Tag Archives: anthropology and writing

Writing About Violence (Part II)

After nearly three years of eating almost nothing but the watery beans and undercooked rice I was served while conducting research in Brazilian prisons, I couldn’t wait to hit the restaurants of New York City when I returned from the field. I was surprised to find that even the spiciest chana masala tasted bland. I was numb. Kind neighbors had to remind me to put on a coat when I left my apartment to walk to the library, even though the sidewalks were covered with ankle-deep snow. My nose didn’t even twitch when I was forced to wait for a train on a piss drenched subway platform.

Well-meaning friends recommended therapy. Graduate advisors suggested writing as a strategy for self-care. I watched movies instead.

One night, I went out to see Ônibus 174, a slick documentary directed by José Padilha that tells the story of a Rio bus robbery that turned into a nationally televised hostage situation. The film manages to vilify poor black youths who turn to violence out of desperation, and the police officers who are tasked with keeping such violence out of the neighborhoods where privileged Brazilians like Padilha live. I left the movie theater with hot tears in my eyes and cried for six hours. Then I opened a brand new notebook and, for four straight hours, wrote about the seemingly endless reasons my fieldwork experiences led me to despise Padilha’s film.

No one but me will ever read those pages. The writing they contain is too raw to share. I confirmed this a few weeks ago, when I pulled out that notebook to verify that the writing was as awful as I remembered; it was. Sure, I’d vividly described a few places and had jotted down the kernels of thoughts that have since ripened, or that I am still cultivating. But, overall, the prose was too emotional and self-absorbed to be ethnographic.

I’ve thought of that private notebook when reading the texts of some emerging ethnographers who have recently studied violence in the field and have rushed to write publicly about their experiences before they’ve had the time to really think them through. While I commend such individuals for having the courage and the discipline to write, I also invite them to pause before publishing. Ethnographic writing can be a therapeutic exercise, but to be effective it must also be more.

Ethnographers of violence who are far, far more accomplished than I have argued that writing can help an anthropologist who has been emotionally taxed by fieldwork to recover. Even as the act of writing plunges the anthropologist back into the field, it also offers him or her a way to move beyond personal experiences of horror or fear to arrive at larger conclusions about the human condition. But the movement from therapy to theory is not as simple as this statement implies. It is only over time, and via multiple drafts, that writing permits the ethnographer to tease out the ways that intensely felt personal experiences of fear or suffering jarred their previous understanding and challenged them to rethink troubling problems and uncomfortable truths from unexpected angles.

When we read Philippe Bourgois, Mick Taussig, or Donna Goldstein—or many, many others who write about violence with style and grace—we don’t always notice the intellectual labor that went into producing their work. The grit and urgency of the writing belies its polish. Many of us aspire to write so vividly, so personally. Yet, it is crucial to note that when we read texts like In Search of Respect, Law in a Lawless Land, or Laughter out of Place, even though we feel the immediacy of the ethnographic encounter by being privy to the author’s thoughts and emotions while in the field, the enduring contribution of these texts lies in what their authors have told us about the people and the places they have studied, not in what the authors have revealed to us about themselves.

Moving from therapy to theory in writing about personal experiences of violence is intellectually demanding work. The difficulty of the task is exacerbated by the imperative to publish quickly and often. When still overwhelmed by the stresses and emotions of recent fieldwork, it is often easier (and more immediately rewarding) to write about the personal effects of what we experienced in the field. But allowing time and reflection to intervene between our ideas and the visceral and the emotional aspects of certain ethnographic encounters can enable us to better think through the ways that personal experiences of fear or suffering can illuminate larger patterns or problems. To put it simply: while ethnographic writing can offer catharsis, it should also offer critique.


Bourgois, Philippe. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Goldstein, Donna. Laughter out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown. University of California Press, 2013.

Taussig, Michael. Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Theidon, Kimberly. “‘How was Your Trip?’ Self-care for Researchers Working and Writing on Violence.” Drugs Security and Democracy Program DSD Working Papers in Research Security. New York: Social Science Research Council, 2014.

Writing About Violence (Part I)

Writing is never easy. Writing ethnographically about people who perpetrate violence is exceptionally difficult. Not only does the ethnographer have to cautiously avoid slipping into what we call “pornographic’ representation, she (or he) must find a way to convey the humanity of people who do “inhuman” things, while also doing justice to the victims of their violence. Writing in the first person compounds these difficulties. How does one insert his or herself, as ethnographer, into such a narrative?

