Category Archives: Guest blogger

A Place for Poor People? Peri-Urban Land & “Development” in Lesotho

This post was contributed by Charles Fogelman, and is part of a series on ‘Rending land investible‘, guest edited by Jenny E Goldstein and Julian S Yates.

Charles Fogelman is a Research Fellow with the Cultures of Law in Global Contexts Project and a Ph.D. candidate with the Department of Geography and GIS at the University of Illinois. He tweets at @charlesfogelman.


The title of this piece comes from a conversation I had with a senior unelected official for the city of Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. As he described the planned sprawling 18-hole golf course in a village on the outskirts of town, I asked him what would happen to the poor people who currently used the land for small-scale agriculture. “The city is no place for poor people!” he told me. His perspective, in direct conflict with discourses of international development, demonstrates a key tension between the objectives of poverty reduction and economic growth.

My dissertation project investigates that tension via the logics and impacts of a major land reform project in Lesotho. My presentation at the AAG meeting in Chicago will focus specifically on the uses of mapping and other technologies in Lesotho’s land reform, while other elements of my work focus on gender and authority. For this piece, however, I want to talk about my project more broadly to investigate what “development” means in the context of Lesotho’s land.

Land Act 2010 is the centerpiece of legislation that sets the rules for land reform in Lesotho. Together with several other laws, the Land Act set out to make land a more legible and exchangeable resource. The biggest element of the law was that it eliminated customary tenure in urban areas and instead mandated leaseholds (de facto titles). As the government minister responsible for the execution of the law phrased it, “The current land reform program in Lesotho is driven by the desire to achieve social growth and development on the one hand and economic growth and development on the other” (Sekatle 2010). The text of Land Act 2010 is nearly identical to its predecessor, but Land Act 1979 failed to successfully disempower customary authorities in land matters.

The reason Land Act 2010 has been successfully implemented is that a $363 million grant from the U.S.’s new development wing, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), provided the funding to measure, map, adjudicate and deliver the leaseholds that the law requires. In 1979 these expensive logistics were left to individual landholders. Together with wording that removes land allocation power from unelected local chiefs, who were seen as potentially capricious and unsanctionable by their constituents, Land Act 2010 successfully moved urban land tenure to the hands of the market. The goal of making Lesotho’s land an engine of economic growth is consistent with other MCC projects and with the MCC motto – “Poverty reduction through economic growth.” How this market-led land reform works toward economic growth is clear. However, its work toward the goal of poverty reduction is murkier.

The questions I have asked about this reform are rooted in a framework of access. In short, vulnerable people have been granted the right to benefit from their land, but have they been granted the ability to benefit? (Ribot & Peluso 2003). What my work demonstrates is that legal frameworks are necessary but insufficient to provide true land access to vulnerable land users. It is the institutions that govern the execution and application of the laws that are most important. They are the ones who can determine who truly benefits. In Lesotho, the beneficiaries of land reform do not appear to be the poor and vulnerable people said to be targeted by the MCC’s development plans.

That leads to a final point: who are the true beneficiaries of Lesotho’s Land Act 2010 if not the vulnerable people ostensibly targeted? In my research village, two real estate developers are reaping the benefits of secure and exchangeable land tenure. One is building the aforementioned par-71 golf course on half of the village’s former agricultural fields, the other is building a 700-home suburban development on the other half of the fields. Two things are notable about this. First, these developers are empowered by bureaucrats, who are able to influence the votes of the elected officials who are supposed to determine land allocation. The bureaucrats are, like the chiefs before them, unelected officials who can be capricious or corrupt with little ability for public sanction. Second, discourses of “development” that privilege economic growth as the driver of poverty reduction need to be more explicit in how poverty reduction will happen. All the good intentions in the world have not kept economic growth at my research site from trampling on the land access of the poor.

If a development project is to be truly pro-poor, the poor need to truly be at the forefront of planning and execution. These concerns are hardly academic: the MCC is planning a second grant for Lesotho, and their initial plan identifies “Poor land management and allocation systems” as a “binding constraint to economic growth” in Lesotho. A further U.S.-led redefinition of the social relations that govern land access may lie ahead. Poverty reduction and economic growth are very different things. To truly reduce poverty, institutions and development agencies must target reforms and projects that directly help poor people rather than waiting for the fruits of trickle down to accrue to the poor. Trickle down development like Lesotho’s can create a situation where security of land tenure is for golf courses, not the vulnerable, and the city is truly not a place for poor people.

