Public Thinker: Matthew Engelke on Thinking Like an Anthropologist

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this new interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
Matthew Engelke is one of the leading anthropologists of his generation ...
Matthew Engelke

Matthew Engelke is one of the leading anthropologists of his generation. Recipient of both the Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion and the Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing, Engelke’s monographs (A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church and God’s Agents: Biblical Publicity in Contemporary England) examine how Christians from Zimbabwe to Great Britain grapple with dilemmas of materiality and publicity. After more than 15 years at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Engelke has just returned to the United States, to direct Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life. His new book, How to Think Like an Anthropologist, makes a compelling case for anthropology’s continuing public relevance. Yasmin Moll talked with him for Public Books about lightbulb moments, colonial complicities, and why thinking like an anthropologist matters.

 Yasmin Moll (YM): I am an avid reader of self-help, or “how-to,” books of all kinds. And it struck me that the average person might pick up How to Think Like an Anthropologist with the idea that the book—or anthropology—will offer a set of practical strategies to improve the human condition. But anthropology doesn’t traffic in universal fixes, leaving the solution-minded reader inevitably unsatisfied. Why should one learn to think like an anthropologist, then, and what does that involve, exactly?


Matthew Engelke (ME): I think you’re right that anthropology is not the best discipline to look to for concrete recommendations on what to do with A, B, or C in your life. It’s really about a sensibility. The value in thinking like an anthropologist is the value in coming to question what you take for granted and what goes without saying—what’s assumed to matter.

So, yes, I shy away in the book from having a lot of cases that are organized around, say, development projects, where people might think, Oh, this is a concrete way of making the world better. Especially since development projects often don’t succeed, at least by anthropological measures. But I also shy away from how-to cases because of the danger of heading down only one or two avenues. What I want the book to provide is lightbulb moments, the click of, Oh, I never thought about it this way (whatever “it” may be), and actually my approach to this has been partial, even problematic—certainly not conducive to a fuller understanding of what’s going on in the world, and the values other people hold.

How to Think Like an Anthropologist is a self-help book, then, only in the sense of cultivating what I believe is still best represented by one of Ruth Benedict’s arguments: that other people do things in other ways for perfectly good reasons, and that we are better people for coming to understand those ways. Not necessarily to adopt them. Not necessarily to accept them, but actually to engage with them seriously. That’s our most helpful form of self-help, I’d say.


YM: We’ll talk more in depth about what you’re calling the “anthropological sensibility” and what that looks like for you and why it matters. But before we get into that: how, or why, did you decide to become an anthropologist?


ME: I knew in high school that I wanted to be an academic. Books, libraries, all that. But I didn’t know anything about anthropology before college. I thought I was going to be a philosophy major or a history major. Then I discovered anthropology at the University of Chicago, which has a core curriculum. I was exposed to anthropology through the force of the canon, if you will. And I was just incredibly gripped by it. I found it much more lively and engaging and also challenging than anything I had been reading to that point.


YM: Your first anthropology course—was it Anthropology 101 or was it something more specific?


ME: Actually, at Chicago they don’t do Anthro 101. Anthropology gets introduced in a yearlong sequence combining the humanities and social sciences; the one I took is called Self, Culture, and Society. You read Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Freud, Foucault. At least you did in 1990. But you also read some history, some anthropology, and the cultural criticism of such writers as Virginia Woolf and James Baldwin. The first piece of anthropology we read was Marshall Sahlins’s article “The Original Affluent Society.” That was my lightbulb moment. That got me excited about anthropology, because it completely threw the way that I thought about ideas of affluence, and what it might mean not only to be “affluent,” but how economics naturalizes narratives of endless desires and the value of accumulation. I was also really taken by the work of Catherine Lutz and Lila Abu-Lughod. Each in their own way challenged aspects of the common sense I’d grown up on.

I never thought about another major. I did take a philosophy course, actually, but it was analytic philosophy and … it just wasn’t for me. Let’s put it that way. I don’t want to offend the analytic philosophers. But it wasn’t for me.


YM: One of the treats of reading this book is that you take us on this incredibly interesting and lucid journey through ethnographic accounts of very different things, from kinship in Qatar to satellite TV in Belize to death in Japan. Were the ethnographies you included in the book ones that you had already on your bookshelf, or were already thinking along with in some way? How did you decide which concepts and works to include?


