Book Review: Core Concepts in Cultural Anthropology

1. Who Should Read this Book

On a website on software development, why would we recommend a book on anthropology? The answer is as follows. All professionals, software developers included, live in an increasingly globalized economy and a dense network of interconnected and diverse cultures.

Since software is not about individual contribution but collective work, practitioners must understand human systems.

A human system (world, economy, organization, team), global or local, must be understood as a complex system capable of surprising its participants at every turn with innovative, unmanageable, and untamable behaviour. Anthropology, the study of human systems by humans, is essential in making sense of a complex world so we can work, live, and act in it.

This book, along with Sapiens — A Brief History of Humankind and Origins Reconsidered — In Search of What Makes Us Human, is highly recommended.

2. Synopsis

Core Concepts in Cultural Anthropology presents a sweeping overview of the fundamental concepts of cultural anthropology. The book starts with a definition of anthropology and how the study of culture through the different subfields of anthropology (archeology, cultural anthropology, paleoanthropology, linguistics, etc.) has evolved since its inception in the nineteenth century.

The remainder of the Core Concepts in Cultural Anthropology discusses the following topics:

  • Culture, race, symbolism, ethnocentrism, cognition, emotions, and individualism
  • Language and its impact on culture and society
  • Religion, worldview, myths, and rituals
  • Social organisation, politics, social stratification
  • Nationalism, hegemony
  • Economic anthropology, subsistence strategies, production, distribution, and consumption
  • Kinship, descent, marriage, and family
  • Globalisation, capitalism, progress and modernity

3. What Is Great about Core Concepts in Cultural Anthropology

Here is a list of things that I found great about this book.

  • Size and comprehensiveness. While the book is small enough (230 pages), it comprehensively covers a broad array of topics and does a great job at it. The text has no fluff and is ideal for the busy anthropology enthusiast.
  • Clarity and accessibility. The book “Core Concepts in Cultural Anthropology” brings complex anthropological theories and frameworks to the layman. Insightful and engaging, the book brings modern ideas and revisions of old concepts to the uninitiated.
  • A wealth of references. The authors have given credit to original anthropologists and pioneers, citing essential works, ethnographers, and experts where required. Every chapter has a bibliography, and the text is rich with citations.

4. Writing Style, Structure, and Originality

The ideas in Core Concepts in Cultural Anthropology flow seamlessly. They are highly accessible, with very little jargon, if any. Important terms of anthropology are explicitly defined. The authors have taken great pains to present alternative theories and the strengths and weaknesses of each.

The book is divided into 12 small chapters, with an introduction, summary, and bibliography. The text usually contains some theory and ethnographical evidence to support the claims.

The book does not explore the author’s personal views but presents the most influential theories. For example, the discussion on capitalism was presented from a Marxist perspective as well as the European-North American mainstream views. Core Concepts in Cultural Anthropology is not an original work, and no claims by the authors were put forward in that regard. Instead, the author’s objective is to present the students of anthropology with an introduction and study guide.

5. Has the Book Achieved its Aim?

Perfectly. The second edition of Core Concepts in Cultural Anthropology was published in 2003. It set out to present the most recent topics of anthropology to the layman, and it achieved exactly that in 12 (relatively) small chapters.

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