Help me find interesting anthropology/sociology books.
December 20, 2007 3:50 PM   Subscribe

Books about anthropology, psychology, sociology, modern rituals...I think. Can you point me in the right direction?

This is a bit of a "duh" question, but here goes.

I'm searching for a good book to read on an international flight, but I'm not even sure where to start looking. I read this comment about the ritual aspect of a marriage ceremony and the reception that follows, and thought "Hey, that's interesting..." followed by "Where can I find more of the same?"

The books recommended in this thread (about conspiracy and superstition) and this one (on fiction) seem interesting and I'm going to check out a few, but I'm also looking for general recommendations. (Also useful would be help on how I can get a bit more specific in my searching.)

Thanks in advance!
posted by lhall to Education (11 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Just a warning that a lot of stuff that is "interesting" in comment length can get a little bit boring once it's lengthened out to book length. I tend to play it safe for flights; if I get something because I think it will be interesting or educational, I may not read it. If it's a nice novel in a genre I enjoy reading, I know I will pick it up and won't put it down until I finish it or the plane lands, whichever comes first.

That being said, I encourage you to explore this subject since it interests you. The best thing to do is head to a public library or, even better, a university library (assuming that they allow visitors; this is true of university libraries in the States but not, from my experience, in the UK), where they will have a nice large selection of books in these general areas. Even if you're not a student the research librarians there will be willing to help you, although you will want to hone your subject down a bit (hopefully other posters can help you in that area).

I'll just throw one random book into the mix: Gypsy Law: Romani Legal Traditions and Culture. I picked it up randomly while browsing through some book stacks (the best way to discover new and interesting topics), and meant to only read a paragraph or two but ended up reading a dozen pages or so before putting it back (this was when I was supposed to be studying for my final exams, after all). Very fascinating ideas about "cleanliness" and the relationship between Roma and non-Roma individuals. I don't recommend it for airplane reading though, but I do think it's worth at least 20 minutes of your time in a library.
posted by Deathalicious at 4:40 PM on December 20, 2007

Here is an odd ball book which may float your boat, Nobel laureate (for literature) Elias Canatii's book Crowds and Power. Its a tough book to describe so we will lean on the crutch of the amazon reviewer:

Ranging from soccer crowds and political rallies to Bushmen and the pilgrimage to Mecca, Canetti exhaustively reviews the way crowds form, develop, and dissolve, using this taxonomy of mass movement as a key to the dynamics of social life. The style is abstract, erudite, and anecdotal, which makes Crowds and Power the sort of work that awes some readers with its profundity while irritating others with its elusiveness. Canetti loves to say something brilliant but counterintuitive, and then leave the reader to figure out both why he said it and whether it's really true. --Richard Farr

Might be a bit tough for a flight. You won't finish it, however.
posted by shothotbot at 4:56 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Essential Edmund Leach Vol.1 is what you want. He explains how a Borneo headhunter initiation is isomorphic to an English country church service amongst other tidbits. He has one of the last proper legal reports because the heads belonged to Japanese soldiers. The sniping on Levi-Strauss is precious. He explains the exact sociology of the taboo surrounding curse words.
posted by bukvich at 5:15 PM on December 20, 2007

Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches is one to definitely check out. Harris examines various cultural phenomena (cargo cults, witch hunts, etc.) from an anthropological perspective and tries to figure out why humans do these things.
posted by trigger at 5:36 PM on December 20, 2007

Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamo Shaman's Story is very, very interesting but full of incredible brutal violence. It's one of the books that has really stuck with me since I read it. It's definitely a page-turner.
posted by Ostara at 5:40 PM on December 20, 2007

I'd recommend two books by Carlo Ginzburg:
The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller
The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century
Both of these books are about the history of superstitions and rituals and have incredibly specific stories that make them compelling. Night Battles has some great stuff about villagers bundling up fennel to put on their doorsteps to fight off demons.
Also, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe by Peter Burke is a fantastic read. He talks a lot about carnivals and festivals in the 1600s (one in Germany featured a phallic sausage weighing over 500 pounds).
posted by mattbucher at 7:57 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Consuming Passions: The Anthropology of Eating is an interesting read. As is anything by Margaret Visser or Marvin Harris.
posted by Savannah at 9:37 PM on December 20, 2007

Seconding all of mattbucher's recommendations (hey another early modernist on Metafilter!). Ginzburg in particular is a wonderful writer and historian, and The Cheese and the Worms in particular is a classic work of "microhistory".

I would also add Edward Muir's Ritual in Early Modern Europe, which is an extremely accessible summary of all sorts of interesting rituals and ceremonies, both religious and secular.
posted by greycap at 10:57 PM on December 20, 2007

"The Golden Bough" by Sir James George Frazer downloadable here
To read it all you might have to take a few more flights though.
posted by adamvasco at 12:44 AM on December 21, 2007

Roland Barthes: Mythologies
posted by FidelDonson at 12:53 AM on December 21, 2007

What you are looking for is cultural anthropology, more specifically that branch of cultural anthropology sometimes labelled the 'anthropology of everyday life'. Savannah's recommendation of Margaret Visser is spot-on, and I would advise you to try one of Visser's books, and see how you get on with it, before tackling some of the more heavyweight suggestions offered above. (Muir's book on early modern ritual is very good, but it's essentially an undergraduate/postgraduate textbook, not perhaps ideal reading on an international flight ..) Visser is best known for her books on the anthropology of eating habits (Much Depends on Dinner, The Rituals of Dinner), though she has also written a very good book on why Christian churches are the way they are (The Geometry of Love), and a collection of short essays (The Way We Are) which I haven't read. Her work has scholarly credibility and avoids the functionalist trap of assuming that every ritual must exist for a reason (we shake hands to show we're not carrying swords, etc etc) that you find in a lot of pop-anthropology.

If you enjoy reading Visser and want to explore further, then you could try Mary Douglas, Rules and Meanings: The Anthropology of Everyday Knowledge, a wonderful anthology of short readings where Tom Wolfe and Hermann Hesse (The Glass Bead Game) rub shoulders with Wittgenstein, Durkheim and Evans-Pritchard. (It was this book that first attracted me to cultural anthropology, so I have a special affection for it.) You might also enjoy some of the writings of Erving Goffman, who wrote extensively about social behaviour and social interaction. (You can find some extracts from Goffman's work here.) Or, if you're feeling adventurous, you could try plunging into one of the great classics of modern anthropology, Claude Levi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques, which also happens to be one of the great classics of modern travel-writing, and a marvellous work of storytelling.
posted by verstegan at 1:14 PM on December 23, 2007

« Older Does suck?   |   M3U CUE LOG WTF? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.