Books of 2017

The books I’ve read this year ask some big questions: How can we understand cultural diversity? How do classic works of social science come into being? What makes humans care for and do violence to each other? The issues fall into three buckets, which might be labelled cultural bias, the history of ideas, and human biology. They’ve made me think about how we relate to each other, and how anthropology relates to other disciplines.

1. Cultural diversity

What are the most important ways in which societies around the world differ? If you were forced to give a single answer, you could do worse than saying some value individual freedom over social relationships, and others value relationships over freedom. [1]

A problem with this view is that it takes societies to be homogeneous, whereas some of the most striking ideological divides are found not between societies, but (as Trump and the Brexiteers remind me) within them.

One school of thought that accounts neatly for this state of affairs is the ‘Culture Theory’ school of Mary Douglas. [2] The basic idea here is that viable ways of life can be characterized along two dimensions, hierarchy-egalitarianism and individualism-collectivism. This produces at least four sets of ideals about how to relate to others, and what kinds of power people can rightfully hold. Proponents of this theory call it “a middle ground between [a view that illuminates] what all social systems share in common (not very interesting) and [those that highlight] what is unique to each social system (fascinating but unrelated to anything else).” [3]

I’ve found it useful in teaching medical anthropology this year — showing how the same problem, for example how to secure access to clean water for people who lack it, can suggest strikingly different solutions depending on the ideological spectacles you wear.

2. How to make a canon

Within the egalitarian world-view, one of the most influential traditions is Marxism. If I were recommending one book on this tradition for an interested novice, it would be Francis Wheen’s ‘biography’ of Das Kapital. Rather than taking Marxism, or Marx himself, as his subject, Wheen deals with his magnum opus: how it came to be written (its gestation), its publication (birth), and its reception and interpretation (afterlife). [4]

This could usefully be read alongside other work on what might be called the social lives of books (e.g. da Silva & Bucholc on how Norbert Elias’ Civilizing Process gained its place in the sociological canon [5]). The question of what constitutes a “classic” remains a live one. [6]

3. Humans at our best and worst

The other book that marked the year for me deals with human biology, in a broad sense. Like Melvin Konner’s The tangled wing (which he cites as an inspiration), Robert Sapolsky’s Behave contains more food for thought than one would get from most undergraduate courses in anthropology. [7,8]

The material ranges from neuroscience and endocrinology to honour killings and the human tendency to think in terms of Us and Them. The trope Sapolsky uses for tying all this together is the various timescales over which human behaviour is influenced, from hormonal profiles to childhood experience, cultural traditions, and evolutionary history. Under chapter headings like ‘One second before…’, ‘Hours to days before…’ and ‘Back to when you were just a fertilized egg,’ he works backwards from a stereotypical ‘behavior’ (pulling a trigger, or caressing someone’s arm) to the various experiences that influenced it.

Rather than reading this book linearly, I’ve skipped around, and I won’t pretend I can sum it all up. But one strong point is right there in the Introduction. Interdisciplinarity, rather than being a weak position of wishy-washy types insecure in their own disciplines, is actually a vital necessity for a healthy academy, and by extension for a healthy society — i.e. one less likely to be hijacked by blinkered ideologists. One of the things that unites the behaviorism of John Watson, the Nazi eugenics of Konrad Lorenz, and the work of neurologist (and advocate of frontal lobotomies) Egas Moniz, Sapolsky writes, is a tendency to believe too much in the narrow view of the world their discipline (or sub-discipline) affords. All of these thinkers were, he argues, pathologically trapped in their own buckets.

“Be open to new light from wherever it may come”

The more I learn about the history of the social sciences, the more important this process of bucket-making seems. So much academic energy appears to be devoted to boundary-maintenance, attempts to take and hold territory. [9, 10] One of the things I love about anthropology is its breadth – its openness, as Quakers say, to light from wherever it may come. [11] This characteristic of anthropology shouldn’t be taken for granted. Rather, it has to be actively worked at. Just as with human relationships, and relationships between cultures, so relationships between disciplines need to be nurtured to prevent boundaries from hardening, sects from forming.

In this new year, I’m lucky to be working on two new research projects in Ethiopia and Kenya – collaborating with political scientists, geographers, environmental scientists, and peace researchers.

Will we understand each other? Will sparks fly? Stay tuned to find out!



[1] Ralf Dahrendorf called this a contrast between ‘bonds’ and ‘options’. See his book, Life chances: approaches to social and political theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1979).

