Lawrence of Arabia as anthropologist

To be honest, I was surprised how much attention Peter O’Toole’s recent passing received. We all knew he was famous, but we also learned this week how deeply he was loved. Many people loved him because he had that one thing that is so hard to find in the entertainment industry today: charisma. But anthropologists loved him for something else: Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence of Arabia is central to anthropology, and ought to be more even more central than it is. It is about fieldwork, intimacy, impersonation, and colonialism. It puts on display the complexity, ambivalence, and often ugliness that comes with anthropological fieldwork.

Lawrence of Arabia (LoA, henceforth) does this because it is a great film. It is huge in every sense of the word, telling a long story that stretches across vast amounts of space without losing the audience. It is also startlingly beautiful, even when viewed on a television screen (as most people see it these days). I had a chance to attend a screening once in the original format and aspect ration — larger than a normal movie, iirc — and it is even more amazing in that form. Its sounds silly, but I walked out of the theater thinking: “you could really see the camels.”  The film is monumental.

But beyond the quality of the production itself, the movie works because it draws on a deep orientalist strain in the culture that produced it. LoA is just one in a long time of products ranging From Burton’s Book of a Thousand Nights and One Night to The Desert Song that white people have used as fantasy material. Indeed, LoA is about the many people who have attempted to perform those fantasies by ‘becoming one’ with The Arab. At times the relations between fiction and reality become vertiginous: Omar Sharif plays the noble Sharif Ali in LoA, whereas 15 years earlier he was the Head Boy at Victoria College, where his abuse of Edward Said no doubt played its part in the life experiences that would cause Said to write Orientalism. 

A well-executed production with deep cultural roots, LoA also refused to tell the story about Lawrence that Lawrence himself tried so hard to live. In the film, Lawrence’s ability to immerse himself in Arab culture seems premised on his own deep alienation from those around him. He dreams of intimacy with his newfound hosts, and also of the power to shape their destiny. At first, they are willing to indulge him, and perhaps even grow a bit credulous. But in the end, Lawrence ends up being a pawn on a chessboard controlled by much larger imperial players (I give props to David Lean for making Prince Feisal one of them, but  then immediately withdraw props for having him portrayed by in brownface, even by someone as excellent in the role as Alec Guinness).

It’s not a typical fieldwork story (I mean, its typical for my fieldwork but that’s just me). Not all anthropologists are white people from the center who study brown people in the periphery. But a lot of them are, and even the ones who aren’t constantly fight a disciplinary narrative which tells them that all anthropology is a version of  Seven Pillars of Wisdom, or ought to be. The genius of LoA is the way it shows the messy political and emotional dynamics that come with the process of fieldwork. Every anthropologist should see this movie and imagine themselves as Lawrence. Because in some ways, they already are.

That’s all for now. Tune in next week, when I discuss the lessons “The Lion in Winter” can teach faculty about choosing a new department chair.


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

6 thoughts on “Lawrence of Arabia as anthropologist

  1. I agree with yiou about the greatness of the movie, Rex, and about its importance for anthropology and the fieldwork tradition. Lawrence also helped me with my doctoral fieldwork in Ghana. I had hepatatis after six months and was due to spend two weeks in hospital. I grabbed the three biggest paperbacks I could find in the university bookshop and one of them was The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Until then I had made almost no progress with language learning and was using a very literate analytical method with teacher. At one point Lawrence asks how can you pass for Arab when you are white? His answer (from memory) inspired me. Speak Arabic fluently and never mind how many mistakes you make. They will assume that you are just another Arab from over the next dune who doesn’t speak the language well. When I got out, I decided to abandon the analytical, words-on-cards approach and go in for oral memory with as much confidence as I could muster. Later Jack Goody paid me a visit and told me that he had never heard an anthropologists speak an African language so fluently…with a Manchester accent.

  2. You know, I painted LoA as a cautionary tale about the anthropological obsession with immersion, but Keith your story also points out the flip side: LoA is also a story of the power and importance of fulfilling a naive, unthinking, almost visceral need to lose one’s self in another way of life. It’s a story about both the power and the danger of that need. That’s why its so anthropological.

  3. LoA is also a story of the power and importance of fulfilling a naive, unthinking, almost visceral need to lose one’s self in another way of life.

    I wonder how many of us here would agree that their own engagement with anthropology was driven by this need? As opposed, for example, to finding our true selves in the liminal space between our native culture and the one(s) we study professionally?

  4. I was just reading Michael Smith’s “A Faraway, Familiar Place” (good read btw) and he confesses in there that his fieldwork in PNG — which was physically very difficult — was successful largely because he was driven by fear of failure and flunking out of his doctoral program. And yet he ended up returning there again and again, even when his life as a consultant made those trips very difficult. I wonder how many anthropologists got roped into the discipline for one reason or another, detested fieldwork, and planned afterwards never to go back? Or how many were like Mike and ended up all sweet on a place.

  5. People used to ask Ruth and me if we had suffered from culture shock in Taiwan. We answered, “Not culture shock, culture fatigue.” It wasn’t a physically difficult place to do fieldwork, rather cushy in fact. Back in 1969 a US$300 a month fellowship was enough to make us very well off in a market town in central Taiwan. But the constant status game-playing that made everyday life seem like an endless Rotary Club meeting was wearing after two years. Still, looking back, yes, we are still sweet on the place.

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