If you’re thinking about taking up anthropology at degree level, or you’re simply curious about the discipline, it can feel quite intimidating to figure out where to start reading. Anthropology is a vast subject, encompassing elements of other disciplines in its methodologies and analyses, and as a result, there are thousands of books and journals available to read. But, where to start? As an anthropology graduate, I’ve enjoyed reading many anthropological texts, some of which have been salient in my personal development both as an individual, and as an academic. Here, I’ve compiled some of my favourite anthropological reads, as well as some fundamental books you should get acquainted with if you want to pursue anthropology at degree-level:
P.s. I’ve tried to find as many online free copies for the books I’ve mentioned in this post as possible (education should be FREE):
- Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber – I was privileged enough to be taught by Graeber himself in the second year of my degree, for a course in the anthropology of politics, economics and social change. His book on debt is a must read for anyone, whether you’re interested in anthropology or not. I’m not going to summarise the gist of the book here, I think that once you begin reading it, it’s content will speak for itself. Graeber’s writing is witty, sharp, and momentously riveting, and if you want to change the way you view our society, its history and the ways in which debt shapes both our lived experiences and the world we live in – this book is for you.
- Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo by Mary Douglas – One of the single most important works in anthropology, and a particularly valuable read if you intend to, or are currently, studying anthropology. Douglas’s book analyses the concept of what is considered ‘dirt’ as matter out of place, spearheading the idea that what is considered ‘dirty’ and ‘polluting’ is relative to social and cultural contexts.
- Do Muslim Women Need Saving? by Lila Abu-Lughod – Abu-Lughod is my favourite anthropologist, bar none. Her work has single-handedly inspired me to pursue anthropology at graduate level. Her texts on Muslim women and the veil, which deconstruct racist myths and stereotypes about Muslims that have been used to justify the War on Terror, are written with compassion, urgency and wit. Her moving and insightful ideas motivated me to also carve out my own space in this discipline. Since Do Muslim Women Need Saving? is a recent release, I couldn’t find a pdf copy of this book, but do check out one of her shorter pieces here.
- Crazy Like Us: The Globalisation of the Western Mind by Ethan Watters – This book details the Americanisation of mental illness, and its effects on non-western peoples whose conceptions of illness, wellbeing and the self are being homogenised by the globalisation of western models of mental health categorises. I read this as part of my anthropology of medicine and health class, and could NOT put it down.
- Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault – Another must-read for anyone in the social sciences. Foucault’s works are important in understanding how the state functions in relation to who it rules over. His works will make you completely rethink the ways in which you conceptualise governance, power and surveillance.
- Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter by Talal Asad – “We have been reminded time and again by anthropologists of the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment in which the intellectual inspiration of anthropology is supposed to lie. But anthropology is also rooted in an unequal power encounter between the West and the Third World, which goes back to the emergence of bourgeois Europe, an encounter in which colonialism is merely one historical moment. It is this encounter that gives the West access to cultural and historical information about the societies it has progressively dominated, and thus not only generates a certain kind of universal understanding, but also reenforces the inequalities in capacity between the European and the non-European worlds (and derivatively, between the Europeanized elites and the ‘tradtional’ masses in the Third World) . . .” – from the Introduction.
- Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson – Important book for understanding Anderson’s concept of the ‘imagined community’, which postulates the existence of imagined communities that exist as social constructs through the collective imagination of those who perceive themselves as part of those communities. Particularly relevant in the study of the nation-state, nationalism, religion and the formation of ideologies.
- Beyond Culture by Edward T. Hall – I would classify this book as a significant introduction to anthropological thought.
- How to Read Ethnography by Huon Wardle and Paloma Gay y Blasco – This supremely helpful guide to interpreting ethnography, is a must for students of anthropology. Unfortunately, the book is not available as a pdf, but I have found a sample from the introduction and opening chapter here.
- The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies by Marcel Mauss – I had to include Mauss’ The Gift in this list because it is one of the fundamental anthropological and sociological texts on gift-giving and reciprocity, which later inspired much of Levi-Strauss’s work, particularly in the conceptualisation of structural anthropology.