The best anthropology books

17 authors have picked their favorite books about anthropology and why they recommend each book.

Soon, you will be able to filter by genre, age group, and more. Sign up here to follow our story as we build a better way to explore books.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission (learn more).

The Forest of Symbols

By Victor Turner,

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

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. 

The Forest of Symbols

By Victor Turner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Forest of Symbols as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A pioneering work of high quality, this collection of anthropological studies provides one of the most detailed records available for an African society-or indeed for any group-of the semantics of ritual symbolism. It combines unusually detailed ethnographic description, based upon field work among the Ndembu of Zambia, with remarkable theoretical sophistication. Professor Turner describes the ritual phenomena in terms both of practice and of their sociological and psychological implications within a preliterate society.

Case histories illustrate the function of ritual in creating community harmony. Data on circumcision rites and medical practices and an essay on color classification have wide implications…


Who am I?

I am an emeritus professor from Harvard and have spent decades trying to develop an anthropological mode of understanding history. Far from being “one damned thing after another,” as Henry Ford allegedly put it, history is an attempt to understand the human condition. It brings us into contact with people in the past, showing us how they thought, felt, and acted. For many decades, anthropologists have endeavored to do the same thing, concentrating on people separated from us by space rather than time. By applying anthropological insights to historical research, I think it is possible to make the past come alive to modern readers, while at the same time making it interesting and even amusing.


I wrote...

Pirating and Publishing: The Book Trade in the Age of Enlightenment

By Robert Darnton,

Book cover of Pirating and Publishing: The Book Trade in the Age of Enlightenment

What is my book about?

This book tells the story of how the world of books operated during the crucial era that established modern views of the world. World-views are the main concern among anthropologists, and the five recommended works overflow with ideas about how ethnographic insights can be applied to history.

Pirating and Publishing makes use of those insights in order to get inside the way publishers thought and behaved in a wild-West kind of environment without copyright or inhibitions by entrepreneurs determined to cash in on the growing demand for literature. More than half the books that circulated in France during the second half of the eighteenth century were pirated. Produced outside France and smuggled across the border, they reached readers through an elaborate underground. To show how this literary underworld functioned, Pirating and Publishing uncovers plots, coups, and skulduggery typical of capitalism in a wild and woolly era, when writers defied censors and their publishers made and lost fortunes by taking risks and outwitting the book police.

Gods of the Upper Air

By Charles King,

Book cover of Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century

Margaret Mead belonged to a rambunctious generation of anthropologists who were trained by Franz Boas at Columbia. His star students were unconventional women—Mead, Ruth Benedict, Ella Deloria, and Zora Neal Hurston—who asked different questions and told different stories than any scholars before them. Were gender and race merely cultural constructions, and what would it take to overhaul them? How did Native Americans and Black Americans understand themselves, without the distortion of the white gaze? Could humans learn to live with their differences, or would the fascists win?

King unpacks the human drama in which these scholars participated on both the interpersonal and the global scale.

Gods of the Upper Air

By Charles King,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gods of the Upper Air as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Winner
Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award

From an award-winning historian comes a dazzling history of the birth of cultural anthropology and the adventurous scientists who pioneered it—a sweeping chronicle of discovery and the fascinating origin story of our multicultural world.

A century ago, everyone knew that people were fated by their race, sex, and nationality to be more or less intelligent, nurturing, or warlike. But Columbia University professor Franz Boas looked at the data and decided everyone was wrong. Racial categories, he insisted, were biological fictions. Cultures did not come in neat packages…

Who am I?

Elesha Coffman writes about religion and ideas in twentieth century America. A journalist before she trained as a historian, she’s especially interested in the circulation of ideas—how they were communicated, how they were received, why some ideas gained traction and others did not. Her first book examined how a magazine, The Christian Century, helped define the religious tradition known as the Protestant mainline. She didn’t realize that Margaret Mead belonged to that tradition until she was invited to write about Mead for the Oxford Spiritual Lives series, billed as spiritual biographies of people who are famous for something other than being spiritual. Elesha lives in Texas, but she’d rather be at the beach in North Carolina.


I wrote...

Margaret Mead: A Twentieth-Century Faith

By Elesha Coffman,

Book cover of Margaret Mead: A Twentieth-Century Faith

What is my book about?

