Anthropology as Theoretical Storytelling

[This essay is part of the Fall 2015 Savage Minds Writers’ Workshop series.]

Anthropologists are storytellers. We tell stories: other’s stories, our own stories, stories about other’s stories. But when I think about anthropology and storytelling, I think also of something else, of anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

What is anthropology as theoretical storytelling? Several things. A discipline engaged in explaining, understanding, and interpreting cultural worlds as well as in developing theoretical paradigms large and small for making and making sense of cultural worlds. This is not something new to anthropology. Looking across generations of anthropological scholarship, theoretical storytelling appears repeatedly. From Zora Neale Hurston’s tales and lies to Muchona the Hornet to the Balinese cockfight to Rashīd and Mabrūka and Fayga in Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments and on and on. Stories stay with us. People stay with us. Esperanza. Adamu Jenitongo. Uma Adang. Gloria. Miss Tiny. Charles and Morley and Nick Thompson. Angela Sidney. Valck. Mr. Otis. Bernadette and Eugenia. Tashi Dhondup. And so many more. Anthropology as theoretical storytelling may be a method of narration by both ethnographer and subject, a means of organizing writing, a way of arguing certain ethnographic points, and an ethnographically-grounded way of approaching theory. This is not then a singular approach or description, but a term that captures a range of anthropological sensibilities and strategies.

Storytelling image


As with many before me, in the field I found myself to be a recipient of stories. Yet not all was narrative. Some moments in the field were more staccato or fragmented, confusing or obscure; some were just talk about this or that, about the minutiae of everyday life or about nothing at all (and those are deeply cultural moments indeed). But many days included storytelling, official and not, and almost always told over shared food and drink. Some of these I asked to hear in the context of my research, and others people told me for other reasons known and unknown. Turning these stories into a written ethnography or a spoken one in the classroom involves analytical and narrative labor. This process is about both ideas and story.


It was a dark and stormy night. People were gathered in Lhasa’s Twentieth Park (nyi shu’i gling ga) to celebrate ‘dzam gling spyi bsangs, the Universal Smoke Offering Day. Throughout the day, people picnicked and gambled in tents set up throughout the park. The weather was bad but the atmosphere was festive; people eating, drinking, and enjoying themselves; it was a party after all. Beer maids roamed from tent to tent singing, flirting, and refilling chang (beer) bowls. Much of Lhasa’s high society was there. The flaps of their tents were down, perhaps as much as to prevent prying eyes as to provide shelter from the weather. Inside one tent, dimly lit by oil lamps and candles, a group of important men played mahjong and drank chang. As they played, a thunder and lightning storm developed. Outside the tent, two men huddled, nervously preparing for their own festival activities. Then, as one or another of the men inside the tent contemplated his next play, there was a ferocious roar of thunder, followed by a flash of lightning. The lightning illuminated the tent, and through chang-glazed eyes, the men inside saw that one of their mates had fallen over. Outside the tent, the two other men were already gone, swiftly making their escape through the back alleys of Lhasa. The man who had fallen was dead, murdered with just one shot fired precisely at the time of the thunder, so as not to be heard and thus giving the assassins enough time to make their get away. This was 1921 and the murdered man was Pangda Nyigyal, the head of the newly powerful Pangdatsang family, an eastern Tibetan (Khampa) trader settled in Lhasa and a favorite of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama.

It was a dark and stormy night.

For real. This is not an entry in the annual Edward Bulwer-Lytton “dark and stormy night” sentence contest, but the way numerous people told this story to me. Dramatically. Voices lowered. Voice and tone matching what a dark and stormy night feels like. Narrators who’ve never heard of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, but who instead narrated the story as it was told to them. Narrators who reproduced oral framings as much as cultural and political ones. Anthropologists who then re-tell in English these stories originally told in Tibetan.

When I sat down to write my dissertation and faced the question of where to start, my advisor Ann Laura Stoler gave me a piece of advice I now share with my graduate students: start with a story you know must be in there, one that can’t be left out. What stories can’t be left out? As I wrote those stories and beyond, and as I continued to write and teach, the place of storytelling as theoretical strategy in anthropology became clearer to me. We tell stories to make theoretical arguments. We use narrative to convey both story and theory. Renato Rosaldo makes these points beautifully in Culture and Truth: narrative is key to social analysis.[1] As Kirin Narayan writes of this book and of what she learned in Rosaldo’s “Stories and Culture” graduate seminar, “stories are inherently analytic, and … in the sequence of reasoning, analysis has narrative form.”[2] Years of reading good, well-written ethnographies in which the argument is built in part through narrative structure demonstrates these points. And yet, narrative drives much of our theoretical work in underappreciated ways.

