Genre-bending, or the Love of Ethnographic Fiction

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Jessica Falcone as part of our Writer’s Workshop Series. Jessica is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Kansas State University. She is the author of numerous articles on transnational Tibetan Buddhism, religious activism in diasporic Hindu and Sikh communities, and anthropological theory. She has won awards from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology for her ethnographic fiction, and from AIIS for her book manuscript Battling the Buddha of Love: A Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built.]


“Open your eyes; listen, listen. That is what the novelists say. But they don’t tell you what you will see and hear. All they can tell you is what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent in telling lies.” (Ursula K. Le Guin 1969: ii)

I like to slip Ursula K. Le Guin into my syllabi as often as possible. I have used her work in my “Futurity” course, my “Utopias” class, my “Anthropology and Literature” course, and my “Ethnographic Methods” course. She is best known as a celebrated science fiction writer, but she also writes essays, realist fiction, experimental ethnographic fiction, children’s lit, anarchist social theory, and more. Even when (especially when?) weaving yarns about aliens, she is writing about us, about humanity, about power, gender, identity, and cultural mores. For an anthropologist attentive to the beating art of ethnography, Ursula K. Le Guin’s work is a softly uttered challenge about the complex nature of truth, and a whispered promise about the potential of fiction as a means of approaching it. Ever wonder what the “K” stands for? Kroeber, the “K” stands for Kroeber.

Writing Ethnographic Fiction

“Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.” (Le Guin 1969: iv)

Ursula K. Le Guin’s father, Alfred Kroeber, considered the first ethnographic novel—Bandelier’s “the Delight Makers” (1890)— a successful and faithful representation of the Pueblo culture the author had studied; he called the novel, “…a more comprehensive and coherent view of native Pueblo life than any scientific volume on the Southwest” (1922:13). Although ethnographic fiction has a long and storied history in anthropology, it remains marginalized, perhaps even stigmatized.

I see myself as an ambassador for ethnographic fiction, albeit a poor one, perhaps. It is a nigh endangered species within our disciplinary ecosystem, and I myself have done precious little to rail against that trend. While I worked towards tenure, I published just one book chapter with pretensions to ethnographic fiction, and although it’s destined to only ever be read by about a dozen people max, it is my most beloved text-baby. It is the true story of a giant statue in Bodh Gaya, India, which was cancelled, shifted, or interrupted, depending on who you ask and when. My narrative tacked back and forth between straight ethnography and (crooked?) ethnographic fiction. Since the piece was quite deliberately modelled upon Bruno Latour’s “Aramis, or the Love of Technology,” I titled it “Maitreya, or the Love of Buddhism,” and called it a work of “social scientifiction.” I would argue that my creative licenses made my product more compelling, and more achingly true. And if the piece succeeded at all, it was because of the fictions, not despite them.

In genre-normative ethnography, one can’t invent dialogue or scenarios that never were; one can frame, but not fashion. If I want to relate a conversation, I have to go back to my carefully typed transcripts. In our genre-normative writing culture, there are conventions that require diligence and care. As I write ethnographic fiction, I can transgress those conventions. I can flagrantly put real people in an imaginary situation to envisage an event that probably did not happen. I can construct hybrid people out of a multiplicity of known entities. While I acknowledge that there is something deeply unsettling about the liberties that we take in ethnographic fiction, it can be as profoundly liberating at the same time. And it doesn’t just feel good, it can be valuable. It can achieve things. For example, even my some of most stubbornly science-minded students admit that the ethnographic fiction interludes of Karen McCarthy Brown’s “Mama Lola” enhance the value and integrity of her ethnography.

I welcome genre-bending and ambiguity, but I do have a stodgy streak. I may revel in a beautifully crafted lie as much as anyone, but I like to know when I am being lied to. I strongly prefer (demand?) for ethnographic fiction to be labelled as such, whether in the title, preface, introduction, footnotes, or main text. I wouldn’t want ethnographic fiction to sneak up on me. In “Maitreya or The Love of Buddhism,” I gave my readers a roadmap; if a section was prefaced with “And thus have I heard…” (a Buddhist literary trope), then it was ethnographic fiction. I feel that ethnographic fiction ought not try to hide in the guise of conventional ethnography for therein lies madness. Therein lies the rupture of a sacred trust. Therein lies the specter of Carlos Castaneda.