Investment’s Rituals: Legitimating an Andean Gold Mine

This post was contributed by Eric Hirsch, and is part of a series on ‘Rending land investible‘, guest edited by Jenny E Goldstein and Julian S Yates.

Eric is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago. His research looks at different forms of economic development intervention in Andean Peru’s Colca Valley – from small-scale NGO investments to mining and extractivism – and investigates how they intersect with local conceptions of indigeneity, sustainability, and permanence.


 

What happens when an Andean family finds gold on its land? Upon my return to the Colca Valley village of Yanque, in Peru’s southern Andes, last year after attending a conference in the United States, my host father Ricardo Flores cautiously approached me.[1] “We may have found some gold on Leonora’s estancia, way up there by Tayta Mismi.” He said this quietly, so as to keep the information a secret.

Because of Yanque’s densely gridded configuration of homes—each of which is the node of a local family’s “archipelago” of properties for dwelling, grazing animals, and growing crops (Murra 1972)—any talk of gold had to be hushed. Property lines aren’t always clear, and this applies both to the horizontal and—as we’ll see just below—vertical dimensions of land. Now, it was certainly clear to the Flores family. Leonora’s birthplace was close to the estancia property, located several kilometers from Tayta (Lord) Mismi, a mountain peak (Apu) that is the village’s main water source and thus a hugely important ritual site. Her family’s alpacas had grazed on that land. But the family did not yet have the documentation to prove it. And based on the Flores’ past experiences with Peruvian bureaucracy, this made the land vulnerable: anybody with better access to experts could easily make a claim to the property.

That was not the main source of urgency for the Flores family, however. Buenaventura, one of Peru’s largest mining enterprises, had been frantically buying up large expanses of land in the area and showed no signs of slowing down. According to the property map that David, one of the Flores’ sons-in-law, drew with marker on a large piece of graph paper (papelote) as he led an October family meeting at the Flores home on how to go about extracting gold from this land, their property was almost completely surrounded. Given the enterprise’s intimacy with state authorities, which have license to claim subsoil rights and set the terms of prior consultation, the estancia was sure to be seized soon if the family did not act.

The global land rush has been particularly pronounced in Peru, whose mineral resources have been largely responsible for the country’s astronomical aggregate growth. Copper, silver, and gold have made Peru the fastest-growing nation in South America for most of the previous decade.[2] Of course, aggregate growth does not tell the whole story, and wealth accumulation from mining profits has disproportionately benefited elites, tracing familiar historical lines of inequality. These elements’ importance for Peru’s growth has also been a source of ambivalence and anxiety, for mining is a perfect example of completely unsustainable development. During the portion of my fieldwork that I spent in the Peruvian cities of Lima and Arequipa, endless academic and NGO conferences were held to address the worry about what will happen to Peru after the mining boom. 2013 and 2014 saw a flurry of books published with titles like “What can be done about Peru?” (Ghezzi and Gallardo 2013). When Lima hosted the 2014 UN conference on global climate change, one of the chants animating the event’s main protest, the People’s Climate March, was this: “There is gold! There is copper! The people are still poor!” (“Hay oro! Hay cobre! El pueblo sigue pobre!”)

Tania Murray Li, in her recent piece “What is Land?”, asks: “why the rush?” (2014: 594). The idea of a land “rush,” Li writes, entails “a sudden, hyped interest in a resource because of its newly enhanced value…Do it now before others spot the value, and profit margins decrease.” For the Flores family in Yanque, Buenaventura was the reason to rush. A second reason to rush was a distinct source of pressure: many of the Flores men, manual laborers and, in one case, an entrepreneur who had just shuttered his video game café business, were unemployed. If Leonora’s estancia really did have gold in its depths, this was the time to find it: mineral prosperity stood to save family members from intense economic desperation.

They snapped into action. They are, at present, engaged in a costly race against time to formalize their property title, constitute the family as an enterprise, and fulfill the other bureaucratic rituals necessary for convincing authorities that they are legitimately entitled to mine the property, against the specter of the state’s usufruct rights and Buenaventura’s profound political advantage.

