Author: Dr. Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, United States. Her ethnographic work focuses on religion, pilgrimage, and politics in the Nepal Himalayas. Her research also addresses material culture, divine personhood, and ritual practice throughout South Asia. Drawing on theoretical frameworks in religion, psychological, and linguistic anthropology, her current work focuses on the roles of sacred landscapes and digital/online religious revival in the relationships between Hindus, Buddhists, and Bonpos who venerate sacred ammonite fossils, called Shaligrams. Her recent published work on this topic is a book titled Shaligram Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas (Amsterdam University Press, 2020). Holly is a regular contributor to TFS. You can follow Holly on her blog, Peregrination and on Twitter at @Manigarm.
My Advanced Theory in Anthropology senior seminar course is divided into two parts. Part one, which starts on the first day and goes until midterm is all about the (relatively) chronological history of anthropological schools of thought. Part two then shifts from a timeline style of teaching to a topical one, where we consider various contemporary anthropological theories and approaches as they relate to broad themes of power, practice, gender, globalization, political resistance, and so forth. After all of this, on the last day of class, I then have them do a particular exercise that has proven to be one of the most interesting, and personally enlightening, activities I’ve assigned in my career so far.
Like almost all anthropology departments out there, mine has one of those forgotten esoteric bookshelves, located in a random nook, that seems to quietly collect various castoffs, old reference books, and other outdated materials and has done so since sometime in the mid-1960s. And, as fate would have it, our bookshelf was no different and happened to have preserved an archive of old anthropology textbooks, the earliest of which was copyrighted in 1947.
I quickly devised a plan. On the last day of class, my advanced theory students would break up into small groups and each have the option of choosing one such old anthropology textbook from the box of them that I had selected from the shelf. They would then spend the next 15 to 20 minutes exploring the book (looking at the table of contents, skimming chapters, reading the introduction, etc.) in order to answer three basic questions.
- One, when was the book from and, as a result, what kind of anthropology (or school of thought) does it represent? (I remind them that the date of publication means that the book was likely researched and written several years before it actually came out).
- Two, what does the author(s) envision in terms of what they think anthropology is and what it should do?
- And three, what kind of anthropology came after this book was published, and do you see any foreshadowing of those changes present in the text?
While this exercise certainly challenges my students to look at the nuances of anthropology as a “product of its time,” it also helps them to see the discipline as a living, dynamic, and changeable thing. What is then revealed in a pile of old anthropology textbooks then isn’t just a history of thought or a scientific curiosity of bygone times, but a set of theories and toolkits that do real work in the world. Sometimes for the better and sometimes not.
The 1950s, A Golden Post-War Boom
The first two textbooks that always seem to garner immediate attention are, of course, the oldest; obvious in their moth-eaten and thready covers, with embossed text and that alluring old book smell. One is Beals and Hoijer’s 1953 An Introduction to Anthropology and the second is Melville Herskovits’ 1955 Cultural Anthropology.
Unsurprisingly, as my students note, both books tend to focus their anecdotes heavily on the participation of anthropologists in World War II and on the subdivisions of the discipline into archaeology, ethnology, and linguistics. Once we’re past that however, things get even more interesting.
Beals and Hoijer’s book, for example, generalizes anthropological theory as a scientific study of human relationships to the physical environment; taking on the feel of a more American type of social anthropology that stemmed from the influences of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown well into the postwar period. My favorite section of the introduction is this though, on page 3:
The search for universal underlying laws of culture was still very much a part of the debates within the discipline at the time but already the cracks of “the science wars” yet to come are showing. Comparing this with Herskovits though, the class tends to note that Cultural Anthropology is far more concerned with the question of race and scientific racism (mirroring Herskovits’ own ethnographic work) and its placement within the academy broadly. But as a result, Herskovits argues for an anthropology that both stands alone and is embedded within the core of all other disciplines. One that monitors and synthesizes the work of academics themselves as humans, before they purport to produce what might be viewed as objective knowledge.
The 1970s, A Season to Reflexive Turn, Turn, Turn
Another popular choice in this exercise is Victor Barnouw’s An Introduction to Anthropology: Ethnology.
Published in 1971, this textbook (again, as my students note) has two primary concerns. Human racial classifications as they are potentially derived from “cultural evolution” and disciplinary unity. In fact, one my students started tallying the number of times the author referred to the need for anthropological solidarity and consensus just to see if she could break double digits before the heading of chapter one. As we discussed, this was probably not overly surprising given that the Reflexive Turn — the Postmodernist fracture within the academy that began in the late 1960s wherein anthropologists began asking themselves if it was even possible to create an objective study of a culture given their own inherent biases and epistemologies – was already underway.
