How To Think Like An Anthropologist: An Interview With Matthew Engelke

How To Think Like An Anthropologist: An Interview With Matthew Engelke

2Anthropologists — especially American anthropologists — fret endlessly that they are not doing enough to make their work more widely known, their opinions more widely shared, and their impact more deeply felt. In some sense, we have less and less to worry about. Anthropology twitter is rich and active, and there are more websites about anthropology than there ever have been before. With the arrival of Sapiens in 2016 anthropology has a full-time high-quality popular journalism presence, and last year saw the launch of Perspectives, the first open access textbook for cultural anthropology. Overall, things are looking up for anthropology’s public presence.

That said, there is still an important piece missing in cultural anthropology’s portfolio of outward-facing publications: The popular nonfiction book designed to explain sociocultural anthropology to the lay reader. To be sure, anthropology has a long history of producing such works, ranging from The Mind of Primitive Man to Mirror for Man to A Runaway World to more recent titles. The other subfields have done a great job producing titles, such as Fuentes’s Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You and The Creative Spark. But it’s been a while since someone has stood back and described the cultural (or social, or sociocultural) end of our discipline in a way that was accessible to the non expert while still being recognizable to us. It gets a little frustrating to tell people  “Jared Diamond doesn’t get us” but then be unable to point people to a book or author who does explain who we are and what we think we are doing.

The cover of the American edition of How To Think Like An Anthropologist

I was pleasantly surprised, then, to read Matthew Engelke’s How To Think Like An Anthropologist. It’s a remarkable volume which does a great job of explaining in clear terms what sociocultural anthropology is doing theoretically. It is clearly and conversationally written. It simplifies, yes, but the simplification never gets too simple. It is inexpensive (an important consideration) but not, alas, open access. Engelke has a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, and a BA from Chicago, but teaches at the London School of Economics, so he does not present a narrowly American point of view of the discipline, although I suppose he does present an anglophone one. Best of all, the people and topics in the book really are who and what anthropologists talk about, ranging from classic (the book begins with Frank Hamilton Cushing) to contemporary (Viveiros de Castro). There are familiar topics as well: honor and shame in the Mediterranean, identity in Mashpee, even ontology and perspectivism. At the same time, the book is refreshing. There aren’t chapters on ‘kinship’ ‘economy’ and ‘power’. Instead, familiar topics are combined in new ways in chapters with titles like ‘authority’ and ‘blood’ and (my favorites) the back to back chapters ‘values’ and ‘value’.

I wanted to learn a little bit more about the book and how Matthew ended up writing it, so I sent him some questions over email. Here is our conversation:

You are best known as an Africanist and an anthropologist of Christianity — how on earth did you end up writing a generalist book like this?

I started to write for more general audiences several years ago, largely through a series of pieces for the Guardian. Those focused in one way or another on my research at the time, which concerned secular humanism in Britain, but I also pitched a piece to them about Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, which seemed to me to cry out for some anthropological commentary, since no one was picking up on the ironies of a state funeral and the importance of community for political legitimation—and this for the politician who said there’s no such thing as society.

Those pieces caught the eyes of a couple of trade press editors, including one at Penguin, who was working on the re-launched version of the Pelican series. Pelican was, for more than 50 years, an incredible outlet for serious books for the “general reader,” discontinued in the late 1980s, but revived in this new age of desire for beautifully designed, candy-like objects. I couldn’t resist the invitation to write for them, because I have admired the ethos of the series for years—and because I fetishize that special combination of paper, ink, and glue known as a nicely produced book. 

What genre is this book? A textbook? What previous books did you model this one on? Does it grow out of a class you’ve taught in the past?

Almost at the same time I signed on to Pelican, I had lunch with Fred Appel, of Princeton University Press, and he asked me if I thought there was any market for an anthropology book that was an introduction to the discipline, but for the general reader. He had in mind the classic sociology offering, Invitation to Sociology, by Peter Berger; he might as well have mentioned Kluckhohn’s Mirror for Man (that is a great one) or, for that matter, Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (definitely my favorite still). These are not “textbooks” in the way we normally think of textbooks today—they tell their own stories, they have their own slants, and they don’t try to be encyclopedic. But they reach out to non-specialists—to students, sure, but also autodidacts; painters with a special interest in Polynesian textile designs; NGO workers in various parts of the world; curious family members; and so on. I’ve had several students at LSE say they bought my book for their parents, who weren’t quite sure what their children were up to at university. I’m always glad to hear about that kind of readership. Mom and dad!  

