Tag Archives: Alfred Kroeber

Genre-bending, or the Love of Ethnographic Fiction

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Jessica Falcone as part of our Writer’s Workshop Series. Jessica is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Kansas State University. She is the author of numerous articles on transnational Tibetan Buddhism, religious activism in diasporic Hindu and Sikh communities, and anthropological theory. She has won awards from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology for her ethnographic fiction, and from AIIS for her book manuscript Battling the Buddha of Love: A Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built.]


“Open your eyes; listen, listen. That is what the novelists say. But they don’t tell you what you will see and hear. All they can tell you is what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent in telling lies.” (Ursula K. Le Guin 1969: ii)

I like to slip Ursula K. Le Guin into my syllabi as often as possible. I have used her work in my “Futurity” course, my “Utopias” class, my “Anthropology and Literature” course, and my “Ethnographic Methods” course. She is best known as a celebrated science fiction writer, but she also writes essays, realist fiction, experimental ethnographic fiction, children’s lit, anarchist social theory, and more. Even when (especially when?) weaving yarns about aliens, she is writing about us, about humanity, about power, gender, identity, and cultural mores. For an anthropologist attentive to the beating art of ethnography, Ursula K. Le Guin’s work is a softly uttered challenge about the complex nature of truth, and a whispered promise about the potential of fiction as a means of approaching it. Ever wonder what the “K” stands for? Kroeber, the “K” stands for Kroeber.

Writing Ethnographic Fiction

“Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.” (Le Guin 1969: iv)

Ursula K. Le Guin’s father, Alfred Kroeber, considered the first ethnographic novel—Bandelier’s “the Delight Makers” (1890)— a successful and faithful representation of the Pueblo culture the author had studied; he called the novel, “…a more comprehensive and coherent view of native Pueblo life than any scientific volume on the Southwest” (1922:13). Although ethnographic fiction has a long and storied history in anthropology, it remains marginalized, perhaps even stigmatized.

I see myself as an ambassador for ethnographic fiction, albeit a poor one, perhaps. It is a nigh endangered species within our disciplinary ecosystem, and I myself have done precious little to rail against that trend. While I worked towards tenure, I published just one book chapter with pretensions to ethnographic fiction, and although it’s destined to only ever be read by about a dozen people max, it is my most beloved text-baby. It is the true story of a giant statue in Bodh Gaya, India, which was cancelled, shifted, or interrupted, depending on who you ask and when. My narrative tacked back and forth between straight ethnography and (crooked?) ethnographic fiction. Since the piece was quite deliberately modelled upon Bruno Latour’s “Aramis, or the Love of Technology,” I titled it “Maitreya, or the Love of Buddhism,” and called it a work of “social scientifiction.” I would argue that my creative licenses made my product more compelling, and more achingly true. And if the piece succeeded at all, it was because of the fictions, not despite them. Continue reading

The History of the Personality of Anthropology: SMOPS 3

This week’s SMOPS is an edited version of Kroeber’s “A History of the Personality of Anthropology,” a piece which Kroeber wrote very late in his life. In it, Kroeber lays down his vision of anthropology’s unique outlook. In one striking passage, he describes anthropology as a ‘changeling’ discipline. Changelings are, in European folklore, elf or fairy children who are brought up by human parents who are unaware of their child’s true nature. The child of natural science on the one hand and the humanities on the other, Kroeber sees anthropology as ill at ease in its adopted home of the social science.

This paper is worthwhile because it conveys in a few short pages some of the fundamental instincts of American cultural anthropology. It will be useful for teachers who need a text to use as the basis for a lecture on anthropology’s outlook. Of course, the piece itself could also simply be assigned. Anthropologists from other national traditions will benefit from this thumbnail sketch of the American outlook, as will non-anthropologists looking for a nontechnical explanation of how anthropologists look at the world.

Savage Minds Occasional Paper #3: The History of the Personality of Anthropology by Alfred Kroeber, edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub

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Responses to 'the super organic': SMOPS 2

Last week, I posted the first Savage Minds Occasioal Paper (hereafter, “SMOP”) featuring Alfred Kroeber’s article “The Superorganic”. This week I bring you the second occasional paper, “Responses to ‘the superorganic'”, which features Sapir and Goldenweiser’s response to Kroeber. You can find it here:

Savage Minds Occasional Paper #2: Responses to “The Superorganic”: Texts by Alexander Goldenweiser and Edward Sapir. Edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub

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Savage Mind's new occasional paper series: first up, The Superorganic

Folks, today I am beginning something new: the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series. In it, I will present a series of open access, curated texts from the history of anthropological theory. I will keep going until I complete a free anthology suitable for classroom use, or until I get bored. If other minds want to publish in the series, then they can do so too — who knows what projects they may want to cook up…

Here’s a link to the first one: a version of Kroeber’s 1917 article “The Superorganic” that is half the size of the original essay, edited and with an introduction by yours truly.  Please feel free to share widely!

Now to the meat of the paper itself: Alfred Kroeber’s “The Superorganic” is a classic of anthropological theory. Originally published in 1917 in American Anthropologist, the article drew important responses from Edward Sapir and Alexander Goldenweiser. Kroeber included material from the article in his textbook Anthropology: Race, Language, Culture, Psychology, and Prehistory. Kroeber’s interest in the superorganic continued to develop in publications like Configurations of Cultural Growth. “The Superorganic” is central to understanding the thought of one of the founders of anthropology and indeed, the history of anthropological theory itself. And yet it is little read today. Why?

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