21A.01 | Fall 2019 | Undergraduate

How Culture Works


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


There are no prerequisites for this course.

Course Description

This class is about the concept of culture: an elusive category that anthropologists study, even while disagreeing about what exactly it is. To approach such confounding questions as what culture is and how culture works, we will focus on how anthropologists have studied, analyzed, and represented aspects of it in their texts. We will closely read anthropological accounts of family structure, material culture and exchange, personhood and subjectivity, relations with animals and spirits, perception, language, and the work of ethnography.

Class texts include scholarly articles and book chapters, documentary and fictional flms, one recently published book-length ethnography, and most of a classic book-length ethnography published nearly a century prior. While primarily based on the assigned readings, class discussions will also touch upon our everyday life here in Boston, especially as the latter is represented in the ethnographic accounts that students will themselves create throughout the semester. Class assignments include three short ethnographic projects, four short reading response essays, and one longer final essay.

An introduction to the study of culture, this class gives students hands-on experience with ethnographic practice and a basic understanding of some of the key debates surrounding the object and method of anthropological study. Examining how ethnographers have analyzed others’ social organizations and retold others’ stories, it asks about the elusive nature of such seemingly obvious notions as subjects and objects, humans and non-humans, gift and exchange, phonemic sounds, and culturally relevant meanings.

Course Objectives

Upon taking this course, students will:

  • have hands-on experience of several ethnographic fieldwork techniques,
  • have an introductory understanding of the discipline of sociocultural anthropology,
  • be able to identify key anthropological debates about the concept of “culture.”

The course will also help students improve their close reading, critical thinking, and academic writing.

Course Requirements


Class attendance and participation


3 ethnographic projects (3–4 pages)


Critique of said projects


4 reading response essays (1 page)


Final paper


For further detail, see the Assignments section.


Malinowski, Bronislaw. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. Waveland Press Inc., 1984. ISBN: 9780881330847. [Preview with Google Books]

Walley, Christine J. Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago. University of Chicago Press, 2013. ISBN: 9780226871806. [Preview with Google Books]

Additional readings can be found in the Readings section.


Plagiarism is a serious offense. It’s also wrong. If your text repeats part of another text verbatim, use quotation marks and include the source in parentheses (author’s last name, year: page number). If your text paraphrases another, include the source from which you’ve borrowed ideas in parentheses (author’s last name, year). For more information on citation formats, check out the Chicago Manual of Style.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2019
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments with Examples