So this was the Flores family’s first task: get the necessary documents in order. In theory, we can see how land titles serve as protective devices. The Andes and, much more intensely, the Amazonian region of Peru, have seen an “epidemic” of illegal artisanal mining, whose practitioners tend not to meet state regulations or undergo the inspections necessary to be cleared for an extractive activity that poses high risks to substantial parcels of land. These artisanal miners also risk invading territories that belong to others who are often politically weaker than them, and subsequently destroying those territories. If a land title can offer protection, the quest for this protection is another story: state bureaucracy is a significantly more difficult structural obstacle for a small family whose members have limited schooling and even more limited political capital than it is for a large mining corporation.

The Flores family is simultaneously racing to render the site investable by seeking a different kind of permission: the land’s. This permission can be attained through the pago a la tierra (offering to the earth), a ritual fundamental to life in much of the Andes which involves an elaborate process of breathing on and burning, in a highly regulated way, an assemblage of materials including coca leaves and an alpaca fetus. For this ritual, and in order to work the land, a constant supply of chicha (fermented maize and barley) also had to nourish the land, as well as its workers, and making chicha was itself a labor-intensive activity requiring days of preparation. On another of David’s papelotes at the Flores family meeting was a budget, which contained a category he labeled “investments.” Investments here did not only include machinery, the costs of copying and processing documents, gasoline for the truck, and food costs. It also included each of those ritual elements essential to any kind of labor that uses the land to cultivate prosperity.

This second set of tasks was key for rendering the land investable on the family’s—and the land’s—own terms. The consequences of failing to conduct the pago or doing it wrong could be grave, ranging from simply finding no gold to deadly accidents and bad luck on the site and beyond. Even before finalizing the title (something which has yet to happen), Flores family members had made a number of trips to the site lasting up to several days, where they excavated samples for laboratory analysis to attain a better sense of how much gold might be awaiting them. During those trips, they also had to make the place habitable. This means that in a much more mundane way, rendering land investable at the supra-terranean level also has directly to do with transforming the property into a livable space. Labor was required to cook both the chicha and enough food to last each work trip, and to keep the small shelter adequately warm in hostile cold conditions at what was an extremely high altitude. When I accompanied them to the site in January, our project for the day was to re-thatch the small shelter’s old rooftop in preparation for longer stays.

So let’s return to the fundamental discussion question we are each addressing here: What is land? Yes, it is a source of supplies and nutrition, the ground beneath our feet, a commodity, a place, a space, and even that small site on which physical occupation by one person excludes physical occupation by another (Li 2014). But it is also an animated environment, a spirit, a kind of political actor (De la Cadena 2010). The earth and the ground were specifically described as a mother during many rituals I was able to observe in Colca. A patient nurturer and a protector, yes, but also a being personified as somebody who can get hungry and angry and wreak destruction when displeased.

Beyond the simple opposition between “state”/“official”/“secular” and “local”/“spiritual” registers of legitimation, the Flores’ urgent race to render land investable brings multivalent ontologies and ethics into the space of explicit acknowledgment and valuation. And making these things explicit, all together and at once, is not only a common feature of ritual as an interactional genre. This is also a strategy for not leaving anything out, for covering all the bases and pulling out all the stops. In this effort, the Flores family challenges Buenaventura, the state, and just as importantly, the whims of the land itself by recruiting, engaging, and framing on their own terms—while always careful not to resist outright—that which our panel organizers have called “the capitalist-centric framing of rendering land investable.”

References

De la Cadena, Marisol. 2010. Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond Politics. Cultural Anthropology 25(2): 334-370.

Ghezzi, Piero and José Gallardo. 2013. ¿Qué se puede hacer con el Perú? Ideas para sostener el crecimiento económico en el largo plazo. Lima: Universidad del Pacífico/PUCP

Li, Tania Murray. 2014. What is land? Assembling a resource for global investment. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 39(4): 589-602.

Murra, John V. 1972. “El ‘control vertical’ de un máximo de pisos ecológicos en la economía de las sociedades andinas” (pp. 427-476). In Iñigo Ortiz de Zúñiga (1967-1972[1562]), Visita de la provincia de León de Huánuco en 1562. Vol. 2. John V. Murra (ed.). Huánuco: Universidad Nacional Hermilio Valdizán.

 

[1] All names have been changed to minimize the risk of this post revealing the owners of a property that may have gold on it. Note that “Flores,” which is my anonymizing substitute for a Quechua-language surname, is one of the most widely shared surnames of Spanish origin in Peru.

