Home » ProSeminar in Anthropology » 2013: Exploring the Canon » Locating the Current Canon in Cultural Anthropology: An Examination of Comprehensive Exam Reading Lists from the Perspective of a Prospective Graduate Student

Locating the Current Canon in Cultural Anthropology: An Examination of Comprehensive Exam Reading Lists from the Perspective of a Prospective Graduate Student

Locating the Current Canon in Cultural Anthropology: An Examination of Comprehensive Exam Reading Lists from the Perspective of a Prospective Graduate Student


Students in several disciplines are accustomed to the concept of a canon, or a body of work that is “need to know” material. The theoretical and methodological approaches outlined in these canonical, yet often outdated, works may not surface in a graduate student’s scholarship. However, these foundational texts are often the first upon which undergraduate majors and minors in the field test out their analytical chops while gaining an understanding of the discipline’s growth and development. According to George Marcus, however, anthropology is not a canon-centric discipline. In fact, Marcus argues that the canon in anthropology has shifted from a textual to an oral tradition in which “classic texts are evoked, but only lightly read.” Although graduate students in anthropology may confer with faculty mentors to develop individualized reading lists to suit their research interests, the lack of a definitive canon is problematic for students coming into cultural anthropology from other fields. As such, this project illustrates the frustrations and limitations that a potential student from outside the field faces when attempting to locate something as simple as a departmentally sanctioned reading list for guidance. Unfortunately for potential applicants, however, department-wide reading lists, much like the anthropological canon itself, are either nonexistent or not readily available for public inspection.


Before outlining the methods used to determine that publically available, department-wide comprehensive exam reading lists in anthropology are rare, it is important to explain how this project defines the term canonical before addressing why the inclusion of particular works or theorists on such lists can be used as a measure of canonicity. The Oxford English Dictionary defines canonical works as “accepted” or “standard” items that often have “admitted authority, excellence, or supremacy”; and, although most scholars would be generally suspicious of terms like authority or supremacy, the term standard best describes how canonical works function. As previously stated, canonical texts and theorists serve two practical purposes for graduate students entering a given discipline. First, they give each cohort of students a shared professional vocabulary and a set of theoretical frameworks to develop their own scholarship within or against. Second, they give students the basic knowledge needed to teach a general education course to a group of undergraduates who may have questions about the histories, key figures, and theoretical shifts in the field that go beyond the pages of an introductory textbook. Although individualized reading lists contain texts specific to each student’s research interests, department-wide lists provide a standard, or canonical, index of key works or theorists that all students in a particular cohort or department “need to know,” which makes them a particularly useful source for determining what is considered canonical on a programmatic, if not a disciplinary, level.


To determine a list of canonical works for students interested in testing the textual waters of the field sans previous professional mentorship, it was decided that the best approach would be to collect comprehensive exam reading lists from the 82 programs identified in the National Research Council 2010 Assessment of Research-Doctoral Programs in anthropology to determine the frequency at which particular texts or theorists appear. Although initial concerns involved whether there would be significant correlations or variations between canonical works by regions or grades of the NRC ranking scale, it quickly became clear that collecting any samples, much less a sample size worthy of cross-comparison, would be a challenge. Of the 82 programs contacted, only three provided reading lists: Southern Methodist University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Washington State University. Although a variety of informal suggestions were provided from helpful faculty members across the country, these suggestions were omitted to avoid skewing what little data was available with individualized preferences, and the sample set was expanded to include all 386 campus-based anthropology graduate programs in the United States listed on GradSchools.com. After scanning the websites and contacting the graduate directors of the additional programs, five more reading lists were located from The College of William and Mary, the University of Missouri, the University of California at San Diego, the University of Southern Mississippi, and Northeastern University. The woefully small sample of eight reading lists was then examined to see what works or theorists appeared frequently enough to cast even the slightest shadow of canonicity.


With such a small sample set, it was tempting to validate any repetition between lists; however, it was arbitrarily decided that for a theorist or a work to count as potentially canonical it had to appear in at least three lists across the set. After narrowing each list down to the sections that dealt specifically with cultural or social anthropology, 364 authors and 534 texts were cross-referenced. As a result, 29 potential canonical theorists (See Table 1) and 19 potential canonical works (See Table 2) that appeared on three or more lists were identified. Though they are tentative at best, the results could serve as a beneficial reference for students who are interested in anthropology but aren’t sure where to enter the theoretical conversation.



Table 1: Canonical Theorists



Clifford Geertz******

Max Weber******

Franz Boas*****

Eric Wolf*****

Benedict Anderson****

Arjun Appadurai****

Pierre Bourdieu****

Emile Durkheim****

David Harvey****

Claude Levi-Strauss****


George Marcus****

Karl Marx****

Ruth Benedict***

James Clifford***

Mary Douglas***

E.E. Evans-Pritchard***

Anthony Giddens***

Marvin Harris***

Brownislaw Malinowski***

Marcel Mauss***

Margaret Mead***

George Peter Murdock***

Aihwa Ong***

Karl Polanyi***

A.R. Radcliffe-Brown***

Renato Rosaldo***

Marshall Sahlins***

Victor Turner***

Immanuel Wallerstein***


*Indicates each program that included this theorist in its required reading list.


