What is Anthropology? A Summary Review of the Second Edition by Thomas Hylland Eriksen

There’s a lot to like about Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s second edition of What is Anthropology?

Initially published in 2004, the second edition (2017) seems to have a similar goal to our own when we started The Familiar Strange — it attempts to unpack this weird era we’re living through, using the tools of anthropological thinking. So if you’re just starting out in anthropology, or need a refresher, or just want a quick overview, read on!

I’m writing this at what feels like a particularly weird (and often awful) moment in history. The US President just survived impeachment having tried to bribe a foreign leader to help him win the next election and then publicly boasting about it. There are nearly a million Syrian refugees trapped between advancing Syrian government troops and the Turkish border, which has been closed to Syrian refugees since 2015 — the world seems barely to have noticed. The UK has just brexited from the European Union, which was set up with “the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours, which culminated in the Second World War” — which sure seemed like a worthy goal to me.

Here in Australia, we’re just starting to get over Black Summer — some of the worst bushfires in global recorded history. Our political leaders continue to deny that climate change is a significant problem, and hey, what a coincidence, a quarter of all tweets about climate change are produced by bots. And look, it has to be said… Gwyneth Paltrow is now selling a candle that smells like her vagina for $75 USD. Hoooooo boy.

In What is Anthropology?, Eriksen comfortingly suggests that, “in the study of human diversity, anthropology offers tools and perspectives that make the contemporary world easier to understand, and perhaps, easier to make peace with” (p. 4). I’m not sure making peace with Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina candle is quite my goal, but trying to understand how we got here, how we let all this happen? Well, I’ll take all the help I can get with that.

So back to summarising, and to some extent reviewing, What is Anthropology? then.

The book is divided into two parts: first, a section called Entrances, which covers the history of anthropology, why it’s useful, and an overview of key concepts, methods and theories; and second, Fields, which I assume is a play on words (anthropologists go out into ‘the field’), but what he’s really talking about here are the “fields of interest” that the discipline of anthropology engages with.

Part 1: Entrances

One of the first things I liked in Part 1 was a willingness to tackle what makes anthropology similar and different to other humanities and social sciences. I’ve been wandering around my university campus for the last five years asking learned experts and novices alike what they think the difference is between anthropology and sociology, and do you think I can get a straight answer? 

I really appreciated that Eriksen just jumped right on in to say, yeah, anthropology shares a heap of stuff with other disciplines, but what makes it different is an insistence that “social reality is, first and foremost, created through relationships between people and the groups to which they belong” (my emphasis). He goes on: 

“A current concept such as globalisation, for example, has no meaning to an anthropologist unless it can be studied through actual people, their relationship to each other and to a larger surrounding world. When this level of nitty-gritty is established, it is possible to explore the linkages between the locally lived world and large scale phenomena (such as global capitalism or the state).” (p. 9)

I really like a serious reference text that uses words like ‘nitty-gritty’.

Key Concepts

In Chapter 2, Key Concepts, Eriksen provides an accessible introduction to some of the critical ideas that interest anthropologists. Given that anthropology was not my major before I started my PhD, I really wish I’d had this book in my first year. If I’d known up front how many different things an anthropologist might be talking about when they referred to a ‘person’; if I’d understood the anthropological difference between culture and society; if I could have used terms like ‘dividual’ and ‘holism’ in a sentence; my life may have been very different. 

Although I enjoyed this chapter, I was disappointed to see an emphasis in the section called ‘Gender’ on gender binaries. Surely there has been enough discussion and debate about the experiences of transgender people in the media over the last few years, and certainly there have been a number of fantastic ethnographies (see David Valentine’s much discussed Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category as an excellent example), that this should have gotten a mention in a 2017 version of this book. 