[2] This piece in The Economist describes Peru’s “Asian-style” growth between 2003-2013, and describes the instability of subjection to a “commodity lottery”: http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21610305-colombia-overtakes-peru-become-regions-fastest-growing-big-economy-passing

J. N. B. Hewitt, Iroquois Americanist (SMNAB 1)

It took me several years to get a command of the Hewitt Six Nations ceremonial and text notes. – Bill Fenton1

John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt (1859–1937) is often described as a linguist by vocation, but his interest in linguistic structure was of a piece with a much broader set of research interests. He was a skilled comparativist who collected native language accounts in the service of historical reconstruction. In his reliance upon this particular set of sources and methods, Hewitt falls squarely within the Americanist Tradition.2

During his five decade career at the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE hereafter), Hewitt returned from the field with scores of texts in Tuscarora, Seneca, Onondaga, and Mohawk. Upon each return to D.C. he then proceeded to fastidiously gloss them at his own pace, and publish only in drips and drabs. In the years since his death his publications and manuscripts have served as rich source material for ongoing study of Iroquois culture history and the Iroquoian languages.

Bureau of American Ethnology
Undated portrait of John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt. (NAA INV 02858800, Photo Lot 33, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.)

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Savage Minds Native Anthropologist Biographies (SMNAB)

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Matthew T. Bradley

Over the next four weeks I will be posting a series of biographical sketches of indigenous anthropologists. The genesis of my month’s guest blogging lies in a late October biographical post on Ely S. Parker I put together for my personal blog. Rex contacted me after seeing the post to broach the idea, motivated in part by the intention to “alter how Google remembers [indigenous anthropologists].” I never walked to school barefoot in the snow, but I do remember a pre-recap era Internet back before fresh content had less shelf life than a quart of milk. Call me a geek, but the opportunity to craft something digital and durable struck me as authentically exciting.

“Three Iroquois in Diverse Costumes,” c. 1827 watercolor by Tuscarora ethnologist David Cusick. Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, object no. X.521, New-York State Historical Society.

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Why I like typewriters

This is my last post as a guest blogger for Savage Minds. I have enjoyed this experience of connecting with so many anthropologists. I want to thank the Savage Minds team for giving me this opportunity to discuss ethnographic writing, and to everyone who offered their thoughts and comments on my posts. Since this is my final contribution, I thought I would end on a personal note and share a short homage to typewriters.

A vintage German business typewriter from the 1930s.
A vintage German business typewriter from the 1930s.

As you may have noticed, many images of old typewriters accompanied my posts on writing this month. These photos are not culled from the Internet, but are pictures of my own growing collection of European manual typewriters, which I now use to write my fieldnotes and my first drafts. I am not a luddite, nor am I paranoid about the NSA reading my fieldnotes. And although I am old enough to have written many early college papers on a typewriter, my trusty Smith Corona was an electric model. I switched to a basic word processor, and eventually to a personal computer as soon as I could afford one. Writing on a manual typewriter is a newly acquired preference.

Skywriters

Over twenty years after I retired my electric Smith Corona, my partner surprised me with a vintage Skywriter as a birthday present. The Skywriter hails from the 1950s and was Smith Corona’s attempt at a portable machine that itinerant writers could use on airplanes. Last spring, I began writing research notes, letters, and first drafts of my work on that typewriter, mostly because I loved the clack of the keys, and the fact that email, social media, and the lures of the World Wide Web couldn’t distract me while I worked.

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A Political Suicide and the Return of the Greek Left

The results of yesterday’s Greek elections, which the radical left coalition, SYRIZA, won in an historic landslide, reminded me of a humble pharmacist named Dimitris Christoulas. What follows is an excerpt from an essay I wrote in his honor back in 2012.

I hope his spirit rests a little better today.

A sign posted on the tree where Dimitris Christoulas shot himself in 2012. "In memory of the thousands who lost their lives in an undeclared economic war."
A sign posted on the tree where Dimitris Christoulas shot himself in 2012. “In memory of the thousands who lost their lives in an undeclared economic war.”

It was a Wednesday when I read about the suicide. At 8:45 am on the morning of April 4 2012, 77-year-old Dimitris Christoulas killed himself amidst a rush of morning commuters near a metro station in front of the Greek Parliament. I choked on tears when I finished the article.

