What is good anthropological writing?

The above question needs to be split into (at least) three. First: What is good writing? Second: What is good nonfiction writing? (I discard, at least for now, a distinction between ‘nonfiction’ and ‘academic’.) Third: What is peculiar about good anthropological nonfiction writing?

We each have our answers to these questions. So why not make it personal: Which were the texts that made an indelible impression on you, and why? Any answer to this question has to be biographical. Many of the people I’ve asked over the years, usually in casual conversation over a drink, talk about books they read in their teens or early twenties. At this age, we are intellectually mature but emotionally volatile, and there is still plenty of free space on our internal hard drives. Anything relevant that comes our way is therefore likely to find a privileged place in our memory.

My unscientific findings can be summmarised roughly like this. The lit crit type would be likely to wax lyrical about the great Russians, Joyce or Proust. The natural scientist type might unashamedly speak about Tolkien or Arthur C. Clarke (very fine authors both in my book, by the way), or even a minor Russian like Ayn Rand (but as you know, those types, if unrepentant, are usually beyond salvation) … but what about the crossover, intellectually hybrid anthropologist type? Hmm… as always, it is impossible to generalise about one’s own people – we are so familiar with each individual tree that we fail to see the forest. It would be interesting to conduct an informal survey among the readers of Savage Minds. Q1: What were the books that changed your life? Q2: Which books (or films) turned you on to anthropology? Give short justifications for each answer, and be honest, it’s not a competition.

Uncritically but voraciously, I read all kinds of trash until my late teens, sometimes stumbling over something good without realising it. At that time, emerging from puberty with an audible sigh of relief, I turned to books on anarchism and green fundamentalism, pessimistic philosophy and novelists/essayists like Orwell, Huxley and Koestler, adding Greene and Naipaul as I ran out, as well as the mandatory bit of Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus (you haven’t lived until you’ve read The Stranger as an eighteen-year old!). There was little art for art’s sake in my life at that time. However, come to think of it, I did have a literary hero in my early twenties. Nowadays considered almost a minor novelist and nearly forgotten in practice, Anthony Burgess represented for me the quintessence of the great writer. His language was exuberant and powerful, his plots were clever and often extremely effective, and he was extremely knowledgeable in a casual way. He wrote pageturners about fascinating subjects such as ancient Christianity and colonial Malaya. It was only when I read Ulysses (on fieldwork in Mauritius) that I realised that Burgess somehow orchestrated a meeting between James Joyce and Harold Robbins. I still think that Burgess’ best books contain everything we try to achieve as writers: to enlighten without being boring, to make the world a larger and more interesting place, and to moralise without creating unproductive guilt-traps.

You may well disagree, and you have your own personal favourites. I no longer read Burgess, but I’m glad I spent formative years doing it. When it comes to nonfiction in general, the most important books for me as a twenty-year old were clearly those which followed Marx’ famous dictum about understanding the world in order to change it. In our first-year curriculum in anthropology back in 1982, I liked Roger Keesing’s textbook for this reason; the feeling was that he had his heart in the right place. There is a linear plot in Keesing which I didn’t see at the time – moving from the simple to the complex as the book progresses – which is epistemologically problematic but efficient as a way of organising a narrative: you know how he begins his book with a few chapters on human evolution (which we were not asked to read, by the way; anthropology is not a four-field subject in Norway), ending with horror stories of colonialism and capitalist oppression.

But then, in my second year, I discovered Gregory Bateson, and it was love at first sight. His convoluted style, his oblique way of discerning patterns of regularity and similarity, his strong metaphors and surprising perspectives got me hooked, then and probably forever. Bateson was like a Socrates in search of his Plato (or, better, Platos), stimulating his readers to finish the argument and to fill in the blank spaces. Bateson presented riddles and limited himself to suggesting the answer (unlike someone like Marvin Harris, about whom Sahlins once remarked, drily, that he told riddles, but the answer was always protein).