The famed anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) made no secret of her Christianity, but most people are surprised to learn that this thrice-divorced, bisexual scholar was also a nearly lifelong Episcopalian who wrote theological essays, preached sermons, and served on countless church committees. She once wrote in a letter, “Shorn of all the things in which I can’t believe—and don’t want to—an omnipotent God, immortality, and original sin—Christianity is still the most beautiful thing I know, and the fact that Jesus lived the most satisfactory justification of life.” My book traces the thread of her spirituality through her many adventures, discoveries, breakthroughs, and heartaches.

Childhood

By Melvin Konner,

Book cover of Childhood: A Multicultural View

Konner is an anthropologist and physician who spent time with the !Kung hunters and gatherers studying children. This book is based on the PBS show Childhood, and it is everything you might want to know about childhood because it traverses both biology and culture. A dense read, but worth it.

Childhood

By Melvin Konner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Childhood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This Channel 4 TV tie-in book by anthropologist and psychiatrist Melvin Konner takes a journey through the childhood years - from conception and birth through adolescence - showing how children experience them, how parents and societies shape them and how science is beginning to understand them.

Who am I?

I am an anthropologist with a background in evolutionary biology, primate behavior, and cross-cultural approaches to parenting. I taught “The Anthropology of Parenting” for 20 years at Cornell University. The book grew from interviews with anthropologists, pediatricians, and child development experts taking a different stance about parents and babies—that we should look at how babies are designed by evolution and how cultures then interfere with those expectations. My book shows there is no perfect way to raise a child but there are styles in other cultures we can borrow to make our babies, and ourselves, more at ease.


I wrote...

Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent

By Meredith Small,

Book cover of Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent

What is my book about?

Should an infant be encouraged to sleep alone? Is breastfeeding better than bottle-feeding, or is that just a myth of the nineties? How much time should pass before a mother picks up her crying infant? And how important is it really to a baby's development to talk and sing to him or her?

In this ground-breaking book, anthropologist Meredith Small reveals her remarkable findings in the new science of ethnopediatrics. Professor Small joins pediatricians, child-development researchers, and anthropologists across the country who are studying to what extent the way we parent our infants is based on biological needs and to what extent it is based on culture - and how sometimes what is culturally dictated may not be what's best for babies.

The Left Hand of Darkness

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin taught me how powerful science fiction could be. Published in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness, tells the story of a human observer who arrives on an alien planet and discovers that the humanoid inhabitants change their gender in response to external stimuli. One of the aliens helps the human observer escape from a perilous situation, and the relationship between the two explores gender stereotypes and sexual orientation. 

I’ve often wondered whether the Left Hand of Darkness influenced The Crying Game, a movie that came out in 1992, over twenty years later. Then and now, The Left Hand of Darkness challenges readers to think outside the box and question their preconceived ideas.

The Left Hand of Darkness

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked The Left Hand of Darkness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION-WITH A NEW INTRODUCTION BY DAVID MITCHELL AND A NEW AFTERWORD BY CHARLIE JANE ANDERS

Ursula K. Le Guin's groundbreaking work of science fiction-winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

A lone human ambassador is sent to the icebound planet of Winter, a world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants' gender is fluid. His goal is to facilitate Winter's inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the strange, intriguing culture he encounters...

Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an…

Who am I?

I’m one of those odd people who always needs to know why. Why do computers work, why do societies break down? Why do humans kill? Why are cat videos so irresistible? All of those questions explore what it means to be human, but science fiction takes those questions to the extreme, pitting people against the most extreme environments and situations in order to see how they’ll react. To me, that never grows old, and the books I love the most are the ones that do it the best. In my humble opinion, of course.


I wrote...

Miira

By Acflory,

Book cover of Miira

What is my book about?

Miira Tahn, last lady of Durai is dying, but if she’s brave enough, she can live out her life in Innerscape, as a younger, healthy version of herself. There is a catch though. Once she’s inducted into Innerscape, she can never leave because what’s left of her real body is hooked up to an AI and cannot survive without it. 

Miira chooses to enter Innerscape and discovers that people take their true selves with them, wherever they go.

Book cover of Slavery as an Industrial System: Ethnological Researches

Nieboer did groundbreaking research on slavery outside the Atlantic world, and not the least on Southeast Asia. He was the first to propose a universal economic theory for the occurrence of slavery, namely that its existence was the result of a scarcity of labour in relation to the availability of land. After Evsey Domar expanded this argument to serfdom, it became known as the Nieboer-Domar hypothesis and has been widely cited both by historians and economic historians. In any talk about slavery and bondage in Southeast Asia I refer to this thesis to explain why slavery had practically disappeared in densely populated Java in the eighteenth century whereas it probably increased almost everywhere else in the Indonesian archipelago.