I was probably surfing the Internet, perendinating as usual. I’d just returned from a research trip to Bulgaria, and had been unceremoniously rocket launched into the second half of my spring semester. On top of writing lectures, teaching, grading, and supervising my students, I had four composition books full of hand-written fieldnotes that needed to be transcribed. But I was restless and feeling depressed about the world of academic knowledge production.

Probably my existential mood made the news of the suicide afflict me so deeply. Mr. Christoulas had leaned his head against a cypress tree. It meant he considered the logistics before he pulled the trigger. He knew that his head might jerk away from the force of the bullet. The cypress tree provided the answer. I imagined him with one temple pressed against the bark and the other temple pressed beneath the barrel of the handgun. I could see his body crumpling to the ground in Syntagma Square, the blood from his head soaking into the spring grass still wet with the fresh morning dew. It would be Orthodox Easter soon. Despite the divine reference in his surname, there would be no resurrection for Mr. Christoulas.

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Ethnographers as Writers: Write First Drafts in One Go

Many doctoral students fail to earn their PhDs because they never finish their dissertations. They complete their coursework, pass their qualifying exams, and do all of their research, but writing the thesis proves an insurmountable barrier. Why does the dissertation present such a challenge? Because students can’t push past the first chapter. Too many dissertators start with their introduction and find that they have nothing to say. Or they realize they have no idea what they are trying to introduce.

"How do I cut and paste on this thing?"
“How do I cut and paste on this thing?”

In Anne Lamott’s brilliant book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, the author advises all would be writers to embrace what she calls the “sh*tty first draft” (SFD). Decide what you’re going to write, and then write it straight through without stopping. If you need an article, spend some time thinking of an abstract that captures the essence of your argument and the data you have to substantiate it. You can take a few days to put together a really good abstract. Once you have it, use it as you introductory paragraph and start writing.

Keep putting words on the page until you reach what you think will be the end. Never go back and read what you have already written. This may seem difficult, but you can learn to let your thoughts flow. If you find yourself stuck at a section or in need of a particular fact or reference not at hand, leave placeholders in your text. Phrases like “insert quote here” or “discuss relevant studies here” litter my first drafts. If I need to stop working for the day, I always type the letters “XXX” in my electronic document. When I come back to the file, I open the document and search for the “XXX,” thus bypassing the text I’ve previously written.

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The Ethnographic Book Trailer?

Movie trailers have been around for decades, and part of the fun of going to the cinema was always the sneak peaks of upcoming movies. With the proliferation of digital software like iMovie, and the ease of uploading just about anything to YouTube, the trailer has migrated from the world of movies over to the book industry. Trade presses regularly create book trailers to promote their new releases even while some authors bemoan the fact that they must now push their written texts using visual media. In her 2013 New Yorker article, “The Awkward Art of Book Trailers,” Rachel Arons recognizes that although book trailers “are often dismal,” there exist instances of genuine creativity.

Should "academic" be added to the standard templates for trailers in iMovie?
Should “academic” be added to the standard templates for trailers in iMovie?

University presses seem to be jumping on the bandwagon, and some now produce trailers for their “cross-over” books. For Ruth Behar’s latest book, Traveling Heavy: A Memoir Between Journeys, Duke University Press released a short trailer featuring the author as she prepares for a trip. For her monograph, We Want What’s Ours: Learning from South Africa’s Land Restitution Program, author Bernadette Atuahene gives a passionate two-minute overview of her argument. Princeton University Press produced a dramatic one-minute trailer for Adrienne Mayor’s book, The Amazons, and a thoughtful two-minute synopsis featuring sociologist Amin Ghaziani discussing his book, There Goes the Gayborhood?.

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Ethnographers as Writers: Consider Endnotes

Most students and scholars learn the disciplinary conventions regarding citation and never think about them again. But citation practices vary widely both between and within disciplines, and once you’re past the dissertation, you have far more flexibility in choosing your own citation style than you think. To be sure, academic journals have their own house styles for articles. The 2009 style guide for all journals of the American Anthropological Association states: “All references must be cited in author-date form; all author-date citations must be referenced,” and the guide provides detailed instructions for how to use the author-date format for e-mails, websites, brochures, and other eclectic materials.

