The Art of Being Human: A Textbook for Cultural Anthropology
Michael Wesch, Kansas State University
Copyright Year: 2018
ISBN 13: 9781944548131
Publisher: New Prairie Press
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The Art of Being Human has no index or glossary but really doesn’t need one. If you are looking for the tell-tale text book full of boldfaced words and concepts this isn’t for you. Most topics covered in a traditional text book are here, though... read more
The Art of Being Human has no index or glossary but really doesn’t need one. If you are looking for the tell-tale text book full of boldfaced words and concepts this isn’t for you. Most topics covered in a traditional text book are here, though kinship seems short-sheeted. If you want a few big ideas aimed to change the student from the inside out, and want students to really “get” cultural relativity and value the insights that anthropology can bring to a student’s life, then the topics covered in this 300+ text will largely be sufficient.
This is not an unbiased book, but it is an honest book. Wesch is passionate about what an anthropological mind set did to change his life, and he is unapologetic in sharing his view point and personal journey. The book is light on the number of concepts, but those used are skillfully woven into the prose. The book is intended as an introductory text, but not in the classic exhaustive way. It is less a reference book and more of a self-improvement manual.
Is this text book relevant?—absolutely; three big recurring questions are identified and dealt with throughout: “Who am I? What am I going to do? Am I going to make it?” This is one of the strengths Wesch brings to bear. He taps into questions college-age adults are likely thinking about. Unfortunately, some of the examples used in exploring these questions are slightly dated. For instance, using a Miley Cyrus concert seems less than compelling for grabbing a student’s attention. References to the 2016 election and ongoing “culture wars” will quickly be dated. This is too bad but it is an easy fix for those instructors willing to do a bit of editorial work and management of these examples.
Each chapter is about a lesson the author wants us to learn. Careful, artful prose is employed throughout the book. Thoughtfulness and good editing are found in each of the ten chapters.
There is a balance of length and depth between chapters. Writing is consistently polished and effective throughout.
Wesch offers ten lessons, one for each chapter. On the surface it would seem you could mix and match chapters to fit the needs of the class. Unfortunately, this would take a modest bit of work. Chapters refer to other chapters already read, or yet to be explored. I purposefully read a couple of chapters out of order. Referencing other unread chapters wasn’t a huge distraction, but noticeable.
The unfolding of chapters is logical and linear. After establishing the significance of exploring other cultures, Wesch introduces the “Barrel” model of culture, which includes infrastructure (used loosely to include economics), social structure, and superstructure (cosmology, worldview, etc.). Topics flow forward from there.
If you are a fan of referring to web pages outside of a text book this OER has an ancillary web site that is well developed and interesting to explore. Wesch provides tools, videos and guides for other instructors to use. The videos included are fun and enjoyable. What is a bit annoying is that the ancillary is entitled ANTH 101 and is listed as such in the text book. If you teach cultural anthropology and your class isn’t titled ANTH 101, this could be confusing. Additionally, The Art of Being Human includes assignments that direct students to the ANTH 101 website. If you are like me, you may wish to put your own twist on these assignments—this is not easily done without making a modification to the text or otherwise directing students to ignore the book’s directives.
Other than a handful of typos, The Art of Bring Human is a solid, well written and beneficial addition to the OER movement. At times, the crafting of examples and storytelling is quite masterful.
For the most part Wesch wears his anthropological hat well and provides the reader with specific examples of why thinking differently and holding empathy is a good thing. Regrettably, Wesch falls short at times in his inclusivity by making statements that assume we are from and part of his culture, using statements such as “we value and hold…” “From our western perspective… .” Interestingly, Wesch assumes a standard American culture that he characterizes and includes the reader as being a member.
There are few books that have given me more to think about as a cultural anthropology instructor. Light on concepts and heavy on encouraging action, The Art of Being Human reads as a manifesto for living a fuller life, at least from one energetic anthropologist’s viewpoint. As a book used to make an instructor think differently about what we should be doing as a teacher, this OER is a “can’t miss success.” Used as an introductory survey text, this book is unconventional. Do I recommend it as such? It depends on how adventurous or safe you want to be in the classroom. I envision some students being liberated by it, while those who have a hard time reading anything in the social sciences struggling to find their footing and an instructor struggling to keep them from shutting down quickly—it I that type of transformative reading.
