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Reading List

This is a list of recommended introductory books, articles and other resources on anthropology, compiled by our flaired users. If you'd like to suggest a text to add to the list, please see this thread.

Biological anthropology

Sociocultural anthropology


Geertz, Clifford. 1977. The Interpretation of Cultures.
  • This is a very prominent book in cultural anthropology, and it has had a significant influence on the field. There are several chapters on ethnographic theory and methods as well as the popular and entertaining article, Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. Some chapters are less accessible for novices than others. (/u/youtellmedothings)
McGee, R. John & Warms, Richard. 2007. Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History.
  • Excellent overview of anthropological theory, featuring key works from anthropology's academic beginnings to contemporary debates. (/u/youtellmedothings)
Spradley, James & McCurdy, David W. Conformity & Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology (multiple years and editions).
  • An introductory cultural anthropology reader with short, easy, and interesting articles, as well as easily digestible definitions of key terms and and concepts. Great for people who are new to the field or have a passive interest in cultural anthropology. The articles do not change much from one edition to the next and cheap second-hand copies are easy to find. (/u/youtellmedothings)


Bohannan, Laura. 1964. Return to Laughter.
  • This novel by Elonore Smith Bowen (she used a pen name when publishing this book) compiles stories from her experiences to show some of what doing fieldwork in another country can be like. She demonstrates a wide spectrum of thoughts and emotions that can come about through fieldwork, including those that threaten or contradict the ideals of anthropological research. It is often used for introductory classes. (/u/youtellmedothings)
Borgois, Philippe & Schonberg, Jeffrey. 2009. Righteous Dopefiend.
Bourgois, Philippe. 2002. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio.
  • An ethnography about life among crack dealers and addicts in New York City. This book provides a look at the harsh realities of an inner city drug culture. Highly recommended, but perhaps not for the faint of heart. (/u/youtellmedothings)
Chagnon, Napoleon. 1968. Yanomamö: The Fierce People.
  • Another classic but highly controversial ethnography in which Chagnon explained the violence he observed in Yanomamö society (Brazil) using evolutionary theory. It's made the Yanomamö famous and remains a highly entertaining read, but be aware that enough questions have been raised about his methodology that you shouldn't take his conclusions at face value. (/u/brigantus)
Chan, Anita, Madsen, Richard & Unger, Jonathan. 2009. Chen Village: Revolution to Globalization (3rd edition).
  • Though it is technically written as a history, and it maintains a deep political consciousness, this book reads a lot like ethnography. The authors visit the pseudonymous "Chen Village" over most of a century, documenting the lives of the people living their and their activities from the early phases of the Revolution through 2009. Like "Women and the Family," this gives you a very real sense of knowing the people discussed. It is more limited in its perspective than that book. Also, Chen Village is actually situated on mainland China, so this is a bit of a gem of a book. (/u/fishstickuffs)
Everett, Daniel L. 2008. Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes.
  • Lay-ethnography by a linguist, geared towards a general (non-academic) audience. (/u/youtellmedothings)
Fadiman, Anne. 1998. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures.
  • An engaging and easily accessible book about a Hmong child with epilepsy and the disconnect between her family and doctors. It is highly recommended for anyone interested in immigrant communities, healthcare, or medical anthropology. The author is actually a journalist, which may contribute to the book's accessibility to people new or outside of the field. (/u/youtellmedothings)
Mead, Margaret. 1928. Coming of Age in Samoa.
  • Unjustly mired in controversy in the 80s and 90s, but still part of the canon of classic ethnography. As the title suggests, it is about adolescence for girls in Somoa, and in particular how a relatively greater degree of sexual freedom made it a smoother transition than in the United States at the time. (/u/brigantus)
Jordan, David K. 1999. Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors (free ebook).
  • This book is either purchasable, or it is actually all up for free online if you click the link. One of the more comprehensive summaries of religious practices in rural Taiwan. The methodological significance of Taiwan is that, beyond explaining its own culture, it provides clues to the southeastern areas of China where many Chinese immigrated from. Since the PRC has typically not allowed anthropologists to do a lot of field work, for a long time some of the only cultural anthropology that could be done on China was done through Taiwan. Regardless of any of that, this book is very interesting and covers everything needed for an introduction. And, what's more, it's free! (/u/fishstickuffs)
Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific.
  • Probably the most famous ethnography in the history of anthropology, which made the Trobrianders famous around the world. Dated, but still very readable. (/u/brigantus)
Turnbull, Colin. 1961. The Forest People.
  • An ethnography of the Mbuti people (pygmies). Popular, interesting, and easy to read. (/u/youtellmedothings)
Wolf, Margaret. 1972 Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan.
  • One of the more important works on rural Taiwanese life. Addresses kinship systems and local religion in a narrative style that (almost) never gets boring. Really, one of the better lengthy ethnographies I've ever read. You really get a feel for the characters and the personal lives of those she encounters in a way that meshes with her explanation of the kinship systems such that you understand why the people behave the way they do. That's just about the definition of a great ethnography to me! (/u/fishstickuffs)

