Anthropology and the Long Essay

In my last blog post I pointed out that it seemed that monographs seem to be getting shorter and shorter. I am sure that one reason for this is publication pressure although the fact that short books are easier to read and write has something to do with it as well. Some of the recent ethnographies I’ve read, like The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media (best title ever btw) or Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Labs and Second Life are so short that they seem more long long essays than short books.

I suppose that for some this is the a sign of the sky falling, of precious dusty old genres being dismantled in the face of market pressure, and so forth. But I think something else is happening: I think anthropology is naturally a 100-200 page affair and that the long essay is anthropology’s natural genre.

If you look for it, the long essay pops up in several key places in anthropology’s history: just think of pieces like The Balinese Cockfight, Totemism (of Lévi-Strauss), Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities, Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture. I think there is something about this length of work that lends itself to anthropological ethnography and data.

I’m not sure what it is about the long essay, but it seems to me it has something to do with the length of the ethnography: more than just an apt illustration or two dotting a journal article, less than a compendium of Practices Of The Natives Preserved For All Time. 100 to 200 pages gives you plenty of time to introduce and to linger, but not enough space to have to go through the rigamarole of a literature review. As essays, works of this length have the ability to suggest rather than prove, imagine rather than measure, narrate rather than dissect.

Although market forces are at work in transitions in anthropological publishing, I think that the trend towards shortness also reflects a sense that a problem-focused monograph (rather than a descriptive tome) fits nicely into the 100-200 page range. In fact I wonder just how much shorter these books are going to become before some tenure committee somewhere starts to protest.

Some may lament the death of incredibly long monographs — particularly the kind which exist only to document. On the one hand, documentation is important. At some level it is the most important thing because it is so fundamental. On the other hand, because it is so basic and doesn’t address specific theoretical questions, it typically gets described as having the least ‘scholarly impact’ because it is not connected to academic debates.

You might think that this means that these sorts of compendiums are going to disappear now that no one will publish them. But is this really true? I mean is the problem of the Internet age that you can’t self-publish to your heart’s content? True, it will get harder to find the staff willing to put the time into high production values, diagrams, figures, and the other stuff which is more important in documentation than it is in problem-based monographs. But the danger is never that your work is unlocatable. The biggest thing holding people back from documentation, in my opinion, is that a lot of contemporary anthropologists just don’t care for it much — a bigger problem than finding a press for the stuff, in my opinion.

At any rate, with the Internet ensuring that long works can always find a home somewhere, I am actually rather bully on the short monograph: I think its a form that is particularly suited to anthropology.

Rex

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

6 thoughts on “Anthropology and the Long Essay

  1. The biggest thing holding people back from documentation, in my opinion, is that a lot of contemporary anthropologists just don’t care for it much

    I would definitely read a long essay attempting to square that fact with cultural anthropologists’ receptiveness to assemblage theory.

    If you look for it, the long essay pops up in several key places in anthropology’s history: just think of pieces like The Balinese Cockfight, Totemism (of Lévi-Strauss), Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities, Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture. I think there is something about this length of work that lends itself to anthropological ethnography and data.

    I can think of the Sahlins as historical ethnography but the Lévi-Strauss is ethnology, the Sapir is a methods paper, and the Geertz isn’t really all that long an essay (is it?). I do agree that there are some great works at that length, but no true ethnographies come immediately to mind.

  2. This approach to thinking about ideal lengths for different sorts of documentation and analysis fits nicely into the anthropological preference for thinking about cultural practices–in this case, writing as a form of prestige-gathering or community-building or self-fashioning–as “making sense.” I’m not convinced that we can begin a paragraph on this topic with “Although market forces are at work. . .” Once we accept the “although,” we’re back into arguing about natural forms, and quite close to stereotypical culture of poverty thinking (they write that way because anthropology is a soft option and they can’t provide evidence for their assertions).

    This post is a useful provocation, though. I’ll match your long essays (Myth in Primitive Psychology, American Kinship), and raise you Coral Gardens and their Magic (2 volumes!!), Death Without Weeping, and Peasants into Frenchmen (yeah, yeah, so it’s not by an anthropologist). Way-longer-than-usual-form ethnography also “pops up in several key places in anthropology’s history.” And while market forces might not have exactly encouraged the publication of such mammoth works, neither did those forces preclude it.

    One of the questions we can return to is why anthropology doesn’t seem to be able to sustain the mass-market potential for the kinds of great fat books–e.g. recent biographies of John Adams or Franklin Roosevelt–that one so often sees gracing the shelves at Barnes & Noble. If we take advantage of the problem-centered short monograph/long essay form, will this have any influence on how the public sees anthropology’s relevance to their lives?

  3. Particularistic concern drives interest in long works. People write them and read them because they care about the topic. Unless you are writing about something that is really central to the lives of a lot of people — and a lot of American _are_ obsessed with founding fathers — long works of the ‘documentation’ variety will have niche audiences.

    I suppose this is a way of saying the long essay is a form that is the right size for readers and writers who are interested in problem, not topics — but want a good dose of particularity mixed in with their topic.

    Tbh I was a bit disappointed with Making Virtual Worlds — if you get a chance track down Tom Boellstorff’s review of it, it’s pretty devastating… and hence makes for a good read!

  4. Thanks for the compliment on the title!
    I guess I did intend to write a short book, since I was turning to Lave and Wenger’s Situated Learning or Bauman’s Let My Words Be Few as models. But really, my goal was to write a teachable book, one that the undergraduates I interviewed could read. I don’t think Malaby had the same project.

    And I have to say that I encountered some interesting resistance and encouragement along the way towards writing accessibly. I kept having very long conversations with my editors about how to cite, for example — including references to other people’s work turned out to be a sticking point around accessibility. Keeping the book short was one of the ways to give it a fighting chance of being assigned in a class (market forces indeed!) and as we know, there is a very long tradition of that in anthropology.

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