Review: Think Like an Anthropologist, by Matthew Engelke

Why would anyone want to think like an anthropologist? Or perhaps we should ask, rather, why anyone would want to think like a social anthropologist, for this is a book about social/cultural anthropology and it does not consider any biological subjects (such as how we’re here in the first place).

In many ways, the answer is simple: because that’s what all social anthropologists would like us to do. It’s something of an oft-repeated but rarely quantified trope (especially in university prospectuses) that the skills found in social anthropology are the key to unlocking the mysteries of humanity and are demanded hungrily by everyone from government and big business to the military. If only the world would recognise the inherent wisdom of social anthropologists, we’d all be much better off.

But there is a problem: by and large, social anthropologists write only for one another using impenetrably dense language and self-referencing theories that, ironically, would be worthy of ethnographic study. Public-facing or media-friendly social anthropology is exceedingly rare, and the few examples, such as Bruce Parry’s TV shows, are regarded with suspicion by “proper” anthropologists despite acting as many young people’s introduction to the subject.

Matthew Engelke’s brave book is an attempt to shine a light into the anthropological darkness and demonstrate that social anthropology and social anthropologists (for all their obfuscatory language) can offer genuine insights into the modern world and help to craft solutions to 21st-century problems. In this, it’s partly a success and partly a failure. This is mostly because of the way the book is structured, which is rather akin to explaining a joke – by the time you’ve done it, it’s not really that funny any more. In essence, the book can’t decide if it is about anthropology or is an anthropological book. In other words, too often you are left wondering why you would want to think like an…

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