Book Review: “How to Think Like an Anthropologist”

After each semester I evaluate what did and didn’t work in my classes. I didn’t teach Introduction to Anthropology for Fall 2018 so I had an extra semester to think about what I wanted to do with the course moving forward. I have decided to move on from using a textbook (despite the fact that I am fond of Anthropology by Welsch, Vivanco, and Fuentes) and steer the course in a new direction.

In classic anthropological fashion, I interview my students each semester to get an idea of what engaged them, what worked and didn’t, and what they hope to get out of a course as broad as an introduction to anthropology. After much reflection, I have decided to make the course less about having them try to memorize loads of anthropological concepts and instead focus on training them to think anthropologically.

This coincided with the release of Matthew Engelke’s 2018 book, How to Think Like an Anthropologist, which covers nine different words/concepts that are of import to anthropology but are often taken for granted. Culture, civilization, values, value, blood, identity, authority, reason, and nature are all covered in turn. Each is presented and picked apart, transforming these commonly used and taken for granted words into something strange and exotic.

In terms of the text itself, this book stands as a model for clear and effective writing. At no point does the book get bogged down in jargon or unnecessary details and yet maintains a richness that is intellectually and imaginatively engaging. How to Think Like an Anthropologist is a clinic in smooth transitions with each section and chapter smoothly moving into the next which pulls the reader in and makes them want to continue reading.

Of course, the excellent writing would be for naught without excellent content and this book delivers in droves. Despite the fact the each chapter is dedicated to a single word, Engelke is able to use that word to deliver seminal texts, important anthropological thinkers, important insights, firm critiques, and great anthropological contribution; it is packed to the brim while never feeling overwhelming.

This depth without being overwhelming is why I chose this book for my Introduction to Anthropology course. So often, students tell me how they feel inundated because the textbook throws so many different concepts, definitions, examples, and thinkers at them and it becomes difficult to disentangle. I think that this forces students to get caught up in details instead of focusing on the big picture themes in the chapters which results in students getting less out of the course.

Couple that with the fact that, of the 100 student class I teach, only 1-5 students will major or minor in anthropology. For those students, they will constantly engage with anthropological texts, scholars, and theories. For the other 95-99 students, this will be their anthropological experience and it is important to make sure they get the most out of the course. Regardless of a students major and career path, thinking anthropologically will be an effective and arguably, necessary skill to have in their careers and every day lives.

My hope is that this course provides students with a critical anthropological lens with which to evaluate the world around them. As I have argued in Conference Transcript: “Slipping Into Darkness: Recruiting and Student Understanding of Anthropology as a Field and Major”, anthropology has done a poor job at making itself relevant to students. The goal of this course is to effectively demonstrate the utility of anthropology to solving real human problems. This becomes even more dire as we experience greater consequences of anthropogenic climate change (biodiversity loss, drought, food insecurity, inequality, infectious disease spread, etc.).

I see How to Think Like an Anthropologist as the perfect tool to critically engage students with anthropology. Beyond the utility of the book for my course, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in sociocultural anthropology or even challenging their everyday notions of who we are and where we come from.

See my course syllabus here: Spring 2019 Introduction to Anthropology Syllabus


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