Anthropologists specialize in thick description. When Clifford Geertz, for example, suggests that it’s turtles all the way down, this is commentary on the simultaneously bounded and limitless aspects of ethnographic interpretation. To say our descriptions are thick is to say they are concerned with meaning and not only description. We don’t just work to describe turtles, but to get at why turtles matter, why it’s turtles rather than elephants, and why the fact that it’s turtles all the way down does not close down our interpretations, but rather provides a foundation for them. Describing turtles, including why turtles are culturally meaningful, is a key component of theoretical storytelling. Description itself may be a non-narrative form of prose, but thick description is narrative. It involves characters, a plot, a storyline, a form, a goal. In thinking about the place of interpretation within anthropology today, it has in some ways been folded almost seamlessly into ethnography. Interpretation is now unmarked, assumed, expected, and is often narrative in form. This has become so true that experimental ethnography is now that which is non-narrative; the pendulum has swung back in the other direction. As a vehicle for theoretical argument, narrative provides both form and content. As Hayden White might say, theoretical storytelling is content and it is form; it is both.

Storytelling’s theoretical powers are not neutral. They are important conceptually and cognitively, and always need to be situated in specific contexts—historical, ideological, political, cultural. And, as Hayden White does say, “narrative is an expression in discourse of a distinct mode of experiencing and thinking about the world, its structures, and its processes.”[3] In that sentence, one could replace narrative with ethnography in order to see how contemporary ethnographic writing in anthropology relies on storytelling. When we write and when we teach, we do not just share information, but we tell stories to bring material, data, beliefs, theories to life. Walter Benjamin differentiates between information and stories by claiming: “The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.”[4]

In this current moment, our Zora-inspired “spy glasses of Anthropology” are focused on stories more than on information. In temporally shifting away from a focus on the ethnographic present, we have also shifted away from information in this Benjaminian sense. Instead, what we are in search of and what comes to us are stories. Stories that do not expend themselves, but which take new shape in our retelling of them.

Our telling of stories told to us is itself a theoretical exercise. Narrative helps us “translate knowing into telling,” that is, narrative provides us with a means for “fashioning human experience into a form assimilable to structures of meaning that are generally human rather than culturally specific.”[5] Death, for example, is generally human. All humans eventually die. All societies have some sort of funerary rites. And yet not all people encounter tragic deaths. Not all deaths come as thunder roars.


The dramatic story of the murder of Pangda Nyigyal is still told today by Tibetans in exile. Eyes wide, voices lowered, narrators almost one hundred years distant from the event drape their narration in suspense and conspiracy enabled first, by the fact that the murder was never solved, and second, by the controversial place of the Pangdatsang family in modern Tibetan society and history. Who shot Pangda Nyigyal? We don’t know. Or do we? Some people know. Some names are whispered into ears of anthropologists. Some names are kept secret, tucked away for other times, and other stories. Kirin Narayan writes that “Storytelling, after all, does nothing except shuffle words, and yet through the words’ arrangement, new worlds are built and filled with an imaginative wealth.”[6] The worlds built through stories create truths, they do not just hold or represent them. Stories give frameworks to hopes, to morals, to politics, to ethnographies. And yet.

The universe is made of stories

Anthropology as theoretical storytelling needs to dwell more in the connection between the documentative and the generative. Michael Taussig claims that “Anthropology is blind to how much its practice relies on the art of telling other people’s stories—badly. What happens is that those stories are elaborated as scientific observations gleaned not from storytellers but from “informants.””[7] What is defective is how we miss the power of stories and storytellers even as we tell them. We tell stories to get to the point, to make our points. We miss that the stories are the point. They are the getting, and they are the there. Julie Cruikshank and many others have demonstrated poignantly how people live storied lives. Anthropology is a storied discipline. This is one of our truths.


[1] Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis, Beacon Press, 1989.

[2] Kirin Narayan, Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov, University of Chicago Press, 2012, p. 8.

[3] Hayden White, “Storytelling: Historical and Ideological,” in Centuries’ Ends, Narrative Means, edited by Robert Newman, Stanford University Press, 1996, p. 59.

[4] Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt, Schocken Books, 1968[1955]), p. 90.

