have been a matter of three seconds, the cricket, and my breakfast, came back up and out.

This was not a definition of culture but an example of it — an example that touched on most of what's important in anthropological understandings of the term. Culture is a way of seeing things, a way of thinking. Culture is a way of making sense. Culture is what prevents some people from ever thinking that crickets could be classed as "food." Culture is also what fills our head in the process of thinking in a particular way: the details of colonial history, of British colonial history (as opposed to French, say, or Portuguese), of the pursuits of peasant farmers in Africa during certain periods of the agricultural cycle.

Culture is a thing in itself. Or, if not a single thing, a range of things, and often certain types of things: houses, kilns, paintings, books of poetry, flags, tortillas, English breakfast tea, samurai swords, cricket bats, and, yes, even crickets. There is a materiality to culture. It is embodied and enacted. I threw up the cricket. But I didn't throw up because I had a stomach virus. It wasn't a "natural" or "biological" reaction in this sense. I threw up because my body is cultural, or enculturated, itself. And in my culture we don't eat crickets.

I'd like to think that this is all you need to know for an introduction to the anthropological understanding of culture. And I'd bet that none of it comes as a surprise or requires much mental exercise. Some combination of these ideas informs most everyday understandings, from Kansas City to Kolkata. We're used to thinking of culture as a point of view, or as objectified in things, or even tied to visceral reactions that make us think of the power of nature.

But anthropologists don't leave it here. "Culture" is in the paradoxical position of being the most commonly used and commonly contested term in anthropology.


Points of view on points of view

The longest-lasting anthropological approach to culture promotes it as a kind of perception. For Bronislaw Malinowski, remember, the whole point of anthropology is to capture "the native's point of view, his relation to life ... his vision of his world." Having a "point of view" in this sense doesn't mean simply having an opinion. This is not about the native's preference for taro over yams or for convertible cars, or a commitment to the Democratic Party. In this context, a point of view is much more comprehensive, reflected in what we take to be common sense or the proper order of things. Like not thinking of crickets as food.

The most important figure in developing this area of culture theory was Franz Boas. Boas was born and raised in Germany, before making his career in anthropology in the United States. Often called "Papa Franz" by his students, and much beloved, he was also an enigma to many, especially to any journalists who took an interest in his work. Joseph Mitchell, one of the greatest journalists and chroniclers of life in mid-twentieth-century New York, was granted an interview after Boas's retirement, in the late 1930s. Mitchell describes him as a man with "piercing eyes and a thinning shock of scraggy white hair" who was "hard to interview" but nevertheless delighted journalists "by muttering in a thick German accent such words as 'nonsense' or 'preposterous' when asked to comment on some statement or another by a Nazi propagandist."

Boas originally trained in physics at Kiel University, Germany, but this was during an era in which distinctions between the natural and human sciences could be hard to hold. Boas was well-read in a variety of fields, but one important influence was the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt, a key architect of early modern culture theory. In German thought, culture (Kultur) became an especially important concept in the early nineteenth century among those who were arguing against what they saw as the excesses of Enlightenment discourse. This countertradition was skeptical of the universal and totalizing approach to reason and history; Humboldt and others were figures for whom any given nation should be celebrated and understood in terms of its specific genius. For Humboldt, or, say, Johan Gottfried Herder, Kultur became an organizing concept with which to express this commitment to particularity. It is no coincidence that Humboldt was a great linguist too; he studied Basque, several Native American languages, Sanskrit, and Kawi (a Javanese literary language), all of which both expressed and fostered his interest in humankind's diversities. Over time he came to see language and culture as intimately linked. "Language is the external representation of the genius of peoples," he wrote.

Boas's 1881 dissertation at Kiel was on the distillation of light through seawater. In 1883, as part of further research, he traveled to Baffin Land, where he became more interested in the local Inuit people than the polar waters. It marked his conversion to the nascent field of anthropology.

Rather like Malinowski's pitching of the tent on Nu'agasi beach, the story of Boas's moment of realization in the Arctic has two core elements. The first has to do with the importance of fieldwork, of getting out of the lab in order to understand the workings of things: "in conditions as they actually exist in human experience," as Boas put it in his doctoral thesis. I want to emphasize that this first point is not only a methodological one. It tells us something about the nature of anthropology's key analytical concept. In the early days of the professionalization of anthropology, fieldwork also served to underscore the importance of "being there" because culture had to be observed in situ: culture and place were two sides of the same coin.

The second element, intimately related to the first, is the primacy of perception, of vision. Boas didn't have the writerly flourish of Malinowski; he didn't popularize nearly as many turns of phrase. But what he offered was a more prosaic and diffuse rendering of Malinowski's commitment to capturing the native's point of view. Boas himself never really offered a very memorable or influential definition of culture (though neither did Malinowski). His approach to culture emerged out of the many works on his famous five-foot shelf, as well as in the distillations of the work of his numerous students. But even if diffuse, a strong emphasis in his approach was on what he called the "cultural glasses" (Kulturbrille) we all wear. It is through these glasses that we make sense of and order the world. In the Boasian rendering, culture is about meaning. "Perception" has to do with the world's ordering in some set of localized terms. You don't just see the world, you see the world as a young woman from the Solomon Islands, or even more specifically, a young woman in the Anglican Church from the island of Makira.

At least until the 1960s, this was most often expressed in just such particular terms: anthropologists wrote of Kwakiutl culture, Balinese culture, and Dobuan culture. They also wrote in more general terms, referring to Mediterranean culture, Melanesian culture, Islamic culture, or even primitive culture. In doing so, the unspoken understanding was that such generalities referenced a variety of more specific cultures, linked in that they had similar cultural glasses — ones with similar prescriptions, if you will. In reference to Mediterranean culture, for instance, any good student of anthropology from this period would be on the lookout for discussions of honor and shame, which were often argued to be organizing values.