So that’s what I’ve gone for with How to Think like an Anthropologist. Happily, I was able to work with Princeton, in addition to Pelican, which published it first in the United Kingdom, because Princeton secured the rights for the United States edition. I do hope the book finds a place in the classroom, but it was not written with the classroom only in mind. 

I also see the book as a love letter of sorts; I want it to convey my love of anthropology, and I hope that’s infectious. It does grow out of some of my teaching, yes, but more than that, what I was taught—both formally, at Chicago and Virginia, and informally, from colleagues and students at LSE.

I really enjoyed your book, but I am afraid I liked it so much because we both studied at Chicago and worked with some of the same people. Do you worry that your version of ‘how anthropologists think’ is really just ‘what Chicago grads think’? Or ‘what we teach at the LSE’? How did you try to broaden your perspective when you wrote this book?

This picks up on the last point well. But I don’t worry about it at all. 

This is a Chicago book. And a Virginia book. And an LSE book. There’s no doubt about that, and I think a book like this—written for a wider public—has to be fueled by what one knows, and where one comes from.  

That said, I did take the opportunity of writing this book to read up on some debates and areas of anthropology which I didn’t know much about. I won’t tell you which areas those were, because I don’t want to break open any façade I have managed to build up of speaking authoritatively and confidently! 

Still, to write what one likes should never be about settling into a comfort zone. Indeed, another impetus to writing this book is that it forced me to read more widely than I usually get to. I’m sure you experience the same thing: the further along you get in an academic career (or, I suspect, any professional career), the more restricted your focus, in terms of reading. Gone are the days of college and grad school when I would roam among the periodicals display and library stacks. 

I suspect some people will find your book insufficiently focused on politics, race, inequality, structural violence, colonialism, and other topics. How would you answer a critic who would say your work is too focused on white, institutionally empowered authors and their pet topics?

Let me take that in a few steps. First, I think we’d need to unpack what “institutionally empowered” means. In some respects, Ruth Benedict was institutionally empowered. But I don’t think we can rest the matter there, since being a woman and not conforming to heteronormative expectations problematize any blanket notion of what it means to be “institutionally empowered.” The example of Benedict is only one of many that could be used to make this point, and it’s also not a point confined to anthropology or the academy’s past. In short, there’s a difference between being in a powerful institution and being empowered by it. 

The book highlights the work of a range of anthropologists, including those who have not gone on in academia. Isabella Lepri, whose work I discuss at length, for example, left the academy to become a potter. I went into this project with an intentional commitment to draw on work produced by a diversity of—and diverse—scholars. 

Like, I couldn’t imagine having written this book without featuring the work of such key figures as Lila Abu-Lughod, Arjun Appadurai, Lee D. Baker, Yunxiang Yan, Hussein Ali Agrama. All of these anthropologists have made an impact on me. And I couldn’t have imagined writing this book without discussing the work of Frantz Fanon, or highlighting the important role of, say, Birmingham School cultural studies, in pushing anthropology’s boundaries and commitments. 

At the back of the book, I have a short discussion on “further reading,” and I hope some of these suggestions get taken up. I limited the list to ten books. It includes the work of some of today’s most interesting voices, such as Alpa Shah and Jason De León, as well as a fantastic book that sits at the intersection of anthropology and science and technology studies, Kim TallBear’s Native American DNA. These are further ways in which my training and my own sensibility are reflected. 

Similarly, while you’re right to have pointed out earlier that the book has an Anglo-American framing, I also couldn’t have imagined not featuring excellent work from elsewhere; from anthropologists based in/from Brazil, Norway, India, Qatar. (Over and above France and Canada and Germany…)

So, maybe part of such a discussion would have to address what constitutes sufficiency. A lot of the book is about politics, race, inequality, structural violence (albeit never labeled as such), and colonialism. I begin the introduction with Frank Hamilton Cushing, pointing out the good, bad, and truly ugly aspects of his time in Zuni. I have a whole chapter on “civilization,” which is, as I argue, a term fatally compromised by the legacies of colonialism—and, worryingly, still much in use today, from Trump in his recent speech in Warsaw to the BBC’s new television series on “Civilizations” (for which the plural only redeems so much). I have several lengthy sections on race and take the opportunity in these discussions to connect to important work in biological anthropology, pointing to the myths of race and problematic use of the term in scientific discourse. Adriana Petryna’s work on biological citizenship and the Chernobyl disaster is a centrally featured case, and I argue that we cannot understand globalization or development outside the logics of Western imperialism. (Here is where Fanon’s work is still so helpful and prescient.)  

