Gods of the Upper Air

I read Charles King’s Gods of the Upper Air wearing two intellectual lenses—those of a peacebuilder and political scientist, both of whom are deeply interested in questions of culture. I was not disappointed because the book’s message comes through at two levels.

First, it is a powerful history of a circle of anthropologists who revolved around Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and others. As such, it is a remarkably complete and readable overview of the way that field was begun and grew from the 1880s through the 1940s.

Second, it uses their work to make their central contributions to human understanding in a way that extends to this very day. Societies reflect their cultures which, in turn, reflect their histories. None is inherently better than any others. Perhaps most importantly of all, those of us who study other societies have to be aware of the biases of our own that we bring to our research and the interpretations of our findings.

This is a book that anyone interested in the fate of humanity should read. That pretty much means all of us.