Top 10 books of everyday social anthropology | Gillian Tett

Defining what anthropology really is sometimes feels like chasing soap in the bath. We all know we are shaped by cultural patterns we inherit from our surroundings. But we rarely know what determines that “culture” or how to discuss cultural difference – least of all in a world where diversity issues now generate so much political heat. Just to add to the challenge, the branch of social science that studies human cultures, called social anthropology, has a contradictory past: although it champions diversity today, it has a racist, imperial past that modern anthropologists disown.

But while culture is hard to define, nobody can ignore it – certainly not in a world that is so globalised and dangerously polarised that we clearly need to gain empathy for others. And there is another urgent reason to think about culture today: Covid-19 has tossed us all into a new form of culture shock, since lockdown pushed us into cyberspace at extraordinary speed – and a return to physical, “real” life is forcing us to rethink how we structure our lives all over again. My own book, Anthro-Vision, discusses why it pays to think about culture – and culture shock – in a digital age, drawing on my training as an anthropologist and work as a financial and business journalist. But here are 10 other books that help explain why culture – and anthropology – matter so much today.

1. Think Like an Anthropologist by Matthew Engelke
Brilliant, lively, short(ish) introduction into the key issues that shape anthropology. The ideal introduction for a general reader, a student – or the parent of a teenager who does not understand why their kid wants to study anthropology instead of accounting. (Don’t worry; they can still find a job.)

2. Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex and Gender in the 20th Century by Charles King
The title is odd but this is a truly fantastic book on the history of anthropology in the 19th and 20th centuries. Essential reading for anyone interested in the origins of modern western thought or the current debate around diversity issues. It’s a lively insight into a part of western history that tends to be ignored. Indispensable for anyone engaged in legal, government and corporate policies.

3. The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich
One of my favourite books of the last year. Henrich trained as an aeronautical engineer but then became an evolutionary anthropologist-cum-biologist and this renaissance background enables him to write brilliantly on the peculiarities of WEIRD – western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic – societies today. He stresses what an aberration WEIRD culture is. You will never look at psychology experiments in the same way again after reading this; or ignore how literacy and individual identity affect our thoughts.

David Graeber in 2015.
David Graeber in 2015. Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris for the Guardian

4. Debt, the First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
This book came out just after the 2008 financial crisis and is one of the most brilliant explanations by any social scientist of the underlying structural patterns that created the Great Financial Crisis. Graeber died suddenly last year, but his book remains even more relevant today, since Graeber challenges many of the ideas that economists have absorbed about barter, debt and credit. Necessary reading for any economist and financier – or anyone who ever wondered about the cultural and historical context of their mortgage or credit card.

5. Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox
This is a delightful book by an academic who is not only an anthropologist herself but whose father, Robin Fox, has played a pivotal role in the development of 20th-century anthropology. It offers a masterful cultural analysis of the peculiarities of English culture that will make you rethink things such as the English betting industry and our tendency to talk endlessly about the weather. But the account also illustrates a crucial point about anthropology: though the discipline used to focus on non-western cultures, it now studies the west too. Thus while Robin Fox analysed Mexico, his daughter has flipped the lens to analyse her supposedly “native” English terrain. Both perspectives are fascinating.

6. Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass by Mary L Gray and Siddharth Suri
If you are wondering whether there is any practical point to using anthropological analysis, take a look at this fascinating book from an anthropologist who now works in a research unit of Microsoft. She uses her discipline to highlight one shameful, overlooked aspect of the modern tech world, namely “ghost” (or gig) workers – and thankfully the Seattle tech giant did not try to prevent her publishing this. The fact she co-wrote it with Suri, a computer scientist, illustrates another important aspect of modern anthropology: it can do cutting-edge analysis when combined with other specialisms.

7. The Power of Not Thinking: How Our Bodies Learn and Why We Should Trust Them by Simon Roberts
A lovely account that explains why executives, financiers, policy makers (and everybody else) needs to embrace a key idea of anthropology: our space, physical habits, rituals and non-verbal gestures matter so deeply that you cannot understand someone by staring at a big data set; instead you need to embrace “participant observation” – walking in someone else’s shoes, physically and mentally, with empathy.

8. Sensemaking by Christian Madsbjerg
A lively account that explains how to use anthropological ideas to solve problems in consumer products, marketing and other business fields. Practical and fun, showing how to rethink all manner of problems.

Teenagers absorbed in their smartphones in central London.
It’s complicated … teenagers absorbed in their smartphones in central London. Photograph: Richard Baker/Corbis via Getty Images

9. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd
A thought-provoking book that describes how a researcher who worked at Yahoo and Microsoft studied teenagers in cyberspace, using an anthropological perspective. It will explain a great deal about your kids’ use of smartphones, since how kids move in the physical world matters deeply in cyberspace.

10. Exotic No More: Anthropology for the Contemporary World edited by Jeremy MacClancy
I have deliberated steered away from academic texts in this list, since they can be hard to digest. But if you want to get a more academic sense of how anthropology operates as a discipline, this readable compendium, edited by a leading British anthropologist, manages to be accessible and wide-ranging. The title captures a message of modern anthropology that I seek to hammer home in my own book: forget the old cliches about academics who act like Indiana Jones; the discipline today is modern, vital, relevant – and badly needed.

  • Anthro-Vision: How Anthropology Can Explain Business and Life by Gillian Tett is published by Cornerstone. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.

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