Although this text is designed for an introductory anthropology course, students from other disciplines will find value in the content and in the power of great story-telling. There are six sections to the book: Fieldwork, Culture, Evolution,... read more
Although this text is designed for an introductory anthropology course, students from other disciplines will find value in the content and in the power of great story-telling. There are six sections to the book: Fieldwork, Culture, Evolution, Language, Infrastructure, and Social Structure. Professor Wesch’s narrative moves the reader through each by using personal stories, anecdotes, and information from researchers other than himself. Because his examples are strategically placed and centered on personal connections, the concepts are easily understood. As a result, he carefully builds the foundation upon which readers will gain a broad understanding of anthropology while learning specific ways to explain the human condition. At the end of each section Wesch presents questions for reflection and challenges to his students to go out and “do” something related to the content. These challenges appear to reinforce core concepts while asking the students to push themselves as they develop their skills.
The content appears to be unbiased and accurate. Content is supported by research although sources are not cited in the text. While the lack of in-text citations or footnotes allows for easy reading, it also means the reader will have to search the references for specific citations.
This book is relevant now because of the discussions on human rights, cultural rights, structural power, the power of language, and because examples are pulled from around the world and from different historical eras. The content is meaningful, important, and so clearly focused on the human condition it will be relevant well into the future.
Professor Wesch’s voice is clearly heard throughout the book. It is as if he were sitting nearby sharing stories – some colorful, others scholarly but none are boring or difficult to understand.
The design of the text is basic and incredibly easy to follow. Graphics and photos are placed appropriately to illustrate salient points.
The six main sections of the book are distinct enough they could easily be used as stand-alone content but also combine to be a comprehensive text.
Everything about this book is easy to follow. The table of contents is simple and matches the headings in each section and chapter so the reader does not need to hunt for particular content. The challenges and reference lists are in the same place at the end of each section. The overall format is a refreshing break from many textbooks with busy, cluttered pages.
The PDF version type, graphics and photographs are easy to read. However, the book is more than 300 pages and scrolling from one section to another is a bit tedious. There are a few pages with extra blank spaces but they do not interfere with the readability of the pages.
Only a few grammatical errors were noted.
Because there are so many relevant issues exposed in this book, this is a text for everyone, not just anthropology students. Hate, race, gender, social media, globalization (and many others) are tackled in this book with an explanatory tone and defined through examples and context. For example, Wesch explores how four cultures define and live out their values regarding love and marriage. He deftly shows the differences without promoting a right or wrong perspective. Readers can’t help but pause for a moment and check their own value system and wonder how they would respond in a similar situation. Wesch does a great job of not politicizing current events but stays focused on the cultural lesson we all can learn about someone else’s human experience.
The most remarkable feature of this book is how it captured my attention and took me along for the ride. I can only imagine how powerful Professor Wesch is to hear in person. I imagine he sounds just like he writes and I would expect each day in his class is like visiting with a favorite relative who has traveled the world and has great stories to tell. A powerful component of his writing is the lack of judgment. He clearly shows how to be a respectful researcher and learner. Reading this book was enlightening, affirming, and a true pleasure. As a social work professor I found the sections on culture, language and social structure especially relevant and I will incorporate some content into my courses.
The book covers many foundational concepts, such as ethnocentrism, participant-observation, culture shock and others. However, there are very few important terms described in relation to politics, religion, health, socioeconomic inequalities,... read more
The book covers many foundational concepts, such as ethnocentrism, participant-observation, culture shock and others. However, there are very few important terms described in relation to politics, religion, health, socioeconomic inequalities, class and economics. While it is a very comprehensive text to understand the essence of anthropology and to deconstruct worldviews, it is not the most comprehensive introduction to the various aspects of culture holistically studied (what the author calls Seeing Big in Lesson 2) in cultural anthropology. Individual discussions on globalization, culture, health and evolution are very thought-provoking and comprehensive. However, discussions on forms of political organization, art, health and pluralism, ways in which applied anthropology is informed by cultural anthropology and the other sub-fields, and the relationship between the framework of the book (infrastructure, social structure and superstructure) are not included. The book lacks an index and a glossary. However, readers are pointed to the ANTH101.com resource for further learning, connections and questions. Each lesson ends with a challenge related to the topic of the Lesson that challenges students to deconstructing their own cultural ways and learning how to walk in someone else’s shoes.