Yet the kind of irreducible complexity presented explicitly and implicitly in Bateson’s texts do not stand for typical good writing; it’s untypical good writing. (I have similar feelings, by the way, about Edwin Ardener’s intellectual pyrotechnics.) Most of the really memorable texts, in anthropology as in other nonfiction, are those that have a clear message or a potent metaphor somewhere. If something appears to be complex but lacks the beauty of simplicity, it is bogus: it is then merely complicated rather than truly complex. So there is a reason why we return again and again to Geertz’ cockfight, Evans-Pritchard’s poison oracle, Leach’s gumsa-gumlao dichotomy, Douglas’ anomalies and so on. The narrative thread in these texts may be weak, but their symbolism is persuasive, seductive and contagious, indexical of huge problematics. – Why is it that Anderson’s Imagined Communities is the most popular book on nationalism? Because of its powerful central metaphor.

As a writer, you can engage your audience in many ways (and I’ve described some of them in Engaging Anthropology – I’m not going to repeat myself here), but let us say that the most important ones are metaphor and narrative. Anthropologists are generally good at creating metaphors, but bad when it comes to narrative. (With historians, it is the other way around.) At some point in our profession’s history, we chose analysis over narrative. It may be time to reconsider that choice. For one can have it both ways.

As academics, we tend to write for a select audience: people who are either paid to read what we write, or who are forced to because it is on the reading list. I think these two categories of readers would be grateful if we began to have other kinds of readers in mind as well. And it would not necessarily mean losing complexity.

Now this is a slippery slope. A colleague at the University of Oslo, admired for his crystal-clear, simple style, says that if your auntie can’t read it, it is probably not any good. Yet we know from experience that some texts that offer solid resistance give ample rewards at the end – from Aristotle to Foucault and Derrida, not to mention Strathern. On a more mundane note, as an undergraduate, I struggled with Culture and Practical Reason, and never regretted it later. So simplicity is not always the answer. Voluntary readers are perfectly capable of absorbing considerable complexity as long as it is presented in an inviting way. Whatever my feelings about Richard Dawkins’ worldview, few will deny that he is a great nonfiction writer, and he invites you as a reader to join him. He appears to care about his readers. Someone said about Dawkins that he makes the reader feel like a genius. Far too many of us seem to try to make our readers feel like idiots instead. Anthropology is usually not technical in such a way as to exclude, by default, readers who lack a training in the subject. We have an unrivalled supply of metaphors, through our own fieldwork and that of others. But we also have narratives. The puzzling thing is why we don’t use them to better effect. Could it be that the ghost of Evans-Pritchard’s nasty depiction of Mead as representing a ‘rustling-of-the-wind-in-the-palm-trees kind of anthropology, for which Malinowski set the fashion’, is still hovering in the corridors?

Certain texts stick with us, change our world and make our own lives slightly richer and more bearable, not to say meaningful. They have a few things in common, notably strong narrative and/or powerful metaphors, and an active interest in the reader also helps – but what nearly all of them have in common, is that they are not written by anthropologists. Here’s a challenge to all of us!

My postings on this site are so lengthy, I am ashamed to discover, that I fancy you’ve got your fill of Eriksen’s ruminations for now. It has been really interesting to experiment with the blog genre, enjoyable to oscillate between the loose and the tight, and it may well turn out that I’m hooked now, converted as it were from the Gutenberg Galaxy to the Berners-Lee Bonanza [Tim Berners-Lee: The inventor of the World Wide Web] – in which case you’ll hear from me again on Savage Minds. Thanks everybody!

25 thoughts on “What is good anthropological writing?

  1. Thomas — thank you! Best guest blogger *ever*. I am sure this last post of yours will prompt a lengthy discussion so let me get in and out fast:

    I’ve always wondered how many anthropologists, other than myself, are closet fantasy fiction fans — and, as a follow-up, whether this indicates something disturbing about us (or, as the case may be, me). To be honest I’d still rather read extremely trashy stuff by (to pick a recent example, as this is not an enthusiasm I’ve outgrown), say, GRR Martin than do almost anything else. Fantasy fiction is a bit different than sci-fi in that it is so atavistic (as opposed to futuristic); the way the Lord of the Rings movies unfolded sort of confirmed my internal misgivings that liking fantasy fiction is a mark of moral turpitude.

