How to Think Like an Anthropologist

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Matthew Engelke
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , February
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A few months ago in a conversation with a respected scholar, I was discussing research I had recently been doing on medicine and anthropology. Upon mentioning the word anthropology, I was surprised by my interlocutor’s reaction, offering the commonplace criticism that the study of Western society and culture is deemed “sociology” whereas the study of cultures outside of the West was considered “anthropology.” While such a distinction did hold true upon the founding of the discipline and well into the middle of the 20th century, anthropology has come a long way since. Perhaps more than any other discipline in the social sciences or humanities, anthropology is now one of the most self-aware and self-reflective. The characterization of anthropology as the study of the Other is an all-too-common misconception of what it today actually represents and seeks to explain, and something Matthew Engelke does well to challenge in his new book, How to Think Like an Anthropologist

Anthropology, Engelke tells us, is as much about analyzing the rise of electronic trading on the London Stock Exchange as it is explaining why there is an absence of bourgeois impulses amongst the hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert in Namibia. For the former, futures trading might be “a window onto the larger world of markets, morality, and conceptions of rationality”; for the latter, a proper ethnography of nomadic lifestyle may upend “the assumptions behind modern, Western understandings of economic rationality and behavior.” Two slices of culture then, in very different milieu but approximately the same era, tell us something about the human condition, albeit in a way that differs markedly from our intuitions. In this way, Engelke says, “anthropology is very good at questioning concepts, at questioning ‘common sense’” (6). 

Taking us into the thicket of these concepts and giving us a glimpse of the worlds behind them, Engelke’s book serves as an excellent introduction to the field of anthropology as an academic discipline and as a profession. Although the point of departure follows the clichéd yet accurate slogan of the discipline, “to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar,” the substance of How to Think Like an Anthropologist is anything but trivial. Having whetted the appetite of the uninitiated, Engelke continues his introduction to the field by giving a brief history of its founding figures, the gradual evolution of the discipline, and even a short analysis of the methodological split between British “social anthropology” and American “cultural anthropology.” 

Following this lucid introduction are nine chapters organized around various concepts. They are titled, in order from first to last: “Culture,” “Civilization,” “Values,” “Value,” “Blood,” “Identity,” “Authority,” “Reason,” and “Nature,” followed by a short conclusion and a list of suggested further readings. Familiar topics such as honor and shame are also visited, but in a way that intersects with newer and more novel approaches to the field. There is also brief discussion of politics, race, and colonialism. The list is neither exhaustive nor static, and one could certainly add more categories or contest the ones Engelke has chosen. However, the analysis shows how anthropologists are not focused solely on the Other as artifact but are in fact intimately attuned to the dynamic range of interpretation and meaning in different social environments. Insofar as anthropology is deeply engaged in the study of other cultures or perspectives, it also allows for the experience and exchange to reveal something about ourselves.

In this way, Matthew Engelke succeeds not only in helping us to learn howto think like an anthropologist but also whywe ought to think like an anthropologist. Whereas all academic disciplines seek to explain, often focusing on the universal or what can be reduced to material causes, anthropology is unique insofar as its explanations are very much dependent upon local knowledge: “Native points of view,” says Engelke, “are not just issues of perspective; they are matters of logic and modes of reasoning too. They reveal something of ‘how natives think’” (280). As a method and a way of thinking therefore, anthropology teaches us to question our own perspective in the world, and to think more deeply about what we often take for granted. We are reminded that our own modes of thinking or being in the world exist alongside many other alternatives. 

Above all, How to Think Like an Anthropologist accomplishes what it sets out to do in a clear and elegant way. It is an excellent introduction to the discipline and will be equally suited to the student of anthropology or the general reader interested in learning more about the field. And for veteran scholars in other fields who might be less well-acquainted with anthropology, perhaps How to Think Like an Anthropologist will give them pause for thought about what and how they think, and why.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yusuf Lenfest is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Harvard Divinity School. He is an independent scholar with research interests in anthropology, religion, bioethics, and medicine.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Engelke is professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. An award-winning author and teacher, he is also a former editor of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.



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