The book challenges subtle and overt biases and fictional approaches (tropes) in looking at other cultures and encourages readers to critically examine the idea of cultural-normative through the author's personal fieldwork examples and anthropological journey. The narrative is reflexive throughout and free of errors and biases.
The text contains cutting-edge discussions on health and what the author terms mismatched diseases. In the most articulate manner, the author discusses the politics of life expectancy and the "survival of the fittest". The book tackles the sensitive topic of evolution in a way that can allow students to see how it is related to lifeways and flexibility towards various lifestyles, rather as through an isolated discussion on the history of human evolution. Because the underlying theme of the book is infrastructure, social structure and superstructure, as indicated by the barrel-shaped structure, it provides for a discussion of religion, marriage, gender, and globalization that will not only not go obsolete, but inform how additional aspects of cultural lifeways will continue to fall within the layers of the barrel categories. Finally, discussions on Twitter, snapchats in relation to language and on technology becoming the new human god in the future, as noted by the author, in relation to globalization put this text at the fore front of discussions about cultural transformation that anthropologists (as anthropological field sites also increasingly include virtual social media sites) must address.
The accessibility of the prose is the biggest strength of the book. The author uses fieldwork experiences as well as other ethnographic examples to contextualize important terms. The text is easy for an introductory student as well as a pleasure reader to understand the premise of anthropological inquiry.
The author notes in the introduction that this is not a typical textbook and therefore there will be fewer terms to memorize. It is highlighted that ten big ideas in anthropology on how to approach the idea of culture will be the focus. In Lesson 2, another framework, which informs the organization of the subsequent Lessons/chapters and discussions therein, the infrastructure, social structure and superstructure barrel-model, is introduced. The Lessons that follow highlight religion, marriage, economy, globalization in relation to each of the barrel categories. A formal statement of how the 10 points inform the framework in Lesson 2 or of the Lesson 2 framework at the beginning in Lesson 1 would have provided the readers a roadmap for addressing the book content.
While the narrative flows, the text lacks subheadings throughout. Lessons are divided on the premise that some aspects of culture studied in anthropology will form the infrastructure, some social structure and some the superstructure means that while the text is divisible into smaller reading sections, the framework, highlighted through a barrel-shaped model, of the infrastructure, social structure and superstructure and each informing the other may be missed out. It is also not possible to assign the first Lesson as an introductory reading for the framework along with smaller sections from later Lessons, as the framework of the barrel model is discussed in the second chapter. Lesson 2, Culture, where the barrel model of the framework is first introduced, provides an overview of the underlying characteristics of culture in relation to the barrel-model and can be assigned independent of other Lessons. Chapter 5 on Infrastructure, discusses globalization in conjunction with content that is typically discussed in a separate chapter on economy in conventional textbooks. Because of its unique, futuristic manner of discussing subsistence strategies, economic challenges, globalization and technology all together, Lesson 5 can be assigned as stand-alone reading.
Without Lesson 1, Fieldwork, including a statement on the ways in which the rest of the chapters/lessons would be organized, it is quite jarring to move from Lesson 8 on Globalization to Lesson 9 highlighting social and philosophical discourses on a good life and Chapter 10, the Art of Being Human, concluding the book with a focus on applied anthropology in the areas of environment, health and social inequality. In Lesson 2, the infrastructure, social structure and superstructure model has been introduced in the form of a barrel diagram. The lack of introduction in the first Lesson/chapter does not allow one to see that topics, such as economy, religion, marriage and others are organized in Lessons 5-7 around infrastructure, social structure and superstructure with the sub-headings included in the table of contents not providing any cues.
There are no navigational issues with the text. There are a few images of people from fieldwork. Other images are of the barrel-shaped infrastructure/social structure/superstructure diagram and snapshots of Tweets are placed appropriately and do not distract the reader.
There are no grammatical errors in the text.
The text largely comprise of the author’s reflections from ethnographic fieldwork, including some case studies to provide other cultural examples. As the author notes in Lesson 1, the text is meant to serve as an exploration of the 10 big ideas in anthropology. As Lessons/Chapters are organized around these ideas, certain topics, such as forms of political organization, kinship, religious systems, forms of art and others are left out as a result of which cultural examples from around the world throwing light on these aspects of culture have not been included in the book.
