Tag Archives: anthropology and writing

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

December 7—Barak Kalir

December 14—Stuart McLean

December 21–Sara Gonzalez

Continue reading

Visual Turn II: Teaching to Take Stock

Encounters with art and design by an anthropologist and curious non-expert in visual culture.

Earlier this year I was reading the Internet and came across Duke University Press’ list of “Best books of 2014”. Scrolling through, I was held by the title Syllabus: Notes from An Accidental Professor. Cartoonist and author Lynda Barry’s work Syllabus is not easy to pigeonhole into a genre. It is one part how-to manual, two parts graphic novel and a dash of memoir. Its form mimics the inexpensive composition books she asks her students to work in for the semester. Drawn in by her use of images (pardon the pun) I ordered a copy. Continue reading

Writing Good Anthropology in a Time of Crisis: Lessons from the Nepal Earthquake

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Heather Hindman. Heather is Associate Professor of Asian Studies and Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her book Mediating the Global: Expatrias Forms and Consequences in Kathmandu (Stanford University Press, 2013) explores the employment practices and daily lives of elite aid workers and diplomats over the last several decades of changes in the development industry, with a critical analysis of human resources management and cross-cultural communication. She is also co-editor of Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers (Kumarian Press, 2011). Her recent publications explore Nepals elite migration practices, the rise of voluntourism and the shifting interests of aid donors in Nepal. Currently, she is researching youth activism and labor, particularly among elites with overseas experience.]

How do scholars balance the need to write quickly and the need to write well? Pressures to “publish or perish” and the rise of “visibility indices” have led many of us to write in ways that will be recognized by our institutions, rather than in the other ways we also think and reflect. Some academics now are calling for a turn to slow scholarship, but this may be a luxury only the elite can afford. In a time of crisis, writing slowly does not work; instead, we need to write swiftly. Recently, I and many people who have conducted research in Nepal found ourselves under pressure to write quickly while still maintaining our academic integrity.

Organizing relief AYON Bijaya
AYON/Association of Youth Organizations Nepal organizing earthquake relief. Photo by Bijaya Raj Poudel.


The April 25th earthquake in Nepal proved devastating for the country and spurred many in the anthropological world to action and comment. In the days after the quake, and propelled forward by the major May 12th aftershock, academics in the US, Europe and Asia found themselves overwhelmed by requests for interviews and op-eds, and many of us were eager to do something. I felt paralyzed and incompetent, sitting in Austin, Texas, trying to finish the semester, working closely with local student groups and NRN (Non-Resident Nepali) organizations and operating at a high level of distraction. Social media was afire with check-ins of who had survived, where the greatest damage had occurred and what resources were needed to keep people alive on a day-to-day basis. I found myself pulled into the social media world and addicted to email and messaging as I had never been before. Many of us sought to raise funds and awareness in our own communities, to establish contact with those we care about in Nepal, and to write brief articles as we felt able for media venues. After the initial flurry of media contacts, several of those who had written about the disaster were contacted by Anthropology News to write an article for their online forum. We hoped to get someone familiar with facts on the ground, yet many anthropologists who were in Nepal were dealing with everyday needs of seeking shelter, looking out for loved ones and trying to provide basic relief as they were able. AN Managing Editor Amy Goldenberg posted a brief piece that collected links to essays written by North American-based anthropologists for other venues, and there were promises from others to write more substantive articles when more research and reflection was possible. Then, Anthropology News—an official publication of the American Anthropological Association—found a respondent in anthropologist David Beine, Professor of World Missions and Evangelism at Moody Bible Institute. Continue reading

Fast Writing: Ethnography in the Digital Age

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Yarimar Bonilla as part of our Writer’s Workshop Series. Yarimar is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming Fall 2015) and has written broadly about social movements, historical imaginaries, and questions of sovereignty in the Caribbean. She is currently a fellow in the History Design Studio at Harvard University where she is working on a digital project entitled “Visualizing Sovereignty.”]

In a recent contribution to this writers’ series, Michael Lambek offered some reflections on the virtues of “slow reading.” In an era of rapid-fire online communication, when images increasingly substitute for text, Lambek argues we would be well served to revel in the quiet interiority and reflective subjectivity made possible by long-form reading.

