Game of Thrones and Anthropology

Sometimes people worry that anthropology’s central preoccupations won’t resonate with the wider public. But just one look at Game of Thrones proves that’s not true.

Now personally, I gave up watching Game of Thrones because I couldn’t take the spectacular amounts of sexual violence and just plain violence. But I recognize that’s just me — the show has a wide audience and a loyal following. It’s not a television show anymore, its a cultural phenomenon. It’s the show that made having sex with little people normal.

It’s also a show about complexity and particularity. Viewers are expected to remember and understand the relationships between a wide variety of people, and to appreciate the way the particularities of those people — how they walk, talk, and act — affect the way they make history. The characters on the show are not static either, they grow and change over time. In some cases they undergo complete transformation.

The one lesson (American) anthropologists want to spread across the world is “Its complicated”. In classrooms and publications, our goal is to show the complexity of human life to our audiences. To the horror of nomothetic, model-making sciences for us ‘abstraction’ and ‘simplification’ are often pejorative terms. We want our publics to dig their hands deep into ethnography.

Often times we’re told that seeking a public voice for anthropology requires giving up this goal. We’re told that audiences want short sound bites and simplifications. Complexity, on this account, is the enemy of popularization.

Game of Thrones demonstrates otherwise. Audiences are clearly ready for stories full of real people and complexity. Imagine what would happen in the United States if our evening news moved beyond coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys” and told the story of five or six interrelated factions competing for power. Suddenly, America would recognize “its complicated”! Our audiences clearly have the capacity to deal with the “it’s complicated” message.

Game of Thrones is about complexity, but its also about something else: kinship. Yes that’s right: Kinship. LINEAGE SYSTEMS PEOPLE. Today the study of kinship has had quite a comeback as it has morphed into a broader account of relatedness and sociality. But Game of Thrones calls out for the kind of Mancunian account of lineage dynamics that you’re more likely to see in Philip Gulliver than Janet Carsten. There was webs of kinship and dynamics of clanship. At the very least the show deserves to be analyzed in terms of how microhistories become macrohistories.

Can an audience’s interest in the complexities of kinship be kept without tremendous amounts of violence, sex, and magic? It’s a moot question, since pretty much every place we’ve studied has a good amount of each. Make no mistake about it: we need to make ethical choices when we write about salacious topics. But when we do, our audience will be ready.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

6 thoughts on “Game of Thrones and Anthropology

  1. Can an audience’s interest in the complexities of kinship be kept without tremendous amounts of violence, sex, and magic? It’s a moot question, since pretty much every place we’ve studied has a good amount of each.

    I feel GRRM must have read some ethnography and maybe even a little anthropological theory along the way. Wargs weren’t cut from whole cloth, and his families and houses ring too true to me for their creation to not have been grounded in lineage theory and Levi-Straussian sociétés à maisons. There are a handful of elements such as those in his worldbuilding that I just don’t think could have come from any other disciplinary perspective (or entirely from his imagination).

  2. I suspect GRRM got his lineage/house material from medieval historians, not anthropologists per se – the same material Levi-Strauss drew on for some of the house theory stuff (which, IMO, not so helpful, but that’s another story). It’s not as if ethnographers have a monopoly on accurate descriptions of non-industrial social structure. You never know, though – and I’m sure Martin read about Eurasian nomads in designing Dothraki society, so there must be some significant ethnographic component to his wider reading.

  3. I don’t know about the kinship part, but in my opinion GOT is the opposite to complex and it does the contrary of teaching “it’s complicated”. I can only comment on the TV show as I haven’t read the books. And from what I see on TV, all peoples involved in the GOT’s plot are much alike. Indeed they talk different languages and don’t dress the same way. On the other hand, I can’t help but think most characters behave and talk as if they were 21st century Euro-Americans. Their existential dramas aren’t as varied as it could be.
    As I said, I won’t comment on the kinship part of your argument, maybe GOT show some diversity there. On the other hand, every Sunday I feel like I’m watching contemporary Americans or Europeans dressed up as if they were somewhere between the past and fictional time.
    I’d also like to say I agree with A. J.West’s comment on ethnographers not being the owners of alterity descriptions. Historical accounts do inspire many movies and books.

  4. I suspect GRRM got his lineage/house material from medieval historians, not anthropologists per se – the same material Levi-Strauss drew on for some of the house theory stuff (which, IMO, not so helpful, but that’s another story). It’s not as if ethnographers have a monopoly on accurate descriptions of non-industrial social structure. You never know, though

    I don’t know medieval historians’ work at all, so it’s true that I could never have an informed notion of how heavily their work might factor into Martin’s stew of influences. I know LS’s house concept from The Way of the Masks and how he was trying to point to some categories of social organization that the contemporary Western world just doesn’t tend to see. The hints that Ned created a story about Jon as his illegitimate descendent in order to raise him as a legitimate member of House Stark feels to me like GRRM might be conciously bringing a few more analytical categories than is typical to bear in his worldbuilding. As you rightly say, though, Lévi-Strauss himself borrowed much of his house stuff from outside of anthropology. Martin might well have gotten it straight from there himself.

  5. I think this is a trend in US television towards more ethnographic dramas. The Wire, and to some extent Breaking Bad all deal with questions of contingency and complex moral and social scenarios.

    I also think that it is too easy to describe nomothetic thought as the antithesis of Anthropology. I think understanding the social life and circulation of nomothetic models is really important in terms of “reassembling the social” if you like, and so it is a bit too easy to go “it is complex” when complexity science and non-linear systems are pretty much hegemonic in natural science, and when the theory behind hegemonic market approaches is about how humans wants and needs and contingency make central planning too complex to be achievable.

    So yes, this sense of coplexity has become much more widespread and hegemonic than before, but that should be a red flag. Is Anthropology too comfortable with this state of affairs, has it stopped seeing the water it is swimming in? Should we pay attention to nomethetic thought, the social life of ideas, to older themes such as nationalism etc, in order to understand how orders emerge and re-emerge out of complexity?

    So yes, it is good that GoT, The Wire and so on are part of a popularisation of the sense of the complexity of real life, but that should also make us uncomfortable, is that emphasis on particularity and contingency perhaps not also a subtle form of pre-conception?

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