[5] Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” Critical Inquiry 7(1), 1980, p. 5.

[6] Kirin Narayan, Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teachings, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.

[7] Michael Taussig, Walter Benjamin’s Grave, University of Chicago Press, 2006, p. 62.

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.

14 thoughts on “Anthropology as Theoretical Storytelling

  1. Carole, this is lovely. I agree with everything you say here. Let me offer two thoughts to broaden the discussion.

    Storytelling is often seen as the antithesis of science. That shouldn’t be the case.

    We will soon have the pleasure of reading on Savage Minds a series of posts by Michael Agar, whose recent book The Lively Science makes a strong case that the German idealists who distinguished between naturwissenschaft [natural science] and geisteswissenschaft[spiritual science, a.k.a. humanities] were onto something when they insisted that both are wissenschaft, i.e., “science.” What is science? The development of propositions testable using empirical evidence. The “test” doesn’t have to be an experiment or statistical analysis of randomly sampled data. It can also be what happens every day in courtrooms, where lawyers present competing stories, critically examine evidence, and cross-examine witnesses, leaving judges and juries to make the final decision on which story best fits the evidence presented. An important question is, of course, how the evidence relates to the stories and what steps are taken to prevent its being erroneous or misleading.

    The form in which stories are told may be as ethnographically relevant as their content.

    Here I point to Doreen Kondo’s Crafting Selves, which turns on Kondo’s discovery that Japanese workers and their employer were talking about the values affecting their work in three radically different ways. A morale-boosting (moral rearmament) camp to which the owner of a confectionary plant sent his workers attempted to teach a consistent ideology framed in philosophical terms. A senior craftsman told a picaresque tale of the career that led him from poverty in rural Northeast Japan to mastery of his craft. The shock to Kondo was the non-stories told by the women working in the plant, for whom their jobs were just a way to supplement household budgets and had no deeper significance. Fragments rather than fully formed stories. We need perhaps to be more wary than we often are in cobbling together bits of information from our field notes to create our own fictions about what we learned.

  2. I really appreciated the image and idea behind, “the universe is made of stories, not atoms.” I liked that it demonstrates that stories extend past what the universe is composed of, also indicated through Narayan’s quote, “new worlds are built and filled with an imaginative wealth.” It makes me think of stories as more than the sum of their parts and individuals therefore being part of something larger than themselves as storytellers.

  3. “What stories can’t be left out? As I wrote those stories and beyond, and as I continued to write and teach, the place of storytelling as theoretical strategy in anthropology became clearer to me. We tell stories to make theoretical arguments. We use narrative to convey both story and theory.”

    I very much identify with this passage. Find the essence of the idea and build from there. To provide a metaphor, it would be better dig a foundation in the earth than find out what the house is built on later. Story as theory is convincing and laden with perspective difficult to attain without the story. Thank you for providing this perspective.

  4. Some moments in the field were more staccato or fragmented, confusing or obscure; some were just talk about this or that, about the minutiae of everyday life or about nothing at all (and those are deeply cultural moments indeed): I found it very true that sometimes we write about nothing; that sometimes we, as ethnographers, feel that we are just rambling. I am trying to find a greater satisfaction in these places of “irrelevance”, in that they more clearly define my research and they challenge it at the same time. At the end of a project, I think that it might be those moments who are remembered most fondly, because they are saying that we actually did make it through and, that we did justice to the fact that ethnography is often about the profound meanings of the minutiae of everyday life.

  5. “The worlds built through stories create truths, they do not just hold or represent them. Stories give frameworks to hopes, to morals, to politics, to ethnographies. And yet. (The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.)”

    I really identify with this section of the text. Stories create truths. I think it is important to let stories stand on their own and speak for themselves.

  6. Hi Carole,

    “To say our descriptions are thick is to say they are concerned with meaning and not only description.”

    This line really stuck with me. It made me think about my own use of descriptions. It makes me question, whether I described certain things with meanings behind them or not, or whether I just described them for the sake of adding more descriptions and for the sake of making my writing more readable (and captivating).

    I know I will think about this when I read works of more anthropologists. Are all the descriptions of every anthropologists concerned with meaning?

    Thukje che!

  7. I love the advice your advisor gave you, “Start with a story you know must be in there, one that can’t be left out. What stories can’t be left out?” This makes me question if there are any stories that can be left out. Everyone will examine a situation or recall on a memory and see a different aspect that they see fit to be eliminated.