Slavery as an Industrial System

By H.J. Nieboer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Slavery as an Industrial System as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ethnological researches.

Originally published 1900.

Who am I?

I find it crucially important that we acknowledge that slavery is a global phenomenon that still exists this very day. Dutch historians like me have an obligation to show that the Dutch East India Company, called the world’s first multinational, was a major slave trader and employer of slavery. I am also personally involved in this endeavour as I am one of the leaders of the “Exploring the Slave Trade in Asia” project, an international consortium that brings together knowledge on this subject, and is currently a slave trade in Asia database.


I wrote...

The Making of a Periphery: How Island Southeast Asia Became a Mass Exporter of Labor

By Ulbe Bosma,

Book cover of The Making of a Periphery: How Island Southeast Asia Became a Mass Exporter of Labor

What is my book about?

Island Southeast Asia was once a thriving region, and its products found eager consumers from China to Europe. Today, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia are primarily exporters of their surplus of cheap labor, with more than ten million emigrants from the region working all over the world. How did a prosperous region become a peripheral one?

In The Making of a Periphery, Ulbe Bosma draws on new archival sources from the colonial period to the present to demonstrate how high demographic growth and a long history of bonded labor relegated Southeast Asia to the margins of the global economy. Bosma finds that the intensifying colonial presence in the region during the early nineteenth century led to improved health care and longer life spans as the Spanish and Dutch colonial governments began to vaccinate their subjects against smallpox. The resulting abundance of workers ushered in extensive migration toward emerging labor-intensive plantation and mining belts. 

Book cover of The Vulnerable Observer

Ruth Behar is an academic, but this deeply personal book is nothing like your typical academic treatise. It’s part memoir, part essay collection, part manifesto for a more ethical – and more honest – way of recording the world and your own interactions with it. What Behar calls for is the “vulnerable observation” of the title: a recognition of the way your own personal and cultural baggage colours your way of seeing, and of the way that you, the writer, are always part of the story. What this leads to is the realisation that objectivity is not just unattainable, but probably undesirable. Behar aims her clarion call at her own profession, anthropology, but what she says applies as much to journalists, travel writers and anyone else who writes about the real world.

The Vulnerable Observer

By Ruth Behar,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Vulnerable Observer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Eloquently interweaving ethnography and memoir, award-winning anthropologist Ruth Behar offers a new theory and practice for humanistic anthropology. She proposes an anthropology that is lived and written in a personal voice. She does so in the hope that it will lead us toward greater depth of understanding and feeling, not only in contemporary anthropology, but in all acts of witnessing.

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by nonfiction since my teens, by the idea of books about things that really happened. Fiction gets all the kudos, all the big prizes, all the respect. But as far as I’m concerned, trying to wrestle the unruly matter of reality onto the page is much more challenging – imaginatively, technically, ethically – than simply making things up! My book The Travel Writing Tribe is all about those challenges – and about the people, the well-known travel writers, who have to confront them every time they put pen to paper.


I wrote...

The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre

By Tim Hannigan,

Book cover of The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre

What is my book about?

Where can travel writing go in the twenty-first century? Author and lifelong travel writing aficionado Tim Hannigan sets out in search of this most venerable of genres, hunting down its legendary practitioners and confronting its greatest controversies. Is it ever okay for travel writers to make things up, and just where does the frontier between fact and fiction lie? What actually is travel writing, and is it just a genre dominated by posh white men? What of travel writing’s queasy colonial connections?

Travelling from Monaco to Eton, from wintry Scotland to sun-scorched Greek hillsides, Hannigan swills beer with the indomitable Dervla Murphy, sips tea with the doyen of British explorers, delves into the diaries of Wilfred Thesiger and Patrick Leigh Fermor, and gains unexpected insights from Colin Thubron, Samanth Subramanian, Kapka Kassabova, William Dalrymple and many others. But along the way he realises how much is at stake: can his own love of travel writing survive this journey?

Book cover of The Interpretation of Cultures

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.

