The best cultural anthropology books

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

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By Angela Saini,

Book cover of Superior: The Return of Race Science

The fact that race is a social construct and not a biological reality seems to be a lesson that we are destined to learn and re-learn many times. Saini uses a personal, journalistic style to tell the story of the pernicious myth of biological race in the sciences, drawing a continuous line from scientific racists like Francis Galton in the 1800s to present-day medicine and right-wing politics. The story is alternately funny and horrifying, with incredibly timely significance. It should be read by all data-adjacent individuals as a cautionary tale about avoiding the mistakes of the past and present. 

Who am I?

I studied statistics and data science for years before anyone ever suggested to me that these topics might have an ethical dimension, or that my numerical tools were products of human beings with motivations specific to their time and place. I’ve since written about the history and philosophy of mathematical probability and statistics, and I’ve come to understand just how important that historical background is and how critically important it is that the next generation of data scientists understand where these ideas come from and their potential to do harm. I hope anyone who reads these books avoids getting blinkered by the ideas that data = objectivity and that science is morally neutral.

I wrote...

Bernoulli's Fallacy: Statistical Illogic and the Crisis of Modern Science

By Aubrey Clayton,

Book cover of Bernoulli's Fallacy: Statistical Illogic and the Crisis of Modern Science

What is my book about?

There is a logical flaw in the statistical methods used across experimental science. This fault is not a minor academic quibble: it underlies a reproducibility crisis now threatening entire disciplines. In an increasingly statistics-reliant society, this same deeply rooted error shapes decisions in medicine, law, and public policy with profound consequences. The foundation of the problem is a misunderstanding of probability and its role in making inferences from observations.

Aubrey Clayton traces the history of how statistics went astray, beginning with the groundbreaking work of the seventeenth-century mathematician Jacob Bernoulli and winding through gambling, astronomy, and genetics. Clayton recounts the feuds among rival schools of statistics, exploring the surprisingly human problems that gave rise to the discipline and the all-too-human shortcomings that derailed it. 

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer

By Warren St. John,

Book cover of Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip Into the Heart of Fan Mania

Journalist and college football fan St. John takes us on a hilarious and eye-opening ride into the most passionate end of fandom. Through his entire season spent following his team on the road in an RV, St. John gives readers a deep immersion into the world of ultra-passionate fans, introducing characters who do things like skip their daughter’s wedding and risk missing heart transplant surgery to attend football games. We learn about NCAA licensed logo funeral caskets and such, while he paints an often funny and always vivid picture of the highly devoted sports fandom, all through the lens of a single legendary football program, the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Who am I?

As a New York Times Bestselling author, award-winning journalist, and visiting professor at Dartmouth College, who has written for the biggest newspapers and magazines worldwide, I look for interesting untold stories for my books. As a result, I spent the past five years researching the topic of sports fandom, what makes people fans, and how it affects them and our society.

I wrote...

Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Understanding

By Larry Olmsted,

Book cover of Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Understanding

What is my book about?

200 million Americans and billions more worldwide are sports fans, more than belong to any organized religion or any other collective group. Sports fandom is simply the biggest social structure on earth. So, what does fandom do to us, to our brains, our health, our perceptions, our relationships, careers, and such? What does it do to society, affecting tolerance, racism, politics, the peace process and international relations? What vital roles has sports fandom played in history? How does it, again and again, provide post-traumatic healing for communities, cities, and entire countries after natural and manmade disasters? 

I have deeply researched all these angles, using very current scientific research, and found the effects of sports fandom in our lives to be overwhelmingly positive. In the spectator sports equation, more than 99.9% of participants are fans, yet thousands of books have been written on athletes, teams, and coaches, with virtually nothing else on fans.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

By Shoshana Zuboff,

Book cover of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power

An important book. Zuboff captures in great detail the ways in which the erosion of our privacy has become embedded in our modern economy. Most people know that “information is power.” This is a book for anyone interested in how the bulk collection of information can be turned into money. This book is about the new normal.  

Who am I?

I grew up in an Italian-American family that taught its children to respect other people’s privacy, and demand that people respect ours. Privacy is an essential part of what it means to live in a free society. It creates space for intimacy. The deterioration of our privacy rights is one of the most important issues facing the modern world, and I’ve dedicated my career to teaching and writing about it. I am an author, a professor, and a data privacy professional. My public lectures on the right to privacy include the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Senate, the National Football League, and leading tech and cryptocurrency companies.

I wrote...

None of Your Damn Business: Privacy in the United States from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age

By Lawrence Cappello,

Book cover of None of Your Damn Business: Privacy in the United States from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age

What is my book about?

