A History of Anthropological Theory

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  • posted byAnna
  • dateOctober 24, 2016
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To mark the publication of the fifth editions of their enormously successful texts, A History of Anthropological Theory and Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory, we asked authors Paul A. Erickson and Liam D. Murphy to provide insight on the journey they have taken through five editions, and the rationale behind some of the changes to these new editions.

history of anthropological theory 5eTwo fifth editions—who knew? Years ago, when we accepted the invitation to create a succinct, accessible history of anthropological theory, and soon thereafter a companion reader in the history of anthropological theory, we jumped at the chance. Years later, we are gratified that the two books have found their niche and that they have been used by tens of thousands of university students across North America and abroad. We must be doing something right.

One tinkers with a successful formula carefully. Over four subsequent editions of both books, we have deliberated on what changes to make. One change was to keep up with history of anthropological theory scholarship, of which there is a great deal. Another change was to keep up with anthropological theory itself, which, since the first editions, has moved well into the twenty-first century. Some of what was once current theory is now theory from the recent past, so we have had to place that theory in historical perspective. At the same time, two books cannot go through five editions and keep getting lengthier and therefore more expensive, or else they will lose their succinctness and price themselves out of the reach of students.

Our solution to this problem has been to strike a balance. A History of Anthropological Theory (we tag it HAT) has absorbed new material relatively easily, because the book was brief from the outset. Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory (we tag it RHAT) has presented a greater challenge, because the addition of a single new reading, representing a single new theory, can add a significant number of pages. At some point, something had to give. So, in order to add new readings, we have dropped some older readings. As with all decisions about the need to make changes, in deciding which readings to drop, and which to add, we have been guided by the expert opinion of users, many of them loyal since editions one.

readings for a history of anthropological theory 5eIn keeping with all this, the fifth editions of the two books have some exciting new features. HAT (the overview text) has a significantly expanded section on anthropology and gender. This expanded section explores not only gender, but also sexuality, or sexualities, including femininities, masculinities, and LGBT sexualities. A brand new section on anthropologies of the digital age sets forth how anthropologists have begun exploring both the digital world itself, and the cultural consequences of adopting digital technologies. These and other changes are reflected in RHAT (the reader) in the form of both updated section overviews and additional readings. RHAT, for example, now has a total of four readings on gender and sexuality. The fifth editions of both books have retained the pedagogical bells and whistles of the fourth editions and, in response to popular demand, have restored a pedagogical feature omitted in the fourth editions—key terms bolded in the text and defined in the margins and at the end of the readings. For each reading, the definitions are expanded so that they serve as explanatory endnotes, helping students understand the readings but without doing all the work for them.

Why two books? Actually, we started out with one book, HAT, and then added the second, for two reasons. First, some people who liked the organization of the text wanted a reader organized along the same lines, and second, other people wanted the flexibility of using either a text or a reader, as long as the two books were mutually reinforcing and not too duplicative. In recent years, the pairing of both books has proved increasingly popular with users.

There you have it—a brief account of our two labours of love. Let us know what you think about them.

Paul A. Erickson is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

Liam D. Murphy is Professor in the Anthropology Department at California State University, Sacramento.

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