    Anyway. As for nonfiction … well, good nonfiction is wonderful. Anything from John McPhee to the cattiest of Vanity Fair profiles of rich people of whom you’ve previously never heard. but I think good nonficition makes clever use of the readers’ assumptions, and feeds them continual rewards. For me, anthropological writing is usually not going to be as pleasurable — even when it is done well — because the whole method is a process of making *everything* explicit. Some parts of the process are boring because they state the obvious in an alternate form, and other parts are hard going because they pick apart the non-obvious, which may (of course) be difficult to follow. That doesn’t mean there are never any pleasures along the way, but usually the real pleasure is new knowledge, and you get it at the end of doing the reading. With other kinds of writing, enjoying the activity of reading is in itself the goal.

  2. Sometime around 12 or 13, I began rummaging through the books found in an old, glassfront bookcase that may have belonged to my maternal grandfather. Three books stick out in my memory, for none of which I now remember the exact title. One was a text on world history, written in what I now recognize as a classic, 11th edition Britannica, magisterial style. One was a collection of “world scriptures” in which I first encountered the religions of South and East Asia, a topic of immense interest to a boy taking Lutheran catechism classes in preparation for his confirmation, and a book from a series devoted to Hopalong Cassidy. That one was a bit of a shocker, since in contrast to the fair-haired hero on the TV series, this Hopalong Cassidy cursed ( f**k and d***m) and the book ended with Cassidy organizing a posse of ranchers to wipe out a gang of cattle rustlers and go on to raze a town called Eagle, depicted as a Wild West Sodom. All had anthropological effects, decentering the conventional wisdom of the conservative Lutheran family and state in which I grew up.

    From 13 to 20, except for school assignments, I read almost nothing but now classic science fiction: Azimov, Bester, Dick, L. Sprague de Camp, Poul Anderson, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Frederic Brown, Fritz Leiber,Frederick Pohl, Robert Heinlein….here were grand themes, from social science on a cosmic scale to, gee whiz! people/aliens can be really alien, that, in retrospect, clearly pointed me toward anthropology.

    What, then, of the anthropologists? I have, I must confess, a taste for stylists who write complex but tasty prose: Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner, and Claude Levi-Strauss (especially Tristes Tropiques and the “Overture” to The Raw and the Cooked. When they have in common, which accounts for the richness of their style, is the ability to combine communicate complex ideas through through ethnographic detail, so that it is, to borrow a phrase from Levi-Strauss, possible to see in them “the logic in tangible qualities.” Among more recent anthropologists, I find similar virtues in Ruth Behar and Robert DeJarlais. Mary Douglas is an interesting case. I admire her as a theorist. Her moving beyond Purity and Danger to elaborate her ideas in Natural Symbols and The World of Goodsis precisely the way in which I’d like to see other anthropologists developing their own ideas. But, in contrast to her ideas, her prose has never memorable for me.

  3. Interesting thoughts. Anyway I believe the matter with ‘engaged anthropology’ is not one of ‘how do I write’ but mainly one of ‘what do I write about.

  4. Q1: What were the books that changed your life?

    Don’t know, if any book ever changed my life. Theres so many that deeply did impress me, that I hardly am conscious on them all.
    William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is one fictional book that regularly drops back to the top of my mind.

    Q2: Which books (or films) turned you on to anthropology? Give short justifications for each answer, and be honest, it’s not a competition.

    No books, no films. It was the study of history that turned me on to sociocultural anthropology. An early representant of Neue Kulturgeschichte is Urs Bitterli, whom I happened to read something 10 yrs ago. The Civilized and The Wild was on european expansion, a conincidental finding at the local town-library’s shelf something 10 yrs ago. This definitely was one of the books that brought me to historiography and history.

