Best Books on Anthropology, for Beginners, the Classics and State-of-the-art ethnographies. Selected by an Anthropologist.
Anthropology, literally the “study of humanity”, is a highly fascinating subject, encompassing the narratives and methodologies of both scientific and humanistic fields to investigate some of the most crucial matters of our species.
Thanks to its holistic approach and multidisciplinary vocation, anthropology is the discipline that is most suited to eviscerate the complexities and critical turns of the contemporary world.
While, as an anthropology graduate, I’ve come across an extensive plethora of engaging anthropological texts, I’ve opted here to compile a small selection of valuable reads on anthropology that can offer a comprehensive introduction to the discipline.
The books on the list are intriguing and informative at the same time, mostly jargon-free, thought provoking and compellingly related to current affairs.
They will appeal to academics as well as to those interested in expanding their knowledge about human cultures while indulging in an entertaining read.
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Best Anthropology Books for Beginners
The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World
by Wade Davis, 2009
Written by a prominent anthropologist, ethnobotanist and National Geographic explorer, The Wayfinders is a passionate account of the author’s lifelong field experience englobing some of the most thrilling cultural environments of the six continents.
Through lyrical metaphors, the poetically weaved prose masterfully navigates the reader among multiple vivid manifestations of the ethnosphere, sparkling from the Penan hunters-gatherers of Borneo rainforest to the San bushmen of Kalahari desert.
Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century
by Charles King, 2019
Timely story of how a group of pioneering anthropologists founded the American school of cultural anthropology challenging the prejudicial notions of race, nationality, sex and gender.
Gods of the Upper Air unravels the adventurous life and work of Franz Boas and his distinguished students Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston and Ella Deloria as they conduct their field researches among various vanishing tribes in the beginning of the XX century.
The historically accurate yet entertaining narrative is dotted with each character’s personal details, uncanny romances and conflicts, endowing with an unprecedented human dimension these revolutionary thinkers responsible for reshaping our current value systems.
Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture
by Marvin Harris, 1989
The father of cultural materialism Marvin Harris has written the most accessible, easily readable and ironic anthropology books.
Best-selling Cows, Pigs and Witches may be outdated in some findings, materials and opinions, but it’s nevertheless a great introduction to the field of anthropological studies.
It’s a fun read, filled with intriguing anecdotes that give a simple, explanatory reason to some perplexing cultural beliefs and behaviors.
If you are interested in the author’s thesis on how economics, politics and environment determine human practices, Cannibals and Kings is a book on the same topic with a more comprehensive theoretical background.
Classics Anthropology Books
The Interpretation of Cultures
by Clifford Geertz, 1973
One of the most influential books in the field of cultural studies, Geertz classic is a fundamental text that has defined the boundaries of anthropology and underlined its prominence among the humanities.
Geertz striking interpretation of the Balinese cockfighting tradition, as well as his weighty metaphor of culture as a text, are undiscussed milestones in the history of the discipline.
by Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1955
Tristes Tropiques has been described as a literary masterpiece, an ingenious crossover between travelogue, memoir and philosophical meditation, and one of the greatest book of the twentieth century.
If that’s not enough to get you intrigued, just read the famous incipit of the book to grasp the ironically bittersweet sadness that permeates Lévi-Strauss dense pages:
“I hate travelling and explorers. Yet here I am proposing to tell the story of my expeditions.”
Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation
by Margaret Mead, 1928
This controversial study about Samoan adolescent girls established Margaret Mead as one of the most famous American intellectuals of her time.
Criticized over the years for its innovative conclusions on sexual mores and its non-strictly scientific style, Coming of Age has definitely represented a game changer in the anthropological debate, influencing the 1960 sexual revolution.
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures
by Anne Fadiman, 1997
A classical read on medical anthropology, The Spirit Catches You evolves around the touching story of a young Hmong girl affected by severe epilepsy.
The deeply moving, highly informative narrative tells the drama of a family of Vietnamese Hmong immigrants and the unbridgeable chasm between their cultural perceptions and the American medical system.
In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio
by Philippe Bourgois, 1995
Eye opening and poignant investigation about the crack cocaine trade in East-Harlem community.
In Search of Respect is a mind-blowing ethnographic research carried out by the author over the course of several years among the inner-city drug dealers.
The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins
by Anna Tsing, 2015
An insightful case study about the most sought-after mushroom on earth, the matsutake.
Exploring the multiple facets of human relations that develop around mushroom foraging, the author gives account of the intricate entanglements between ecology, capitalism and life-stories, challenging current orthodox understandings of economy and business.
Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous
by Gabriella Coleman, 2014
Written by a cultural anthropologist and ex-hacker now at the forefront of digital anthropology and digital activism, this is the best book about Anon global phenomena.
Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy is an in-depth, intelligent and humorous analysis of the social dynamics of Anonymous and its political implications.