[2]  Douglas, M. (1978). Cultural Bias. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

[3] Thompson, M., Ellis, R. J., & Wildavsky, A. B. (1990). Cultural theory. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. (p. 171)

[4] Wheen, F. (2008). Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography. Grove Press.

[5] Da Silva, F. C., & Bucholc, M. (2016). On the Pragmatics of Social Theory: The Case of Elias’s “on the Process of Civilization.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 52(4), 392–407.

[6] Col, G. da, Sopranzetti, C., Myers, F., Piliavsky, A., Jackson, J. L., Bonilla, Y., … Stoller, P. (2017). Why do we read the classics? HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 7(3), 1–38. [open-source]

[7] Konner, M. (2003). The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit. Henry Holt and Company.

[8] Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York, New York: Penguin Press.

[9] Meloni, M. (2016). The Transcendence of the Social: Durkheim, Weismann, and the Purification of Sociology. Frontiers in Sociology, 1. [open-source]

[10] Mitchell, T. (2005). The work of economics: how a discipline makes its world. European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes de Sociologie, 46(02), 297–320.

[11] Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. (2013) Quaker Faith and Practice. (Chapter 26: Reflections). London.


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Talking shit

Last week at UCL, Sjaak van der Geest of the University of Amsterdam gave a stimulating talk on the topic of faeces. His point of departure was the great 16th-century humanist Erasmus’ observation that his own shit was “bland” to him – not as awful to behold as that of others.

Why should that be? The principal explanatory framework that Sjaak invoked came from the the social anthropologist Mary Douglas. In Purity and Danger, Douglas argued that ideas of pollution in general are explicable on the basis of the degree to which they violate conceptual order. In Douglas’ terms, it’s not the (fecal) “matter” itself that’s dirty, only “matter out of place”. Since our own faeces are necessary and expectable, we’ll not be offended by them – provided we have access to a more-or-less private place to dispose of them.

Sjaak took this further: Next to our own, he argued, we’re likely to find the shit of our children or partners less disgusting than that of others, and so on. The less intimacy with the shitter, the more disgusting the shit.

Some of Sjaak’s examples of shit being “in place” – and therefore not eliciting feelings of disgust – went beyond the sphere of the intimate. For example, night-soil collectors, plumbers working in sewers, and nurses caring for patients who are incontinent, all may handle the faeces of relative strangers regularly, as part of their work. In a different place (for example on their sandwiches at lunchtime) the same stuff would be disgusting.

But in these cases, one might argue, couldn’t the absence of disgust be explained more parsimoniously by habituation? Or could both kinds of learning be involved?


There are other possible explanations too. The same phenomena Sjaak sought to explain by reference to social relations might also be explained from the point of view of disease ecology. A large literature from behavioural science and public health has looked at faeces from this perspective (e.g. Curtis & Biran 2001). From this perspective, we find our own shit less disgusting than others’, most of the time, because our own is unlikely to contain pathogens that are harmful to us. Those of our nearest and dearest, although they may harbour harmful pathogens, are less likely to do so than those of more distant contacts, because of shared environment.

Raising these alternative explanations isn’t to say that social relations aren’t important. They’re simply different levels of explanation.

This reminds me of Robert Sapolsky’s argument that, where human behaviour is concerned, explanation in terms of any one level of causation is almost always inadequate. Multilevel causation is the norm. Much of what we do and feel is shaped by culture: the network of concepts, symbols and habits that we learn as we grow up. But not all of it. A large part of what we feel and do is not explicable purely in terms of individual or social learning.

Nevertheless there’s a tendency within disciplines to focus on their own favoured explanatory frameworks to the exclusion of others – symbolism for social anthropologists, pathogen exposure for public health folks, and so on. It’s challenging to speak from a position of confidence about what makes humans tick – even about something as at first sight as simple as our relationship to dirt – without denying the validity of other levels of explanation. But that’s the challenge of a catholic anthropology (that is to say, one that embraces multiple ways of thinking about humankind).

This post originally appeared on the UCL Medical Anthropology blog, where it is accompanied by a response from Sjaak van der Geest.


Curtis, V., & Biran, A. (2001). Dirt, disgust, and disease. Is hygiene in our genes? Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 44(1), 17–31.

Douglas, M. 2000 [1966]. Purity and danger: an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York: Penguin Press.