  5. Hmm… Erkan, I agree that blogging sharpens your attention and that Cicilie Fagerlid’s blog from her fieldwork in Paris is excellent; what’s interesting here is the novelty of sharing one’s field diary with others. Anthropologists have always written field diaries alongside the more rigorous fieldnotes, but they have seldom been read by others. That’s the main difference between a field blog and a field diary, but writing for a readership surely affects your style as well.

  6. Well, I guess the more interesting books were those on Sherlock Holmes. I read them all some time in my early teens, and I recently discovered that my younger siblings did the same. It is often said that making school students read stories situated in environments they are not used to is a way of making students really disinterested in reading at all. In general, I can confirm this, especially when I think back on having to read Emilia Galotti (a story about a German prince who falls in love with a village girl and she ends being stabbed upon her own request by her father so she will not loose her innocense to the prince) – twice!

    But with Sherlock Holmes it was quite something different. The characters generally had backgrounds different from what I was used to from my environment (generals returning from India with unknown illnesses, kids living on the street and working as a communication network for Holmes, etc.), but the stories nevetheless could appeal to me quite a lot. The same is true for some of the children’s stories by Erich Kästner from the Weimar Republic days like Emil and the Detectives (with large communication networks of poor urban children and a social system as well as a country quite different from the one I lived in). I guess this main difference to books like Emilia Galotti was that I could relate at least partially to some of the characters in that they all lived in systems in which one used some kind of reason that I could follow and did not merely rely on traditions unknown to me – at the same time as it started making me question in the objectivity of certain social rules that were taken for granted by many in the society I lived in. Maybe it is therefore that the first book making me interested in Social Anthropology was William Whyte’s Street Corner Society about a poor Italian neighborhood in the late 1930s.

    However, really seeing how our society is partially flawed and that there might have been something lost along the way did not come before I read Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead at the age of 18; it is truely a terrible vision of the future in which everything is streamlined and has been made homogenous.

  7. Pingback: Anthropology.net
  8. On Anthropology.net, manmakeshimself writes,

    Surely anthropologists of all people realize that our writing should not endeavor to fulfill some aesthetic ideal, but to reach its intended audience?

    Write on, I say, adding my thanks to Thomas for getting us started on this.

  9. Maybe it’s been obvious all along: anthropologists have an inclination towards the fantastic and surreal. I’m reading “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” with my son now, and I cannot deny enjoying it about as much as he does. Like many of you, I was the kind of kid who was into space travel and dinosaurs, who later devoured Jules Verne and later still saw Kurt Vonnegut as one of the greatest writers alive. In high school, I was not allowed to write a special assignment on the Norwegian science fiction authors Tor Åge Bringsværd and Jon Bing because sf was not “serious literature”. Two years later, I was an anthropology student. There may, nonetheless, be a gender bias here. Where are the women on this forum? More than half of us are female now, but I don’t see any here.

    Are “aesthetic ideals” irrelevant in anthropological writing? I don’t know about this. I have sometimes told postgraduate students that they need not worry about their dissertations being boring as long as they do the job. Yet, one of the things that the “linguistic” and “aesthetic” turns in intellectual life has taught us, is that language is never innocent; it evokes and connotes, seduces and irritates, and the objective “thing-language” of the early positivists was a mad fantasy. So, although there are many ways of writing well, from say, the dry lucidity of early Barth to the flowery exuberance of mid-period Geertz, style cannot be said to be irrelevant. And sloppy editing is no more virtuous in academic writing than elsewhere.

  10. Thomas wrote:

    “Are “aesthetic ideals” irrelevant in anthropological writing? ”

    No. I think it depends on one’s target audience: other anthropologists only or a wider public. Who does one want to reach?

    This, of course, ties in to one’s methodologies in the field and one’s theoretical (or not so theoretical) approach in anthropology.

