There are some times when it’s hard to figure out what anthropology is all about. All of us know that we are shaped by the cultural patterns we learn from our families and friends. Often, we don’t know what makes up “culture” or how to talk about cultural differences, especially in a world where diversity issues get a lot of attention from the public. The branch of social science that studies human cultures, called social anthropology, has a mixed history. Even though it promotes diversity now, it has a racist and imperial past that modern anthropologists don’t like.
When we live in a world that is so global and polarized, we can’t just ignore culture. Even though it is hard to define, no one can do that anymore. And there’s another reason to think about culture right now: Covid-19 has put us all through a new kind of culture shock, since lockdown pushed us into cyberspace at an incredible speed. When we return to physical, “real” life, we’re having to think about how we structure our lives all over again. I wrote my own book, Anthro-Vision, which talks about why it’s important to think about culture and culture shock in a digital world. I used my training as an anthropologist and work as a financial and business journalist to make the case for this. But here are 10 more books that help you understand why culture and anthropology are so important in the world today.
Think Like an Anthropologist by Matthew Engelke
This is a great, fun, and short introduction to the main issues that shape anthropology. You can use this book to learn about anthropology for the general reader, a student, or the parent of a teenager who doesn’t understand why their child wants to study this instead of accounting. (Don’t be afraid; they can still get a job.)
Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex and Gender in the 20th Century by Charles King
Because the name is weird, but the book about anthropology in the 19 and 20th centuries is really great! This is a great book about the history of anthropology! Essential reading for anyone who wants to learn more about the history of modern Western thought or the current debate about diversity. I think it’s a good way to learn about a part of western history that isn’t very well known. Essential for anyone who works with legal, government, or corporate policies.
The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich
My favorite book of the last year. Aeronautical engineer: Henrich started out as an aeronautical engineer, but then changed his field to become an evolutionary anthropologist-cum-biologist. This renaissance background allows him to write brilliantly about the peculiarities of WEIRD societies, which are western, educated, industrialized and rich. He talks about how weird WEIRD culture is. Psychology experiments won’t be the same after you read this. You’ll also never look at them the same way again.
Debt, the First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
This book came out right after the 2008 financial crisis. It’s one of the best explanations of the structural patterns that led to the Great Financial Crisis by any social scientist. Graeber died last year, but his book is even more important now because he challenges many of the ideas that economists have learned about barter, debt, and credit. Anyone who wants to be an economist or a financier should read this book. People who have ever wondered about the cultural and historical context of their mortgage or credit card should read this book.
Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox
These are great books written by an anthropologist and her father, Robin Fox, who played an important role in the development of 20th-century anthropology. This book is a lot of fun. If you read this book, you’ll learn a lot about English culture through a masterful cultural analysis. It will make you think about things like the English betting industry and how we talk about the weather all the time. But the story also makes a very important point about anthropology: Even though the field used to focus on non-western cultures, it now also studies the western world. Thus, while Robin Fox looked at Mexico, his daughter has used the same lens to look at her “homeland.” Both perspectives are interesting.
Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass by Mary L Gray and Siddharth Suri
If you aren’t sure if anthropological analysis is useful, check out this book by an anthropologist who now works for Microsoft. It’s full of interesting information. She uses her discipline to point out a shameful, under-reported part of the modern tech world: “ghost” (or gig) workers. Thankfully, the Seattle tech company did not try to stop her from publishing this. The fact that she wrote it with Suri, who is a computer scientist, shows another important thing about modern anthropology: It can do cutting-edge research when it’s combined with other fields.
The Power of Not Thinking: How Our Bodies Learn and Why We Should Trust Them by Simon Roberts
In this short story, an anthropologist explains why people need to embrace “participant observation,” which means walking around in someone else’s shoes both physically and mentally with empathy. This is a great way to learn about people, because you can’t understand them by looking at a lot of data.
Sensemaking by Christian Madsbjerg
Fun story about how to use anthropological ideas in consumer goods, marketing, and other business fields to solve problems. Practical and fun, it shows how to think about all kinds of problems in a new way.
It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd
A thought-provoking book about how a researcher who worked at Yahoo and Microsoft studied teenagers in cyberspace from an anthropological point of view. How your kids move around in the real world is very important in cyberspace.
Exotic No More: Anthropology for the Contemporary World edited by Jeremy MacClancy
When I put this list together, I decided not to put academic texts on it, because they can be hard to read. But if you want to get a more academic sense of how anthropology works as a field, this easy-to-read compendium, edited by a top British anthropologist, is both accessible and wide-ranging. Anthropologists today aren’t like Indiana Jones; they’re modern, important, and needed. This is the message I try to get across in my own book.