In writing up my research on prison rapes and murders, I struggle with the competing desires of wanting to present myself as a likeable protagonist and wanting to honestly relate the ways that my ethnographic practice cannot help but become entwined with the forms of violence that I study. I also worry that as I try to navigate between these two treacherous poles of representation, my writing will be either disastrously self-exculpating or unnecessarily self-flagellating.

One solution to this problem might be to consider the ethnographer in the stories I write about violence as a character, rather than a robust and authentic representation of me. But, would doing so necessitate writing the violent events of my fieldwork as fiction? And would turning into ethnographic fiction events that I experienced as being too-real (and as having too-real consequences) be just another way to avoid confronting their ethical ramifications?

A simpler solution would be to pretend that the violence I either witnessed or experienced in the field did not happen at all. I would not be the first to elide physical violence in my ethnographic writing. In fact, I’ve admittedly written much less about the violent events that were central to my fieldwork than I have about the forms of structural violence that have shaped the ethnographic contexts in which I study because I find doing so to be less fraught than writing about specific instances of physical aggression or pain. But blood, bullets, and torn flesh were so prevalent in my fieldwork, I would feel dishonest if I wrote them out of my work.

Another course I could steer in writing about my ethnographic encounters with perpetrators of violence would be to unequivocally position myself as observer rather than participant. But, to me, this would hearken back to the late nineteenth century, when ethnography was decidedly about “the other,” not about the complex relationships that entangle us with people we might—especially when acts of murder or torture are involved—prefer to refer to as “them.”

The choice I have made is to directly acknowledge both my discomfort with and my complicity in the violence that I study. The subsequent challenge I face is how to write this way without dipping into the egocentrism that, as my next post will discuss, sometimes plagues writing about ethnographic encounters with violence.


Fassin, Didier. 2014 “True Life, Real Lives: Revisiting the Boundaries Between Ethnography and Fiction.” American Ethnologist 41(1): 40-55.

Nader, Laura. 2011. “Ethnography as Theory.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1(1): 211-219.

Taussig, Michael. 2010. “Viscerality, Faith, and Skepticism: Another Theory of Magic.” Walter Benjamin’s Grave. University of Chicago Press, p. 121-156.

Suggestions for Summer Reading: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Struggle to Write

For the past couple of years I’ve been addicted to a series of books by the  Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard.  Presented as fiction,  these explore in minute detail the everyday life experiences of the author  from his childhood in the 1970’s to his relationships with his friends, his family and his children.

Knausgaard presents a vivid picture of the world around him  as  it  is affected by, and affects, the  constantly evolving  interior world of his own perception and consciousness. The writing is phenomenological. It evocatively captures the materiality of  ordinary living through its various locations and artifacts, as well as the intensity of  the embodied feelings and sensations which make up life as it is lived.  The reader experiences what it was  like to grow up on an  island in Norway, to ride a bike aged thirteen on a summer evening and the click of  inserting  a cassette tape into a tape recorder in the 1980’s.

These evocations of   what   anthropologists would  recognize  as  ‘ordinary affect’  are profoundly moving. The  first book in the series deals with the emotional repercussions of the death of the author’s father, a violent alcoholic. The  most recent, published in English translation in 2016,  describes a visit to  his  elderly  grandfather in a city hospital.  While the interior orientation of these books and the emphasis on the narrow consciousness of the author seems at first sight to be in sharp contrast to the  exterior orientation of  an ethnographic approach,  it  generates astute insights into the wider cultural and social worlds which he inhabits. Reflecting on the organization of the hospital in which his grandfather is a cardiac patient, and by extension all hospitals, Knausgaard observes how the medical categorization of disease  as afflicting specific organs organizes social relations and the space within it.  The personal identity of his grandfather is rendered insignificant through this process of classification. `For hospitals all hearts are the same’.

I love reading  Knausgaard’s books  because such close accounts of every day life and relationships are  fascinating.  These  are, after all, the staple diet of  anthropology.  But  I think these books are good for anthropological thinking beyond this, prompting a  reflection on anthropological practice as comprising  both participation and representation.   Knausgaard’s books  offer a situated perspective on what it is to be a social actor in a specific time and place.   They  provide access to a position usually inaccessible to  an anthropologist.  They allow the reader to experience `being there’  as an observant participant, from the inside looking out,   and as a person who is  changed by these experiences.

