Key Texts in Anthropology (Alphabetical)

After doing a little digging around on the internet, I came to the conclusion that there aren’t many concise lists of key texts in anthropology. I believe that lists of important anthropological texts are important especially for students, simply as a guide to know where some of the prominent ideas in the field originated, or even just as a way to get to know your favourite subject even better. So I’ve put together a list of some key texts in anthropology so you can get busy reading them without having to find out what’s what online. Just a quick note though, most of these texts are relatively old and can be a little tiresome to read even for native English speakers, and many of the ideas and attitudes are a little outdated, but stick with them if you can, it’s worth knowing your anthropological history and theory!

*This list is constructed in an alphabetical format, if you would prefer the same list sorted by year of publication click here.*

  • The Andaman Islanders; a study in social anthropologyRadcliffe-Brown, A.R. (1922). Based on fieldwork carried out between 1906-08, this book describes various aspects of indigenous cultures in the Andaman Islands, including analysis of social organisation, myths and legends, ceremonial customs, and religious beliefs.
  • Anthropology and the Colonial EncounterAsad, T. (1973). An collection of papers that analyse and document from different perspectives the ways in which anthropological thought and practice have been affected by British colonialism.
  • Argonauts of the Western PacificMalinowski, B. (1922). One of the most referenced and well known texts in anthropology, a detailed account of life and exchange in the Melanesian Islands and an expression of the importance of participant observation. From the role of myths and magic, fishing expeditions and the building and sailing of canoes this text is a vivid depiction of Kula life and the systems of exchange that underpin the entire society.
  • The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese CultureBenedict, R. (1946). A World War II-era study that contrasts the cultures of America and Japan, this book explores the familial, religious, political, and economic life of Japan from the seventh century through to the mid-twentieth. Often considered outdated by today’s standards, many still argue in favour of this texts examination of the fundamental undercurrents of Japanese cultural tradition.
  • Coming of Age in SamoaMead, M. (1928). Margaret Mead’s fascinating account of fieldwork in Samoa described for the first time the idea that an Individual’s experience of developmental stages could be shaped by the culture they experienced.
  • Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of CultureHarris, M. (1974). Challenging the idea that the world can be changed by altering the way people think, Harris puts forward the theory that regardless of how odd human behaviour may seem it always stems from concrete social and economic conditions.
  • The Elementary Forms of the Religious LifeDurkheim, E. (1912). Durkheim’s investigation of Australian Aboriginal totemism was an attempt to understand the religious nature of humankind, describe the universal need to relate to one another socially and the way in which religion embodies the beliefs that shape our moral universe.
  • Europe and the People Without HistoryWolf, E. (1982). This text about the development of the global political economy challenges the outdated anthropological notion that non-European cultures were static, isolated entities before European colonialism and imperialism. Instead Wolf argues that these societies held cultures that were as changeable and reactionary as their European counterparts and examines the conditions in Europe that allowed capitalism to emerge as the dominant economic ideology of the modern era.
  • The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu RitualTurner, V. (1967). A collection of essays that examine various aspects of ritual behaviour and symbolism of the Ndembu of Zambia in central Africa. Considered some of the most important and influential essays on ritual at the time, these papers remain an anthropological classic.
  • The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic SocietiesMauss, M. (1954 translation by Ian Cunnison). The first systematic study of the custom of exchanging gifts and the role of reciprocal exchange in building relationships between humans, Mauss’s comparative study of societies (especially The Pacific Northwest, Polynesia and Melanesia) emphasises the vital importance of gift exchange across cultures. This text is considered extremely influential and is a must read for any anthropologist.
  • The Interpretation of CulturesGeertz, C. (1973). The classic text for modern cultural anthropology, Geertz explores the role of the anthropologist in understanding culture and describes the fact that anthropology is merely an interpretation of people’s own interpretations. According to Geertz, the role of an anthropologist is to be an active participant in a culture to make the most accurate interpretations for the reader to in turn interpret for themselves.
  • Patterns of CultureBenedict, R. (1934). A comparison of cultures demonstrating diversity in behaviour, Benedict explains that a unique configuration of traits define each culture and examines the relationship between the wider culture and the individual. An invaluable text that teaches the value of diversity and an essential read for any anthropologist.
  • La Pensée SauvageLévi-Strauss, C. (1962) [The Savage Mind – English Translation 1966]. Often considered Lévi-Strauss’s most influential and difficult work, La Pensée Sauvage declares that there are no fundamental differences between the minds of modern and premodern peoples. He argues that all cultures hold common components, including myths and systems of classification, and the differences in the content of myths and classifications are primarily a result of variations in knowledge and technology.
  • Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social StructureLeach, E. (1954). Leach’s first book challenged existing theories of social structure and cultural change by examining the social organisation of people living in the Kachin Hills of Burma. A criticism of the treatment of linguistic, ethnic, cultural or kin groups as clearly-defined, exclusive and internally consistent, this text is an essential read for understanding anthropological theory.
  • Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and TabooDouglas, M. (1966). An examination of the role of purity in society and the ways in which beliefs about purity impact our knowledge, cosmology, society and values. This text has been massively influential and remains one of the most important anthropological texts to date.
  • Local Knowledge: Further Essays In Interpretive AnthropologyGeertz, C. (1983). A collection of essays that explores the meaning of culture, the importance of shared cultural symbolism and deepens our understandings of societies by observing the intimacies of ‘local knowledge’. Best read as a companion text to Geertz’ earlier work ‘The Interpretation of Cultures‘.
  • Mythologiques – Lévi-Strauss, C. Actually a four volume work that utilises structuralist theory to examine Native and North American culture, the myths that are used to make sense of the world and the ways in which these myths are linked to the construction of culture.
    • Le Cru et le cuit(1964) [The Raw and the Cooked – English Translation 1969].
    • Du miel aux cendres(1966) [From Honey to Ashes – English Translation 1973].
    • L’Origine des manières de table(1968) [The Origin of Table Manners – English Translation 1978].
    • L’Homme nu(1971) [The Naked Man – English Translation 1981].
  • The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic PeopleEvans-Pritchard, E.E. (1940). A description of the lives, economy and political systems of the Nuer people of the Southern Sudan, this text has become a study of early ethnography and although sometimes liberally descriptive is a classic example of British structural functionalism.
  • Selected Writings in Language, Culture and PersonalitySapir, E. (1949). A collection of works by Sapir that afford a detailed view into the field of linguistics and the relationships between language, culture and personality. His stress on the fact that language is a cultural or social product helped to make linguistics an integral part of anthropological theory.
  • The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural PerspectiveAppadurai, A. (1988). An examination of trade in different cultural settings, these essays explore how value is attributed to things and social relations. By looking at a variety of goods, this text is a discussion that reveals the underlying logic of everyday economic life.
  • Stone Age EconomicsSahlins, M. (1972). A classic study of anthropological economics, this text examines ideas of production, distribution and exchange and the relationship between economics and cultural factors in early societies. An essential read for anyone interested in the anthropology of economics.
  • Structural Anthropology – Lévi-Strauss, C. (1963). A collection of essays that introduce readers to the methods of structural anthropology whilst offering a comprehensive view of Lévi-Strauss’ theories. Structural anthropology has been hugely influential in the field, and this text is recommended for a grounded understanding of its place in modern anthropological theory.
  • Sweetness and PowerMintz, S. (1985). This analysis explores the links between the sugar industry and slavery, industrialisation, class ambitions and diet. By tracing the history of sugar production and consumption, Mintz shows that analysis of a single commodity can be used to expose a complex system of social relationships and human behaviour.
  • Tristes Tropiques – Lévi-Strauss, C. (1955). Actually a memoir, Tristes Tropiques is a funny, brilliantly moving and thought provoking record of the experiences of Lévi-Strauss’ travels. Hugely influential, this text altered the field of anthropology and transformed Western notions of ‘primitive man’.
  • Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the AzandeEvans-Pritchard, E.E. (1937). A well known piece of anthropological history, this text focuses on beliefs regarding magic and their influence over the social structure of the community and challenged colonial era assumptions about native peoples. Although quite dated, this text is still an important part of anthropological history and remains well worth reading.
  • Woman, Culture, and SocietyLamphere, L. & Rosaldo, M. eds. (1974). A collection of essays that explore women’s roles in society and address the critically ignored perspective of women in the anthropological record. Universal patterns of social, psychological and cultural experience are analysed for explanations on human sexual asymmetry, and by showing that women are social actors that seek power, prestige, security and a sense of worth just like men, these papers show the inadequacies of conventionally male oriented accounts of social structures. Essential for any anthropologist, this text brought forward ideas that levelled the field in anthropology and emphasised the importance of women’s perspectives that had been until then largely taken for granted.

I hope this list of key texts has been helpful to you and you now have a long queue of things to read! If you have found this list helpful, then please leave a comment and share it to help others, any comments or suggestions are welcome, just leave them below.

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