Rebranding anthropological textbooks.

This link to a blog post by design anthropologist Dori Tunstall has been popping up in my feeds.

Beloit College Anthropologist, Associate Professor Jennifer Esperanza was feeling frustrated. Why is there always images of “exotic” peoples on the cover of anthropology textbooks? “Why can’t there be images of, for example, a group of white American women eating salads, on the cover?,” she asked.

Why indeed.

The design brief that I offered to my former Swinburne Design Anthropology postgraduate students was the following:

Greetings Danthro Alums. I have a quick weekend project for you to do as a favor. A friend of mine pointed out how all anthropology textbooks have these “exotic” images of others on the covers and never an image of “white women eating salad”. 

Me, being Dr. Smarty Pants, said, “Wouldn’t it be great to replace those exotica images with those of middle class American/Australian Caucasians doing stuff, maybe even using stock photos?”

So, I would ask you to select a cover from a cultural anthropology textbook and replace the “exotica” image with an image equivalent of “white women eating salad.”

Design anthropologist, business coach, and branding specialist, Julie Hill accepted the challenge and produced nine images for the project. She describes her experience below:

I found this exercise interesting and fun to explore. Especially focusing on the shift in the lens, from traditional anthropology to contemporary ethnography, and what that means. The longer I did it, the more interesting it got – I accessed deeper cultural themes, such as beauty, festivities or core cultural values.

I found the results of this exercise thrilling and thought-provoking. See what you think.

“‘Exotic’ and decolonized images” by Julie Hill. All images Creative Commons (Wikimedia).


anthropology5bodymod“Body Modification.”

anthropology8introducing“Introducing Anthropology.”

anthropology4beautyclay“Beauty clay.”

anthropology11nubilewomen“Nubile women.”



anthropology10textbook“Cultural Anthropology textbook.”

It’s a natural human bias that we automatically think of ourselves and our little corner of the world as the default, the norm by which we deem everything and everyone else Other (consciously or not). Our inherently warped and limited lenses have a profound influence across vast spheres of culture, fundamentally affecting our perceptions of morality, economics, community, politics, war, kin relationships, art, sexuality, the environment, violence—pretty much everything, really. How could it be otherwise?

And therein lies the toxic seed of privilege. As a Whitey McWhiteperson raised in a middle-class US suburb, “race” and “culture” become something that only apply to and concern Others, not me. I’m normal, you see. Why on Earth would anyone ever be afraid to call the police?

The same phenomenon is at work across every axis of privilege: class, gender, (dis)ability, legal status and other factors that should cement our status as equally human in all of our glorious diversity, but instead are repurposed for enforcing, often violently, exactly the opposite.


Maybe the increased tolerance and affection for others that starts with exposure can lead us to turn our lenses back on ourselves with a more critical eye, and recognize that we have much more in common with each other than we’re instinctively inclined to believe?


  1. says

    The redesigns are brilliant, and past due. For pretty much all of recent history, white people have always considered themselves exempt from anthropology [as people to be studied], no, that was saved for all those savages still roaming about.

  2. anat says

    Yes, studying white people was called ‘sociology’. Or perhaps ‘economics’. Or ‘political science’.

  3. cubist says

    All good people agree
    And all good people say
    That all nice people like us are “We”
    And everyone else is “They”…

    —taken from Rudyard Kipling, We and They

  4. DonDueed says

    Interesting, but hardly a new idea. I took an Anthro elective in high school in 1970. Our textbook included a faux study of the exotic tribe known as the Nacirema. It covered such oddities as their strange habit of tooth washing.

    The article was pretty widely known back then. Anthropologists have been turning the lens on themselves for at least that long.

  5. inquisitiveraven says

    A couple of peculiarities that I noticed in those pictures: The “exotic” image of nubile women is showing us their faces. The “decolonized” image is showing us their backs.

    Both of the market pictures are of outdoor markets, but I think it would make an interesting contrast to have the decolonized version emphasize how much white Americans (and in many places, Europeans) do their shopping indoors. This could be represented by interior shots of malls, or shots of shopping strips or commercial streets, e.g. this street in Haddonfield, NJ.

  6. dianne says

    Our textbook included a faux study of the exotic tribe known as the Nacirema. It covered such oddities as their strange habit of tooth washing.

    That one’s still active. My daughter got an excerpt in 6th grade with the assignment of writing another study of the Nacirema and their odd ways. I believe she went with a discussion of their bizarre obsession with giving children work to do after they are done with school for the day.

  7. freemage says

    In the same vein as inquisitiveraven @5, I think the last one would be a better comparison if the decolonized version showed a white person next to their Volvo station wagon, maybe even fueling it up at a gas station.

    Pierce R. Butler is, interestingly, correct re: what happens when you add “urban” to the title–images of people largely disappear, and those that remain seem to be better balanced, racially speaking.

    Sans “urban”, however, it gets pretty grim in terms of balance. This is the only one I found in the first few pages of scrolling that did not get caught in the trap:

    At least it shows folks I would suspect to be white Westerners at first glance, creating a better feeling that this is about studying all people, and that we’re all equally in need of study.

  8. says

    Inquisitiveraven @ 5:

    A couple of peculiarities that I noticed in those pictures: The “exotic” image of nubile women is showing us their faces. The “decolonized” image is showing us their backs.

    The point of the those face front photos was to show breasts and get away with it. That started a very long time ago, and was popularized by NatGeo back in the day (even before my day). Articles with those photos subbed for porn mags for generations of boys.