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ME: I tried to get the best of both worlds. I did include a lot of stuff that I already knew, but I also made a conscious decision to tackle work, and some debates, with which I had little to no real familiarity.

So, some of it was easy going. It was a chance to pay homage to my teachers, as well as to what they gave me to read. It was also a chance to reframe some of what I myself had been teaching at the London School of Economics over the past decade and a half.

Not surprisingly, I also included the work of colleagues, in my department and in my areas of expertise (especially Christianity and Africa, but also the history of anthropology). With respect to my colleagues, it was a particular pleasure because it gave me a chance to read their work. I had read a lot of my colleagues’ work—don’t get me wrong! But let’s be honest: too often, one’s relationship with one’s coworkers is organized around the demands of bureaucracy, not the pleasure of ideas. Even for academics. So I read some of their books that had been acquired out of affinity but neglected out of necessity.

Then there was that long list of articles and books marked “looks interesting—no time.” When I was a graduate student I read very widely, ranging over a lot of topics that didn’t touch in any way on my own research agendas. But over the past 15 years, it’s become a luxury to read capaciously. This was an opportunity to do so. That included some classic literature, but also some recent debates and issues, some of which I had dabbled in or read through superficially, but not at the level of being able to write about them.

I’m tempted to tell you which sections of the book contain discussions of themes and literatures that I knew well and those which I didn’t, but I’m also reluctant to do so. Partly because I did find that writing about the literatures that I didn’t know well was much, much harder. Some of the sections were much more painful to write than others. It was a productive pain, I suppose, to try to get the voice and the level of fluidity and fluency with stuff that I was really reading systematically for the first time to match with the sections on the stuff I knew well. It was difficult but rewarding.


YM: Speaking of tone, oftentimes academics can adopt a rather argumentative or contrary tone in their engagement with other scholars. But your mode of reading in this book is what the queer literary theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls reparative: reading a text in order to glean what it can teach us about something, or to take pleasure in what new thinking it enables, which is different from reading a text to figure out what it got wrong or missed. This orientation to reading comes through beautifully in your writing: it’s clear how much fun you are having with your material!


ME: I’m glad to hear that. It certainly was fun. I approached writing the book as a love letter, a love letter to anthropology, and an homage, as I’ve said, to my teachers, colleagues (which includes PhD students), and the many, many anthropologists whom I know only from the smell of their book’s glue, or the idiosyncratic scratches and marks I’ve made on the photocopies and printouts of their articles.

So yeah, I wanted to convey my love of the discipline. I wanted to say, Excuse me, Margaret Lock: I’ve never met you, but thank you, because your book on organ donation is an incredibly humane, insightful, and passionate piece of scholarship and I think people ought to know about it.

I think that’s crucial for a book like this, a book that is pitched toward a broader audience. You have to enthuse. Every discipline has dirty laundry and ongoing fights and skeletons in the closet. But I don’t think that this kind of intervention is the place for their extended airing. (Extended being a key qualifier here: I don’t think any anthropologist could ever resist some airing.)

And while writing it was fun, not all of the discussions are on lighthearted matters. I hope the writing expresses love, but I also hope it prompts several pauses. The love is not a blind love. Much of this book is about trying to get readers to engage with the significance of colonialism, for example, in understanding the contemporary world and for understanding such dynamics and forces as globalization. We cannot understand the contemporary world without facing the legacies (and ongoing projects) of colonialism and imperialism. I don’t think this plays enough of a role in public discourse.

The value in thinking like an anthropologist is the value in coming to question what you take for granted and what goes without saying—what’s assumed to matter.


YM: Yet, as you show, some of the most trenchant critiques of colonialism—and anthropology’s involvement—have come from within the discipline itself.


ME: True. And I’ve tried to convey not only anthropology’s complicities, but also its pushes against colonial projects. Frank Hamilton Cushing embodies this contradiction. He did deeply problematic things among—and to—the Zuni, during his time there in the 1880s. But he also fought for them, and even literally alongside them (although this raises other ethical issues), royally pissing off an Illinois senator, for instance, over a land rights case, in which he helped secure the Zuni’s tenure.