Knausgaard  is not solely concerned  with  thinking about participation. He takes us one step further as he  explores  the difficulties of capturing this in writing.   Representation is explored practically through the  structuring of the texts  and as a  social practice. Knausgaard’s  life effort which he recounts in this series  is his struggle to become a writer. This struggle is not simply intellectual.  It entails getting the time and space to sit alone and write uninterrupted, managing the demands of   other work,  of partners and children and dealing with the  unsightly by products  literary production in the form of  wasted effort, rejections and negative reviews.

A key insight, over the five books so far published in English (there are six in all), is that good writing takes time. Time to actually do writing, time to develop the skills to write well and, importantly, time to develop a voice. Recommended summer reading.

Writing with Community

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Sara Gonzalez as part of our Writers’ Workshop seriesSara is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle. She works at the intersection of tribal historic preservation, colonial studies and public history, examining how archaeology can contribute to the capacity of tribal communities to study, manage, and represent their heritage. Her most recent project involves the creation of a community-based field school and training program in tribal historic preservation with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon’s Tribal Historic Preservation Department. Her recent publications include a co-edited a special issue of the SAA Record, NAGPRA and the Next Generation of Collaboration,” as well as articles in American Antiquity and in Anthropocene.]


Writing is a responsibility in the academy. Through our writings we enter into dialogues with one another. From undergraduate thesis to dissertation, scholarly articles and monographs, our writing marks the trajectory of our careers. It forms the basis on which our peers and colleagues evaluate the contributions we make to discipline. But writing is more than a job responsibility of an academic. In writing anthropology, and in my case archaeology, there is an added responsibility to scrutinize how the histories we produce are connected to the lives and futures of the communities we study.

The formation of anthropology as a discipline in North America occurred at the same time as European and American governments dispossessed indigenous nations of their homelands. Coinciding with the closing of the Indian Wars in the late 19th century, the Bureau of Ethnology, later renamed the Bureau of American Ethnology, sponsored ethnographic and linguistic research on Native American communities. These “salvage ethnographies” documented the cultural traditions and lifeways of Native American tribes under the presumption that the combination of assimilationist policies and exposure to American lifeways would cause them to vanish entirely. Archaeologists followed suit, recording ancestral sites and collecting artifacts, as well as human remains in their attempt to document the cultural history of tribes. The objects and ancestors uncovered by archaeologists and others—often through dubious means—became specimens of national history; representations of a past that ceased to exist following the arrival of Europeans and their colonization of the continent. Given this colonial history, how can the work of these disciplines be used to disrupt colonial relations in the present? Continue reading

Writing as Cognition

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Barak Kalir as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Barak is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of Latino Migrants in the Jewish State: Undocumented Lives in Israel (Indiana University Press, 2010), and co-editor with Malini Sur of Transnational Flows and Permissive Policies: Ethnographies of Human Mobilities in Asia (University of Chicago Press, 2013). Currently he is working on an ERC funded research project on The Social Life of State Deportation Refugees.]

I will only know what I precisely want to say in this piece once I finish writing it.

This enigmatic sentence is not meant as an alluring opening statement, nor is it a sign for an experimental literary method that I will be employing in this blog. For what it’s worth, this sentence captures my principal insight into the process of writing. It is an insight that I gained after years of experiencing much frustration with writing, after producing endless drafts of the same text, after nights and days spent on trying ‘to get it right’, after struggling not to lose my focus, not to get lost in the texts I tried so hard to write.

Luckily, I do not feel like that any more. But it has been a long ride. Continue reading

Writing with Love and Hate

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Bhrigupati Singh as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Bhrigupati is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brown University. His book Poverty and the Quest for Life: Spiritual and Material Striving in Contemporary Rural India (University of Chicago Press, 2015), was awarded the Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences. Together with Veena Das, Michael Jackson, and Arthur Kleinman, he is co-editor of The Ground Between: Anthropological Engagements with Philosophy (Duke University Press, 2014).] 

Some of our co-bloggers in this forum rightly suggest that reading precedes and accompanies writing. But then they say that young people today, in this era of attention deficits, are losing the art of reading. When I was young, hope I still am, I usually responded quite stubbornly to this kind of admonishing “wisdom”. Maybe our teachers need to be more inspiring. In writing, we may need to rediscover a richer variety of forms. There was a time, for instance, when scholars primarily wrote not in essays, but in a more difficult and older art of texting, namely, aphorisms.

