Socect’s Weblog

Unsettled Thoughts/Works in Progress

The Trouble with Textbooks

Last term, several students recommended that I use a textbook for SC2218: Anthropology and the Human Condition. I can understand the appeal of a textbook, especially in contrast to the reading list I give students. The readings in my coursepack are difficult for an intro course (at least many of them are). They are also very, very ecclectic. Over the break between semseters, I’ve given a lot of consideration to using a textbook. I’ve skimmed through a large stack of introductory Anthropology textbooks available in the NUS library. Doing so reinforced all my reasons for not using an introductory textbook. I will list the main ones here, but also below is a list of the textbooks I would most recommend, for students who are interested to use these as a reference. These are all good and useful, but…

My number one reason for not using textbooks is that they are almost all written for Americans or if not specifically for Americans, then for “Westerners”. The textbooks are guilty of this to varying degrees. And I think that it is not hard to argue the Sociology textbooks are far more biased in this regard than Anthropology textbooks, but still, here are some examples…

Conrad Kottak’s “Anthropology: The Exploration of Human Diversity” includes “understanding ourselves” sections, which tend to refer to “Western society”. For example “People in the United States…” (p.346, 10th Edition)

Gary Ferraro’s “Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective”; the first chapter begins “When North Americans hear the word anthropologist …” (p.2, 4th Edition). His reader also refers to “us – middle-class residents of the United States.” (p.1)

Ember and Ember’s “Cultural Anthropology”… “If we can understand why other groups are different from ourselves, we might have less reason to condemn them for behavior that appears strange to us… Let us reflect on how a typical North American community might react…” (p.10, 11th Edition)

Haviland “Cultural Anthropology”… “It is a fact of life that North Americans share the same planet with great numbers of people who are not only not North American but are non-Western as well.” (p. x, 10th Edition)

I could go on, but you get the point… I just cannot bring myself to assign one of these for use in Singapore.

The second reason is I feel that adopting a textbook would be very constraining. If I require students to buy one of these massive, expensive tomes, I feel I would have to teach from it rather than developing more targeted and original content. For me, the point of university level learning and lecturing is not to for the lecturer to convey and for the students to memorize content, but to understand and grapple with ideas. Of course, content is important but it is not the only or even most important aspect of learning. Nowadays, content is everywhere (information overload). The challenge is how to organize, assess, understand and work with information. I guess I see it as my job to take the students a step beyond what they can find in a textbook (or on the web or anywhere else for that matter). Even in an “introductory” course.

All that said, content – good content – is important. And textbooks can be very useful reference material. So while I’m not going to assign an introductory textbook for the course, here are several good ones (all available in the NUS Library; I’ll try to have them put on the reserve shelves):

William A. Haviland, Cultural Anthropology (probably the most widely used, worldwide)
Emily A Schultz and Robert H. Lavenda, Cultural Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition (recommended by students who took the course before)
Gary Ferraro, Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective (good examples of applications of anthropology beyond academia)


July 31, 2008 - Posted by | Teaching | ,


  1. I tend to share your reservations but I find myself faced with additional problems when I don’t use a textbook. I teach the first two years at a transfer institution in socio-economically disadvantaged part of Texas. All my students are moving on and most are first generation college-goers. I feel somewhat compelled to provide full coverage of the discipline in a broad, survey so they can be prepared for any upper level courses that come next. Toward that end, I have been exploring some of the abbreviated texts that are showing up in the market this past couple of years as a kind of baseline grounding text. This year I am experimenting with Barbara Miller’s 1st Edition “Cultural Anthropology in a Globalizing World” which is published by Pearson as a “brief” text. I have some issues with it but I need a text that will be used in the classroom and Distance Learning which sets down the basics clearly so I can expand from there and I think this one will work. Pearson has an even briefer text by Haines meant to be used as a support text only. You can view them here:,3119,696525,00.html

    And, no, I am not a Pearson rep. LOL. I just went through your issues myself recently and did some screening of available textbooks.

    BTW, I have used some of the texts you cite and have really had trouble with them even here in America. I think when textbook authors try to pander to an American audience, they tend to oversimplify America’s complexity and students, here, pick up on that. They can sniff-out stereotyping quite well.

    Comment by Pamthropologist | August 1, 2008 | Reply

  2. Thanks for the reply and thoughts.
    Nice blog you’ve got too…

    I’ll have to find more time to read through it.

    Doesn’t it seem like the era of the five-pound (two kg), $100 massive intro textbook should be at an end? Appologies to W.A. Haviland and all others who’ve made some nice royalties on these, but I don’t see the value in these. Actually, they are useful as reference works, but wouldn’t such massive amounts of content be more appropriate to have on the web and/or as you mention to have some more concise introductory texts?

    I’ll look at the text you mention (given time). Still, more than anything, I just find it hard to get over the idea of assigning a textbook to my Singaporean students written for “us – middle-class Americans” and contrasted with “them – non-Westerners”. This in anthropology of all disciplines!

    Comment by socect | August 1, 2008 | Reply

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