The Interpretation of Cultures

By Clifford Geertz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Interpretation of Cultures as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Interpretation of Cultures, the most original anthropologist of his generation moved far beyond the traditional confines of his discipline to develop an important new concept of culture. This groundbreaking book, winner of the 1974 Sorokin Award of the American Sociological Association, helped define for an entire generation of anthropologists what their field is ultimately about.

Who am I?

I am an emeritus professor from Harvard and have spent decades trying to develop an anthropological mode of understanding history. Far from being “one damned thing after another,” as Henry Ford allegedly put it, history is an attempt to understand the human condition. It brings us into contact with people in the past, showing us how they thought, felt, and acted. For many decades, anthropologists have endeavored to do the same thing, concentrating on people separated from us by space rather than time. By applying anthropological insights to historical research, I think it is possible to make the past come alive to modern readers, while at the same time making it interesting and even amusing.


I wrote...

Pirating and Publishing: The Book Trade in the Age of Enlightenment

By Robert Darnton,

Book cover of Pirating and Publishing: The Book Trade in the Age of Enlightenment

What is my book about?

This book tells the story of how the world of books operated during the crucial era that established modern views of the world. World-views are the main concern among anthropologists, and the five recommended works overflow with ideas about how ethnographic insights can be applied to history.

Pirating and Publishing makes use of those insights in order to get inside the way publishers thought and behaved in a wild-West kind of environment without copyright or inhibitions by entrepreneurs determined to cash in on the growing demand for literature. More than half the books that circulated in France during the second half of the eighteenth century were pirated. Produced outside France and smuggled across the border, they reached readers through an elaborate underground. To show how this literary underworld functioned, Pirating and Publishing uncovers plots, coups, and skulduggery typical of capitalism in a wild and woolly era, when writers defied censors and their publishers made and lost fortunes by taking risks and outwitting the book police.

Book cover of The Afterlife Is Where We Come from: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa

This book is the only ethnography of infants, the Beng of Ivory Coast, West Africa. Gottlieb does a masterful job of explaining what is “normal” for the Beng and how very different their attitudes about parenting and babies are from Western Culture, and why the Beng believe their parenting ways are better. Gottlieb’s telling of the Beng baby story, like her writing, is engaging and life-changing.

The Afterlife Is Where We Come from

By Alma Gottlieb,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Afterlife Is Where We Come from as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When a new baby arrives among the Beng people of West Africa, they see it not as being born, but as being reincarnated after a rich life in a previous world. Far from being a tabula rasa, a Beng infant is thought to begin its life filled with spiritual knowledge. How do these beliefs affect the way the Beng rear their children?

In this unique and engaging ethnography of babies, Alma Gottlieb explores how religious ideology affects every aspect of Beng childrearing practices-from bathing infants to protecting them from disease to teaching them how to crawl and walk-and how widespread…

Who am I?

I am an anthropologist with a background in evolutionary biology, primate behavior, and cross-cultural approaches to parenting. I taught “The Anthropology of Parenting” for 20 years at Cornell University. The book grew from interviews with anthropologists, pediatricians, and child development experts taking a different stance about parents and babies—that we should look at how babies are designed by evolution and how cultures then interfere with those expectations. My book shows there is no perfect way to raise a child but there are styles in other cultures we can borrow to make our babies, and ourselves, more at ease.


I wrote...

Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent

By Meredith Small,

Book cover of Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent

What is my book about?

Should an infant be encouraged to sleep alone? Is breastfeeding better than bottle-feeding, or is that just a myth of the nineties? How much time should pass before a mother picks up her crying infant? And how important is it really to a baby's development to talk and sing to him or her?

In this ground-breaking book, anthropologist Meredith Small reveals her remarkable findings in the new science of ethnopediatrics. Professor Small joins pediatricians, child-development researchers, and anthropologists across the country who are studying to what extent the way we parent our infants is based on biological needs and to what extent it is based on culture - and how sometimes what is culturally dictated may not be what's best for babies.

Breasts

By Florence Williams,

Book cover of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History

This book exploded my beliefs about breasts all that they are and all that they’ve been through and where they are headed next. Williams is a fabulous guide, taking the reader on an adventure as she uncovers the anatomy and evolution of the breast, and even the pollutants found inside her own breastmilk. Knowing the vulnerabilities – and history! – of my rack made me appreciate it all the more. 

