Think Like an An­thro­pol­o­gist

THE (Times Higher Education) - - BOOKS -

By Matthew En­gelke Pen­guin Books, 368pp, £8.99 ISBN 9780141983226 Pub­lished 31 Au­gust 2017

Why would any­one want to think like an an­thro­pol­o­gist? Or per­haps we should ask, rather, why any­one would want to think like a so­cial an­thro­pol­o­gist, for this is a book about so­cial/cul­tural an­thro­pol­ogy and it does not con­sider any bi­o­log­i­cal sub­jects (such as how we’re here in the first place).

In many ways, the an­swer is sim­ple: be­cause that’s what all so­cial an­thro­pol­o­gists would like us to do. It’s some­thing of an oftre­peated but rarely quan­ti­fied trope (es­pe­cially in univer­sity prospec­tuses) that the skills found in so­cial an­thro­pol­ogy are the key to un­lock­ing the mys­ter­ies of hu­man­ity and are de­manded hun­grily by every­one from gov­ern­ment and big busi­ness to the mil­i­tary. If only the world would recog­nise the in­her­ent wis­dom of so­cial an­thro­pol­o­gists, we’d all be much bet­ter off.

But there is a prob­lem: by and large, so­cial an­thro­pol­o­gists write only for one another us­ing im­pen­e­tra­bly dense lan­guage and sel­f­ref­er­enc­ing the­o­ries that, iron­i­cally, would be wor­thy of ethno­graphic study. Pub­lic-fac­ing or me­dia-friendly so­cial an­thro­pol­ogy is ex­ceed­ingly rare, and the few ex­am­ples, such as Bruce Parry’s TV shows, are re­garded with sus­pi­cion by “proper” an­thro­pol­o­gists de­spite act­ing as many young peo­ple’s in­tro­duc- tion to the sub­ject.

Matthew En­gelke’s brave book is an at­tempt to shine a light into the an­thro­po­log­i­cal dark­ness and demon­strate that so­cial an­thro­pol­ogy and so­cial an­thro­pol­o­gists (for all their ob­fus­ca­tory lan­guage) can of­fer gen­uine in­sights into the mod­ern world and help to craft so­lu­tions to 21st-cen­tury prob­lems. In this, it’s partly a suc­cess and partly a fail­ure. This is mostly be­cause of the way the book is struc­tured, which is rather akin to ex­plain­ing a joke – by the time you’ve done it, it’s not re­ally that funny any more. In essence, the book can’t de­cide if it is about an­thro­pol­ogy or is an an­thro­po­log­i­cal book. In other words, too often you are left won­der­ing why you would want to think like an an­thro­pol­o­gist if this is how they think.

The sec­tions when En­gelke is telling an­thro­po­log­i­cal sto­ries and high­light­ing their value are ex­cel­lent and carry the reader along with pace and verve. But too many sec­tions are bogged down with an­thro­po­log­i­cal fealty and ref­er­ence to the­o­ret­i­cal con­struc­tions that would be best left in the sem­i­nar room. The most glar­ing ex­am­ple of this comes from the early chap­ters that of­fer a pot­ted his­tory of the sub­ject from a UK-US per­spec­tive and pro­vide pen sketches of key thinkers and the­o­ries that soon get ob­scured by caveats and the­o­ret­i­cal me­an­der­ings. The chap­ters deal­ing with broad con­cepts such as “iden­tity” and “rea­son” are much bet­ter, of­fer a huge range of fas­ci­nat­ing dis­cus­sions of hu­man di­ver­sity and are clearly the work of an au­thor hav­ing tremen­dous fun with ma­te­rial he knows in­side out.

Ul­ti­mately, the reader is left with the lin­ger­ing im­pres­sion that so­cial an­thro­pol­ogy has an iden­tity prob­lem and does not re­ally know what it wants to be: a rather de­tached par­tic­i­pant ob­server of hu­man­ity or a prac­ti­cal sub­ject that acts as a con­duit be­tween peo­ples, or­gan­i­sa­tions and gov­ern­ments in an in­creas­ingly com­plex world? This book shows that think­ing like an an­thro­pol­o­gist is some­thing that we should all do more often, but an­thro­pol­o­gists should also re­mem­ber the ad­vice of Ge­orge Or­well and keep it sim­ple when they write. Si­mon Un­der­down is se­nior lec­turer in bi­o­log­i­cal an­thro­pol­ogy at Ox­ford Brookes Univer­sity.

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