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*New paper* ‘Do our bodies know their ways?’ Villagization, food insecurity, and ill-being in Ethiopia’s lower Omo valley

Some results from my research in Ethiopia are now available, ahead of publication in African Studies Review. The paper, co-authored with Lucie Buffavand, is a product of several years work in the lower Omo valley, where a massive hydroelectric dam and sugar plantations are reshaping the landscape and people’s opportunities to live within it. We investigated the experience of people subjected to a campaign of ‘villagization’ – resettlement associated with the establishment of plantations on lands previously used for farming, herding, and foraging.

At the heart of the article is ethnographic work that Lucie carried out among the Bodi, who were the first people in the region to be displaced by plantations. These ethnographic data are juxtaposed with a survey of food insecurity that I coordinated in the villagization sites and in a community not yet subjected to villagization.

One of our main findings is that the food insecurity survey (which resembles the data that policy makers might use to evaluate the villagization scheme) fundamentally misrepresents the situation on the ground. In government-designed villages, people reported less intense food insecurity, but this was not because the techniques of irrigated agriculture they’d been introduced to were working, but rather because the government was giving them food aid to tide them over. The ethnographic data make it abundantly clear that food security in a broader sense – a sense of confidence about supporting oneself in the long term – was better in those communities still able to make a living from their herds, from rain-fed fields, and from river-bank cultivation.

Ethnography also sheds light on the texture of life in the villagization sites, including the disruption and the isolation that the move entailed. “Do our bodies know their ways?” is a question asked by a man who was struggling to make it in one of the new villages, and who chafed at the conditions imposed by the scheme’s architects. He lamented the loss of old routines. Small pleasures like drinking coffee with your friends take on new importance when the circumstances you live in make them impossible.

shelter from sun

During a break from weeding, workers rig up a makeshift shelter and drink local beer.

The paper illustrates something I stress when I teach anthropological research methods, namely the value of using mixed methods. By holding the household survey data up to the light of ethnography, we got a better sense of what each represented than we would have done had we used one or the other method alone.

Since we carried out our research, things have gotten even more difficult for people in the lower Omo valley. In 2016, completion of the Gibe III dam led to the end of the annual flood that was the lifeblood of the region. Deprived of a reliable source of water for growing their crops, the Bodi and their neighbours are paying the costs of development, while others of us reap the benefits.




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Living on a fault-line

Or, the challenge of thinking geologically.

Last week I attended the Oxford Desert Conference, to bang the drum about work my colleagues and I are doing in the Turkana basin (stay tuned for more on that). I came away reminded of some important ideas that I’d not thought about for a long time.

The stand-out paper for me was about geology and cities. Richard Walker, a geologist who’s carried out long-term research in Iran, showed that several of the country’s cities are located at points of seismic instability. The places where you find the most people, in other words, also tend to be places with the highest risk of earthquakes.

Why? Because that’s also where groundwater is most likely to seep up through fissures in rock. And in arid or semi-arid parts of the world, the major limiting factor for life is water.

This phenomenon – the coincidence of settlements, springs, and seismic instability – is something I’d encountered 20 years ago, during my days as an archaeologist. From a season working on a field survey in north-central Turkey, one of the things that I remember most clearly is that scatters of pottery (the remnants of long-buried settlements) were most common along geological fault-lines.

This stuck with me because I recognized that it was emblematic of an important dimension of human experience that lies beyond ordinary perception. The choice of where to live (one of the most important decisions we make) is rarely one we make independently. And these communal decisions often expose us to substantial risks – risks that are often difficult to quantify, but real ones nonetheless.

Here, as often, global warming comes to mind. Like the tempo of earthquakes, the time horizon on which climate change plays out is longer than the one we ordinarily think with. Perhaps our brains aren’t wired to deal with slow-burning problems like these, as George Marshall has argued. [1]

That we’re vulnerable and short-sighted isn’t news. But we’re better equipped to make decisions (choosing where to live, or how to mitigate the risks of climate change) if we recognize the constraints we operate under.

As Jerome Bruner has written, “We cannot adapt to everything, and in designing a way to the future, we would do well to examine what we are and what our limits are.” [2]


[1] Marshall, G. 2014. Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. Bloomsbury.

[2] Bruner, J. 1972. The nature and uses of immaturity. American Psychologist, 27, 8, 687-708.

My thanks to Troy Sternberg for the invitation to attend the conference in Oxford.


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One of my favourite works of anthropology is a study of infancy among the Beng of Cote d’Ivoire. For people in this West African community, children are understood to come from the Afterlife. In their way of thinking, people’s spirits enter a sort of limbo when they die. When babies are born, they gain passage back into life.

