Tag Archives: Writing

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.

REFERENCES

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.

The Anthro/Zine strikes back!

Anthro/Zine, a venue for undergraduate publication from the team behind Anthropology Now, has entered its second year of publication. The premise behind the project is to provide a space for college students to reflect on how anthropology, in all its myriad forms, has touched their lives. As editor I have been completely blown away by the quality and creativity of our submissions which have included not only essay, but also art, poetry, photography, fiction, and what I call “briefs” — very short pieces. There are now four issues, open access and CC-BY, available at the link above. Check out our latest issue below!

Anthro/Zine publishes April, September, and December coinciding with each new issue of Anthropology Now. If you are a student or recent college graduate and would like to make a submission of some sort that is relevant to anthropology then we would like very much to see what you have to offer. We are most interested in seeing work that is creative, personal, and short. Original research is welcome but we do not publish term papers. Do not submit to us what you have given your professor, your peers are your audience here. Reflect on what you have already accomplished and tell us about your experience of encountering anthropology.

A/Z is not a venue for graduate students, however it is appropriate for grads to submit their work directly to Anthropology Now, please see their guidelines here.

Students or faculty with questions can reach me at mthompson@marinersmuseum.org, if you would like your work considered for the September issue than make your submission by August 1.

Click on the cover or the hyperlink below to download a pdf of our latest issue:

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Anthro/Zine | April 2016Anthro/Zine | April 2016

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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.

Return of the Anthro/Zine

Last May I introduced you to Anthropozine, a new undergraduate venue associated with the journal Anthropology Now. The concept behind the zine was to get college students interested in engaging in earnest reflexivity by articulating their personal experience of encountering anthropology. The first issue, themed around the topic of “Food,” was a roaring success thanks to the efforts of our talented writers.

I’m happy to announce that there is now a second issue of the zine to go around! Our parent, Anthropology Now, moved to Taylor & Francis which involved a slight delay in publication, but they have kept us on board. We’re excited to once again provide a place for shorter works by college students. The latest issue is themed around “the Body.” Help us help our students express themselves by sharing this over your social networks and email listservs!

Anthrozine2

click here to download the PDF

Please visit us at http://anthronow.com/anthrozine where you can download our first two issues and view the submission guidelines. While you’re there check out all the amazing stuff Anthropology Now has to offer too. Continue reading

Summer Writing: Units of Time

In the 2002 rom-com About a Boy, Hugh Grant plays a well to do bachelor who lives off the royalties of a song his deceased father produced. With no need to work, Will Freeman (Grant) spends most of his time engaged in leisure pursuits: taking bubble baths, playing pool, getting scalp massages and looking for attractive women to rendezvous with. I can relate to the character. Not so much that I spend most of my time taking bubble baths and looking for attractive women (I do this only in moderation) but in that I live alone and have a flexible schedule. Like Freeman (Grant) I feel I need to impose order on my time. There is a scene early on the film where Freeman narrates his “units of time” theory.

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Summer Writing: Practice Community

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Lindsay Bell

In the middle of the teaching term, summer is the far away season where you imagine that all of your academic, and possibly creative, writing projects will get off the ground. It is an oasis over the desert horizon. When summer finally arrives, you realize the large, luscious lagoon you imagined is more like a puddle. Desperate, you dive in anyways. The reality of the academic summer is that we continue to have competing demands on our time. We rush off to the field. Our families have a heightened sense of entitlement to interact with us.  Kids aren’t in school. We are faced with duties left undone in the scramble to get through the term. Those of us who are junior, or precariously employed, are likely packing and moving (again).

According to every “how to” book on successful academic writing, waiting for big chunks of time to advance intellectual projects is ill-advised. Instead, consistent short bursts are the way to cultivate a long and successful publication record. Through various experiments, I found this to be true. Nevertheless, most of us stay committed to a substantial amount of summer writing. We have to. Savage Minds has been a supportive space for thinking and talking about anthropological writing. In this first guest post I want to open a conversation about summer writing and sketch out my plan for the coming month as guest blogger.  Continue reading

Welcome to the Anthropozine

Back in the late twentieth century, when cut and paste still meant scissors and glue, desktop publishing opened many doors for a creative person with something to say. We dubbed  these homebrewed screeds “zines” and reproduced them by photocopier. They were distributed not by webpage and email but left stacked next to alternative newsweeklies or sold for cheap at record stores.  Drugs and sex and politics were the dominant themes, and their chaotic aesthetic served as witness to a strong DIY ethic inherited from our punk ancestors. They were cheeky and irreverent, occasionally they were even good. In many respects they were the analog precursor to the blogs of today.

Anthropozine.
Anthropozine | April 2015

With this nod to the past, let us turn now to the future for I am excited to announce the launch of a new venue for undergraduate authors, Anthropozine, lovingly inspired by the ’90s zines of yore. Sure its a PDF now, but don’t let that stop you from running off a few hard copies on the departmental printer while no one’s looking. The publication carries a Creative Commons license making it easy for you to share with your students by email, over listservs, or social networks. Anthropozine is published jointly with Anthropology Now, a peer reviewed journal from Routledge with a special vision to make available illustrated works from leading scholars that are written for a general audience. Think of it as something like a missing link between scholarly journal and a popular magazine. If you are a member of the AAA’s General Anthropology Division you already have electronic access to the journal, but there is a fair amount of free content available at http://anthronow.com. 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

Read More, Write Less

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Ruth Behar as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Ruth is the Victor Haim Perera Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. She is the author of numerous articles and books including Translated Woman: Crossing the Border With Esperanza’s Story (Beacon Press, 1993), The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart (Beacon Press, 1996), An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba (Rutgers University Press, 2007), Traveling Heavy: A Memoir In Between Journeys (Duke University Press, 2013), and is co-editor with Deborah Gordon of Women Writing Culture (University of California Press, 1995).]

Rolando Estevez painting-Loynaz-Poema XV ala tensa

 

Years ago, when I started returning to Havana, the city where I was born, I had the good fortune to be welcomed into the home of Cuban poet, Dulce María Loynaz. By then she was in her nineties, frail as a sparrow, nearly blind, and at death’s doorstep, but enormously lucid.

Inspired by her meditative Poemas sin nombre (Poems With No Name), I had written a few poems of my own, and Dulce María had the largeness of heart to ask me to read them aloud to her in the grand salon of her dilapidated mansion. She nodded kindly after each poem and when I finished I thought to ask her, “What advice would you give a writer?” Continue reading

Why I like typewriters

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

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

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

Skywriters

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

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Ethnographers as Writers: Write First Drafts in One Go

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

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

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

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

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Ethnographers as Writers: Consider Endnotes

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

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

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

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Ethnographers as Writers: Theory and Data – Part II

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

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

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

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

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Ethnographers as Writers: Theory and Data – Part I

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

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

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

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

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Ethnographers as Writers: Getting Started

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

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

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

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