Let’s not underestimate the new forms of attentiveness that are emerging. On Instagram for instance, which to the surprise of discerning readers creates the possibility of stranger sociality based only on a fellowship of images. Continue reading

The Ruination of Written Words

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Gastón Gordillo as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Gastón is Acting Director of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies and Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. A Guggenheim scholar, he is the author, among other books, of Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction (2014, Duke University Press) and Landscapes of Devils: Tensions of Place and Memory in the Argentinean Chaco (2004, Duke University Press, winner of the AES Sharon Stephens Book Award). He blogs at Space and Politics.]

When the Roman Empire collapsed, numerous libraries and an unknown quantity of books disintegrated with it. Amid a rising Christianity hostile to traces of paganism, the texts of many authors admired in Roman antiquity were turned to dust and the memory of their existence dissolved. Pieces of writing by noted figures such as Cicero or Virgil certainly survived, but the majority of what these men wrote has been lost. This was an epochal moment in the history of writing: an imperial collapse so profound that it physically disintegrated vast amounts of texts, erasing them from human memory.

Some books from ancient Rome were saved from this massive vanishing of written words only because a few copies survived for over a thousand years in the libraries of European monasteries. This survival was often the outcome of pure chance: that is, a set of conjunctural factors somehow allowed those books, and not others, to overcome the wear and tear and ruination of paper and ink by the physical pressures and cuts inflicted on them by the weather and by the living forms attracted to them, primarily insects, mice, and humans. In these monasteries, many ancient books and their words disintegrated after a few centuries, gone forever. But others lingered and were eventually copied by hand again on new and more robust paper, which could withstand atmospheric and bodily pressures for the next two to three centuries. Three hundred years or so later, another monk would grab a manuscript about to disintegrate and copy those words again. Who knows how many amazing books were eaten away by bugs simply because no monk chose to save them from their ruination? One of the books that miraculously survived in a monastery over a millennia of chance encounters with the void was Lucretius’ extraordinary philosophical treatise De rerum natura, The Nature of Things. Continue reading

Writing in and from the Field

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Ieva Jusionyte as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Ieva is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Latin American Studies at the University of Florida. She is the author of Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border (University of California Press, 2015). Ieva is currently conducting fieldwork for a new project about emergency services on the U.S.-Mexico border, funded by NSF and the Wenner-Gren Foundation.]

This morning, as I am sitting down to write this blog entry in my rental apartment in Nogales, I peer through the window: The sun has illuminated the dark brown border wall that coils over the hilly landscape and reminds me of the spiked back of a stegosaurus. Six months ago I arrived in Southern Arizona to begin fieldwork with firefighters and paramedics for a new ethnographic project about emergency responders on both sides of the line, as the international boundary which abruptly separates Mexico and the United States is locally called. Though ethnographic fieldwork takes many forms – I am conducting interviews, participating in the daily activities at the firehouse, volunteering at a first aid station for migrants, teaching prehospital emergency care at a local fire district, and engaging with the first responder communities in Arizona and Sonora in multiple other ways – my primary activity continues to be writing.

I have always been a morning writer. When I was working on the manuscript of my first book, Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border (University of California Press 2015), I would shut the doors of my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house in the forested suburbs of Vilnius, Lithuania, where I was fortunate to spend my research leave, and would sit at my large desk, facing the barren trees outside, until noontime. I did it every day of the week for several months during a long and cold winter. The manuscript was complete and sent off to my editor on the eve of spring.

The bollard-style border wall between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora. Photo by Ieva Jusionyte.
The bollard-style border wall between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora. Photo by Ieva Jusionyte.

But during fieldwork keeping a regular writing routine has been difficult. The topic of our research inevitably shapes how, where and what we write, and my study of fire and rescue services under heightened border security is no exception. Often I spend the entire day on shift with the crew at the fire station, riding along with them to the scenes of emergencies. Other days there is training, community events, long drives to do interviews at more remote fire districts. Having a background in both journalism and in anthropology affects how I go about conducting research. Instead of dividing my time into chunks for doing fieldwork and writing up fieldnotes, I tend to pursue the story as far as it takes me before I finally sit down to reflect on the new material. I think of it as combining the in-depth view of an anthropologist with the fervor of an investigative journalist. It can be exhausting. Continue reading

Unscholarly Confessions on Reading

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Katerina Teaiwa as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Katerina is Head of Department of Gender, Media and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History & Language at Australia National University, as well as President of the Australian Association for Pacific Studies. Her book Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba (Indiana University Press, 2015) focuses on histories of phosphate mining in the central pacific, specifically the movement of Banaban rock and the complex relations created by the mining, shipping, production and consumption of superphosphate and ensuing commodities (watch the book trailer on youtube). This Banaba work inspired a permanent exhibition at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which tells the story of phosphate mining in the Pacific through Banaban dance. She is currently collaborating in the The Anthropocene Kitchen project to convert her book and research into a science comic.]