Babies are welcomed home, cared for and venerated partly because they are recognized as the reincarnations of dead ancestors. [1]

There’s truth in the Beng way of thinking, because in a real (biological) sense children are the reincarnations of ancestors.

Michael Jackson (of Harvard’s Divinity School) used this as an example of alternative ways of conceiving of time, in a lecture at the ASA conference in Durham last year.

I cast my mind back to it recently in a reflection on the relationship between an aunt of mine who died six years ago and my daughter, who’s not yet six months old.


[1] Alma Gottlieb.The Afterlife Is Where We Come From.  University of Chicago Press (2004).

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Maps and the twentieth century

There is no internationally agreed map of the world. This is one of the more memorable things I took away from a recent exhibition at the British Library.

The exhibition, entitled “Maps and the Twentieth Century: Drawing the Line,” reviewed   landmarks in cartography over the course of the century, from schematic mapping of the New York subway system to the challenges of mapping glaciers that are melting faster  than we print atlases.

A project proposing an internationally agreed map of the world (based on a standard set of universally recognized coordinates) “was proposed by German geographer Albrecht Penck in 1981, and taken over by the United Nations after the Second World War.” “To date,” the exhibition suggested, “about 40% of planned world coverage has been produced.”

Interestingly, a parallel initiative was undertaken in the USSR using “Sistem 42,” “a geodetic system enabling standard grid reference system across all Soviet maps.”One of the maps on display at the BL was a remarkably detailed (1: 10,000) map of Brighton and Hove produced as part of this Soviet project in the late 1980s.

Maps and theory

In teaching anthropology, I use maps as a metaphor for theory. Like a map, theories  reveal something of interest to us at the expense of leaving other things out. A 1:1 representation of reality is rarely useful.



The exhibition at the British Library closed last week, but much of the content remains available through the BL’s website.

Maps and the Twentieth Century: Drawing the Line ran at the British Library from November 2016 to March 2017

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Books of 2016

These are the books that have made the greatest impression on me this year.

1. The idealist, by Justin Peters

Aaron Swartz was an IT prodigy who hacked the scholarly literature database J-Stor.  Brought to trial for doing so, he killed himself before the lawsuit was over. Much of this book is actually a primer of intellectual copyright law, a subject that sounds dry as can be, but which comes to life in relation to Swartz’s story. His idealism centred on a (fairly commonplace) belief in the power of technology and ideas to improve humanity, and a (more radical) conviction that “information should be free”. The lawsuit that serves as the hinge of the plotline opens up important questions about ownership. Who owns ideas? Writing? (Authors? Publishers?) Questions on which a lot hangs.

2. Cadillac desert, by Marc Reisner

Have you seen Chinatown? That classic movie is an allegory for the history of the American west, which rests in large part on the heroic measures taken with the region’s great rivers, variously dammed, rerouted, stolen, resold, and sucked dry. It’s an epic and tragic story of grand visions and wild successes, but also of profligacy and ruin. Despite the cautions that might be drawn from the experience, it’s also a history that’s being energetically emulated and repeated the world over, notably in Ethiopia. A good TV documentary based on the book was made in the 1990s.

3. Ecological imperialism, by Alfred Crosby

This could be read as a prequel to Cadillac Desert: it’s about the making of what Crosby calls the Neo-Europes, a process that included genocides in the Americas, Australia, and elsewhere. This is the original sin of Western civilization. Acknowledging it reframes what justice looks like in the present, for example at Standing Rock.

4. Writing for social scientists, by Howard Becker

This book is useful. Thanks to it, I’ve gotten more writing done this year than I would have done otherwise. Becker advises not just how to get published but how to write well — or at least, how not to write in the standard, turgid way. His advice, in a nutshell, is: Draft, and redraft. Avoid unnecessary citations. Don’t use five words where two would do. Write in your own voice.

5. The Faber book of children’s verse, edited by Janet Adam Smith

At bedtime my son likes to hear poems. This book contains some great ones. Although it’s compiled with children in mind, the anthologist made her choices on the assumption that children shouldn’t be condescended to, and that they can handle profound themes like love and death. (I’m increasingly led to think that children deal better with these aspects of life than many of us adults do.)

I leave you with a poem that’s helped me this past year, when despair has sometimes felt inescapable.

Everything changes. We plant
trees for those born later
but what’s happened has happened
and poisons poured into the seas
cannot be drained out again.

What’s happened has happened.
Poisons poured into the seas
cannot be drained out again, but
everything changes. We plant
trees for those born later.

— Cicely Herbert

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