Teaching from the Textbooks: An Archaeology of the Current Historical Moment

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bookshelves, located in a random nook, that seems to quietly collect various castoffs, old reference books, and other outdated materials and has done so since sometime in the mid-1960s.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.

a bookshelf in a library with hanging light bulbs
Photo Credit: 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič from Unsplash

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.

On the left: Grey cloth-bound cover of a book titled An Introduction to Anthropology by Ralph Beals and Harry Hoijer. Published in 1953 by The Macmillan Company.

On the right: A red cloth-bound cover of a book titled Cultural Anthropology by Melville Herskovits. Published in 1955 by Knopf, New York.
Photo Credit: Author

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:

A page of a book that reads:

4. Cultural Anthropology
Cultural anthropology studies the origins and history of man's cultures, their evolution and development, and the structure and functioning of human cultures in every place and time. It is concerned with culture per se, whether it belongs to the primitive men of the Stone Age or to the European city-dwellers of today. All cultures interest the cultural anthropologist, for all contribute some evidence of men's reactions in cultural forms to the ever-present problems posed by the physical environment, the attempts of men to live and work together, and the interactions of human groups with one another.

Since cultural anthropology covers so wide a range of human activities, it is traditionally divided into three main branches: archeology, ethnology, and linguistics. Each of these has its own subject matter, and as a result has developed a distinctive methodology.

More recently a new type of division has been developing which divides the whole field of anthropology into two main branches, one emphasizing a historical approach, the other a nonhistorical, generalizing approach. No really satisfactory terminology has yet been developed for these two approaches, which differ not so much in subject matter as in ways of dealing with the data. 

A recent suggestion is that the first approach, emphasizing history, be called "descriptive integration". In this area would be included much of prehistory and ethnology, together with the strictly historical emphases of physical anthropology and linguistics. The purpose of this approach to anthropological data would be so to organize the data, whether on man's physical structure of his cultures, as to bring to light significant historical relationships. The second approach, with emphasis on generalization, would then seek to establish general principles applying to many sorts of data, regardless of the period in history to which they apply or their geographical distribution.
Photo Credit: Author

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.

An excerpt from the book: 

We have seen that anthropology, as a specialized biology, has drawn significantly on the exact and natural sciences out of which, in a very real sense, it has developed. In its relation to the humanities and the social sciences, however, anthropology is es- sentially the contributor, the synthesizing agent. This is as true of method as of objectives. To illustrate, the methods of anthro- pology used in studying human physical type are refinements of techniques of such older disciplines as anatomy and statistics, in this case adapted to the narrowed field in which physical anthro- pology specializes. The same principle applies also to prehistory, when considered in terms of the methods it employs that come from related fields. In the relation of anthropology to the social sciences and the humanities, however, it is the older disciplines that are the more restricted in scope, and have the more specific methods of attack.
Photo Credit: Author

The 1970s, A Season to Reflexive Turn, Turn, Turn

Another popular choice in this exercise is Victor Barnouw’s An Introduction to Anthropology: Ethnology.

An image of Victor Barnouw’s book, An Introduction to Anthropology: Ethnology showing a tilted Indigenous American wooden totem pole that has an eagle at the top with a bear carved beneath it. The book was published in 1971 by The Dorsey Press.
Photo Credit: Author

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.

An excerpt from the book:

Most anthropology textbooks list three major racial stocks: Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid. The Caucasoids are the so-called whites, who seem to have originated in Western Europe and who specialized in light pigmentation, so that some of the more northerly Europeans have light skin, blue eyes, and blond hair, although "Mediterranean" Caucasoids, found on both sides of the Mediterranean and extending eastward through the Near East into India, have dark hair and dark eyes.
The Negroids include the African Negroes; some writers have grouped the dark-skinned peoples of Melanesia with them as "Oceanic Negroes." Negroes generally have dark pigmentation, dark hair and dark eyes, a broad low-bridged nose, thick everted lips, and kinky or curly hair.
The Mongoloids include the Japanese, Chinese, and other peoples of eastern Asia; the Eskimos; and all the American Indians down to the tip of South America. They are therefore grouped around the Pacific Ocean. Mongoloids generally have straight black hair and dark eyes, with yellow- ish skin pigmentation. They often have broad cheekbones, low nose bridges, and eyes characterized by an epicanthic fold, a flap of skin which covers the inner pink margin of the eye near the nose. Facial and body hair are usually sparse.
In addition to the three large categories of Caucasoids, Negroids, and Mongoloids, various other groups can be distinguished which have some distinctive characteristics, such as the Bushmen of South Africa, the Ainu of northern Japan, the Australian aborigines, and the Polynesians. In some racial classifications these groups are listed as separate races, apart from the three major ones, while other authorities lump some of them together as subdivisions of the larger ones. The Melanesians and Papuans used to be classified with the Negroes of Africa, since they have dark skin, dark eyes, and often kinky hair; but it has been shown that Melanesians and Africans are not genetically related, for they differ completely in the com- position of their blood groups. Similarly, blood group studies show that there is no genetic relationship between the African Pygmies and the short- statured dark-skinned Papuan Negritos. Classifying people on the basis of common observable physical features may be misleading. Moreover, there has been much interbreeding among the human populations of the world.
There is a tendency in present-day physical anthropology to study the distribution of genetically determined single traits. When these are plotted, they often do not coincide very well with traditional racial group- ings. There is, for example, a high incidence of blood group A in Western Europe and high concentrations of blood group B in northwestern India, West Pakistan, and northern China and Manchuria. These distributions do not accord very well with traditional racial classifications.
Photo Credit: Author

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.