They say to write well you should read well: “read more and write better” proclaims the Writing Forward blog. And in her Savage Minds essay Ruth Behar states: “It comes down to this: you can only write as well as what you read.”

While I have to write regularly as an academic, I’m currently struggling to identify good reading practices in my weekly or even monthly routine. How do we define good practices? Is what influences us as academics primarily the “high quality” sources — the peer reviewed articles and books, the classical texts or novels, the rich ethnographic texts, fieldwork or other reliable data — that we expect to find cited in our colleagues’ work, and that we regularly assign to our students? Continue reading

Anthropology as Theoretical Storytelling

[This essay is part of the Fall 2015 Savage Minds Writers’ Workshop series.]

Anthropologists are storytellers. We tell stories: other’s stories, our own stories, stories about other’s stories. But when I think about anthropology and storytelling, I think also of something else, of anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

What is anthropology as theoretical storytelling? Several things. A discipline engaged in explaining, understanding, and interpreting cultural worlds as well as in developing theoretical paradigms large and small for making and making sense of cultural worlds. This is not something new to anthropology. Looking across generations of anthropological scholarship, theoretical storytelling appears repeatedly. From Zora Neale Hurston’s tales and lies to Muchona the Hornet to the Balinese cockfight to Rashīd and Mabrūka and Fayga in Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments and on and on. Stories stay with us. People stay with us. Esperanza. Adamu Jenitongo. Uma Adang. Gloria. Miss Tiny. Charles and Morley and Nick Thompson. Angela Sidney. Valck. Mr. Otis. Bernadette and Eugenia. Tashi Dhondup. And so many more. Anthropology as theoretical storytelling may be a method of narration by both ethnographer and subject, a means of organizing writing, a way of arguing certain ethnographic points, and an ethnographically-grounded way of approaching theory. This is not then a singular approach or description, but a term that captures a range of anthropological sensibilities and strategies. Continue reading

The Anthropology of Being (Me)

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Paul Tapsell  as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Paul is Professor of Anthropology, and Māori, Pacific, and  Indigenous Studies at the University of Otago. His research interests include Māori identity in 21st century New Zealand, cultural heritage & museums, taonga trajectories in and beyond tribal contexts, Māori values within governance policy frameworks, Indigenous entrepreneurial leadership, marae and mana whenua, genealogical mapping of tribal landscapes and Te Arawa historical and genealogical knowledge.]

The greatest challenge of being an anthropologist is being me. From one decade to the next I have been a cross-cultural island of self-consciousness, framed by the cross generational memories of wider kin. Wisdom comes in many forms, but as I tell my students, at least those who turn up to class, it cannot be found on the Internet. Somewhere between my father’s Maori generation of desperately trying to be English and my children’s reality of being overtly Maori you find… me.

Raised in the tribally alienated rural heartlands of Waikato naivety (built on 19th century confiscations at gunpoint), my view of the world was one of barefoot summers by the ocean, while the rest of the year was underpinned by frosts, fog, rugby and ducking for cover in a rurally serviced school surrounded by affluent dairy farms and horse studs. Right from the start teachers placed me neither at the front or the back of the classroom. Kids in the front were mostly fourth generation descendants of English settlers, while at the back were the ever sniffling Maori who had no shoes and walked five miles to school across farmlands, one steaming cow pat to the next. And there I was, from age five, placed right in the middle, on the boundary between a white-is-right future and an uncivilised dark skinned past. Continue reading

List as Form: Literary, Ethnographic, Long, Short, Heavy, Light

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Sasha Su-Ling Welland as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Sasha is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington. She is the author of A Thousand Miles of Dreams: The Journeys of Two Chinese Sisters (Rowman & Littlefield 2006) and a forthcoming book on gender and globalization in Chinese contemporary art (Duke University Press).]

Lists can be tyrannical. They tell us what we are supposed to do and what we have failed to do. They purport to keep us on task. They lead us to derive pleasure from crossing things out. Done! Eliminated! Lists enlist us to worry about rank and order, to aspire to the top-ten, top-twenty, top-one-hundred. Lists compel us to click and consume. If you like that, you might also like this. Click through to learn about 13 Animals Who Are Way More Gangster Than You.