    To add my 2 cents to the general discussion as well (as I procrastinate): I also grew up reading some sci fi and fantasy and I will admit without shame that, as a teen, I got heavily into Stephen King’s early works. I know many academics look down on King’s work but I’ve always liked his stuff for the depth in which he explores personalities, what makes people tick, what has led people to think the way they do, etc. My particular favourite is the Dark Tower series (7 books).

    An amazing sci fi/fantasy book that I would recommend to anyone who is into the obscure and bizarre is Michael Swanwick’s “The Iron Dragon’s Daughter”. Themes of interest to many anthropologists and interested parties include child slavery, magic, sexuality and matriarchal spirituality.

    Finally, the works of Albert Camus and Franz Kafka really light my fire at times as did Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudun”.

    Fiction inspired by anthropological knowledge is of great interest to me (reading AND creating) as is very descriptive works about narratives and life stories. I’ve never been very enthralled about reading or creating extremely theoretical work. Not only do I lack the attention span for it but my anthropological orientation takes me away from the focus on theorising and brings me toward more of an ethnographic focus. That being said, I’m not adverse to the inclusion of *some* theoretical discourse within this to give some grounding in and some relevance to a wider body of anthropological literature (and to appease the deities of academia). I dread starting it but once I get into it, I find immense pleasure in the juggling of ideas that I can relate to the ethnographic material with which I am dealing. Plus I get to gush over some of my anthro idols such as Pierre Bourdieu, Johannes Fabian and Jean-Guy Goulet.

  11. I’m a woman! Nancy’s a woman! Orange (I think) is a woman! Hear us roar!

    That aside, thanks again for blogging with us, Thomas!

  12. I got heavily into Stephen King’s early works.

    Now that you mention King, I nearly read all of his stories.
    Perhaps it is a more general relation between phantasy as such and doing anthropology, for again a child’s reading as such is said to be contributive to the evolution of the adult’s imaginative abilities.

  13. I like the idea of One*man* being a *wo*man. It boggles the mind in a way that is delightful to the genderqueers among us.

    Now back to the *serious* discussion . . . this is not the space for me to go on about my preference for the term “female-bodied”.

  14. Sorry about that, Ozma and other er, female-bodied folks, don’t know how I got the impression that this forum was male dominated. Reminds me of how, in the old days, when the first year of social anthropology in Norway was concluded with a home exam followed by an oral, we used to guess at the gender of students before the oral exam. All exam papers were typed. We, or at least I, tended to get the candidate’s gender wrong most of the time. Of course, on the Net, nobody can see that you’re a dog, but recent research on Internet usage shows the manipulation of identities to be much less widespread than one might expect after reading Sherry Turkle.

  15. FWIW, I’ve seen, but cannot cite (NY Times book review?), a serious argument that Stephen King is worthy of comparison to Dickens. I’m a literary critic by training and I’ve read quite a bit of Dickens, no Stephen King. But I’m not inclined to reject the comparison out of hand. King’s kind of popularity is worth something. The one or three articles I’ve read about him, and perhaps an interview here or there, have made it clear that he’s a serious craftsman.

    On this matter I suspect that I’m something of a heretic in lit crit circles. So be it.

  16. “..recent research on Internet usage shows the manipulation of identities to be much less widespread than one might expect after reading Sherry Turkle.”

    Anyway on the net someone with a name not clearly indicating the gender usually is considered as male, according to my four years experience of hanging around in i-net forums.