So, yes: I wanted the book to address questions of power and inequality at every turn. Or maybe another way to put this is: there is much in the book that reflects the realities of the world. At the same time—and this gets back to questions of audience and reach—I think a book like this should address the realities of the world as broadly as possible, and that might mean (as for me) discussing Hopi grammar, tropic predications for the Bororo, and the Kula. Are these pet topics? I wouldn’t say so.  

Was there anything that got cut out that you would like to have included? Any particular topics or chapters that just didn’t quite manage to get fit in to the volume?

I didn’t have to cut out anything that I drafted. But then again, I knew I had about 75,000 words, so I did the cutting in my head. And of course there was tons of that. 

I would have loved to have had a section on sacrifice in the chapter on “blood,” since there is so much great classic (and recent) work on that topic. I also had in mind doing a section on race by centering it on Detroit, drawing on the work of John Hartigan, Aimee Meredith Cox, and Andrew Shryock (interesting not least since that trio of authors would also allow for explorations of race vis-à-vis class and national identity). I also could think of far more than 10 titles for the “Further Reading” section that concludes the book, but had to keep it reasonable. 

What advice would you give to people trying to reach out to a wider audience or a mainstream publisher?

Don’t try to include it all. That will paralyze you. 

And don’t hedge too much. Be very economical with the use of scare quotes, clauses in which you qualify and undercut what you say, and the like. 

This can be very difficult for anthropologists, and it is not always easy to separate out the difference between timidity and thoughtfulness. Of course we find it difficult to write about traditional ways of life without putting it in terms of “traditional” (so-called) ways of life. But the more you qualify your prose, the narrower your “wider audience” will become. 

I also think part of this has to do with the question of institutional empowerment you raised before. Or, more specifically, for academic anthropologists, the empowerment of tenure. 

I would not have written this book as a junior academic. No way. I would not have wanted to face the challenge of bona fides, or the stale, slightly farty disciplinary air of what constitutes real work. Certainly this book would not feature in the British system of the “Research Excellence Framework.” This is an audit exercise, undertaken every 7 years or so, in which every academic in a permanent position in every department in every university in the UK has to submit up to 4 of their publications for peer assessment. A book like How to Think Like an Anthropologist couldn’t “count” in the REF, because it’s not “original research.” Or, at least, it would be risky to include; its reception might depend much more than “original research” on how stale the room is in which the grading gets thrashed out. 

Sorry, this is going off piste, but I’m trying to express one frustration I have with the workings of the academy, which concerns the disincentive within anthropology (and in some ways more broadly) to reach out beyond the readership we should normally expect of 25 similar experts, five true friends, and three kin. 

What’s next for you? Do you have more to say about how to think like an anthropologist? What’s your next project?

My next project is one that was put on hold by writing this book. And that’s to get back to a book on secular humanists in Britain, and, in particular, their provision of “non-religious” funerals in the London market. I want to return in this work to some of my longest standing interests in ritual theory, but shone through the lens of secular humanism and the legacies of the Enlightenment. (I’ve been intrigued by the extent to which the humanists I’ve worked with make explicit reference to carrying the mantle of the Enlightenment forward.) 

But a big part of what’s “next for me” is somewhat ironic, given this recent effort to showcase anthropology. And that’s to leave anthropology. Well, not exactly. I am, and always will be, an anthropologist. But after 16 years, I am, bittersweetly, leaving the Anthropology Department at LSE to take up a new post in the Religion Department at Columbia University. It could be that this frees me even more to share with others how to think like an anthropologist; as we all know, outsiders sometimes get special purchase. So maybe I will write in this vein, and with anthropology in mind, again. But I am really looking forward to this next chapter of my academic career, moving in a more interdisciplinary direction, working with colleagues and students trained otherwise. Plus I’ll be in greater proximity to the spirit of Ruth Benedict, which I consider no bad thing.