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Some Basic Anthropology Texts For DMs

I’ve been thinking about a shortlist of books that my kids would benefit from reading, and on reflection, I’ve decided just about everybody would benefit from reading them, if they haven’t already, since we all may have some time on our hands.

To get on the list, a book has to have significantly shaped my own world-view, sure, but it also needs to be generally applicable to a lot of different questions (so no books on, e.g. underwater archaeology), and it should also be fairly short and accessible and possible to summarize without jargon – so that excludes e.g. Marx’s Capital, even though I think that’s an indispensable read for understanding nearly anything written in the humanities during the 20th century, regardless of whether you agree with its arguments.

These qualities, of general usefulness, readability and clarity, tend to go together with strength of argument. The part about me being impressed by the books’ arguments… is obviously idiosyncratic. I’d be interested to see what lists others around here produce.

Looking it over, I see my list is a bunch of old, old works. This is not because I think they’ve stood the test of time or some similar conservative nonsense but because
(a) academic fashion over the past 40 years has been against clarity and brevity, and
(b) they’re pretty much all anthropology texts (or “political theory,” which is to say, anthropology minus field work), which deal with familiar topics and behaviors and yet somehow their ideas have not been absorbed into common parlance. Which makes me suspect that despite being broadly “political” in nature, they are somehow resistant to being used as political footballs – a quality that has also been unfashionable in anthropology for a very long time.

With all that in mind, and in no particular order:

Mary Douglas: Purity and Danger
Douglas gives some critical thought to what constitutes “clean” and “dirty” in different cultures, and it turns out that these categories are really important for understanding what’s considered to be “ordered” and “disordered” in society. Once you grok this, biases in e.g. Hobbes’s Leviathan spring into focus – Hobbes is not just scared of disorder, he’s also disgusted by it as a dirty thing (nasty, brutish and short), so he needs a “sovereign” (the people) to make living in the world imaginable. Applicability to Lovecraft, Oscar Newman’s “broken windows” theories, and anti-immigrant politics should be obvious.

If you’re writing an RPG campaign, this will help you understand what gets revolutionaries thrown to the lions and how to outrage the Winter Queen’s court in just the right way to free your party-mates.

Marcel Mauss: The Gift
Mauss talks in detail about a specific set of communities in the Pacific Northwest of the US and in Papua new Guinea, but his Those People Over There observations work perfectly for Everyone Around You. He says gifts are not, in the first place, generous acts of sharing but instead ways to generate socially-binding debts.* Right-wing charity organizations spring straight to my mind, but (here’s the clever bit) Mauss doesn’t stop there and he doesn’t actually disapprove of gift-economies – he sees the position of hanging debt as a basic building block of social cohesiveness. This is useful for understanding Charlie Stross’s sf story Neptune’s Brood, without having to read trendier lefty darling David Graeber’s 550pp Debt: The First 5000 Years.

Applicability to RPGs: every time a local chief or grand vizier or corporate rainmaker has a mission for the PCs, and every time they need a favor from such a character, and whenever PCs get into positions of power, you can use this kind of gift exchange to make sense of their social climbing and networks. Just find and replace “Trobriand Islander Chief” with “Mafioso.”

*obviously the gifts you and your family give are selfless acts of generosity and any anxiety you feel about not having given the right gift for the circumstances is just because you like the people you’re giving the gifts to and want to please them. That’s because you’re freed from the cycle of debt by the example of Jesus, who died for your uh oh no wait now.

Benedict Anderson: Imagined Communities
Anderson wanted to know why people fight and die for their country. He wound up writing a theory not just of nationalism but of community self-representation in general. If, in a discussion, you refer to a community as “imagined,” you can quickly identify who in your earshot is qualified to talk usefully about what communities are made from by separating the ones who nod in recognition from the ones who look angry. Unlike most theorists of nationalism, Anderson doesn’t just conclude it’s bad. When he says community is “imagined” he does not mean it’s necessarily a sort of imaginary fantasy, but rather that it necessarily must be actively reproduced in each member’s own imagination, out of various kinds of representation, which contain various arguments about power, since it lives only in collective imagination.
He’s clearer than I am, read him.
Also, there’s a delightful short excursus on the use of monuments and why official photos of them tend not to contain sightseers.

Read this for RPGs if you want to write convincing polities, patriots or propagandists. Like dirt and gifts, people tend not to want to think hard about what communities mean or how to feel about membership in them (parroting pious phrases is not thinking hard). This is a good book for getting you to ask “but what if it were different? How could it be? Has it ever been?”

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics
OK I lied. This book is decades younger than the others, and a whole lot more obvious and obviously partisan in its arguments. And to be honest, it didn’t change anything about the way I think. But it’s still very useful to have it written down, so you can see its arguments clearly – it’s the book I wish I’d had available to cite during grad school whenever I was told some very complex theory about justice and history that didn’t match the data I could see. The (fairly universal) workings of power are laid out simply, cogently, and more or less in handy bulleted lists, without any of the sentimentality or partisan apologizing that just about everyone else does. To hold onto power, you have to identify and cultivate the people around you who can get things done. That means, the ones with networks of influence and debt. Sadly its newness means I can’t give you the full text, but these “rules for rulers” videos offer a handy summary. Yes, it ties together with Mauss and Anderson. And it explains little things like why democracy is unlikely to take off in Saudi Arabia (the economy there doesn’t need a helpful, educated class to agree with its rulers, it just needs to be mined). Any time someone tries to tell you how power really works, check their explanation against this ground state, to see if it’s actually doing better than the default, or if it’s just claiming some kind of spurious virtue by associating itself with other values.

Usefulness for RPGs: right in the title it tells you this is a sourcebook for making evil empires. And in fact any empires. You can use it to check the motivations of the powerful and see if they “make sense:” if you can explain what a particular governor or admiral is doing in ways that satisfy Bueno de Mesquita, then that’s enough to satisfy any cynical party of players.

The virtue of such a list lies in its shortness. There are lots of worthy works that didn’t make it in, that have ideas I refer to all the time. But this is where I would start, personally.


  1. March 24, 2020 at 4:22 am

    Very cool post man. Loved The Gift; you now have me excited to read the other two, especially de Mesquita.

  2. March 24, 2020 at 4:36 pm

    I barely touched anthropology in the short time I was in college, although I was planning on switching to that as my major, so the only one of those I’ve heard of/read was Purity and Danger (and I think another book by Mary Douglas?) I know I did have to read another book that included material on the Trobriand Islanders, but I don’t think it was The Gift. I want to say it was an anthology edited by John Middleton… Magic, Witchcraft and Curing. But might have been something else.

    I’ll have to check out some the others you mention.

    The books I focused on my own were more along the lines of Littleton’s New Comparative Mythology and Dumezil’s books like Stakes of the Warrior. Don’t know if those would be directly useful for RPG play, but they’d be useful in world-building, if someone had to make up their own mythology.

  3. doublejig2
    March 25, 2020 at 12:42 pm

    I’ve been looking to add an anthropology sphere to my readings; the texts mentioned seem like good choices for the [fantasy] campaign milieu. Thanks.

  4. April 3, 2020 at 3:10 pm

    If you’re interested in fiction about anthropology, I strongly recommend Ursula Le Guin’s stories, especially her Hainish Cycle.

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