Ethnography

Chapter 3, Ethnography, sets itself what seems to be an impossible task – in 18.5 pages, sum up the messy, terrifying, complex, sometimes transcendent, sometimes excruciatingly boring experience of long-term fieldwork and the subsequent write-up period. While it felt a little incomplete in parts (how could it not?), I did like the tips and tricks about studying ‘complex societies’ (which, as he points out, all contemporary societies are). Eriksen warns against collecting ‘fragmented data’, which is to say, data that is decontextualised from the society in which it was collected. 

I actually had this experience during my PhD. I asked a group of my PhD peers to read a chapter I had written, and the feedback they gave me was that they couldn’t imagine where I was, and when I was having all these conversations with my participants (who were foreign academics living in Vietnam). “What did their homes look like?” my friends asked me, desperately trying to help me find a way into this chapter. “Oh, well, I don’t know actually,” I replied. “Expats rarely visit their expat friends’ homes in Vietnam – you meet in cafes or bars or you hang out on campus, so my conversations with them were always in those kinds of places, not in their living rooms.” 

The whole room exploded in conversation. “This is HUGE, Jodie! This is a really big deal! This is what makes your participants different!” I had presented fragmented data, and by decontextualising it I had stripped it of its meaning, its impact, its inherent implications. Perhaps if I’d read Eriksen’s chapter on ethnography first, I would have known better!

Theory

Reviews of the previous edition of What is Anthropology? found the chapter on theory (Chapter 4) to be a bit… light on theory. I suspect that these reviewers were not the target market for the book. When I was first entering the world of anthropology, knowing what felt like nothing, this chapter would have given me an excellent entree into the theoretical world that anthropology inhabits. It covers most of the basics: structural-functionalism, culture and personality studies, the structure vs agency debate, throwing in a bit of Bourdieu for good measure, and we’re cooking with gas! 

I also found it helpful when Eriksen drew the line in the sand about the fundamental questions that anthropology concerns itself with. Again, this is a question I’ve been polling anthropologists on since Day 1 of my PhD. Here’s Eriksen’s (p. 76) Big Three: 

1.What is it that makes people do whatever they do?

Again, remembering that anthropology is the study of what happens between people and in relationships between people and context, so this question is NOT about psychological motivation — it’s about asking, ‘what elements came together to produce this moment?’

2. How are societies or cultures integrated?

This kind of question tends to look at how societies and institutions are organised and the structures in place that allow them to, or prevent them from, continuing to be organised in that way.

3. To what extent does thought vary from society to society, and how much is similar across cultures?

Now, in anthropology we don’t claim to know what’s going on in people’s heads. All we can do is ask people questions about what they’re thinking, observe their behaviours and interactions with others, and then explore whether we believe there are gaps between what they do and what they say they do and believe. We can then look to context to try to work out why those gaps may exist. 

The other thing I liked in this chapter was that it answered questions like, “Why do we need theory? Isn’t anthropology supposed to rely on empirical observation? Won’t studying theory just bias my research?” 

Eriksen’s reply is that there is just TOO MUCH STUFF TO READ and too many ‘facts’ (or ‘post-facts’) in the world. So, having at least a basic understanding of the anthropological canon under our belts gives us criteria to decide what to prioritise, and how to evaluate which of these will ultimately be significant for our work. 

Nonetheless, Erikson warns, anthropology has an “inductive bias…ideally, theory should not be forced upon the observations, but should grow out of them” (p. 77). That’s why you need to have read quite broadly, early on, so that you have lots of theoretical options swirling around your brain when you begin observing your fieldsite, not just one or two that might bias your observations. I would argue that you actually need to read even more broadly than Eriksen has laid out for you in this book — something that becomes more clear in Part 2.

Part 2: Fields

In Part 2, Eriksen gives a brief overview of five topics or directions that your research might broadly take if you’re an anthropologist. These are: 

  • Reciprocity
  • Kinship
  • Nature
  • Thought, and
  • Social Identity

What’s nice about this is that, having explained why we need to understand the canon in Part 1, in Part 2 he sets much of that early canon out for us in bite sized chunks.