Falcone SM


Reading Ethnographic Fiction

“Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That’s the truth!” (Le Guin 1969:iii)

While our post-1980s anthropological writing culture is willing and able to embrace our conventional ethnography as “partial fictions” (Clifford) and “faction” (Geertz), there is a very clear implicit boundary between “making” and “making up” (and both of those theorists defined their terms as reflections upon the former as opposed to the latter). But is the difference really so clear cut? If all of our writing actually sits somewhere in between the poles of fact and fiction, then all writing is just a particular vintage of “faction.” When Geertz used the word “faction,” he meant for it to expose the inventive work of “making stuff,” but not “making stuff up,” but there are those on the other side of that line who would lay claim to the phrase. And that line—that all important line separating “making” from “making up”— it’s elusive, impossible, and humming with movement. Somewhere in that nebulous center lies the kind of careful inventions that even the most dogmatic genre-normative ethnographer may engage in: the self-conscious veiling or massaging of details to protect the confidentiality of informants. And as for the far ends of our faction spectrum, I am not sure if it’s even controversial to suggest that there is little (if any) writing on the extreme of either end. Facts are always still fashioned, and fictions are always still cultural.

My deep appreciation for ethnographic fiction notwithstanding, I don’t pretend to have a handle on precisely what it is. Is it ethnographic fiction just fiction by a trained anthropologist? Yes, but isn’t it also a creative form of ethnographic writing that transcends disciplinary borders? And if yes, then what is the difference between ethnographic fiction and very thickly described fiction (think: Orhan Pamuk or Edith Wharton)? In their respective treatises on ethnographic fiction, both Langness and Frank (1978), and Schmidt (1981), included the novelist (and non-anthropologist) Chinua Achebe in their broad surveys of what counts as ethnographic fiction. I would certainly consider some of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work ethnographic fiction. And then there is the question of what differentiates ethnographic fiction from creative non-fiction (think: Susan Orlean), or “new journalism” (think: Hunter S. Thompson)? This particular hue upon the faction spectrum is crowded indeed.

Even the broadest definitions of ethnographic fiction tend to meet the following criteria: 1) it is a narrative nurtured by lived experience (one’s own, or someone else’s as gleaned through research, perhaps participant observation); 2) it is unfettered from the bonds of the precisely experienced and observed. Unfettered. I linger on that word. Unshackled, open, free.

During the Society for Humanistic Anthropology’s member meeting at the AAAs in 2014, I led a discussion about a dilemma facing the ethnographic fiction award’s selection committee: we’ve started getting more submissions from non-anthropologists. It has improved our (still low) applicant yield, but is a pool of writers from all walks of life good, bad or neither? Some members suggested closing the contest to all but professional anthropologists, but others fought for inclusivity. Defining an “anthropologist writing fiction” under those conditions would be a difficult task itself: would a student taking anthropology courses be thus excluded?; would someone with an anthropology PhD teaching in a religious studies or criminology department be thus excluded?; as a non-academic, would Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic fiction endeavors have been thus excluded? If ethnographic fiction is not just creative writing by anthropologists, then does anything go?

We settled on a compromise of sorts. This year we have asked applicants to submit a short essay accompanying their ethnographic fiction that theorizes what ethnographic fiction is and how their submission fits into the genre. Ethnographic fiction is messy, so we have invited others to get down and dirty in the mud to wrassle the vagaries of genre-bending along with us. We don’t care if a submission comes from Stephen King or Stephen Tyler, so long as they are willing to take their wobbly seats at the Mad Tea Party and work the riddle that may have no answer.



Bandelier, A.F. 1890   The Delight Makers. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co.

Clifford, James. 1986   Introduction: Partial Truths. In Writing Culture. James Clifford and George Marcus, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Falcone, Jessica. 2012   Maitreya, or the Love of Buddhism: The Non-event of a Giant Statue in Bodh Gaya In Enlightening Bodh Gaya: Contested Histories of a Sacred Buddhist Space. Geary, David et al, ed. Routledge.

Geertz, Clifford. 1988   Works and Lives: the Anthropologist as Author. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Kroeber, A.L. 1922   Introduction to American Indian Life. Ed. Elsie Clews Parsons, B.W. Huebsch, Inc.