Maybe in-text citations were also easier to include when folks used to write on typewriters.  Footnotes must have been a nightmare!
Maybe in-text citations were also easier to include when folks used to write on typewriters. Footnotes must have been a nightmare!

But where did these conventions originate and how did they come to anthropology? The standard of in-text author-date citation derives from something called the “Harvard style,” which originated in the field of zoology. In 1881, the zoologist Edward Laurens Mark published an important paper on the garden slug wherein he included the first parenthetical author-date citation. This system spread out from zoology to other natural sciences where the author’s name and the date of the publication are the two most important pieces of information. Prior to Mark’s invention of the author-date referencing system, footnotes were sprinkled randomly throughout the text and signaled by asterisks and other printer’s marks. The author-date system streamlined citations and favored brevity and clarity.

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Ethnographers as Writers: Theory and Data – Part II

So I’m staring at some fieldnotes and trying to sort out the best way to blend my theoretical analysis with my ethnographic data. Where to start? How to find the right balance? Once again, I decided to contact fellow ethnographers to gather insights about their writing processes. Sociologist Olga Shevchenko also struggles with what parts of her fieldnotes to include:

I almost never know in advance which parts of the field notes will go into the text, because it takes me some time, and a lot of writing, to figure out what it is exactly that I am going to argue! With interviews, it’s different. There are some turns of phrase that seem to leap off the page, and these are usually those that capture experience in a fresh or complex way. I also tend to notice when a turn of phase, or a metaphor emerges more than once. When I heard a third person compare their everyday life with living on a volcano, I knew it was going to be in the book in a major way. But it also got me thinking about what this metaphor accomplished, which sent me right back to the field notes. When I can’t find a place in the text for an evocative image or turn of phrase that I hear from a respondent, this causes me great torments!

Coding your fieldnotes the old fashioned way
Coding your fieldnotes the old fashioned way

Like Olga, I now spend a lot of time reading my fieldnotes and deciding what material I want to include before I figure out my core argument, a process sometimes called “grounded theory,” a way of incorporating theoretical insights that emerge organically from the fieldwork. I also search for great quotes or turns of phrase that capture something about the everyday experience of my informants.

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Ethnographers as Writers: Theory and Data – Part I

There's nothing more intimidating than a blank page.
There’s nothing more intimidating than a blank page.

Every ethnographer must find a balance between theory and data. Our fieldwork and our specific case studies render our work original, but this work fails to be scholarly if it lacks dialogue with larger theoretical concerns. When writing the dissertation the literature review section remains de rigueur, but most acquisitions editors demand that this section be exorcised from the eventual book manuscript. This means that the theoretical insights inspired by your participant observation must somehow be woven into the final text so as to elucidate your original ideas without burying the reader under an avalanche of information about what other scholars, studying other cases, have said before you.

The task of integrating theory proves difficult for even the most experienced ethnographers, and different scholars maintain varying opinions on its importance. In a 1999 article, anthropologist Ruth Behar argues that theory for theory’s sake undermines the potential vibrancy of ethnographic writing:

What I do find tiresome is the habit of using whatever theory happens to be fashionable…as a substitute for really engaging the tough questions posed by those whom we encounter on our journeys as ethnographers. When ethnographers working in far corners of the globe are all citing the same two pages from the work of the latest trendy theorist, without reflecting on the politics of how that theory travels, you can be sure they have killed the life in their ethnography.

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Ethnographers as Writers: Getting Started

Every article, book, or thesis begins with a first word, but getting started feels overwhelming. My worst prose derives from disorganized thinking and writing, and over the years I’ve experimented with different systems to help me get my projects off the ground. When I map out some incremental steps, my projects seem more manageable.

First I ask myself: what do I want (or need) to write? This helps determine the best format for my research results. In some cases the format was predetermined for me – when I was a doctoral student I had to produce a dissertation of a certain minimum length. When I write for a journal, they enforce specific word counts. These days, I have a bit more freedom, but I still struggle to determine if I have a book length argument or if my research is best presented as a series of articles.

Before I write the first sentence, I try to visualize the contours of my project. I once typed up outlines, but now I imagine less formal ways to physically manifest a project. At the outset, I spend hours examining my research, beginning to define the distinct sections or chapters. I need a concrete guide that will help me tackle the writing tasks necessary to get from the first to the last word of the project.