A note of warning, however — to my frustration, the work of very few female anthropologists or anthropologists of colour is discussed, anywhere throughout this book. Each chapter of Part 2 is structured as an historical overview of the concept as it has developed in anthropological circles. I can have some sympathy about the predominance of European male anthropologists in the earlier canon — there were simply less women or people of colour working in the discipline. But for the later sections of each chapter, where these ideas are shown to have been developed in the 21st Century, there really is no excuse. 

I’m therefore going to suggest a few extra books you may want to read from non-white-cis-male anthropologists for each of the topics, although some of them I’ve listed more than once where appropriate1. I’d love to receive more recommendations in the comments, so please don’t hesitate. 

Reciprocity

“In everyday language, the word reciprocal usually refers to a relationship in which two groups or persons give the same things to each other. In anthropology… it refers to exchange in a wide sense.” (p. 83) 

Under Reciprocity, we learn foremost about Marcel Mauss’s The Gift, which covers three categories of gift giving: 1) where gift-giving is fundamental for social integration, 2) where social institutions such as the State or long-distance trade have replaced the need for gift giving in some contexts; and 3) market oriented societies where gift exchange has completely different significance.

He then takes us on a journey through different scholars’ interpretations of reciprocity in different cultures and societies, showing how the significance of reciprocity has changed and been adapted to early and late capitalist societies.

Further suggestions for what to read about reciprocity:

Kinship

Kinship is loosely associated with ideas of family, blood relations and other forms of primary relations (like marriage) and who can do what with whom in any given culture or society. 

In this chapter, Eriksen points out one of the fundamental (if highly contested) beliefs in anthropology: “a conviction that kinship lies at the base of the most viable forms of social organisation… kinship and family are extremely basic, probably universal ways of thinking about, and organising, human belonging.”

Eriksen takes us through the various trends in kinship studies, including:

Descent: developed by early British Africanists (primarily), and related to lines of blood ancestry, descent studies were “intended to show how alliances emerged, why stateless societies were not in a state of perpetual civil war, and how kinship served to lessen the risk of feud” (p. 104). 

Alliance: usually associated with Claude Levi-Strauss, and linked to marital (or affinal, if you want to use the anthro term) relationships, including those with parents-in-law and siblings-in-law.

Family: Although traditional kinship studies focused more on lines of descent, more recent anthropology has looked more to the household as a unit of study, whether the members of that household are blood kin or not.

Further suggestions for what to read about kinship:

Nature

This chapter looks at some of the ways that anthropologists have dealt with nature, the natural sciences, the physical environment, and to some extent, whether human nature exists, and if it does, how does it fit into the earth’s ecosystem?

It addresses one of the questions that non-anthropologists often ask us, in response to the debates that have circulated at least since the 18th century, about intelligence and its relationship to race: “are all humans born with the same cognitive capacity?”

He concludes that yes, “the entire discipline of social and cultural anthropology builds on the principle of the mental unity of humanity” (p. 120), and then goes on to describe some of the ways that anthropologists have found humans to be similar and dissimilar across different groups.

Probably the most interesting section of this chapter, for me, is on the blurring of boundaries between nature and culture that has occured in recent years. He explores some of the work that looks at nature as a social construction, then delves a little into STS (Studies of Technology and Science — check out our STS series of interviews on the TFS podcast for more on this) under the assumption that if nature is a social construct, then there’s no reason that the natural sciences should not also be studied as social constructs. 

Further suggestions for what to read about nature and human nature:

Thought

Thought as an area of study in anthropology involves exploration of people’s beliefs and inner thinking as it is “expressed in social life, for example, when people say what they think or express it through their actions, in rituals and other public performances.” (p. 136).

