Anthropology: An Introductory Reading List

Two eyes with the reflection of the photographer in them, to illustrate anthropology reading list

Your mission:  to compile an introductory anthropology reading list.

Time allowed?  30 minutes.


Quick, get a definition.  Anthropology is… ‘‘The study of human societies and cultures and their development… also called cultural and social anthropology. (Oxford

Anthropology Online: A web search turns up:

  • Monaghan, John, and Peter Just, Peter, Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 9th edition, 2000).

…investigation of culture as a distinctively human characteristic, its doctrine of cultural relativism, and its methodology of fieldwork and ethnography…

  • Hendry, Joy, An Introduction to Social Anthropology: Sharing Our Worlds (Palgrave, 3rd edition, 2017).

‘With examples from around the world, a wide palette of topics, and clear explanations of key concepts and theories, this is a highly engaging and vividly rendered introduction…’ -Willam W. Kelly, Yale University

The web search also turns up a reading list for an ‘Introduction to Social Anthropology’ module, at SOAS University of London!  Task completed?  You pick out four titles:

  • Balzani, Marzia and Niko Besnier, An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (Routledge, 2016).
  • Delaney, Carol, An Experiential Introduction to Anthropology (Blackwell, 2004).
  • Eriksen, Thomas H., Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (Pluto Press, 2015).
  • Herzfeld, Michael, Anthropology, Theoretical Practice in Culture and Society (Blackwell, 2001).

But what about other areas of anthropology –  biological, digital, material culture, medical anthropology…?  Job not completed.

The Shelf Test

You are standing in front of the anthropology shelves in SOAS University of London library.  Quick, go for the spines with the green stickers – ‘one week loan only’ – they must be required reading:

  • Mary Douglas, Implicit Meanings (London & Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975):

You flick through the pages, and read:

‘The body communicates information for and from the social system in which it is a part.’

Chapter 6 asks:  Do Dogs Laugh?  Well, Do Dogs Laugh?  You’re too busy to stop but it sounds interesting.

  • Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture (London: The Free Press, MacMillan Publishing, 1940)

‘Anthropology, the science of man, is often held to be a subject that may satisfy our curiosity regarding the early history of mankind, but of no immediate bearing upon problems that confront us.  This view has always seemed to me erroneous.’

  • Talal Asad (ed) Anthropology & the Colonial Encounter (London: Ithaca Press, 1973

‘British functional anthropology began to emerge as a distinctive discipline shortly after the First World War through the efforts of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, but it was not until after the Second World War that it gained an assured academic status in the universities.’

So, anthropology is a relatively recent discipline?  The next one seems to delve into one of the subject’s founding figures:

  • Raymond Firth (ed) Man and Culture: An Evaluation of the Work of Bronislaw Malinowski (London:  Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957).

Its chapter headings include: Theory of needs… Theory of social systems… Fieldwork methods and the writing of ethnography… Ethnographic analysis and language… Theories of law…Study of kinship … Magic and Religion… Economic Anthropology… Study of Social Change… Anthropology as a Public Service.

What about this?

  • Leach, E. R., Rethinking Anthropology (University of London: The Athlone Press) 1971

‘The difficulty of achieving comparative generalizations is directly linked with the problem of escaping from ethnocentric bias.’

30 minutes are up.  Time to put your introductory reading list to the final test.

An Academic’s response:  Dr Marloes Janson

Students seem to like the Eriksen reading a lot:

  • Eriksen, Thomas H., Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (Pluto Press, 2015).

They also like:

  • Kate Fox’s Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (Stodder & Houghton, 2014) very much.

‘Her work involves monitoring and assessing global sociocultural trends,’ … and many aspects of human behaviour including: social aspects of drinking, sex differences, flirting, body image, pub culture, gossip, eating, health issues, taboos, horseracing, mobile phones, email, stress, drugs, crime, violence and disorder.’

For modern anthropology, see:

  • Jeremy Macclancy: Exotic No More: Anthropology on the Front Lines (University of Chicago Press, 2002).

‘In Exotic No More, an initiative of the Royal Anthropological Institute, some of today’s most respected anthropologists demonstrate, in clear, unpretentious prose, the tremendous contributions that anthropology can make to contemporary society.’

The BBC Radio 4 programme From Savage to Self gives a useful introduction into what anthropology is about (including current topics such as climate change and practical anthropology).

Further information

Dr Marloes Janson is Convenor for the BA Social Anthropology

BA Social Anthropology and…

Full list of anthropology degree programmes

Career opportunities

Social anthropologists work in diverse fields internationally, including business, information technology, the media, library and museum services, tourism, the education and health sectors, local government, and in advisory services. Increasing numbers work in the field of development, with UN agencies or non- governmental organizations, and others work as freelance consultants.

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