This book is a refreshing text in the scheme of conventional textbooks in that it does not begin with an introduction to the field and sub-fields of anthropology, a discussion on schools of thought in anthropology and a history of the field onwards to a chapter dedicated to an aspect of culture, such as religion, political organization, etc. Instead, it provides a framework of infrastructure/social structure and superstructure to understand various aspects of culture, albeit the framework is not clearly presented at the beginning. Evolution is quite a sensitive topic to study and teach in the West as notions of cultural evolutionism still inform discourses on social inequality. Evolution is typically dealt with at the beginning in conventional textbooks and other aspects of culture, such as health and social inequality are not related to it. This book provides a fresh take on evolution by relating it to health and what the author notes as mismatched diseases. Each Lesson ends with a challenge for students, something that urges them to give up what they deem as normative or approach it from a completely different perspective or step into the shoes of someone from another culture, which is a great strength of the text. Discussions on beliefs and points of view include Twitter snapshots and snapchats which are in keeping with the times. With the framework laid out in the introduction and the links between infrastructure, social structure and superstructure of the book highlighted throughout all Lessons/Chapters, this could become one-of-a-kind introduction to the essence of the field of anthropology.
This book offers a creative and innovative approach to teaching anthropology. Rather than dividing content into topics such as gender, race, and the economy, this book adopts an alternative approach that covers key anthropological skills and asks... read more
This book offers a creative and innovative approach to teaching anthropology. Rather than dividing content into topics such as gender, race, and the economy, this book adopts an alternative approach that covers key anthropological skills and asks students to embark on different challenges. The biggest strength of this book is the author's skill of storytelling. He begins each chapter with an engaging and relevant story that he then uses to introduce anthropological concepts to the reader and allow them to see how these concepts can be applied to real-life scenarios. He is clearly aware of how students learn and what grabs their attention and uses this understanding to write this book. Through this style of writing, he is demonstrating how anthropology is also an art. Certain chapters of the book, such as the chapter on globalization and social structure, are quite comprehensive and cover content that is important for any anthropology introductory course. The book could further acknowledge some of the complex and checkered history of anthropology, including issue of power dynamics involved in fieldwork in terms of who is producing knowledge and how knowledge becomes validated. In addition, certain sections of the book (such as the opening chapters) could work more to include more voices of the author's research participants in order to support the goal of allowing the reader to understand our shared humanness across cultures. Including these aspects could make the work even more comprehensive.
The information presented in this book draws on the works of well-known anthropologists as well as the author's own fieldwork experiences. It appears to be accurate. It could be improved by including more comprehensive citations for the reader to be able to refer to the sources being cited with greater ease, and also allow the reader to form their own judgements when generalizations are made.
The stories told and theories examined in this book are very relevant to undergraduate anthropology students and a broader US population. This book is clearly directed at an American undergraduate audience. It regularly draws cross-cultural comparisons to encourage readers to question their own perspectives. By covering topics in pop culture and issues surrounding media use this work will be easily accessible and relevant to many people in the US today.
The book is very clearly written. The author has a talent for explaining complex concepts in an easily digestible form.
This book is quite consistent in it's organization and writing style.
This book works well with regards to modularity. The book could be taken as a whole or certain lessons/chapters could be pulled from it to bolster a class that uses a different textbook or structure. I plan to use sections from it in future classes.
This book is clearly laid out. The table of contents and introduction explain what to expect of this work, which is helpful. I would also suggest that each chapter could begin (perhaps after the ethnographic excerpt) with a few more guiding sentences about what will be covered in the chapter. Because this book offers such a different style for teaching anthropology, additional details as to the topics that will be discussed in the different sections of each chapter would be useful. In addition, the "Learn More" section at the end of each lesson that includes additional resources for the reader is helpful and I think that this can be further developed.
The interface of this edition is in a basic PDF format with occasional photographs and helpful diagrams to breakdown more challenging concepts. In future editions it could be useful to have hyperlinks to the different chapters as well as a brief review of concepts covered at the end of each chapter.
The writing of this book is very clean with little to no grammatical errors. This makes for very easy reading.