“‘What is it we fear we’re losing?’ Cappello asks in his brilliant history of privacy in America. Is there any timelier question? Thoroughly researched and deftly told, None of Your Damn Business is a history of privacy written for and about Wall Street and Main Street, government and the courts, intelligence operatives and digital entrepreneurs, current and future citizens. It deserves our full attention.” - David Nasaw, New York Times best-selling author of The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy

The Instruction of Imagination

By Daniel Dor,

Book cover of The Instruction of Imagination: Language as a Social Communication Technology

For more than half a century, the science and philosophy of language have been dominated by Noam Chomsky, who holds that language depends on an innate, uniquely human capacity to generate complex structures. In this view, language is an aspect of thought, and communication is of little interest or relevance. In his own words, Daniel Dor “turns Chomsky on his head,” so that communication itself becomes the focus. Language is a means of expression, collectively invented by our ancient forebears, to go where the senses do not go—into our minds. This book should help transform our understanding of language as a practical technology rather than a biological oddity.

Who am I?

Michael Corballis is a psychologist and brain scientist. His interests lie in how the mind works, how it maps onto the brain, and how it evolved. Much of his work is published in books and scientific articles, but he has also written books aimed at a general readership. These include Pieces of Mind, The Lopsided Ape, The Recursive Mind, The Wandering Mind, and The Truth about Language.

I wrote...

Adventures of a Psychologist: Reflections on What Made Up the Mind

By Michael C. Corballis,

Book cover of Adventures of a Psychologist: Reflections on What Made Up the Mind

What is my book about?

The book is an autobiography of my life, from growing up on a sheep farm in New Zealand, to several attempts to find a career, to eventual employment in Canada and New Zealand as an academic psychologist and researcher. Over the past 60 years, I saw scientific psychology transform, from behaviourism, to the cognitive revolution, then to the discovery of the brain. I worked with pigeons, long-suffering undergraduate volunteers, and split-brained patients. I pondered the various aspects that make up the mind: memory, imagination, the two sides of the brain, language, and its evolution. Four of the books recommended below feature in this book; One of them (the fourth) appeared too recently for inclusion.

With a Daughter's Eye

By Mary Catherine Bateson,

Book cover of With a Daughter's Eye: Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson

The reader gets a three-for-one deal in this incredibly thoughtful book: an intimate look at two towering anthropologists by their daughter, a distinguished anthropologist herself. Mary Catherine Bateson understood her difficult parents and their groundbreaking work as well as anyone could.

Talking to her father, she wrote, was “a form of argument that was also a dance.” Her mother was “a one-person conference.” The reader gets to know each member of this remarkable family through insightful anecdotes, rare family photos, conceptual diagrams, and lucid prose.

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.

Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits

By Laurel Kendall,

Book cover of Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits: Women in Korean Ritual Life

Because I have a mudang (Korean shaman) in my novel, I wanted to research everything I could about the shamanic tradition. Among the many sources I read, this one stands out as both informative and approachable. Shamanism in Korea is an ancient religious form, yet the custom is still honored in modern Korea, and people consult mudangs for business or personal advice even today. Laurel Kendall, a cultural anthropologist, takes readers on a journey into the lives of these remarkable women as they consult with ghosts, dispatch malign spirits, and offer advice and comfort to families. I am a believer in the power of women, especially women who navigate a patriarchal society,    

Who am I?

My kids tease me that I’m the family member (Nordic-European ancestry all the way) who first became fascinated with Korean culture despite their dad having been born in Busan. (Like me, my husband was raised on bologna and French’s mustard sandwiches, not bibimbap and kimchi). My research journey led me to travel to Korea multiple times. There, I discovered the remote island of Jindo, famous for delectable seaweed, the Jindo dog, a decisive battle in which Admiral Yi Sun-shin outwitted the Japanese, as well as a mysterious land bridge that parts the sea every year. I photographed the magnificent sunset overlooking Jindo and pictured my characters there. 

I wrote...

Moonlight Dancer

By Deb Atwood,

Book cover of Moonlight Dancer

What is my book about?

Kendra JinJu MacGregor can resist neither the antique Korean doll in the dusty warehouse nor the handsome Hiro Peretti who sells it to her. Once she brings the doll home, Kendra pays little attention to misplaced objects or her beloved dog’s fear. That is, until one terrifying night forces her to question her very sanity. 

Soon, the mysterious NanJu manifests herself, and Kendra travels through time to 16th century Korea into a history of conflict and intrigue. Kendra is about to discover the dark past of her ghostly visitor. It’s up to Kendra, with Hiro by her side, to understand the past and prevent murder. Everything depends upon Kendra’s success, even—she discovers to her horror—her own life. 

Living Autobiographically

By Paul John Eakin,

Book cover of Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative

With an easy-going and very approachable style, Eakin explores how our identity is formed by the autobiographical stories we tell about ourselves. He wears his deeply informed theoretical insights very lightly, and when I encountered this book while working on my book on Hickey, I came away with an appreciation of the importance of narrative in determining who we are, who we think we are, and who we want others to think we are.

Who am I?