The image shows the cover of a book titled Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective by Brian M. Howell and Jenell Williams Paris. The book's cover is black and red with a photo of a neighborhood in a South American city. It was published by Baker Academic in 2011.
Photo Credit: Author

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.

Physical anthropology is, for many Christians, the most controversial sub- field of anthropology. For Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other religious people who believe God created the world, the scientific study of human ori- gins often raises difficult issues. For many Christians, their interpretation of Genesis precludes the idea that humans are descended from other life-forms. Others point to Romans 5:12, where Paul speaks of sin entering the world through "one man," meaning Adam must have been created separately from other animals. Even the idea of God selecting preexisting hominids in order to create God's image in them strikes many Christians as incompatible with scriptural accounts.
Other Christians believe that Genesis teaches theological truth but that it does not provide scientific or historical accounts of creation. These Chris- tians, including biblical scholars and theologians, as well as scientists and other scholars, believe the questions addressed by evolutionary theory are distinct from those answered by Genesis.' Today some Christians find their calling by working in areas of physical anthropology and primatology. They feel they can accept the mechanism of evolution as God's means of creating the world without compromising the authority of Scripture.
Understanding the relationship of creation to human development involves many fields of study, including theology, biblical exegesis, hermeneutics, geol- ogy, cosmology, genetics, and paleontology, as well as anthropology. Many excellent treatments of these issues from a variety of perspectives can address specific questions in much more depth than we can undertake here. For this book, with a focus on cultural anthropology, it is not necessary to settle these questions in order to understand how physical/biological anthropology fits within anthropology generally. Nor should questions about evolutionary theory be an insurmountable barrier for Christians to fully engage the disci- pline of cultural anthropology.
Photo Credit: Author

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.

The Anthropological Perspective
Anthropologists believe that culture is a part of everything human beings do and think, often in ways hidden from those immersed in it. The anthropological perspective, as we stated earlier, refers to the attempt by the anthropologist to explain a cultural context from the inside, understanding the motives, actions, and beliefs of others in their own terms. This does not mean anthropologists are trying to become different kinds of people, to "go native" and be completely submerged in a new culture. Rather, it means they learn the context and culture to the point that they can explain how the people of a particular culture or context understand the world, and how diverse aspects of their lives come together.
Photo Credit: Author

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.

This image shows the cover of a book titled Essentials of Cultural Anthropology: A Toolkit for a Global Age by Kenneth J. Guest. The white cover has a photo of brightly colored buildings on a street in a city in Asia. The book was published by W. W. Norton and Company in 2020.
Photo Credit: Author

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.

The world has changed dramatically in the past 40 years and so has the field of anthropology. Essentials of Cultural Anthropology: A Toolkit for a Global Age presents the theoretical, methodological, and pedagogical innovations that are transforming anthropology and highlights both historical and contemporary research that can provide students with insights about how anthropologists are approaching the crucial challenges and questions of our times.
Globalization. As the world is changing, so too are the people anthropologists study. Even the way anthropologists conduct research is changing. In the contemporary period of rapid globalization, the movement, connection, and interrelatedness that have always been a part of human reality have intensified and become more explicit, reminding us that our actions have consequences for the whole world, not just for our own lives and those of our families and friends. This book integrates globalization into every chapter, analyzing its effects throughout the text rather than in a series of boxes, icons, or the occasional extra chapter so commonly seen in contemporary textbooks. The introductory chapter, "Anthropology in a Global Age," establishes an analytical framework of globalization that is developed in every succeeding chapter-whether the topic is fieldwork, language, ethnicity, economics, kinship, or art and gives students the tools to understand the impact of globalization on people's lives as they encounter it in ethnographic examples throughout the book.

Reframing the Culture Concept. The concept of culture has been central to anthropological analysis since the beginning of our field. But anthropologists have significantly reframed our thinking about culture over the past 40 years.
Anthropology today retains its core commitment to understanding the richness of human diversity. As we will explore throughout this book, the anthropologist's toolkit of research strategies and analytical concepts enables us to appreciate, understand, and engage the diversity of human cultures in an increasingly global age and, in the process, to understand our own lives in a more complete way.
The Nacirema In a now-famous article, "Body Ritual among the Nacirema" (1956), anthropologist Horace Miner helps readers understand the tension between familiar and strange that anthropologists face when studying other cultures. Miner's article examines the cultural beliefs and practices of a group in North America that has developed elaborate and unique practices focusing on care of the human body. He labels this group the "Nacirema."
Miner hypothesizes that underlying the extensive rituals he has documented lies a belief that the human body is essentially ugly, is constantly endangered by forces of disease and decay, and must be treated with great care. Thus, the Nacirema have established extensive daily rituals and ceremonies, rigorously taught to their children, to avoid these dangers. For example, Miner describes the typical household shrine-the primary venue for Nacirema body rituals:
While each family has at least one shrine, the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret.... The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live. ... Beneath the charm-box is a small font. Each day every member of the family, in succession, enters the shrine room, bows his head before the charm-box, mingles different sorts of holy water in the font, and proceeds with a brief rite of ablution. (Miner 1956, 503-4)
Photo Credit: Author

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.

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