Langness, l.l. and Gelya Frank. 1978   Fact, Fiction and the Ethnographic Novel, Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly, 3, 1-2:18-22.

Latour, Bruno. 1996   Aramis, or the Love of Technology. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Leguin, Ursula K. 1969   The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Walker.

McCarthy Brown, Karen. 2001   Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (Updated and Expanded Edition). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Schmidt, Nancy. 1981   The Nature of Ethnographic Fiction: a Further inquiry. Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly. 6(1):

Carole McGranahan

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

8 thoughts on “Genre-bending, or the Love of Ethnographic Fiction

  1. How timely! We will be looking at ethnographic fiction in my Public Ethnography course this week. I’ve posted this for my students. Warm thanks for opening this up. As I struggle to write for tenure, and feel my fiction set of skills wither, I’m looking forward to reading your book as inspiration.

  2. I would call all ethnography fiction, however it is a fiction that lacks creativity. From what I’ve read from anthropologists, they should be ashamed of the liberties they take when elucidating upon their field notes. This sentiment comes from studying anthropology at a masters level and being shocked at the inelegant drivel to be spewed onto the page by anthropologists time and time again. Maybe it’s simply academia or maybe it’s the discipline on a whole, but ethnographic fiction can be a joy to read and can do more, in my experience, to create cross cultural understanding than genre-normative ethnography.

  3. @ Glen

    “I would call all ethnography fiction, however it is a fiction that lacks creativity”

    This is patently false. It is akin to stating that all birds are black simply because there are subclasses of birds that are black. In the same way, some ethnographies might be fiction, but that doesn’t mean all are.

    Personally, the only ethnographies that I bother to read are definitely not fiction. There are plenty of classic monographs (e.g., the late George M. Foster’s The Empires Children) that succeed in lucidly describing another population’s cultural life ways without making things up, taking poetic license, or focusing on the writer’s insecurities. In the 1940’s Ralph Beals wrote about a village in Mexico where many of the cultural beliefs concerning sorcery, rites entailed in weddings, and general patterns of interaction have not changed much since then. All despite the fact that the town currently has all the commodities of an American city and many of its residents migrate between it and the US. This I know because it is not only my field site but also home to many of my relatives. Had Beals written a fiction then I, or the countless other people whose culture he described, could easily call his bluff. His ethnographic descriptions stand as a testament to some of the best work in anthropology. Yet, I’m sure some people would rather read introspective meanderings and fictive accounts that ignore cultural difference. To each her own.

  4. But see, Beals’ account not only aligns with your own but a general sense of a static ideal of the region thus, in your mind, it may appear more “true” to what you know. This, however, does not make Beals’ work more accurate then a well researched and written account of fictional characters from that region. There is only the appearance(or acceptance?) of “truth,” usually bolstered by a generally accepted and followed code of norms and ethics within genre-normative ethnography. But what are ethics anyway? I guess I see the field clinging to ideas of “truth” when it has been generally accepted to be impossible and that these ideas of “truth” have most often been used to further personal or group agendas rather than promote understanding.

  5. @ Glen

    When you write
    “Beals’ account not only aligns with your own but a general sense of a static ideal of the region thus, in your mind, it may appear more “true” to what you know.”

    My post was a way of demonstrating the falsity of your assertion “all ethnography is fiction.” In doing so I mentioned two cases of ethnographic description, one of which is exemplar: Ralph Beals’ work of the 1940s. You state that because Beals account and my own align (as if this couldn’t possibly be due to the accuracy of description but must be indebted to deceit) with a so-called “static ideal” that in “my mind” it appears more true.

    I counter that Beals’ descriptions accurately cultural beliefs, values, rituals, and actions that a possess aspects in certain respects can vary but even despite variation will simultaneously demonstrate a range of fixed patterns. These are not “fictions” but are still part of people’s lives. Rather than just brushing off these cultural characteristics as a “static ideal” a fruitful inquiry will attempt to understand how these cultural characteristics pattern out now and the extent to which these patterns differ from the past. Another question would ask why these particular characteristics remain in full throttle and not others?

    These rites, ceremonies, and beliefs are well documented in the 16th century, again in the 1940s, and again in my own fieldwork. And again are just life for those of us that know the culture. I don’t have to “believe in my mind” anything when elderly people and children openly speak amongst themselves (and to myself) about sorcery and metaphysical entities. Likewise, I do not have to internally believe some conjured truth when people in the region predominantly practice patrilocal residence and marry off their children through elaborate rites that incorporate both groom and bride’s families in series of exchanges. This is just life.