I stumbled upon Hickey’s memoirs and while reading them became captivated not only by the frequently hilarious episodes he recounts from his life, but also by the subject of autobiography and how narrating our life story somehow projects a sense of self and identity to the reader. Trying to grasp this process led me to exploring a wide range of books, and opened up understanding of how our selves are fashioned and what they mean to others. An endlessly fascinating subject.

I wrote...

Who Was William Hickey? A Crafted Life in Georgian England and Imperial India

By James R. Farr,

Book cover of Who Was William Hickey? A Crafted Life in Georgian England and Imperial India

What is my book about?

This book explores an autobiography that was written in the early nineteenth century and will appeal to many readers who are interested in understanding the connections of memory, identity, narrative, and ideas of selfhood. The author of this autobiography, William Hickey, draws upon memories of episodes in his life to project a sense of self through the act of writing, and crafts a persona that, whether true or not, he hopes his readers will accept as his authentic self.

Primates of Park Avenue

By Wednesday Martin,

Book cover of Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir

Primates of Park Avenue provides a gripping and somewhat horrifying look at love and marriage within the elite social circles of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The book reveals that among the uber-wealthy, marriage has more in common with the Victorian marital bargain than with modern-day ideas about partnership and equality. Readers will likely be both repulsed and enthralled by the world Martin describes; a world in which women trade professional success for wealthy husbands and receive year-end “wife bonuses” when they have performed their wifely roles well. Primates of Park Avenue proves the old adage, “when you marry for money, you’ll earn every penny.” At the same time, it also shows why, for many, the allure of marrying for money remains irresistible.

Who am I?

As a family law professor, I spend a lot of time thinking about marriage. Although it is an extremely personal decision, the legal, social, and even political ramifications can be tremendous. Marriage is not just an individual choice. Each year, I teach my family law students that there are three parties to every marriage, the two spouses, and the state. The books on this list reveal how the state has influenced marital decision-making and also, how individual marital decisions have influenced the state. These books show that marriage can protect and benefit spouses, but that it can also harm them through the promotion and acceptance of society’s biases and prejudices. As the actress Mae West once stated, “Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.” The following books highlight the wisdom of West’s words.

I wrote...

Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches

By Marcia A. Zug,

Book cover of Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches

What is my book about?

There have always been mail-order brides in America—but we haven’t always thought about them in the same ways. In Buying a Bride, Marcia A. Zug starts with the so-called “Tobacco Wives” of the Jamestown colony and moves all the way forward to today’s modern same-sex mail-order grooms to explore the advantages and disadvantages of mail-order marriage. It’s a history of deception, physical abuse, and failed unions. It’s also the story of how mail-order marriage can offer women surprising and empowering opportunities.

The Book of Runes

By Ralph H. Blum,

Book cover of The Book of Runes: A Handbook for the Use of an Ancient Oracle: The Viking Runes

This is a favorite resource when I feel stuck, confused, or at a crossroads. Time to seek guidance from the universe! I’ve always been a sucker for the synchronicity of messages from “beyond”—tarot cards, angel cards, the I Ching, etc. Asking a big question, choosing a rune and reading its corresponding message unfailingly provides clarity and inspiration. In fact, I just selected a rune: Inguz, symbolizing new beginnings. Here is a portion of the message: “…Inguz counsels preparation. Being centered and grounded, freeing yourself from all unwanted influences, and seeing the humor, you are indeed prepared to open yourself to the Will of Heaven, and can await your deliverance with calm certainty.” 

Who am I?

I strive to inspire others through my writing, yoga card decks, and workshops; therefore, I’m passionate about finding inspiration and passing it on to others. For me discovering a dose of wise counsel or learning how someone else endured and overcame challenging times is a lifeline…especially when I feel hopelessly stuck. These 5 books are a balm for the soul, quieting the negative self-talk long enough to clear a path to joy, optimism, and creativity. I hope these recommendations bring the same sense of inspiration for you…just when you need it most! 

I wrote...

Essential Yoga: An Illustrated Guide to Over 100 Yoga Poses and Meditations

By Olivia H. Miller, Nicole Kauffman (illustrator),

Book cover of Essential Yoga: An Illustrated Guide to Over 100 Yoga Poses and Meditations

What is my book about?

Have you ever opened a yoga book intending to do yoga only to end up reading about yoga instead of actually practicing? That’s where Essential Yoga comes in. Designed to get you on the mat, this reference guide features over 100 hatha yoga poses, breathing exercises, and meditations. Detailed illustrations accompany concise, bulleted instructions and descriptions of the many physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits of a regular yoga practice. The interactive book, featuring a lay-flat binding for ease of use, also includes 6 classic yoga routines, 10 yoga sessions, and 48 mini-sequences geared to supporting specific activities and/or alleviating various health conditions. Whether new to yoga or a long-time practitioner, Essential Yoga helps users prevent injury and keep their practice interesting and alive!

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