YM: This leads nicely to my next question: how do we best present the discipline to publics that are not specialists? I teach your second book, God’s Agents, in my Religion, Media, and Politics seminar at the University of Michigan. And when I started reading your new book I thought, Oh, what Matthew is trying to do here for anthropology is similar to what the Christians in England he worked with were trying to do for the Bible. Which is to get it out in public and to make it interesting and relevant to the average Brit, as opposed to just continuing to preach to the choir. Did you learn from that research any useful strategies for how to more effectively be anthropology’s agent, if we could put it that way?


ME: Huh. Yeah. I don’t think at the time of writing I was explicitly drawing those connections about what I’d learned from my own research on religious publicity, but I suppose I did internalize some of the lessons. And probably the most important is: keep it simple.

That’s not easy for anthropology, because we don’t like to offer simple answers. Part of this is about the style of academic prose (generally not easygoing), but even more than that, it has to do with the anthropological sensibility, upon which we’ve already touched. We’re not a how-to discipline, but we’re also not a quantitative discipline. We don’t use numbers. We don’t trade in facts in the way that some disciplines presume to. We are skeptical of big data. To make matters more challenging, it’s not even just that we’ll never answer “17!” to some question, or “30 percent!” to another, it’s that we’ll scratch our heads and say, Well, you could look at it that way, but actually it really depends.

And of course that mode of thinking, that mode of reasoning, is not conducive to the public sphere and to public discourse, because the push is always to come up with a sound bite. The push is always toward a conclusion, and this book is not constructed to have a conclusion. It’s certainly not constructed in the manner of trying to present anthropology as a discipline in which there are four or five major lines of work going on that everyone can speak to or has opinions on. Anthropology is messy. And anthropologists don’t like definitive answers, or predicting outcomes. Sometimes that’s because we think people are asking the wrong questions. I was once asked by a journalist whether I thought the Church of England would be extinct in a generation’s time. How the fuck should I know? That’s what I thought to myself. But also, Why are you asking that question? Why is the value of “prediction” so high, when it comes to marking expertise and knowledge? I couldn’t say that in a radio interview, but I can express this ethic in a book (with no swearing).


YM: Let’s stay with this for a bit. The stakes of an anthropological sensibility as an ethic: questioning our own assumptions, our own common sense, through looking at the way other people live or think about things. At times that can be a bit of a conundrum because the people we are doing fieldwork among might not share that sensibility. Not everyone would agree that unsettling one’s received notions or norms with the goal of transforming the self is such a virtue. So this ideal of, to use a famous phrase, provincializing the self is itself a provincial one. It’s located within a specific sensibility that values particular ways of orienting towards human difference.


ME: Yes.


YM: Yet anthropologists tend to invoke it without much anxiety about its possible lack of universal purchase. Perhaps we need to be thinking more anthropologically about this sensibility, as an ethical commitment with particular norms built into it and whose histories should be explored?


ME: Yeah. And it’s a particularly timely question to ask within the world of anthropology, because we recently lost an incredibly important and influential colleague, Saba Mahmood, much of whose work was about questioning the inherent worth of unsettling norms.

This is because the women she worked with in Cairo, in the Islamic piety movement, had no such desire, and Mahmood refused to think or write about this in liberal, or secular, terms. Mahmood didn’t patronize this piety. She took it seriously on its own terms, and mined it for what it revealed about liberal commitments to very specific understandings of freedom, autonomy, and reason. It’s not that Mahmood took the women she studied at face value, but her analysis of the piety movement contains more of a sting for certain traditions of Western feminism and secularism than it does for proponents of Salafism.

I would point to that case as a good example of an anthropologist showing up a discipline’s limits, helping to expand our understanding of not only how other people live, but also how the ways in which other people think give pause to our own axioms—in this case, again, “question everything.”

The best gift an anthropologist can give to his or her colleagues is material that others can use in ways that he or she didn’t necessarily expect or allow for.