Boas had dozens of students, many of them extremely influential in their own right. But in terms of culture as we're discussing it here, after Boas the next most influential figure was Clifford Geertz.

Geertz was active from the 1950s onward, but it was the publication of a collection of essays in 1973 that marked a new watershed. Geertz famously referred to culture as a "text" that anthropologists read over the shoulders of the natives. Here you can see the ways in which anthropologists treated culture like an object too. We'll be coming to that soon. Yet above all it is perception that matters in his metaphor, because what we do with those texts (and what the natives do, too) is interpret them. Geertz called his approach to culture a "semiotic one" and argued that anthropology is "not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning."

Geertz's connection to Boas was not as direct as that of some others of his generation, but he drew on many of the same traditions of thought and analytical approaches. Above all for Geertz, as for Boas, if you wanted to understand what a culture "meant," if you wanted to understand what was important about it, what made it tick, what gave it significance and (inasmuch as this is possible) order, you have to focus on the particular, not the general.

This approach to culture still informs a good deal of contemporary anthropological work. And it is culture in this respect that anthropologists are often particularly keen on underscoring. In the area of medical anthropology, for instance, a lot of research has been done on how cultural factors can influence the prevalence, diagnosis, treatment, and even presentation of certain conditions or diseases. In China, for example, medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman notes that people suffering from depression may be more likely to experience it through physical, rather than psychological, symptoms; and it is often boredom, not sadness, that best captures the disorder in Chinese eyes. But it isn't even necessarily seen as such in the first place. In China, there is nothing like the idiom of depression that is to be found in the United States. The Chinese characters for depression are confined in the main to medical contexts. As one would expect, this can lead to problems for migrants; Chinese migrants to the United States, for instance, might well find a diagnosis of depression by an American doctor "experientially meaningless." "Culture influences the experience of symptoms, the idioms used to report them, decisions about treatment, doctor-patient interactions, the likelihood of outcomes such as suicide, and the practices of professionals," Kleinman explains. "As a result, some conditions are universal and some culturally distinct, but all are meaningful within particular contexts."

The objects of culture

Culture has long been linked to things in the anthropological project. "Material culture" is almost as common a term as "culture" itself. And although the material can be treated as an adjective, qualifying the noun, it's helpful to think of the words as symbiotic; that's certainly how they're often understood.

Inasmuch as anthropologists are observers, it would be impossible not to consider the materiality of culture. You would certainly be hard-pressed to find a society in which the literal and figurative objectification of culture didn't matter. Humans use material culture and other things (trees, rocks, and oceans) to make sense of, express, and sum up who they are. One of my favorite examples of this comes from a study of Québécois nationalism. At the height of the independence movement, in the 1970s, it was crucial for the nationalists to foster strong attachments to an especially Québécois culture. One of the ways in which this was done was to foster the idea of a national patrimony (le patrimoine), a lengthy list of "cultural property" owned by the people and expressing who they are. "Old things" had pride of place on the list, be they well-known historic buildings or, more simply, antique chairs and plows. But the list included animals too — the Canadian horse (descended from the stables of Louis XIV) — and even language. "In the same way as our history and the men who have made it," wrote one partisan, "to the same degree as buildings, furniture, tools, works of art, songs and tales ... language is an important part of our patrimoine, of the common property of the Québécois." We even make words into things. We objectify language in projects of nationalism by trying to fix the meaning of particular words or phrases; we also objectify language in ritual, especially in statements that are repeated over and over (which has the social effect of making the statements seem "truer" than we might otherwise take them to be).

You don't have to be a nationalist to get animated by the objectification of culture in these ways, of course. You could just be an English (or possibly British) lover of Stilton, let's say; someone for whom this delicious crumbly, salty cheese captures something of your character. In Georgia, one anthropologist even found that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox Church's campaign of church building met with great skepticism by local people because they thought for a church to be a proper church, it had to be very old. These qualities matter.


Excerpted from "How to Think Like an Anthropologist"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Matthew Engelke.
Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Culture 25

2 Civilization 56

3 Values 83

4 Value 113

5 Blood 136

6 Identity 161

7 Authority 189

8 Reason 219

9 Nature 249

Conclusion 279

Acknowledgments 287

Notes 289

Bibliography 299

Further Reading 311

Index 315

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"We may not do research in faraway places or even nearby, among our curious neighbors, but we all need to be anthropologists. Thinking like an anthropologist means stopping to consider our common-sense categories in critical, comparative, and historically informed ways. Matthew Engelke's admirably lucid book gives us the tools we need."—James Clifford, author of Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century

Praise for the UK edition: "How to Think Like an Anthropologist is a terrific introduction to the field. Beautifully written, winningly told, and provocative, the book captures the basic feature of the discipline: that anthropology is a way of seeing and thinking. Anthropology invites you to see yourself as someone else might see you. In this way, it is the most world-changing of fields."—T. M. Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back

Praise for the UK edition: "Accessible yet genuinely insightful, this is a lively, original, and inclusive introduction to anthropology both as a scholarly discipline and as a way of life. It combines superb storytelling and broad coverage—ranging from the classics to the author's own fieldwork experiences—and shows why anthropology really ought to be seen as the core of the social sciences: a discipline that trains one's brain to look deeply and empathetically into the lives of others."—Charles King, Georgetown University

Praise for the UK edition: Playful and perceptive, Matthew Engelke welcomes readers into the fascinating history and profound insights of anthropology. This elegant synthesis shows how the discipline can change the way we think about the world."—Caitlin Zaloom, author of Out of the Pits: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London

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