Anthropology Textbook

How do you write an anthropology textbook?

Anthropology TextbookOver at my blog-page which attempts to review and integrate anthropology textbooks, got this question from Christopher DeCorse, anthropologist and archaeologist, and co-author with Raymond Scupin of Anthropology: A Global Perspective. This four-field anthropology textbook is 2012, in its 7th edition from Pearson, and they are revising for a new edition.

On this site I’ve tried to say something about What is Anthropology? I’ve also tried to help out with “Entangling the Biological” for an Introduction-to-Anthropology course, and done some reviews on Best Introduction to Anthropology Syllabus – Four Fields. On the theme of biological anthropology, my thanks as well to Katherine MacKinnon for including me in her useful Year in Review essay Contemporary Biological Anthropology in 2013: Integrative, Connected, and Relevant.

I thought I’d now leave it open to you. How do you write an anthropology textbook? Here’s Chris DeCorse:

So what is anthropology?

Hi Jason, we follow Living Anthropologically and we appreciate your comments on the 7th Edition of our four field anthropology text, Anthropology: A Global Perspective (Pearson 2012). We have incorporated your feedback into the revisions for the new 8th Edition due out in Fall 2015.

But I have a question for you. How do we decide what are the key discoveries and interpretations that need to be in an introductory anthropology textbook? How do we decide “what is anthropology” when writing for a broad audience that includes faculty with varying perspectives and students who may only take one anthropology course? In the process of writing and revising our textbooks, we typically get feedback from between eight and twenty reviewers–and I include you here! Comments include varying perspectives of new discoveries, the areas to be covered, and differing theoretical or conceptual perspectives. There are always suggestions on more things to add-or to exclude, suggestions that often are dramatically opposed. For example, one reviewer of a particular chapter in the 7th Edition said: This “careful chapter” is “a powerful demonstration of the use of anthropological knowledge.” While with regard to the same chapter another reviewer opined “This is the most disappointing chapter of the entire book. The rationale for the amount of space given to one thing over another is a mystery.” These comments are paraphrased, but as presented the statements are actually less dramatically conflicting than some of the reviews that we have received.

So in writing a general anthropology textbook how do we decide what to include? Our view is to try and present the breadth of the field; offer a basis for discussion of the major themes and ideas, in order to provide instructors with a foundation that allows them to explore varied discoveries, areas, or themes on their own. We also believe that critical thinking is fundamental to anthropology. Hence, we pointedly include some discussion of discarded perspectives, and present opposing interpretations, exploring how these have been critiqued and evaluated. Our feeling is that this allows students to get a sense of how data are evaluated and how different theoretical perspectives are assessed. Some texts, however, take a more specific view that runs through the entire work. This has the advantage of providing a strong unifying perspective. A good example is Culture, People, Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology the four-field textbook of the late Marvin Harris. Harris had a very cohesive theoretical perspective and many professors appreciated this in using his four-field textbook. Some anthropologists, however, do not share this perspective. Pedagogically, the problem is that instructors simply don’t have the time (or desire) to develop a particular theoretical perspective in an introductory anthropology course–especially a course introducing all of the subfields of anthropology.

Indeed, the background to all of the above comments is the constraints of time and space, with regard to classroom time and space in the text. One of the more regular comments from both reviewers and adopters alike is that the content of introductory texts covers more than they can typically address in the span of a single course. In writing a textbook, we also have to make hard decisions about what we put in–covering DNA in a single paragraph or all of “The Paleolithic” in twenty odd pages is a bit daunting. There is always too little time and to little space.

So my question to you is how do you decide what to put in a textbook? Would you, for example, prefer that the views of early, 19th century anthropologists were excluded, or have discussion of hominin evolution focus on a single predominant view of hominin phylogeny?

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