YM: Visual anthropologists often cite an encounter between two anthropologists, John Adair and Sol Worth, who were also filmmakers, and Sam Yazzi, who was an elder in a Navaho community. This was in 1966. Adair and Worth approached Yazzi with the idea that they were going to teach some people in the reservation how to make documentary films. They were interested in whether there was a distinctively Navaho “way of seeing” and in how that would play out in filmmaking. Yazzi very famously asked if making the films would do the sheep any good; the anthropologists said, no, they didn’t think it would, but it certainly wouldn’t do the sheep any harm. To which Yazzi replied, “Then why make movies?”

This exchange highlights a potential tension between our aims and interests as researchers, and the priorities and concerns of the people we’re writing about or working with. Sometimes these align but oftentimes they don’t. Should that trouble us in any way or give us pause?


ME: It should give us pause. I don’t think it should always trouble us. We don’t have to share the same interests as sheep or shepherds. Do no harm. That was the maxim applied by Adair and Worth in the exchange with Yazzi. If it can be upheld, then not everyone needs to care about the extent to which what they do affords the human sciences with a chance to understand better the affect of labor, or conceptualizations of the sacred, or whatever is of note in a given issue of American Ethnologist.


YM: So, Matthew, our time is coming to a close. I want to squeeze in a question about writing. I like hearing about how good academic writers think about the craft of writing. Can you take us backstage a bit into your writing process, the nuts and bolts of it? Is your process different depending on whether you’re writing books for your academic colleagues or for nonspecialist readers?


ME: Yes. For me it was different. I’ve written three books, but How to Think Like an Anthropologist is the first book I’ve written on a computer.


YM: Really?


ME: My first two books were written by hand and then typed up on a computer. With lots of editing in that process, true. And ideally, I started with yellow, college-ruled paper and a blue pen. (When I took my children to Roald Dahl’s house, a few years ago, I was heartened to learn that he had Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils shipped special from the United States, because he came to love them during his time in Washington, DC, and insisted on using them to write—always sitting in the same beaten-up armchair, too.) There is something about the mechanical process, and the ritual prescription, that I find crucial.

But I actually wrote this book sitting in a rocking chair in my living room listening to jazz. Getting back to a point we raised earlier, a lot of this book was on material that I knew well, and most of it came much more easily than specialist writing. There was something about the technology of the screen that helped me think in more public terms.

I think it also helped me move away from specialist language and the various framings that mark so much of anthropology: scare quotes, parenthetical asides, dependent clauses that qualify a particular point.

That was one of the real challenges of writing this book. The framing. Letting go of caveats. Or, at least, as many as I could. Every single paragraph in this book could have been footnoted 20 times over with “Well, it’s not always this way,” and “I’m using this word but of course it’s problematic.” But you can’t write that way for a general audience.

Framing, of course, also reflects the power of institutions and the regimes of academic professionalization. If you want to be an academic, it’s difficult to write public-facing books without tenure. Or, at least, it makes clearing hurdles in the process that much more difficult. I find this lamentable.

YM: You note in the book that it’s almost always ethnography rather than its theoretical packaging that stands the test of time. Why do you think that’s the case? And what do you hope will stick with your own readers over time?


ME: Well, I don’t think it’s fully possible to separate out a theoretical perspective, or framing, from ethnographic material. They inform one another. But I think the best gift an anthropologist can give to his or her colleagues is material that others can use in ways that he or she didn’t necessarily expect or allow for. In the vast majority of cases, what will be interesting in 20 years’ time is not the introduction to someone’s book, where they flesh out how their study speaks to the concerns of actor-network theory, or furthers our understanding of bare life à la Giorgio Agamben. It will be the depth and texture of the ethnography.

That’s partly why I’ve organized this book around cases—looking at the work of a particular author or on a particular topic, so that you learn something about life in Greece or life in post-Soviet Ukraine or life in the Trobriand Islands, whether that be in 1915 or 2015. That’s more durable than most theory—or, at least, most of what passes for anthropological theorizing.

In terms of what people get out of it, it gets back to what we began with: above all, I hope, the cultivation of an impulse. The cultivation of an impulse to question what too often goes without question, or even enters the realm of possibility. Anthropology is about expanding possibilities, opening up futures, and providing vistas onto other ways of life.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

Featured image: Matthew Engelke. Photograph by Louis Engelke