This particular textbook however, seemed to take issue with the push for greater subjectivity and a literary view of ethnographic writing by doubling down on “the science,” and spending the entirety of its introduction and most of its first chapters discussing agreement on racial categories, the use of genetics in evaluating culture, and various forms of archaeological and chemical dating.
It is also interesting that Barnouw’s introductory textbook recapitulates the idea of “advanced” civilizations later on, especially as it discusses “cultural evolution in the New World.” But it does so by drawing parallels between pottery, permanent housing structures, and agriculture in Asia and in South America. Essentially, he posits that all civilizations share a common set of similar features (either through process or through diffusion) that, once again, unify mankind on a generally progressive (read: evolutionary) trajectory of development.
Seeing as the Reflexive Turn also saw the publication of some of the most significant pseudo-archaeology to date (to wit: Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians in 1963 and Von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods in 1968), this particular textbook suddenly feels rife with tension. Each of its chapters, though obviously concerning from a contemporary anthropological lens for several reasons, can be seen to struggle with a rupturing anthropology on one side that was openly abandoning its claims to positivistic authority and the rise of popular pseudoscience on the other that was all too happy to take up the mantle of expertise left in its wake.
The Anthropologist as Missionary
The odd one out of this lot is always, of course, Howell and Paris’s 2011 Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective. While I’ve written a more extensive review of this book before, I include it here because it is probably one of the favorites in this exercise not just because the intent and agenda of the book is obvious but because, compared to the other textbooks, it’s especially revealing.
Introducing Cultural Anthropology is, without a doubt, an anthropology textbook for American Christian colleges but it is one that specifically leverages the ethnographic method for the missionary’s calling; using cultural relativism and participant-observation as tools for social infiltration and religious conversion. For this reason, many of the beginning chapters are aimed at the student, attempting to mollify their presumably fundamentalist theological fears about gender, sexuality, and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
In the end though, it assures them that it really is okay to be both a Christian (at least, one particular type of Christian) and an anthropologist because it all just comes down to what you believe. And the point of anthropology anyway is to be able to describe these “other people” to your friends back home.
Anthropology for Everyone and Possibly No one
Last, but certainly not least, I always include at least two truly contemporary anthropological textbooks for students to choose. The one that gets pulled out of the box the most often is Kenneth Guest’s Essentials of Cultural Anthropology: A Toolkit for a Global Age published in 2020. To date, every student has described it in roughly the same way: as anthropology for people who have no intention of studying anthropology.
I naturally point out to them that this isn’t necessarily bad, since most students in a beginning anthropology course won’t, in fact, go on to study anthropology further than the introductory level and that much of contemporary anthropology today does consider a basic understanding of the ethnographic method and its principles to be a vital component of a well-rounded education. Furthermore, this is one of the few ways that modern anthropologists can also demonstrate the utility of cultural competency to future business people, activists, economists, politicians, or policy makers.
The last time I ran this exercise though, I was surprised at the amount of push-back this explanation received. The student group reviewing this particular book noted that it really wasn’t kidding when it included the “For a Global Age” tagline, and that globalization wasn’t just a primary theme of the book but the structure by which the entire text understood the purpose of anthropology as a field of study. It reframed anthropology itself as both a reflection of and as an answer to the problems of globalization; as a discipline that ought to be in service to better understandings of corporations, capitalism, immigration, and the commodified flows of mass manufacturing. And then it introduced the Nacirema.
For those of you unfamiliar with the criticisms of Horace Miner’s 1956 Body Ritual among the Nacirema, (American, spelled backwards) one of the problems of this article is that while it was ostensibly meant as a pointed criticism of anthropologists’ tendency to overhype the “weirdness” of a culture as it related to broadly Euro-American “normalcy,” it carries forward a type of exoticization that is still and continuously wielded against non-Europeans today. Reframing the culture concept this way, as Guest suggests, then seems to put us right back at where we started.
At the end of class, I then collect all the books and ask my students one final question. Looking back on everything you’ve learned in class this semester and now having read representations of nearly a hundred years of disciplinary discussions, what is the most important thing you think you will take away from your experiences as young anthropologists?
Last semester, one student raised her hand and answered: “That anything can change.”
Truthfully, I have never had quite so much fun, nor gotten so much out of, teaching from a textbook.