In this post I would like to think more carefully about this claim and to consider whether we might want to make a similar argument regarding the shifting pace of academic writing. If, as Lambek and others suggest, the temporality of reading has been altered by the digital age, can the same be said for research and writing? How have new digital tools, platforms, and shifts in technological access transformed the temporality of ethnographic writing, and is this something we necessarily wish to slow down? Continue reading

Writing Archaeology “Alone,” or A Eulogy for a Co-Director

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Jane Eva Baxter as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Jane is a historical archaeologist and an Associate Professor of Anthropology at DePaul University in Chicago, IL USA. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including the forthcoming book Childhood and Adolescence in the American Experience (University Press of Florida 2016). You can follow her on twitter @janeevabaxter.]

For the past couple of years, I’ve been suffering from the condition we affectionately know as “writer’s block.” This has not been a generic or widespread condition as much of my writing is progressing as swiftly and smoothly as my job structure allows. This particular writer’s block has been confined to the writing associated with several years of archaeological work I conducted on the island of San Salvador in The Bahamas. The reason for this particular condition is easy to identify: my project co-director simply decided to stop writing.

My co-director and I began planning our research in 2002, and from 2004-2012 we conducted archaeological and historical work investigating transitions in the daily life of the island’s residents. During this time, we co-authored conference papers, site reports, proceedings volume papers, and articles for the Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society. We often co-authored work with our students. We developed curricular materials for the local school, co-authored a popular guide to the historic sites on the island for residents, tourists, and student groups, and created archaeology posters for a small, local museum.

And then, my project co-director stopped writing. At first, this decision to stop writing manifested itself as a waning interest in what had become a rather routinized and comfortable process of co-authorship. Writing plans were disregarded. Deadlines were missed without renegotiation. Discussions about writing ceased. Eventually, he announced he no longer had an interest in publishing scholarly articles, and told me to just go ahead and write everything up on my own. For many, being freed from the bonds of co-authorship might seem liberating, but to me it has been rather paralyzing. It also has given me cause to reflect on the production of archaeological knowledge, and left me to wonder exactly what it means to write without him. Continue reading

Slow Reading

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Michael Lambek as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Michael is Professor of Anthropology and Canada Research Chair at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His recent publications include “The Interpretation of Lives or Life as Interpretation: Cohabiting with Spirits in the Malagasy World” (American Ethnologist, 2014 41(3): 491-503) and A Companion to the Anthropology of Religion (edited with Janice Boddy, Wiley-Blackwell), out in paper in fall 2015. The Ethical Condition: Essays on Action, Person, and Value (University of Chicago Press) will also appear in the fall. For the University of Toronto Press, he edits the Anthropological Horizons series in ethnography.]

Instructors on the frontlines report that undergraduate grades are falling into a bimodal distribution rather than the comfortable old bell curve. The majority do poorly, it is said, because they do not know how to write. I suggest the source of the problem lies one step behind writing, in reading.

Writing presupposes reading. To write one has to know how to read and to write well one has to read well. Whether or not we write in order to be read, as Mary Murrell asked in her posting, at the minimum we are our own first readers. We read in order to own our writing, to confirm and assert it is ours, that it is what we want to say and the best way we know how to say it. Even before the copy edit and the proofing, we read what we write; reading is part of the very technique of writing. I am reading these lines as I write them. Continue reading

The Ecology of What We Write

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Anand Pandian as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Anand teaches anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. His books include Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation (Duke University Press and Penguin India, forthcoming this fall), and Ayya’s Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India (Indiana University Press, 2014), which he wrote with his grandfather.]

One day last summer, a caterpillar dropped from the rim of my desktop monitor. A peculiar little creature—no more than an inch long, clothed in a jacket of wispy white, a jaunty pair of lashes suspended well behind a tiny black head.

The visitation was unexpected. It’s not as though I work in a natural wonderland. The walls of this office are made of painted cinderblock. The window is fixed firmly in place, completely sealed from the outside. Peculiar odors sometimes drift from the vent above my desk, possibly from the labs upstairs.

The caterpillar seemed unhappy with the windowsill, where I placed it for a closer look. So I scooped up the errant traveler and stepped outside the building, wondering, for a moment, whether there was anything more palatable in the turfgrass. Then I went back to writing, back to whatever I could forage for my monitor that day. Continue reading