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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