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The Invention of Culture

Second Edition

With a New Foreword by Tim Ingold
In anthropology, a field that is known for its critical edge and intellectual agility, few books manage to maintain both historical value and contemporary relevance. Roy Wagner's The Invention of Culture, originally published in 1975, is one.
Wagner breaks new ground by arguing that culture arises from the dialectic between the individual and the social world. Rooting his analysis in the relationships between invention and convention, innovation and control, and meaning and context, he builds a theory that insists on the importance of creativity, placing people-as-inventors at the heart of the process that creates culture. In an elegant twist, he shows that this very process ultimately produces the discipline of anthropology itself.
Tim Ingold’s foreword to the new edition captures the exhilaration of Wagner’s book while showing how the reader can journey through it and arrive safely—though transformed—on the other side.

Read the Introduction.

208 pages | 6 x 9 | © 1975, 1981, 2016

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Sociology: General Sociology


“This new edition of one of the masterworks of twentieth-century anthropology is more than welcome. It will make new readers of us. The way in which Wagner unlocked Western conventions of thinking and writing, revealing what is always on the other side, remains foundational to anthropology’s aspirations to be a critical discipline. It is conceptually, persistently radical. Here twenty-first century readers have a particular advantage: in seeing through the language and form of a book that is obviously of its time, they will find its enduringly significant insights still ahead of its time. Translate its concerns into our current sense of crisis, and you will find that it was always about a future for anthropological thinking.”

Marilyn Strathern, emerita, University of Cambridge

“This is one of those rare books that succeeded in pressing the reset button on an entire discipline. Still wholly original from top to bottom, one cannot begin to understand where we are now without reading this book for the first time, if you have not already, and at least one more time if you already have. Its time, as it always has been since it first appeared, is now.”

Joel Robbins, University of Cambridge

“Imagine looking into a mirror long enough to suddenly realize that you are no longer certain who is the subject looking and who the object being looked at. That displacing, life-changing uncanny mood that suggests to us that what we call subjectivity might not be a prior condition of existence at all has been labeled Hegelian, Freudian, Heideggerian. For me, the realization that all of the conceptual assumptions about a ‘native informant’ or a ‘culture’ could be reversed and that their misunderstanding of me was not the same as my misunderstanding of them will always be Wagnerian.”

Giovanni da Col, SOAS London, founder and editor of HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory

Table of Contents

Foreword to the Second Edition
Preface to the Second Edition
Chapter 1: The Assumption of Culture
The idea of culture
Making culture visible
The invention of culture
Chapter 2: Culture as Creativity
Fieldwork is work in the field
The ambiguity of “culture”
The wax museum
“Road belong culture”
Chapter 3: The Power of Invention
Invention is culture
The necessity of invention
The magic of advertising
Chapter 4: The Invention of Self
An important message for you about the makers of time
Learning personality
On “doing your own thing”: The world of immanent humanity
Learning humanity
Chapter 5: The Invention of Society
Cultural “change”: Social convention as inventive flow
The invention of language
The invention of society
The rise of civilizations
Chapter 6: The Invention of Anthropology
The allegory of man
Controlling culture
Controlling nature
The end of synthetic anthropology

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