Reading non-ethnographic non-fiction

In yesterday’s post I discussed my discovery that I have non-ethnographic writing options. In today’s post I touch on the corollary, my discovery that I have non-ethnographic reading options.

What I like in ethnography

My reading of the decade prior to last November consisted almost entirely of anthropological and linguistic literature and of ethnographies and published primary sources when given the choice. During that period I began reading 18th century military journals as sources of data and came to appreciate the way their authors used language, as in the following example from a 1761 journal describing a scene from the area where I spent my youth:

The prospect from some of the Hills pleasant, though not very extensive, occasioned by a circumstance extraordinary enough & perhaps not to be parralled—viz. That go to the highest Mountain you can see yet when on the top of it you see others still higher. This we experienced every Day’s March.

I tend towards “five-foot shelf” ethnography rather Malinowskian narrative ethnography. Part of my that comes from the fact that I feel ethnography should give pride of place to information, so I prefer ethnographic literature with a high information:verbiage ratio. Another part comes from presentation. Because I have some background in linguistics I have a notion of the difficulties and decisions inherent in the creation of interlinear texts, so data presented in that fashion automatically engages me. In addition, I prefer any presentation style that facilitates easy identification. I am not a front-to-back or at-one-sitting reader. I like clear sectioning and abundant tables, lists, and figures.

I do not object to narrative ethnography as such. There are a handful of ethnographies written in a more narrative vein which I do very much enjoy. Paul Reisman’s Freedom in Fulani social life is one example. While originally reading the book I had the sense that the tone of Reisman’s work reflected his temperament. A few years after having finished the book I was fortunate enough to spend time around some Fula and I saw how their elegance is mirrored in the elegance of Reisman’s prose.

Reisman is an admittedly high bar to set. Few anthropologists possess the skills necessary to create written work at the level he did. If only more anthropologists were aware of that fact prior to putting pen to paper.

Reading other non-fiction—‘The Gun’ by C.J. Chivers

Following fast on the heels of my realization that there are other-than-ethnographic types of non-fiction writing in the world was my realization that there are other-than-ethnographic types of reading in the world. OK, that is a bit of an overstatement. I have never lost sight of the fact. It’s rather that my default when reading any work involving human beings is to turn to a work of anthropology. I simply think the ecumenical nature of the discipline makes it a better approach for any topic involving our species than does any other discipline (with the possible exception of geography, but that is another post). I do not mean by that that I believe work done on topic X by an anthropologist to be invariably better than work done on topic X by a social psychologist or economist. As is said in the martial arts, styles don’t win fights, fighters do. What I do mean to say is that anthropology is the Jeet Kune Do of the social sciences and humanities.

So my attitude was more one of, “Why read non-ethographic non-fiction?” But in light of my positive experience discovering new types of writing I thought to myself, “Well, why not?” The local library held a copy of The Gun, a social history of the AK-47 by C.J. Chivers. I had enjoyed the Fresh Air interview Chivers had given a couple of years prior during his book tour. I was impressed with his educational (an undergraduate degree in political science from Cornell) and experiential (service as an active duty office in the Marine Corps through the rank of Captain) bona fides while also being drawn to the material culture and military history aspects of the book.

In light of a decade dedicated spent reading mostly ethnographic and almost exclusively anthropological literature, I found two features of Chivers’ style almost immediately refreshing. The first was the lack of parenthetical citation. As with narrative ethnography, I do not object to parenthetical citation per se. The way it tends to be deployed by European anthropologists works just fine for me. But the way it is used in American anthropological literature clutters up the page. I can only echo Sarah Kendzior’s comment about “your endless parenthetical citations” made in a recent SM post.

Second, Chivers takes more of a Faulknerian view on the relationship of history and the present rather than making a sharp synchronic/diachronic division as anthropologists tend to. For example, the way in which the lag between the German military’s widespread adoption of the machine gun in WWI and adjustment in British infantry tactics is discussed in chapter four comes as much from the living knowledge of a contemporary Marine Corps infantry officer as it does from the synthesis of period documentation. If I may be allowed the seeming digression, it feels similar to the way I relate to one of my big interests, outdoor clothing and equipment. I began learning about outdoor gear via use of modern day items. As I learned more about design features and materials options I began to various takes on the comments “whatever anyone tells you, this is just like Brand W’s old X model” and “before Y was developed, you used to have to Z.” Now when I see an old piece of kit I don’t feel like I am looking through a tunnel of time. I know I am not being terribly eloquent here, but what I am trying to say is that 1) Chivers does not think or write in an antiquarian mode, and 2) his take on and representation of the past is definitely informed by the present but definitely not presentist.

Chivers does something in The Gun which I had only seen previously in ethnographic texts, though rarely even there. I am thinking of the sort of thing Sidney Mintz was able to do by marshaling data and experience gained over the course of his ethnographic work in multiple locations within the Caribbean. As an undergraduate I was very drawn to the way in which Mintz was able to use historical data to demonstrate that the semantics of the term ‘agriculture’ tend to keep scholars from considering the fact that colonial Caribbean cane agriculture may have served as the early model for the Industrial Revolution. Chivers does something similar in showing how a contest within the planned economy of Stalin’s Soviet Union was able to produce a piece of technology that continues to be the standard for its type, while the story of the first iteration of its competitor produced within the free market of the United States (the M-16) is told in the well titled chapter “The Accidental Rifle.”

As an undergraduate I was also drawn to the way Mintz was able to amass data and insights to show how our world’s current taken for granted consumption of sugar is the outcome of a historical processes and the actions of powerful institutions with particular interests. Chivers does similar in sketching how the current ubiquity of the AK-47—one for every seventy people on our planet!—would not have been possible without the patronage of governments uninterested in profit margin.

In closing I would like to ask a half question for those readers who know more about the publishing industry than do I. The Gun is horribly in need of editing. None of the material is bad, in fact. In fact, I would say that all of it is quite good. It is just that a lot of it is superfluous to an adequate social history of the AK-47. For instance, Chivers has put together and includes within the book a biography of Mikhail Kalashnikov which could stand as its own merits as a journal article or chapter in a collection but which does not contribute greatly to The Gun. Did the book simply lack a good editorial hand? Or do I fail to understand the range of publication options available for non-academics (i.e., are the journal article and the chapter in a collection largely academic genres)?

Matthew Timothy Bradley


Boas, Franz, and George Hunt. Kwakiutl texts. Edited by Franz Boas. Vol. 3 in The Jesup North Pacific Expedition; Vol. 5 in Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History. Leiden; New York, 1902–1905.

Chivers, C. J. The gun. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

French, Christopher. Journal of an expedition to South Carolina. “Memoirs of the Grant Expedition against the Cherokees in 1761,” Ed. Duane H. King and E. Raymond Evans, special issue, Journal of Cherokee Studies 2, no. 3 (Summer 1977): 275–301.

Mintz, Sidney W. Quenching homologous thirsts. In Anthropology, history, and American Indians: essays in honor of William Curtis Sturtevant, edited by William L. Merrill and Ives Goddard, 349–56. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology 44. Washington, D.C., 2002.

Riesman, Paul. Freedom in Fulani social life: an introspective ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.