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How to Think Like an Anthropologist


Reviewed by Lal Karaarslan

There is a hackneyed tale of two young fishes. As they are swimming in the sea, they encounter an old fish who asks them, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two fishes pass him by without saying a word and then one of them looks over to the other one and goes, “What is water?”

In his new book, How to Think Like an Anthropologist?, Matthew Engelke takes on the daunting task of asking us about the water: our culture.

As a cultural anthropologist, Engelke reminds us of the dogmas that permeate everyday life and dictate our perception of the world. The intersection between the fields of psychology and anthropology were visible within his descriptions as both try to understand our point of view as humankind and in their own ways try to explain the ‘human condition.’ Engelke summarizes the questions anthropology asks as, “What is it that makes us human? What is it that we all share, and what is it that we inherit from the circumstances of society and history?” (pg. 3). While the focus of anthropology is on the last question, psychology focuses more on the first two. Anthropology, and especially cultural anthropology, is more interested in understanding the narratives we have created to understand life, while psychology tries to understand the underlying causations for such narratives.

Engelke’s understanding of anthropology follows a similar vein as he defines anthropology as “examining and questioning concepts” (pg. 7). The book’s organization illustrates this understanding as it is comprised of eleven chapters (introduction, culture, civilization, values, value, blood, identity, authority, reason, nature, conclusion) and apart from the introduction and the conclusion, the remaining chapters are dedicated to exploring certain concepts that form the skeleton of modern anthropology. Most chapters follow a similar format: a complete deconstruction of the understandings we have of the concepts using various data, including politics, history, scientific studies and of course, anthropology. Thus, the book functions both as a description of how to think like an anthropologist and as an example of it.

This approach to anthropology is what sets it apart from its counterparts. Compared to, say, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, How to Think Like an Anthropologist focuses more on establishing a conceptual framework for anthropology rather than give a historical and in-depth introduction to the field.

While the focus on the concepts is refreshing, it is also indicative of the assumptions anthropology makes. There is an implicit hierarchy between ideas and the material world, in which the ideas have the upper hand, according to anthropology. Engelke both admits and unwittingly propagates this view in his statements: “We are not governed by a strong ‘human nature,’ we are not simply a product of our genes,” and “Biology and nature have nearly always played a secondary role in anthropological conceptions of culture” (pg. 41). These statements reflect how the field of anthropology, while studying culture, has also been affected by the Western assumptions regarding human existence. This kind of hierarchy of the physical and the phenomenological or more specifically the mind and the body has its roots in very specific understandings of these concepts that are founded on culture.

However, credit where credit is due, Engelke seems aware of the shortcomings of anthropology as he furthers the discussion of nature versus nurture debate in his Nature chapter and addresses the colonial and Western roots of anthropology in the Introduction.

In short, the book is not only well-written it is also eye-opening and easy to read. Especially considering the intersection between anthropology and psychology. It provides an interesting take on the fundamental questions a psychotherapist seeks to answer. And most importantly, attempting to understand the ‘other’ is the basis of anthropology, how it goes about doing that is perhaps its most vital contribution to a psychotherapist.

Matthew Engelke is an anthropologist with research interests in Christianity, secular humanism, media, materiality, semiotics. Currently a professor in Columbia University, he has taught in London School of Economics for 16 years. He received his BA from the University of Chicago and his PhD from the University of Virginia.

Lal Karaarslan studies neuroscience and philosophy in Columbia University and is on the premedicine track. She has done fMRI research and worked in a neurology clinic. She is set to graduate in May of 2021. In addition to working for the International Journal of Psychotherapy, she writes reviews for Somatic Psychotherapy Today.