  17. While actually, according to my unrepresentative experience, many explicit fakers in the forums I used to participate for a while were male.
    ‘Fakers’ in the sense of ‘clones’ (a term, resp. a practice Heike Greschke had presented at Alexander Knorr’s last cyberanthropology workshop), which are temporary parallel identities some people cultivate in online communities. In german we say ‘zweitnick’ for the registration under a second (or third or nd) nickname within a forum you already maintain an established identity under your “real” name aka first name aka main name.
    [‘Clones in cyberspace’ are a superinteresting phenomen to observe. Greschke immediately was asked if she also would run several IDs in the forums she researches, which she denied. The interesting thing here is not so much about gender in the first instance, but what the different ID s talk about, as for examole often they re used to express criticism or cause flame wars that target someone personally, etc. ]

  18. Many questions, much too answer…

    Well, before I went to university I hardly read fiction and mostly read about dinosaurs, pyramids (typical isn’t it?), weather (I dreamt of becoming a meteorologist!), and I had tons of books about animals around the globe. Later I spent much time with travel- and adventure books.

    The book that has changed my life in this regard is “The Red Room” by the Swedish writer August Strindberg (it was on the reading list in the introduction course in Scandinavian Studies). This book showed me the power of language. Take his opening, the description of early spring in Stockholm! From then on, I stopped writing “It is spring in Stockholm, light wind, the sun is shining” and tried to be more creative (at least for a while…). After Strindberg, the articles I’ve written for the local newspaper have never been the same. And I’ve started reading fiction!

    Most of my favorite writers are Russian. Mainly because of their phantasy and their style: unexpected and funny mataphers, irony, surreal events. The short stories of one of my earliest favorites Anton Chekhov actually resemble good ethnographies: By telling about small details of a some peoples’ lives, he tells us much about what it is to be human.

    Good non-fiction and good fiction have much in common. (I could mention Emile Zola’s “Germinal” here as well, about the early industralisation in France. Very ethnographic, from the native’s point of view, but 10000 x better written!)

    My favoritie ethnographies (among others “In Search for Respect. Selling Crack in El Barrio” by Philippe Bourgois and many Norwegian ethnographies by Unni Wikan, Arild Hovland, Vigdis Stordahl etc) have much in common. They make you feel that you’re there too, there in the field. They let people speak, tell stories: many dialogues, quotations etc. And the anthropologists have something new to say. They avoid jargon, they dare to resist trends and established truths in anthropology.

    Being also a journalist, I have – to some extend- to agree in “if your auntie can’t read it, it is probably not any good”. On the other hand, it does no harm to challenge your readers a bit. I’ve mostly used journalistic style in my university papers, even in my thesis. I received both positive and negative feedback (“not scientific enough”). I wanted my papers to be readable by non-experts – including my “research objects” (f.ex. hiphop-artists when researching hiphop). During the writing process I always had my proofreaders in mind: my non-academic flatmates (musicians).

    I totally disagree with orange who says “Anyway I believe the matter with ‘engaged anthropology’ is not one of ‘how do I write’ but mainly one of ‘what do I write about.” Good ethnographies actually make you read books you would have otherwise never ever read.

  19. Not being a true anthropologist, but working with understanding what drives people in their everyday life, I would say that my greatest reading experiences are much more of a lighter form. There is nothing particular ore special about the books I love, most of them are bestsellers. I remember John Fowles ‘The Magus’ and John Irvings ‘A prayer for Owen Meany’ and I mostly remember them for creating interesting and fascinating stories on peoples life. The very interesting part for me, which has a great influence on my work today, is to discover how very much alike the things that we long for ore want are the same. Happiness, safety, freedom, a higher meaning with what we do, to be important to somebody else and so on, seems to be the fundamental driving forces for all people no matter how different their life seams to be. And by the way I do not understand why Thomas tells his students that they should not worry about their writing in their dissertations, for me (I am writing it up right now) it is surely a goal to do good research but also to make it so interesting that maybe more than the 4 people how has to read it, wants to read it.

  20. I started a comment here but it was too long so I turned it into a blog post. The short version of that post is this:
    At 12 years old I read John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, a collection of Doonesbury comics, and Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa.
    During my Senior year of high school I read William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming”, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, Franz Kafka’s short story, “In the Penal Colony.” and David Quammen’s The Flight of the Iguana: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature.
    Then, during my Freshman year of university, I read Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates.

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