Back in secondary school, I had a teacher who was fond of saying “Geography is everything” (three guesses as to what she taught). I was always slightly dubious that one discipline could encompass everything, least of all one which, at that point, was still just studying mountains and the weather. Cut to today and I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for my teacher’s argument, although it has been displaced by the field I’m growing increasingly fond of: anthropology.
“What is it that makes us human? What is it that we all share, and what is it that we inherit from the circumstances of society and history? What can seemingly small details, like the cultural significance of maize or our use of computers, tell us about who we are?”
In 319 pages, Matthew Engelke breezes through the history of anthropology, honing in on themes which reoccur throughout human cultures, from blood and values to authority and civilisation. Each chapter will unlock a different crevice of your mind, leading you to question fundamental things about how you perceive the world, such as why we can immediately jump to “uncivilised” as an adjective for non-western cultures, or why we find it effective that the Ten Commandments were inscribed in stone.
As the quote outlines, seemingly insignificant details about our lives can be indicative of much bigger things. We find it effective because stone is durable, and harder to write upon than dirt or paper, thereby implying considerable effort on behalf of the writer which leads us to respect them. So why do we respect effort? And why is that which is durable preferable to what isn’t? Each question prompts dozens more, but Engelke’s writing manages to avoid getting bogged down in intellectual masturbation.
Fortunately, this makes Think Like an Anthropologist easily accessible to a wide audience. It’s possibly better geared towards students than someone who isn’t a regular reader, but even so, it’s worth picking up even if you’re not keen on studying. The beauty of anthropology is that it’s the study of humanity, making it applicable to each of our lives in a way which other academic disciplines perhaps do not seem so.
On a practical level, anthropology involves close study through fieldwork – immersing oneself in a culture, or, at least, examining their cultural output from afar. To go for a western example, what does it say about America that Star Wars is the most successful film franchise of all time? Even that is a kind of visual anthropology (and don’t get me started on the idea of visual imperialism, or the ethics of documentary filmmaking). Anthropology really can be everything.
But back to the book. The area I found most interesting is the work of Franz Boas, a key member of the anthropological canon. Boas proposed that our perception of the world is influenced by our culture; essentially, a man educated in Eton will see things differently to a woman from Pakistan who could not receive an education. There are innumerable cultural factors at play in this scenario but you can easily appropriate it to different people in your life. It seems obvious to begin with, but if how we think is influenced by our environment, does that mean there’s no such thing as free will or individual thought? And, if this is the case, to what extent is our identity malleable? If one recognises their cultural influences, can they seek new influences? Again, the questions can be endless, but Boas’ “cultural glasses” theory is fascinating, and one which all ought to consider when assessing their own worldview.
If you have ever found yourself wondering why you see the world in the way that you do, then I cannot recommend Engelke’s Think Like an Anthropologist enough.