The best books in anthropology for lovers of history

Robert Darnton Author Of Pirating and Publishing: The Book Trade in the Age of Enlightenment
By Robert Darnton

The Books I Picked & Why

The Interpretation of Cultures

By Clifford Geertz

Book cover of The Interpretation of Cultures

Why this book?

This collection of essays by one of the greatest anthropologists of the last century inspired a whole generation of historians—for example, Joan Scott and William Sewell, Jr. as well as myself.  The essays also should appeal to the general reader because of their well-wrought style and wit.  Drawing on Max Weber, Geertz treats cultures as symbolic systems and shows how they helped ordinary people make sense of the world.  Far from wandering off into abstractions, he offers fine-grained descriptions of actual events, notably a Balinese cockfight in an essay that has been cited and debated endlessly among social scientists.

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Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo

By Mary Douglas

Book cover of Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo

Why this book?

Without lapsing into the structuralism of the Lévi-Strauss variety, Douglas demonstrates the power of classification systems. Things or creatures that straddle categories, she argues, are experienced as polluting and deeply dangerous, yet they can exert a powerful force in rituals. When she did fieldwork among the Lele people of the former Belgian Congo, she discovered that they abominated the pangolin, a scaly anteater, in everyday life but used it to positive effect in religious rites. She interprets food taboos among ancient Hebrews as part of a classification system that maintained the separate identity of Jews, and she found similar attitudes among modern Europeans. Their disgust at filth, she maintains, expresses a conception of dirt as “matter out of place”— soil indoors is seen as nasty, and outdoors it connotes fertility. You may not agree with everything Mary Douglas says, but you will find it challenging.

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Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande

By E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Eva Gillies

Book cover of Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande

Why this book?

In translucent prose, Evans-Pritchard shows how the belief in witchcraft and oracles held together with the world-view of the Azande people of the former Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. They reinforced each other, so that if a prophecy failed to identify a witch, it was attributed to a fault in the performance of a ritual, and the power of ritual was reinforced rather than undermined. The Azande were empiricists and discussed the evidence of witchcraft in rational exchanges with Evans-Pritchard. He recreates their dialogue convincingly, often giving them the upper hand. When they asked him to explain why a granary collapsed on a particular person at a particular time, he said, “bad luck.” They replied that “luck” was a shallow concept in comparison with witchcraft, which could be identified with certain individuals and traced in the body.

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The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual

By Victor Turner

Book cover of The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual

Why this book?

Taking his title from the great poem by Baudelaire, Turner draws on many years of fieldwork among the Ndembu people of Zambia to show how symbolism operates and how it infuses meaning into ritual practices, especially in periods of liminality—the uncertain, betwixt-and-between phase in many rites. He analyzes symbolic expression with great sensitivity, bringing it alive in powerful prose. Above all, he exposes the inadequacy of reducing symbols to simple ideas, e.g. the lion symbolizes valor.  He demonstrates that symbols are multi-vocal and that they can communicate many meanings and shades of meaning: hence their power in the developed world as well as the so-called third world. 

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Islands of History

By Marshall Sahlins

Book cover of Islands of History

Why this book?

Like the anthropologists mentioned above, Sahlins is a superb writer, and succeeds in making esoteric ideas come alive for the non-academic reader. In this work, he shows how Cook’s exploration of the Pacific islands, especially Hawaii, became incorporated in the cosmologies of the indigenous peoples.  Because of the time and the way Cook arrived in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaiians took him to be the god Lono. And his death at their hands fit in with their ritual of sacrificing the god to restore the power of the king. It was congruent with local power struggles as well as the cosmological calendar. This book as well as the others will sharpen the reader’s awareness of how events are made to be meaningful in alien cultures, and they can provoke reflections about how we make sense of happenings close to home.

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