Breasts

By Florence Williams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Breasts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Did you know that breast milk contains substances similar to cannabis? Or that it's sold on the Internet for 262 times the price of oil? Feted and fetishized, the breast is an evolutionary masterpiece. But in the modern world, the breast is changing. Breasts are getting bigger, arriving earlier, and attracting newfangled chemicals. Increasingly, the odds are stacked against us in the struggle with breast cancer, even among men. What makes breasts so mercurial-and so vulnerable?

In this informative and highly entertaining account, intrepid science reporter Florence Williams sets out to uncover the latest scientific findings from the fields of…

Who am I?

People, including me, can be so uptight about their bodies. Early on in my career, I found that writing about my shame (chin hair!) or embarrassment (dogs sniffing my crotch!) helped the stigma go away. Researching and learning about how amazing our bodies are helped empower me to feel confident and comfortable being fully myself. I think it can do the same for others, too. My takeaway: There is greatness in our grossness. 


I wrote...

Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front

By Mara Altman,

Book cover of Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front

What is my book about?

Mara Altman's volatile and apprehensive relationship with her body has led her to wonder about a lot of stuff over the years. Like, who decided that women shouldn't have body hair? And how sweaty is too sweaty? Also, why is breast cleavage sexy but camel toe revolting? Isn't it all just cleavage? These questions and others like them have led to the comforting and sometimes smelly revelations that constitute Gross Anatomy, an essay collection about what it's like to operate the bags of meat we call our bodies. 

Divided into two sections, "The Top Half" and "The Bottom Half", with cartoons scattered throughout, Altman's book takes the listener on a wild and relatable journey from head to toe - as she attempts to strike up a peace accord with our grody bits. 

Book cover of A Laboratory for Anthropology: Science and Romanticism in the American Southwest, 1846-1930

Read this book along with the other handsomely published book, Hidden Scholars, and we have a pair that opens up the idealized Southwest and the ideology of White Supremacy behind it. Schemes and sufferings, deals and derring-do abounded in the territory that now boasts our U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Laguna Pueblo citizen Deb Haaland. Don Fowler and his wife Catherine Fowler are themselves archaeologists/ethnographers in the Southwest borderland, my longtime good friends and colleagues, with an eye for arresting details and a story-telling style that make this book a gripping account of how the Romantic Ruins and fascinating Pueblos were created out in America's desert.

A Laboratory for Anthropology

By Don D. Fowler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Laboratory for Anthropology as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Initially published in 2000, this beautiful paperback reprint of respected archaeologist Don Fowler's A Laboratory for Anthropology tells the sweeping history tells of an idea, "The Southwest," through the development of American anthropology and archaeology.

For eighty years following the end of the Mexican-American War, anthropologists described the people, culture, and land of the American Southwest to cultural tastemakers and consumers on the East Coast. Digging deeply into public and private historical records, the author uses biographical vignettes to recreate the men and women who pioneered American anthropology and archaeology in the Southwest. He explores institutions such as the Smithsonian,…


Who am I?

Observant of the world around me, and intellectual, I discovered my ideal way of life at age 16 when I read Kroeber's massive textbook Anthropology, 1948 edition. Anthropologists study everything human, everywhere and all time. Archaeology particularly appealed to me because it is outdoors, physical, plus its data are only the residue of human activities, challenging us to figure out what those people, that place and time, did and maybe thought. As a woman from before the Civil Rights Act, a career was discouraged; instead, I did fieldwork with my husband, and on my own, worked with First Nations communities on ethnohistorical research. Maverick, uppity, unstoppable, like in these books.


I wrote...

Girl Archaeologist: Sisterhood in a Sexist Profession

By Alice Beck Kehoe,

Book cover of Girl Archaeologist: Sisterhood in a Sexist Profession

What is my book about?

Girl Archaeologist recounts Alice Kehoe’s life, begun in an era very different from the twenty-first century in which she retired as an honored elder archaeologist. She persisted against entrenched patriarchy. A senior male professor attempted to quash Kehoe’s career by raping her. Her Harvard professors refused to allow her to write a dissertation in archaeology. Universities paid her less than her male counterparts. Her husband refused to participate in housework or childcare. Working in archaeology and in the histories of American First Nations, Kehoe published a series of groundbreaking books and articles. Although she was denied a conventional career, through her unconventional breadth of research and her empathy with First Nations people she gained a wide circle of collaborators and colleagues. 

Or, view all 61 books about anthropology

New book lists related to anthropology

All book lists related to anthropology

Bookshelves related to anthropology