These kinds of studies ask questions about people’s expressed beliefs, rationales for behaviours, choices and systems of organising. In early studies of this kind, it was not uncommon to attempt to “map” a traditional people’s entire way of living and organising themselves – their knowledge system. Examples of these early works include Evans Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Magic and Oracles among the Azande, and Kluckhohn’s Navaho Witchcraft.

This chapter also explores Mary Douglas’s “dirt as matter out of place” thesis from Purity and Danger, Levi Strauss on totemism, and adaptations through technology as explored by Mumford and Goody. There is some solid canon here — but it can get a little uncomfortable, reading about the “domestication of the savage mind” even when it’s described in its historical context. Not gonna lie — this chapter made me feel pretty yuck about being an anthropologist.  

Further suggestions for what to read about thought:

Social Identity

Social identity covers a wide range of topics, and some of the topics Eriksen covers in Chapter 9 are: cultural identity; nationhood; cultural change; identity politics; ethnicity; multiculturalism; politicised religion; cultural hybridity; affirmative action; culture and human rights; national self-determination; and the plight of Indigenous peoples.

Eriksen importantly points out that in anthropology we talk about social identity, in order to steer clear of too much crossover with psychology. Social identity means “the groups a person belongs to, who he or she identifies with, [and] how people establish and maintain invisible but socially efficient boundaries, consciously or not.” (p. 153)

He suggests that, of all the ways in which humans categorise themselves, gender and age are the most common across the world, with no society considering these to be socially insignificant. However there are literally hundreds of other ways in which humans identify themselves to others, and the rest of this chapter goes about exploring theories that anthropologists have used over time to understand how a person can hold and prioritise different identities at different times. 

Further suggestions for what to read about social identity:

In conclusion…

I learned a lot, and remembered a lot, from reading the second edition of Eriksen’s What is Anthropology? It gave me the overview I wish I’d had in my first year of study, so that I could have known what the other first years, who had studied anthropology in undergrad, already seemed to know. 
But, this edition of What is Anthropology? will NOT give you a full overview of the field as it stands today — particularly at a time when attention has finally turned to the daunting but essential task of decolonising the discipline.

I’d say it’s still worth a read, but don’t neglect to take a look at some of the fantastic and often more recent ethnographies from a much more diverse range of anthropologists listed above.

[Blog Image by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash]

  1. Most of the suggestions in these readings lists come from The Familiar Strange’s online community. Many, many thanks to those of you who made suggestions of your favourite ethnographies by non-white, non-cis-male anthropologists on our Twitter and Facebook feeds! You are such an awesome community and we are very grateful to e-know you. []

2 thoughts on “What is Anthropology? A Summary Review of the Second Edition by Thomas Hylland Eriksen

  1. A very interesting article except the point about anthropologist woman of colour contribution because I am against this kind of classification. I mean I am bored to read differentiation between one or other gender. I suppose this is the biggest challenge in modern world: abolishing gender’s classification or labelling. A good work is it whoever the author is of.

  2. Hi, thanks for this informative and thoughtful overview of Eriksen’s updated text. As an under and postgraduate some years ago, I always found ‘Big Issues Small Places’ a helpful tome when I was confused about a concept and needed some basic grounding. As you rightly mention, there is a drop off point in Eriksen’s books where you then need to explore more diverse research of a contemporary nature, which one then has to go and look for in the wider and more diverse canon of recent decades. I think this book has its place, though Perhaps is best used as an entrance point (an excellent one at that) into the massively cacophonous body of work available today. Your additional references are rich and welcome. I would like to add a text I read recently which Is a kind of auto ethnography by SOAS scholar Emma Dabiri called ‘Don’t touch my hair’. The author was interviewed last year at Belfast Book festival, a wonderful experience for us, and made us think deeply about how we communicate respectfully (or not) with so-called others who may be perceived to differ in certain physical characteristics. The author describes herself as Black Irish, her experiences growing up in Dublin and her family’s experiences in a visibly more multi-ethnic society. Thanks again, I’m delighted to have discovered your blog.

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