'How To Think Like An Anthropologist' — And Why You Should Want To

Feb 13, 2018
Originally published on February 13, 2018 1:36 pm

Civilization originated in the Fertile Crescent region, including parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Egypt. That's the lesson most of us learned in school.

In it, civilization is used in a highly positive way to refer to the rise of city-states and the development of writing around the 4th millennium B.C.

But today, civilization is an idea too often used against people living in that area of the world, sociocultural anthropologist Matthew Engelke explains in his new book How To Think Like An Anthropologist. Engelke quotes, as an example, a U.S. Army colonel who, in conjunction with the war on terror, said this: "In Western Iraq, it's like it was six centuries ago with the Bedouins in their goat hair tents."

We need to see this statement and others like it for what it is, Engelke says: An attempt to relegate the Bedouins to living fossils who are stuck in time and badly in need of being civilized by the West.

It's not just military culture that buys into and furthers this "civilizing" perspective. In 2007, an aid project was launched by the African Medical and Research Foundation, Barclays Bank, and the British progressive newspaper The Guardian. Its goal was to deliver health care to the village of Katine in northern Uganda. The project itself was sensitive and nuanced, Engelke notes. The coverage in The Guardian was anything but. On Oct.20, 2007, a Guardian story was headlined this way: "Can we, together, lift one village out of the Middle Ages?" Beneath the headline is a statement about traveling "a few hours from London — and 700 years back in time."

What do these words signal but that the villagers need to be brought forward in time, into civilization?

That's dangerous thinking, Engelke says — and through the lens of anthropology, we can see why. From his book, published Tuesday:

"It prevents us from seeing that the lives of Katine villagers are not trapped in the fourteenth century but lived out in a twenty-first-century world shaped by a host of colonial and postcolonial economic and political dynamics... If we can place the African Other in an earlier age, we don't have to face up fully to the reasons why their lives don't look like ours."

In other words, it prevents us from seeing other people's humanity — and how Western colonization has impacted that humanity.

I love what Engelke does in this book. He takes a common word and unpacks it through anthropology, introducing readers to major thinkers and texts in the field along the way. Each chapter is centered around one such word: In addition to civilization, there's culture, values, value, blood, identity, authority, reason and nature.

The idea is that, as readers learn about these nine words, we learn to think critically about our own assumptions regarding people across the globe who may seem exotic to us. The trick, Engelke explains, is to avoid exoticizing these "others" and, at the same time, also to avoid "reducing cultural differences to the point of inconsequence." That balance sits at the heart of good anthropology.

How to Think Like an Anthropologist is intended for a "a wider audience, a wider public" to anthropology, to quote Engelke in his acknowledgments section. Doing this — informing and perhaps occasionally startling readers who aren't themselves anthropologists — is a profoundly important goal.

Engelke achieves his goal with crystal-clear writing, and occasional humor, too, as he recounts stories from his own fieldwork in Zimbabwe. His message unfolds in an open (never scolding) way: Whatever they may be, our own ways of being and becoming in the world aren't the only, or natural, ways.

Anthropologists adore debating with each other about our field, and I would debate Engelke on a few points. In noting that the linguistic and sociocultural subfields of anthropology are more intimately tied to each other than either is to biological anthropology or archaeology, Engelke makes a jarring statement. Sociocultural fieldwork, he says, can mostly proceed "without needing much recourse to paleopathology records or carbon-dated pot shards." Ouch. Biological anthropologists and archaeologists, in fact, study all kinds of dynamic social processes relating to equality and inequality in the past and present.

It's impossible to include everything in a volume like this. And yet, not a single mention of anthropologist Tim Ingold's work on nature and culture in a book so centrally concerned with these terms? (Ingold contests a notion of fundamental "human nature" and replaces it with a focus on developmental processes throughout people's lives.)

And no chapters devoted to gender and power? It's true that both of these concepts make appearances throughout the book. Still, with gender in particular I'd say, there's a crying need for anthropologists to push back against routine assumptions of male-female, gay-straight binaries that simply don't reflect human reality now or in the past. (See my contribution to a review symposium, published online last month, about Mark Regnerus' book Cheap Sex.)

What I'm doing here is less an act of criticism, I think, and more a request for a sequel: More Ways To Think Like An Anthropologist, perhaps? In short, I believe in the project Engelke is engaged in and hope it may expand.

I asked Engelke, via email, how he would reply to a person who comes across his book on a bookstore shelf and wonders: Of what use is it for me to think like an anthropologist? He replied:

"Thinking like an anthropologist is a great way to question your taken-for-granted assumptions. We all have 'common sense,' of course, but what anthropology teaches you is how varied this can be, in different places and times. Anthropology is about 'the other,' but it's also about 'the self.'"

Exactly so. As Engelke writes in the book, what sets anthropology apart from other disciplines in the social sciences or humanities is the extent to which its explanations "are dependent upon local knowledge." Those explanations lead to fresh understandings of ourselves as well as all those "others" in the world. In Engelke's words:

"'We' are not as civilized and 'they' are not as primitive. We are not as modern, they are not as traditional. We are not as scientific, they are not as mystical. We are not as rational, they are not as irrational."


Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's new book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with her on Twitter @bjkingape.

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