This book strives to be culturally relevant and culturally sensitive. It's objectives of getting students to experience more, experience difference, and experience differently are central to any anthropology class. I appreciate how the book makes these the central objectives of the book rather than any one bit of content or getting students to memorize (and quickly forget) key terms. Overall, the book is strong in accomplishing this task but could be improved by including more voices of people from around the world, perhaps by drawing on a wider range of ethnographic studies that offer these expressions. As mentioned before, being more reflexive about where our knowledge comes from and the position of anthropologists in knowledge creation could also aid in this endeavor.
Overall this is an impressive and creative book. It is ambitious in the way that it turns anthropological teaching upside down to have students take away certain skills rather than just content knowledge. It is clearly written and easily accessible and I look forward to seeing how it will develop.
Let me start by saying I absolutely had no idea this book would be so fabulous. If only all texts were written in this way we'd never have to worry again if our students were reading the information we provide. Professor Wesch's writing style is... read more
Let me start by saying I absolutely had no idea this book would be so fabulous. If only all texts were written in this way we'd never have to worry again if our students were reading the information we provide. Professor Wesch's writing style is brilliant. I opened this book the first time thinking I'd read maybe the first twenty pages and only closed it when I realized I was late for a meeting, 175 pages later. I couldn't wait to return to it. Every page is a story with outstanding examples throughout.
The examples used in this text are completely unbiased. Dr Wesch has a great sense of humor and is a natural-born storyteller bringing to the reading audience vast experiential information and scholarly work.
I can't imagine this text ever becoming obsolete. His information hits the core of the topic and explores the deep roots of humanity. It's destined to become a classic.
The joy of this book is that it's in no way pretentious. By several pages into the text, I felt like I was sitting in a lecture hall listening to a person with amazing skill explain what very obviously, is a passion to him.
The text is simply simple and flows beautifully. It's laid out in concise order with summaries at the end of each section directing the student to more information.
One of the best things about this text is that each section is short enough to capture my interest and long enough to give me the information I need. If the reader wanted to pick out one or two topics from this book, it's easy to do.
The organization of this text flows perfectly from one topic to the next. The reader won't be stopping and having to look back for information to understand the current section's information. Perhaps because it's so skillfully written to hold the reader's attention, information from one page to the next builds upon each other.
I loved that Dr Wesch used a simple anthropological diagram to show how the topics he covered were interconnected. By seeing this particular diagram throughout the book, it helped immensely to understand the basic premises of humanness in a variety of topics.
There was just one place in the entire book where the word 'write' was entered when the word should've been 'right'.
I came away from this text feeling a respect and honor of our Earth's cultures. Dr Wesch used numerous examples of his work in the field and never implied an egocentric attitude.
I was so moved by this book that I researched Dr Wesch and his work. I viewed his YouTube video and, happily, found that he really IS humorous and unpretentious. He's one of those rare teachers that is gifted beyond commonness to grab the attention of his reader and leave them wanting more. What a joy to have chosen this book to review!
Table of Contents
- Lesson 1: Fieldwork
- Lesson 2: Culture
- Lesson 3: Evolution
- Lesson 4: Language
- Lesson 5: Infrastructure
- Lesson 6: Social Structure
- Lesson 7: Superstructure
- Lesson 8: Globalization
- Lesson 9: "The Good Life"
- Lesson 10: The Art of Being Human
About the Book
Anthropology is the study of all humans in all times in all places. But it is so much more than that. “Anthropology requires strength, valor, and courage,” Nancy Scheper-Hughes noted. “Pierre Bourdieu called anthropology a combat sport, an extreme sport as well as a tough and rigorous discipline. … It teaches students not to be afraid of getting one’s hands dirty, to get down in the dirt, and to commit yourself, body and mind. Susan Sontag called anthropology a “heroic” profession.” What is the payoff for this heroic journey? You will find ideas that can carry you across rivers of doubt and over mountains of fear to find the the light and life of places forgotten. Real anthropology cannot be contained in a book. You have to go out and feel the world’s jagged edges, wipe its dust from your brow, and at times, leave your blood in its soil. In this unique book, Dr. Michael Wesch shares many of his own adventures of being an anthropologist and what the science of human beings can tell us about the art of being human.
About the Contributors
Michael Wesch, Kansas State University