The Reading Life: Cultural (and some Physical) Anthropology

I have a degree in Anthropology from the University of Iowa. I focused on cultural anthropology, and I was even planning on getting my PhD. Then I thought about it for a minute: did I really want to spend ten years in grad school? No. Did I want to spend most of my time writing books so I could get tenure? No. So I left anthropology-land and moved to library-land, which has treated me well.

However, I still have a huge soft spot for anthropology. A quick definition: Random House Webster’s Dictionary defines “anthropology” as “the science that deals with the origins, development, characteristics, and customs of humankind.” This differs from sociology, which is defined as “the study of the origin, development, organization, and functioning of human society.” Anthropology is more qualitative, while sociology is more quantitative. I like to think of it like this: an anthropologist will ask, “Why do people behave in this way, and to what end?” while a sociologist will ask, “What are the data regarding people’s actions, and how does it affect economics and other social statistics?”

These titles are ones that I have read, studied, enjoyed, and recommend. My particular focus was women’s studies and “modified studies,” meaning the study of tattoos, piercings, and other body modifications. In fact, if I had gone through with my PhD, I was going to study loyalty relationships between tattoo artists and their clients. Oh well.

Don’t be scared off by these books because they are kind of academic. Most anthropological texts published in the recent past are more colloquial than one would think. Give them a try.

Magical Writing in Salasaca: Literacy and Power in Highland Ecuador by Peter Wogan

Most people in North America think literacy is a vital skill to having a happy, successful life. However, in Salasaca, a village in Ecuador, the indigenous people view written language in a very different way. Writing in Salasaca is a form of magic; most of the written documents these people come in contact with are related to the church, such as birth and death records, marriage certificates, etc. Wogan looks into the relationship the villagers have with writing and shows how written language can be viewed in multiple ways. A charming, wonderful book that reads more like a travel diary.

Our Women are Free: Gender and Ethnicity in the Hindukush by Wynne Maggi

This is one of my favorite ethnographies ever. An ethnography is a work that is about a specific ethnic group; in this case, the Kalasha, a tiny community of indigenous people in Pakistan. The Kalasha practice a pagan religion that lets their women have much more freedom than other women in the same region. One interesting thing the Kalasha do is segregate the women once a month to menstrual huts. This doesn’t sound like women’s lib at work, but the women use the huts to their advantage. The men can’t enter the huts, for fear of being touched by a menstruating woman, so the women will tease the men as they walk past the area. The women will also pretend that they are menstruating so they can go hang out with their friends. This book will turn your idea of free women on its head.

The Bakairí Indians of Brazil: Politics, Ecology, and Change by Debra Picchi

The Bakairí are a tribe in the Brazilian rainforest. They are on the  edge of civilization, and have been trying for years to hold onto their traditions in spite of their proximity to mainstream Brazil. This book is exceedingly accessible for anyone interested in indigenous people and their relationship with the environment and the government.

Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman by Marjorie Shostak

This book is a classic. The !Kung are a tribe that live in Botswana and parts of Angola. Nisa was a woman in her fifties in the early 1970s. She had been through a lot in her life; this book is a combination of her stories and Shostak’s experiences with the !Kung tribe. The !Kung are hunter-gatherers, a lifestyle that is becoming increasingly rare. The way Shostak tells Nisa’s story is touching and vivid. If you  like storytelling, tribal history, and/or women’s studies, this book is a great choice.

Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body edited by Rosemarie Garland Thomas

This one kind of straddles the border of anthropology and sociology. I used it for a sociology class, appropriately titled “The Sociology of Freakishness,” but I personally think the essays within are more anthropological in nature. There are twenty-six essays in this text, covering topics like human oddities in modern England, cuteness and commodity aesthetics, and talk shows, like Jerry Springer, as freak show. This is not light reading by any means, but some of these essays are worth reading by people from any background or field. In my strange brain, any book with the word “enfreakment” in the table of contents is worth checking out. Bonus: there’s an essay about Michael Jackson.

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal by Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond is to evolutionary and physiological anthropology as Dr. Oz is to medicine; I mean that Jared Diamond’s work is extremely popular, but he doesn’t make you feel stupid while you’re reading. Diamond explains things in frank language and interesting anecdotes. If you like this book, about how humans came to be, try his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums by Stephen T. Asma

Museums seem like authoritative places, places where the truth is always presented in a nice diorama, and that’s that. This book really opened my eyes about how museum exhibits are created, displayed, and crafted. Asma recounts the history of natural history museums, which started as traveling side shows to exhibit animal and human oddities. He also writes about the research going on behind the scenes at some of the world’s preeminent natural history museums. Funny, weird, cool, and fascinating.

And I could go on and on. Anthropology is endlessly interesting to me. What interests you? Let me know!

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About Amanda K

Amanda K holds a master's degree in Library and Information Studies. She's a housewife, a Planned Parenthood volunteer, a sewist, and an aspiring gourmet home cook. View all posts by Amanda K

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