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A Death in the Field

Serendipity confounds me. I spent most of Monday writing the following reflections on the death of a Bulgarian woman, one of my “key informants,” who unexpectedly passed away two weeks ago while I was in Sofia. You can imagine my surprise when I logged on to Savage Minds this morning to post my short tribute to Ana. I encountered Ruth Behar’s beautiful piece on the passing of Esperanza, her comadre in Mexico and the inspiration for Translated Woman. Behar’s essay moved me to tears, and my own purple prose pales in comparison to her poetic rumination on the way an ethnographer’s life can become intertwined with those whose stories we have the privilege to tell. Journalists would say that I’d “been scooped,” since this post evokes many of the same issues and emotions as Behar’s and she is by far the more accomplished writer and anthropologist. But for Ana’s sake, I’ll post this humble essay anyway. The fleeting immortality of the written word is the only gift we ethnographers have to give.

Sveti Sedmochislenitsi church in Sofia, Bulgaria
Sveti Sedmochislenitsi church in Sofia, Bulgaria

Getting to know people across the barriers of language, culture, and generations provides one of the greatest joys of ethnographic fieldwork. I dislike the term “informant” because of its negative connotations, especially in the postsocialist context where people once “informed” on each other to the secret police. I prefer the term “fieldwork friends.”

I’ve conducted ethnographic research in Southeastern Europe for eighteen years, and I recognize the difficult power imbalances and the hierarchy of privileges that underpin relationships in the field. My position as an American – first as graduate student, then as professor – provides certain advantages that my fieldwork friends lack. Despite these challenges, I’ve forged close relations with many Bulgarian men and women who’ve shared their lives with me over the years.

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Ethnographers as Writers: A Light-Hearted Introduction to Academese

Academics are collectively responsible for the production of some of the most obtuse and impenetrable prose in the English language.  Rhetorical fashions come and go, but the penchant for opacity has become a defining feature of contemporary scholarship

We were sitting over the remains of dinner in a Village restaurant when the conversation turned to gender and women’s studies.

“I am an –ism person,” Temma Kaplan, Rutgers historian said to me. “I don’t do –ity.”

I gave her a knowing look.

“It used to be all –isms. Now everything is –ities,” she said.

“But you can’t get a job in women’s studies without working on an –ity.” I said, “–ities are the thing these days.”

She sighed and shrugged.

Academese is the secret code that some scholars use to signal that they are members of the club.  It ensures that no one can really tell whether their ideas are brilliant, bad, or merely mediocre.   This is especially useful when submitting an application to a multidisciplinary search or review committee.  Since academics are so narrowly specialized these days, there are probably only a handful of people in the world who can judge whether a project is truly groundbreaking. 

Learning to write like an academic is difficult. If you don’t want to rely solely on the University of Chicago’s academic sentence generator, you too can learn the subtle art of writing impenetrable prose. It takes time and practice, and not an insubstantial amount of creativity, to produce appropriately complex neologisms for otherwise basic concepts.

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Ethnographers as Writers: An Introduction

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Kristen Ghodsee.]

Ethngraphers as writers - Introduction
A writer’s tool

I am thrilled for the opportunity to write as a Savage Minds guest blogger for this first month of 2015. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to become a better writer, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months poring through style guides and manuals trying to learn the writer’s craft. This is not because I am writing my first book. Unfortunately, I am almost five books into my career, and only now do I feel compelled to improve my prose. As an ethnographer, I privileged the message over the medium.

I’ve taught ethnographies for thirteen years, and at the end of each semester, I survey student opinions of the required books on my syllabi. “Reading [this book] was like being forced to read Facebook’s terms and conditions for class,” a student wrote about one of the texts I assigned. The book in question suited the course subject, and contained field-changing theoretical insights. As a piece of scholarship, the book excelled, winning a major award from a large professional society. As a piece of writing, however, the book failed. My students judged the prose opaque, circular, jargon-laden, and gratuitously verbose. I agreed. I prepared a lecture on the core arguments, and spared my students the headaches induced by needless erudition.

University students, especially at the undergraduate level, despise inaccessible books that use language to obfuscate rather than clarify. I have purged many a smart ethnography from my syllabi after watching students struggle to extract the main arguments from a fog of impenetrable prose. Each year, I explore university press offerings to find well-written ethnographies. The continued production of un-teachable books amazes me.

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