Tag Archives: ethnographic writing

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

Ethnographic Poetry and the Leaping Bilingual Mind

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Melisa is Professor of TESOL and World Language Education at the University of Georgia. Winner of the 2015 Beckman Award for “Professors Who Inspire,” she is the author of a forthcoming poetry manuscript “Imperfect Tense,”(Cahnmann-Taylor, In Press), and co-author of two books on bilingual education and artful research: Teachers Act Up! (Cahnmann-Taylor & Souto-Manning, 2010) and Arts-Based Research in Education (Cahnmann-Taylor & Siegesmund, 2008).]

Acquiring Spanish as a second language led me to poetry, and becoming a better poet helped me become a better bilingual. I had been a good high school and college student of Spanish and had studied abroad in Spain and Mexico. After college, I wanted a way to give kindness back to the many Spanish speakers who tolerated and nurtured my emerging bilingualism. As a Spanish major with coursework in theatre and creative writing, it made sense to become an elementary school teacher. I was quickly overwhelmed. I struggled to teach third grade math, science, and California history in my new classroom in South Central Los Angeles.

This was 1992. Rodney King. Race riots. 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

A Case for Agitation: On Affect and Writing

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Carla Jones as part of our Writers’ Workshop seriesCarla is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her research analyzes the cultural politics of appearance in urban Indonesia, with particular focus on femininity, aesthetics and Islam. She has written extensively on self-improvement programs and middle-class respectability during the Suharto and post-Suharto periods in Jogjakarta and Jakarta, and is the co-editor, with Ann Marie Leshkowich and Sandra Niessen, of Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress (Berg, 2003). Her current work situates anxieties about Islamic style in the context of broader debates about visibility and wealth.]


We are living in affective times. At least according to the many journal themes, conference panel titles and other measures of anthropology’s current interests, affect is in the air. This feels relevant for thinking about writing. Feeling seems central to the reasons we write, even if we rarely say that out loud. Feeling in the mood to write, feeling ready to say something, feeling safe to say it, feeling passionately about it, feeling proud of it once we’ve said it, these all undergird the conditions for writing. These feelings contrast with the objectivity of a social science based in data and facts, and we have a now decades-long critique in the discipline about the fundamentally political and subjective nature of knowledge production. But these are also largely positive feelings.

I want to suggest that one of the motivations to write is also irritation. This may seem contrary and cranky. I don’t mean for it to. For me it is empowering. I increasingly find that the nudge that takes me from mental idea to written word is much more than a deadline. It is a feeling that might be impolite. I find I am most in the mood to write when I am agitated. 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

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

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 Nuclear Option: For Anthropologists Who Have Considered Humor When the Drive to Modernity is Not Enough

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Donna Goldstein as part of our Writer’s Workshop Series. Donna is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. She is the author of  Laughter Out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown (University of California Press). She is currently writing about pharmaceutical politics, bioethics, regulation, and neoliberalism in Argentina and the United States, and is investigating the history of genetics, Cold War science, the health of populations, and the future of nuclear energy in Brazil.]

“Going through the Brazilian Portal. Hold on! We are heading into Porto Frade, a gated community of the rich and wealthy! Everything functions here!” These are the words of my Brazilian research co-pilot, Nelson Novaes Pedroso Junior, during our recent field excursion to Angra dos Reis to explore perceptions of risk and the role of the nuclear energy plants in the region. Together with doctoral candidate Meryleen Mena, our research team entered Porto Frade, a securitized community not far from the Angra I and II nuclear complex in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is a gated community and a world of yachts, million dollar homes, mostly empty streets (in March of 2015, at least), and security apparati just within the five-kilometer mark of the emergency evacuation plan of the nuclear plant.

Yacht Porto Frade
Porto Frade. Photo by Donna Goldstein.

This is not only a less well-known Monaco or Sausalito, but also a community of second homes that are underutilized by their wealthy Brazilian owners. The homes are perfect, the gardens well-kept, and the yachts are supersized. In Porto Frade you can find restaurants with French names and menus that would please the most discerning cosmopolitan foodie. If I had no social conscience at all, I could probably have enjoyed my late Saturday lunch that much more. But knowing a tiny bit more about the broader context made enjoyment somewhat difficult. One needs a good sense of humor and sense of the absurd to work in Brazil and to write about its contradictions. 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

Can’t Get There from Here? Writing Place and Moving Narratives

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Sarah Besky as part of our Writer’s Workshop Series. Sarah is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the School of Natural Resources and Environment and a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan. Starting in Fall 2015, she will be Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Sarah specializes in the study of nature, capitalism, and labor in South Asia and the Himalayas. She is the author of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in Darjeeling India (University of California Press, 2014) and other articles on social justice in agriculture and is currently working on a new book project on transparency, financialization, and tea auction reform in Northeast India.]

One of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits is a game show parody called “What’s the Best Way?” The premise is simple: a group of New Englanders jockey to give fast, accurate driving directions. Phil Hartman plays an old man with an airy Downeast Maine drawl; Adam Sandler an electrical contractor from Boston; and Glenn Close an upper-class Connecticut resident. The host, played by Kevin Nealon, asks questions about how to get from one place to another within New England. For example “Who’s got directions from Quincy, Maass to the Jahdan Mahsh department store in Bedford, New Hampshire?” Contestants buzz in, quiz show style, with their directions—directions which are loaded with quirky geographical references, including a “wicked huge Radio Shack” and a fahm that offers a chance to pick fresh Maine blueberries (“but only in the summah”).

I love this skit because it satirizes my own predilection as a native New Englander for giving overly detailed directions that orient the asker to the contours of the road, the colors and shapes of houses, and places that “yous-tah be there” (instead of supposedly conventional things like the number of traffic lights or street names).

But I also find this rather esoteric parody instructive for thinking about how to write place ethnographically. For many anthropologists, navigating fieldsites that are out-of-the way or otherwise marginalized, Phil Hartman’s character’s resigned answer to one directional challenge might ring a little true: Yah caahn’t get theyah from heeyah. Beyond writing about place, how can we use our writing to recall visual, material memories of getting from one place to another (or failing to do so)? 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