  8. You have named what I love about ethnography and couldn’t place until reading this: it provides both form and content. The connection between form and content seems under recognized in many practices, especially those conducted with words. When the ethnographies come to us as black and white words on printer paper, on our screens, when we read them alone or when we feel disconnected, it’s easy to see stories as information. When the bridge between form and content is strong, however, the narrative shines through, hitting us deep, and allowing for the interpretation of information in completely new ways.

  9. “The worlds built through stories create truths, they do not just hold or represent them. Stories give frameworks to hopes, to morals, to politics, to enthnographies.”

    A dear friend of mine, Myles Lohman, is one of my favourite human beings. This is my bias. Lohman and I grew up (among many others) in a small community where hate and narrow-mindedness were present and abiding by the nature of adolescent survival conformed to by some. When Lohman started fighting professionally his brother had passed away and his outlet for anger became the ring and it shaped his being. After defending a welter weight Canadian belt, he walked away as a “champion” to the disbelief of those who had invested time and money into his development.

    This human, and he truly is a remarkable human, moved to the city to go to art school and achieve his dream of becoming a tattoo artists. As a self-proclaimed life-surfer, Lohman became an advocate for random interactions (RI), setting himself strict rules: three RI’s every time he left the house, one “he wanted to interact with” and two people “he didn’t want to interact with”. After six months, an estimated, six-hundred-or-so interactions he met a woman who had common interests. They talked at a bus stop about art, canvas, medium, career ambitions and histories. She invited him to her house, where he went, and it was there that he gave his first tattoo—the only physical interaction they had.

    Three years later Myles finally earned his apprenticeship where his art is now tattooed on people he has never met.

    *A biased collection of words, by Woods



    As partial fulfilment of Quest University Canada’s Ethnography course.

  10. I really appreciate the statement “The worlds built through stories create truths, they do not just hold or represent them.” It has become clear that Anthropology, and indeed much of academia is part of a process of not just uncovering but actually creating knowledge. Anthropology is in this way perhaps not the only storied discipline, but it is a discipline that has made a practice of understanding its storied aspects. I would love to hear similar reflection coming from other disciplines.

  11. The billionaire investor George Soros once remarked that every successful business begins with a good story. The key to successful investing is knowing when the story stops being a good one. But as Deirdre N. McCloskey notes in The Rhetoric of Economics, we academically inclined folk are much better at teaching logic than we are at describing what makes a good story as opposed to a bad one.

    We might also recall the importance of story telling in many other fields. Besides business propositions, narrative history, legal battles, and talking-cure therapies are other common examples. There are small libraries of books and articles in all these fields discussing how best to tell true stories with information that readers, and especially those doing comparative research, can rely on.

  12. Dear Carole, Thank you for this piece of writing; you address so many of the things we learned about in our Ethnography class, in an amazingly elegant way. I liked it so much I read it 3 times!

    “We tell our stories to get to the point, to make our point. We forget stories are the point.” This quote really gets at my understanding of what ethnographic sensibility is! Thank you!

  13. Thanks, everyone, for your close readings of this and your responses. I’m glad the essay resonated with so many of you, and really, am following in the footsteps of many in and out of anthropology in thinking of stories as constitutive of the human experience.

    At the same time, I am interested in form and content beyond stories, and thinking back to my training in the 1990s in the era of the fragment, and think of what we did with those fragments which sometimes (although not always) meant turning them into stories. Or, in one of my favorite examples of creative academic book writing, Ajay Skaria’s Hybrid Histories, write very short chapters, and give multiple suggestions for the order in which to read the chapters, thus creating differently oriented or organized narratives, with some fragments in the mix, and a strong argument for the story of theory/narrative relationship I am talking about here.

  14. Dear Carole,

    Thank you for this wonderful post. Your article articulates ideas which I have had a difficult time formulating in my own work. Stories are central to the discipline of Anthropology. Not only do we listen, gather and analysis them, we also write/tell our own stories. The stories that people have told me and the ones I tell about my fieldwork are an essential part of my research.

    Still, I have had a hard time seamlessly incorporating these narratives into a text that follows the unwritten, but constraining, rules of academic writing. Stories about our own experience in the field are the best tool we have to translate a particular moment and mood to our readership. Yet, should those stories as well “stand on their own” rather than be used to make a point.

    In short, stories are central to understanding the human experience but it seems difficult to harness their explanatory power when constructing a research narrative (which coincidentally is also a type of story of its own). Hopefully, someone can help me make sense of this.

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