Sources: The College of William and Mary, Washington State University, University of Missouri, University of Colorado, University of California at San Diego, University of Southern Mississippi, Southern Methodist University, Northeastern University.






Table 2: Canonical Texts


1973: “Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight” by Clifford Geertz******

1904: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber*****

1982: Europe and the People Without History by Eric Wolf*****

1940: Race, Language, and Culture by Franz Boas****

1983: Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict


1867: Das Kapital by Karl Marx***

1922: Argonauts of the Western Pacific by Bronislaw Malinowski***

1928: Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead***

1934: Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict***

1940: The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic

People by E.E. Evans-Pritchard***

1949: Social Structure by George Peter Murdock***

1954: The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies by Marcel Mauss***

1957: The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time by Karl


1963: “The Structural Study of Myth” by Claude Levi-Strauss***

1966: Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo by Mary Douglas***

1968: The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture by Marvin


1977: Outline of a Theory of Practice by Pierre Bourdieu***

1996: Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization by Arjun Appadurai***

1999: Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality by Aihwa Ong***


*Indicates each program that included this text in its required reading list.


Sources: The College of William and Mary, Washington State University, University of Missouri, University of Colorado, University of California at San Diego, University of Southern Mississippi, Southern Methodist University, Northeastern University.



Now that the research has come to a frustrating, yet marginally fruitful close, it is worth addressing what worked or didn’t as expected, including: the general absence of department-wide reading lists and the difficulty of locating programs in cultural anthropology with similar foci, and the presence of what Raymond Williams might call residual and emergent works. First: In light of the time spent trying to locate comprehensive exam reading lists in the field, a more productive approach might have been collecting individualized reading lists from a handful of institutions rather than trying to gather department-wide data from such a wide variety of programs. Second: Although eight reading lists were gathered, it is clear that not all of the programs could be classified as focusing exclusively on social or cultural anthropology. The largest deviations, for example, were an Ethnic Studies reading list from the University of California San Diego and a series of specialized reading lists from Northeastern University’s program in sociology and anthropology. Third: Though the results are tentative at best, it is interesting to note that even as some residual texts may be fading from canonicity (e.g. the work of E.B. Tyler or Lewis Henry Morgan), roughly half of the emergent materials that exist on two or more lists were published after 1970 (e.g. the work of Akhil Gupta or Sherry Ortner). Although these texts may not currently be taught in anthropology departments across the board, it is interesting to see departments “canonizing” so many works from the 1980s and 1990s. However, whether these new works are, as Marcus implies, textual novelties destined to be “pushed aside for the next innovation” remains to be seen.


In closing, this project has not drastically revised or refuted the view of canonical works as “need to know” texts that are part of the professionalization process for a graduate student who is learning how to enter a field both as a scholar and as an instructor. However, this project does reveal that anthropology as a discipline seems to value mentorship and individualization over canonical standardization. Although this might be refreshing news for incoming students who appreciate the mentorship process and have particular research interests in mind, it might be a little disconcerting for students entering the field from canon-centric disciplines, who are accustomed to having reading lists at their fingertips. Hopefully the tentative results of this research will give those students an idea of where (or when) to get started.





“386 Anthropology Graduate Programs.” GradSchools.com. Accessed February 22, 2013. http://www.gradschools.com/search-programs/campus-programs/anthropology.


“canonical, adj. and n.”. OED Online. Oxford University Press. Last modified December 2012. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/27157?redirectedFrom=canonical


“Cultural Anthropology Bibliography,” Southern Methodist University, accessed February 15, 2013, http://www.smu.edu/Dedman/Academics/Departments/Anthropology/Programs/Graduate.


“Department of Anthropology, Graduate Student Comprehensive Reading List.” The College of William and Mary. Accessed February 15, 2013. http://www.wm.edu/as/anthropology/documents/CompList.pdf.


“Doctoral Programs by the Numbers.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Last modified Sept. 30, 2010. http://chronicle.com/article/NRC-Rankings-Overview-/124703/.


“First Year Examination Reading List.” Washington State University. Accessed February 15, 2013. http://www.libarts.wsu.edu/anthro/pdf/First%20Year%20Examination%20Reading%20List.pdf.


“Forms and Resources,” Northeastern University, last modified 2011, http://www.northeastern.edu/socant/graduate/forms-and-recourses.


“MA Comps Reading List,” Comprehensive exam reading list. University of Colorado, 2009.


“MA Exam Study Guide.” University of Missouri. Last modified March 8, 2013. http://anthropology.missouri.edu/programs/grad/apply.html.


Marcus, George E. “A Broad(er)Side to the Canon: Being a Partial Account of a Year of Travel among Textual Communities in the Realm of Humanities Centers and including a Collection of Artificial Curiosities.” Cultural Anthropology no. 3 (1991): 385-405.


“Spring 2010 Social/Cultural Comprehensive Exam Reading List.” Comprehensive exam reading list. University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast, 2010.


“UCSD Ethnic Studies Graduate Student Handbook and Reading List.” University of California at San Diego. Last modified September 2012. http://ethnicstudies.ucsd.edu/_files/Graduate%20Handbook%2012-13.


Williams, Raymond. “Dominant, Residual, and Emergent.” In Marxism and Literature, 121-127. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.