These characterizations and their assumption of shared experience speak to cultural patterns of a particular time and place. Lists reveal systems of thought and organization, as Foucault notes in the preface to The Order of Things, which opens with his reading of Borges quoting a “certain Chinese encyclopedia.” The specious tome’s categorical division of animals into an alphabetical series—…(i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera…—strikes the French philosopher as hilariously distant. He writes, “In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.”[1] Continue reading

Real Writing

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Daniel Goldstein as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Daniel is Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University. He is the author of three ethnographies and one edited collection, all published with Duke University Press. Most of his work has been on urban life and the politics of security in Latin America and, more recently, on the securitization of immigration in the United States. Daniel’s forthcoming book, Owners of the Sidewalk: Security and Survival in the Informal City, examines the intersections of insecurity and informality among market vendors in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Daniel’s work is characterized by a commitment to activist anthropology and a desire to influence thought outside the academy.]

Like many writers who have to sustain themselves with a paying job – in my case, and probably yours too, an academic job – I spend a lot of my time fretting about not having enough time to write. Many of my friends in the profession are the same way. We have to teach, we complain, which requires time to prepare, deliver, and grade our lessons, while managing students and their many needs. We serve on committees, attend faculty meetings, and hold office hours. We devote countless hours to reviewing the work of our peers – others who seem to find the time to write, which we must review at the cost of our own writing time.

As a result, I think, many of us don’t feel like writers. I know I don’t. Not a real writer, anyway. A real writer, in my mind, is someone whose principal vocation is writing. I picture someone like Honoré de Balzac, writing through the wee hours of the morning, fueled by endless cups of coffee; Joyce Carol Oates, author of more than 50 novels and countless other works of fiction and non-fiction; or Maya Angelou, who kept a small hotel room as a writing space, which she called “lonely, and…marvelous.”[1] These to me are real writers. Continue reading

To Fieldwork, To Write

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Kim Fortun as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Fortun is Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is the author of Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders (University of Chicago Press 2001), former co-editor of Cultural Anthropology, and is now playing a lead role in the development of the Platform for Experimental, Collaborative Ethnography.]


Sometimes, to do fieldwork is to write. This was the way first fieldwork went for me, in the years in the early 1990s when I was working in Bhopal India, at the site of the “world’s worst industrial disaster,” resulting from a massive release of toxic chemicals over a sleeping city. The devastation was horrific, but debatable from the outset. Dead people and animals were strewn across the city, rows of the dead covered in white sheets paved hospital courtyards. The sounds of coughing and grief were overwhelming, and unforgettable.  Disaster was blatant and flagrant, yet it was still was a struggle to account for in words and politics.

It was years later I was told and read about the sounds and sights of Bhopal in the days just after December 3, 1984. Journalists, activists, academics, poets, and many who were tangles of all these helped with the accounting. Stories about the plight of gas victims were also, always, stories about cover-up and denial. Even the basics – the numbers of dead, the number exposed, the number injured – were (and remain) in dispute.   At the 30th anniversary of the gas leak in 2014, activists were still mobilizing to revise the death record. Continue reading

Anthropologists Writing: The Fall 2015 Writers’ Workshop Essay Series

It is my pleasure to announce the fourth (and final) season of our Writers’ Workshop series. Each Monday we will share a new essay reflecting on some aspect of the writing process. We invite you to follow along, and to make these essays part of your weekly writing rituals. This fall we have a fantastic group of contributors:

September 14—Kim Fortun, “To Fieldwork, To Write”

September 21—Daniel Goldstein, “Real Writing”

September 28—Sasha Su-Ling Welland, “List as Form: Literary, Ethnographic, Long, Short, Heavy, Light”

October 12—Paul Tapsell, “The Anthropology of Being (Me)”

October 19—Carole McGranahan, “Anthropology as Theoretical Storytelling”

October 26—Carla Jones, “A Case for Agitation: On Affect and Writing”

November 2—Katerina Teaiwa, “Unscholarly Confessions on Reading”

November 9—Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor, “Ethnographic Poetry and the Leaping Bilingual Mind”

November 16—Ieva Jusionyte, “Writing in and from the Field”

November 23—Gastón Gordillo, “The Ruination of Written Words”

November 30—Bhrigupati Singh, “Writing with Love and Hate”

December 7—Barak Kalir, “Writing as Cognition”

December 14—Stuart McLean, “Frogtopia Revisited, or Anthropology is Art is Frog”

December 23–Sara Gonzalez, “Writing with Community”

Continue reading