Anthropology is an incredible discipline, responsible for a wealth of scientific, social, and political contributions, and possessing a keen ability to propose whole new ways of thinking about human life. The problem I have with most anthropological writing, however, is that such important works are often weighed down with so much jargon that they become inaccessible to non-academic audiences, who generally (and understandably) don’t want to wade through pages and pages of dense, tedious text in order to learn something new and exciting.
This strange loyalty to jargon-coated information and the academic/non-academic divide has always bothered me, especially in a field like anthropology, which just has so much cool knowledge to offer. I think anyone, anthropologist or not, can greatly benefit from reading anthropological research, and luckily, there are many wonderful books out there that are very much accessible (and bearable) to non-academic audiences.
Here, I’ve compiled a list of books, in no particular order, that I consider to be the best anthropology reads for non-anthropologists. And I promise, these books are as informative and engaging as they are jargon-free.
The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession Along the Rio Grande,
The Pastoral Clinic is a powerful and confrontational depiction of heroin addiction in northern New Mexico’s Española Valley, home to the highest rate of herion-related deaths in the country. Intimate and frequently jarring, Angela Garcia’s award-winning ethnography chronicles the lives of several Hispaño residents as they navigate a landscape of addiction littered with systemic and institutional violence.
Arguing that widespread heroin use in the region is historically rooted in the material and cultural dispossession experienced at the hands of colonialism, Garcia’s work is a scathing critique of the institutional disparities that continue to fail the people of the Española Valley, and a loud call for reform. Beautifully written and heart-wrenching in content, Garcia’s narrative brings to light the politics (and the failures) of institutionalized care in the United States, and is a forceful invitation for us to reconsider the space between life and death, addiction and recovery, and the past, present, and imagined future.
Insectopedia, Hugh Raffles
Yes, this book is about bugs. Let me explain:
No matter where in the world we live, we are surrounded by insects. Those teeny-tiny creatures encourage some of our greatest fears and annoyances, yet we know very little about them and rarely pay them much mind until they’re crawling along our bedroom wall. Raffles is a long-established anthropologist known for his interest in human/non-human relationships, and in this book he aims to explore all of the varied and complex ways in which humans relate to and understand their co-existence with insects (like it or not).
Insectopedia takes the reader all over the world, from China to London to Raffles’s own New York City apartment. The chapters are arranged in alphabetical order (like encyclopedia entries), and range in length from one- to two-page vignettes to full-length essays. Through conversations, meditations, memories, and observational narratives, Raffles tells a beautiful and engaging story that, for me, succeeded in doing the one thing I never thought possible – it actually made me care about bugs.
Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism,
Lost in Transition brings together Kristen Ghodsee’s twenty years (1989 – 2009) of fieldwork and research in Eastern Europe. Immersing the reader in a narrative of political transformation through a lens of the everyday, Ghodsee brings to light the struggles of life in Bulgaria as corruption, unemployment, and complete social upheaval followed the tumultuous transition from communism to democracy in the former Soviet bloc.
Through captivating stories that chronicle a whole range of personal experiences (including her own), Ghodsee shatters common misconceptions of what the transition out of communism actually meant for people, and shows us, instead, how and why many remain nostalgic for the days before democracy. Haunting, raw, and brilliantly crafted, Lost in Transition is the story of the former Soviet Union no history textbook will ever tell you.
Ordinary Affects, Kathleen Stewart
Kathleen Stewart adopts an interesting ethnographic approach in Ordinary Affects, in that the project is, in essence, a prompt for us to turn an ethnographic eye on ourselves. Arranged in a series of vignettes, Ordinary Affects is aimed at looking at how our little, everyday encounters work to shape the way we see, feel, and react to the world around us.
Though the vignettes are based on Stewart’s own observations and experiences (many of the passage are, in fact, quite autobiographical), she writes in third person to further demonstrate the ways in which politics of the body, emotion, and perception are linked to the outside world. With its lyrical passages and keen insights into the most intricate experiences of the everyday, Ordinary Affects will leave you with a heightened sensitivity to the world around you, and will not be a book you will be satisfied in reading just once.
Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, Lila Abu-Lughod
In the words of the author, “Anyone seriously interested in Muslim women’s rights must follow them as they move.” This is precisely what Lila Abu-Lughod does in this book, inspired by an article she wrote in 2002 of a similar name and premise. Chronicling the lives and experiences of individual Muslim women, Abu-Lughod addresses (and tears apart) the common tropes that have come to surround Muslim women in today’s socio-political narratives.
Through a close look at how headscarves, the burqa, and arranged marriages have become just some of the issues at the forefront of the Western crusade to “save” women in the Middle East from Islam, Abu-Lughod presents a poignant counter-argument to considering women’s suffering solely within the context of their religion. Islam, she argues, is actually a source of empowerment for many Muslim women, who are much less inhibited by their religion as they are by Western military intervention, border controls, a discriminatory legal system, patriarchal family traditions, and widespread poverty. A sobering tale with a brilliant post-colonial feminist edge, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? is one of the most important books on women’s rights and international politics to surface in years.