    The fact that you doubt “truth” leads me to consider dismissing your opinion all together. What is the point debating with you if there is nothing substantial (or everything is substantial?) behind a statement?

  6. What is fiction and what is not? I think this is a real question, one person may experience an event one way and another may experience that same even completely differently. I don’t believe that there is a true binary when it comes to fiction and fact, we as humans tell stories of our experiences and thus stories of true and factual events change. The human mind is not infallible and we each have our own unique perceptions. I find value in ethnographic fiction (done well of course) because it expands the basic principles that the author is trying to portray, sure there are things that change, dialogue that is added and in the case of Mama Lola, a character that was added. The intent is not to deceive but to deepen and richen the experience for the reader, to portray (in the case of Mama Lola) personal and familial mythologies closer to the way that would be told, in turn giving life to the pages and the words within. Human’s have been telling stories for at least 40,000 years ( starting with cave paintings) and we still tell stories that are thousands of years old. The goal is not to state facts, but to connect with the other humans and pull through the important messages.

  7. Serendipity? Or a sign of the times? Within the last month, I have found myself engaged in multiple discussions in all of which how anthropologists conceive of ethnography have been at stake. On the Open Anthropology Cooperative, we have recently had an informal seminar on Tim Ingold’s paper in Hau titled “That’s enough about ethnography.”. Today we begin another, led by Lee Drummond, on David Graeber’s paper in the first issue of Hau ,“The Divine Kingship of the Shilluk: On Violence, Utopia, and the Human Condition, or, Elements for an Archaeology of Sovereignty.” I have myself posted the slides for a presentation titled “Looking Back to Look Forward: Benedict, Nakane and Ethnographic Involution” on Slideshare. In wasn’t this month, but I would also direct your attention to Marietta Baba’s chapter in the new Handbook of Anthropology in Business in which Baba observes that the equation anthropology=ethnography is an early 20th century artifact and by no means a given in the earlier or later history of anthropology. But just this morning I stumbled on a new novel by Tim McCarthy. The book is titled Satin Island. The protagonist U is a corporate anthropologist whose observations about his life and times are inspired by Levi-Strauss. The style owes much to cyberpunk; I was instantly reminded of the work of William Gibson. But in contrast to Gibson’s noir, Ridley Scott visions of the near future, McCarthy’s take on contemporary life and the role of anthropology in it is hysterically funny. As an anthropologist I don’t know whether to laugh or cry or both. What he writes is so close to the bone it tickles to the point of pain. And, of course, we now have on Savage Minds the juxtaposition of ethnographic fiction with the latest in John Hartigan’s series of posts, Culture is for the Birds and the Bees and the Dolphins, etc., in which the in which ethnography is broadened to encompass non-human species, even plants. What all of these things share is, in one way or another, the rejection of the notion that ethnography fulfills a utopian dream in which a young anthropologist goes forth like Candide to study lives alien to his or her own and comes back with the courtroom ideal, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Where ethnographic fiction fits into the anthropologist’s intellectual repertoire is an interesting question.

  8. “What all of these things share is, in one way or another, the rejection of the notion that ethnography fulfills a utopian dream in which a young anthropologist goes forth like Candide to study lives alien to his or her own and comes back with the courtroom ideal, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

    How exactly does your final line contradicts the notion that some forms of ethnography can be factual and descriptive, thus truthful? When the representatives of the court ask an individual to “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” they are basically demanding that the individual in question doesn’t intentionally lie and/or fabricate information. It goes without saying that humans are not omniscient, hence the statement “whole truth” doesn’t mean to describe every possible detail (as if an individual was an all seeing, all knowing entity) rather the statement “whole truth” is asking that an individual describe every possible detail that (s)he is are aware of.

    Likewise, anthropologists can surely describe every detail they are aware of. Or at the very least describe those details relevant to the study with accuracy. Whether an anthropologist’s analysis makes sense of these descriptions is another thing all together.

    Still, there are various research designs that offer means of gathering distinct lines of evidence to evaluate alongside one’s own first hand observations of particular phenomena or an informant’s descriptions, reflections, or explanations of that phenomena.

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