Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology:
Humanity, Culture and Social Life

Tim Ingold (editor)

Routledge 1994
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996
The Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology is a collection of thirty eight articles commissioned from a distinguished selection of authors, spanning the entire field of anthropology and divided into three sections — Humanity, Culture and Social Life. Each of the articles is an overview of current anthropological theory on a topic, a deliberate decision having been made to focus on theory. A better title might have been the Companion Encyclopedia of Theoretical Anthropology, since ethnographic details are far and few between and historical and methodological issues are raised only as individual authors deem necessary.

Ingold claims in his introduction that the Companion Encyclopedia is "a book that is designed not just to be consulted but to be read", and that "the ordering of the articles has been designed to bring out to best advantage the connections between them". This is too optimistic. While I did read it cover to cover and thoroughly enjoyed doing so, it took me over a year to do so, and I don't think many people will actually read all eleven hundred pages (especially if they've borrowed it from the library). Ingold's attempts to link all the chapters together (in introductory chapters at the beginning of each section) seem forced, and the occasional cross-references between chapters are only superficial.

Ingold also writes that "the proliferation of interests and approaches threatens the coherence of anthropology as a discipline... This volume exists to meet that need." While I feel strongly about the need for anthropologists to avoid overly narrow specialisation and I like Ingold's vision of anthropology as essentially inter-disciplinary, as "philosophy with the people in", I am not convinced that unity can be restored so easily, or indeed that such a result would be desirable. The Companion Encyclopedia does a much better job of displaying the intrinsic diversity of anthropology than of countering it.

But the biggest problem with Ingold's vision for the Companion Encyclopedia is that, apart from a brief discussion of philosophical issues in the introduction, no attempt is made to provide any kind of overall framework to guide the reader. It is not overt disagreement between the chapters that is the problem here: the chapter by Philip Lieberman on "The origins and evolution of language" disagrees in many places with the neighbouring chapters, but this is a dispute within a group of people who share a common background. The problem is with completely incompatible approaches, with chapters built on completely different philosophical foundations — the structuralism of James Weiner's "Myth and metaphor", the hard science of Odling-Smee's "Niche construction, evolution and culture", or the overt relativism of Henrietta Moore's "Understanding sex and gender", for example. In his search for unity, Ingold has swept differences between "humanist" and "scientific" approaches under the carpet. This is fine for those who already have some grasp of the issues involved, but naive readers will face confusion, if not trauma, when they attempt to transfer epistemological presuppositions from one chapter to another.

Whatever its larger claims, however, in the end a volume such as the Companion Encyclopedia stands or falls by the quality of its individual articles. These are outstanding. The contributors include some eminent figures — we have Phillip Tobias on "The evolution of early hominids", Amos Rappaport on "Spatial organization and the built environment", and AndrĂ© BĂ©teille on "Inequality and equality", to name just a few names —, but their contributions don't stand out from the rest. The articles are learned, readable, and above all even-handed. They rise above the fray of ongoing dispute, presenting different theories fairly and refraining from fighting personal squabbles. (The only exception to this — and the only chapter that I really couldn't find anything worthwhile in — was Mary LeCron Foster's "Symbolism: the foundation of culture", a tendentious attempt to enshrine metaphor as the foundation of human culture, complete with ridiculous gibes at modern linguistics and positivist science.)

I can't mention all the chapters individually, but particular favourites included Mark Cohen's "Demographic expansion: causes and consequences" (which looks at both sides of the debate over the Kalahari San), Howard Morphy's survey of the anthropology of art, Simon Roberts' "Law and dispute processes", and the four chapters by Ingold himself. Even those chapters which contained little that was new to me (Peter Worsley's rather schematic twenty page article on "The nation state, colonialism, and the contemporary world order", for example), were interesting for their choice of material and will be useful as a guide to the literature. Each chapter has a solid bibliography and a list of recommended further reading. (Though the latter is just a simple list in the same format as the bibliography, often just a subset of it.)

It is good to see an anthropologist trying to produce a serious work that aims to be "a source of ideas and inspiration to the enthusiastic and informed 'general reader'". But The Companion Encyclopedia is too big (and expensive) for most such readers, or for use as an introductory university text. (And because of its theoretical emphasis, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone approaching anthropology for the first time, unless in conjunction with more ethnographic reading.) Its obvious role is as a "reference reader", as a sourcebook for those who need to be able to find summaries of anthropological theory in different areas, either for themselves or as readings for their students. Obvious candidates are school teachers and academics forced to teach outside their area of speciality. Certainly all university and high school libraries should have a copy.

February 1996

External links:
- buy from or
Related reviews:
- more anthropology
- books published by Routledge
%T Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology
%S Humanity, Culture and Social Life
%E Ingold, Tim
%I Routledge
%D 1994
%O hardcover, bibliographies, index
%G ISBN 0415021375
%P xxxiv,1127pp