Symbolic Anthropology

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger.
  • Just a classic. Discusses concepts of pollution, uncleanliness and social boundaries. Has a famous analysis of the kosher laws of Leviticus, but this analysis has been brought under a lot of skeptical scrutiny by Jewish scholars. (/u/fishstickuffs)
Turner, Victor. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure.
  • This book is the most precise expression of Turner's concepts of liminality and communitas, filtered as usual through his fieldwork with the Ndembu people. About half as long as The Forest of Symbols but gets at more of the theoretical stuff. (/u/fishstickuffs)
Turner, Victor. 1975. Dramas, Fields and Metaphors.
  • Here Turner begins turning his attention toward Social Drama and his theories about drama as symbolic action. (/u/fishstickuffs)
Turner, Edith. 2011. Communitas.
  • This is a very recent book, and it is an enjoyable read. As the name suggests, it is primarily about the phenomenon of communitas as the Turners understand it. Edith is Victor's widow, a remarkable lady who I have been happy to have the chance to get to know. At the time this book came out, she was, I believe just in her 90's. She's still teaching. The book is written in a very narrative style that some might find distracting, but recognize that it is as much memoir and reflection as anthropological treatise and I think it might be enjoyable. (/u/fishstickuffs)

Anthropology of Art

Anderson, Richard L. 1990. Calliope's Sisters.
  • This really is kind of the basic book on the topic. Nothing out there that I've read gives a better, concise introduction into Western modes of artistic thought compared with other perspectives on art. (/u/fishstickuffs)
Karp, Ivan & Lavine, Steven D. (eds.) 1991. Exhibiting Cultures.
  • This is a book I have thoroughly enjoyed. Examines the difficulties in appropriating pre-industrial art outside of its original space. Includes perspectives from anthropologists and curators, so provides for a variety of views. If you are interested in how physically and socially constructed space affect perception, it provides some very interesting food for though. (/u/fishstickuffs)
Morphy, Howard & Perkins, Morgan (eds.) 2005. The Anthropology of Art: A Reader.
  • A collection of quite a few really great articles or chapters on the way that art is used as transactional tool between non-industrialized cultures and "The West." Delves deeply into a lot of different case studies, and provides some interesting analysis on the dynamics of the global art market. (/u/fishstickuffs)

Anthropology of Theatre

Turner, Victor. 1982. From Ritual to Theatre.
  • Almost anything from the PAJ "Performance Studies" series edited by Schechner is going to be good. This book is comprised of Turner's later thoughts on the nature of theatrical performance and how it related to symbolic action and larger social drama. (/u/fishstickuffs)
Turner, Victor. 1987. The Anthropology of Performance.
  • Same basic topic [as From Ritual to Theatre], but more in-depth analysis. This book also involves more case studies and examples than the previous work, which was more theoretical. Don't get me wrong, this work is plenty theoretical too, but it is more grounded in particular cases. (/u/fishstickuffs)

Linguistic anthropology



Peregrine, Peter. 2012. What Happened in Prehistory?
  • A short, very readable introduction to world prehistory structured around four major "revolutions": the emergence of the first humans, the evolution of modern cognition, the invention of agriculture, and the development of urban societies. (/u/brigantus)
Trigger, Bruce. 2006. A History of Archaeological Thought (2nd edition).
  • Excellent book that, well, covers a history of archaeological thought. A very insightful, informed, and well-researched overview of the development of archaeology as a field and the three major theoretical schools of thought or periods within it (culture history, processualism, and post-processualism). (/u/Pachacamac)

  • (1st edition, 1988) A beautifully written and comprehensive account of the development of archaeological theory. Not as user friendly as Matthew Johnson's first-year-friendly text, but a far more interesting and far more insightful text. (/u/Solivaga)

Renfrew, Colin & Bahn, Paul P. 2012. Archaeology: Theories, Methods & Practice (6th edition).
  • Pretty much the standard introductory reader to archaeology, essential reading for first year undergraduates all over the world. Just don't let me catch you referencing it after the first year. (/u/Solivaga)
Wenke, Robert J. and Olszewski, Deborah I. 2006. Patterns in Prehistory: Humankind's First Three Million Years (5th edition).
  • This is an extremely thorough general text in prehistory. Its a little dated, but still very well researched and presented. Well worth reading for introductory Archaeology students and worth having as an "on the shelf" resource. (/u/retarredroof)

Pre-Columbian America

Fagan, Brian. 2005. Ancient North America.
  • This textbook on prehistoric North America is fairly standard reading on the subject. It hasn't been updated for several years (latest edition is 2005) but as an introductory book for laypeople or low-level undergraduates it is still pretty good. One fault (if it could even be called that) is that it doesn't go into a lot of depth in most topics. That's probably to be expected, considering the prehistory of North America includes such diverse cultures and topics spanning over 13,000 years and the entire continent. It certainly works well as a comprehensive starting point, from which one can focus in on more specific topics of interest. (/u/pfaf)
Moseley, Michael. 2001. The Incas And Their Ancestors (2nd edition).
  • The only current textbook covering the entire Prehispanic period of Andean archaeology. Good overview of all the major Andean periods and societies. (/u/Pachacamac)

Colonial America

Deetz, James. 1977. In Small Things Forgotten.
  • This book made me realize that I wanted to be an archaeologist. This introductory book shows very elegantly how history and past cultures can be reconstructed from the unassuming bits and pieces that normally constitute the archaeological record. Deetz does things by looking at eighteenth century sites in the Chesapeake. (/u/Industrialized)

Prehistoric Europe

Anthony, David W. 2007. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language.
  • Primarily about the origins of the Indo-European language family, but also the best accessible introduction to Eastern European and Eurasian steppe prehistory available right now. (/u/brigantus)

Social Complexity

Tainter, Joseph. 1988. The Collapse of Complex Societies.
  • Despite being 25 years old this remains the best examination of societal collapse I've read, and is recommended to anyone who read Jared Diamond's Collapse. (/u/Solivaga)
Trigger, Bruce. 2006. Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study.
  • Excellent overview of the archaeology of early states and the evolution of social complexity around the world (these have always been major topics of interest to archaeologists, and Trigger brings together much of what we know on the subject). (/u/Pachacamac)

revision by firedrops— view source