Tag Archives: Ethnography

Embracing Impostor Syndrome

Cat posing as a meerkat
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It seems a fair amount of academics, especially women, suffer from impostor syndrome, “a constant fear of being discovered to be a fraud and a charlatan.” Self-doubt is surely a universal human trait, but we vary in our ability to suppress, ignore, and/or manage such feelings. What is perhaps somewhat unique about impostor syndrome among academics is that “it’s the successful who tend to suffer from it: In order to feel like you’re faking it, you need to have already reached a certain level in your discipline.” As Kate Bahn puts it, it’s “a twisted version of the Socratic paradox—the more you know, the more you feel like you know nothing.” I once calculated that for every book I read I find myself discovering at least ten new books or articles I feel I need to read. That means that if I read a book a week there are about five hundred and twenty new books on my list by the end of the year, each of which feels urgent and essential for my own intellectual development. One’s awareness of the vast body of knowledge we don’t know is actually part of what makes us “experts” but the price we pay for this expertise is a kind of self-doubt. It is always possible that the next book will contain the golden nugget we are searching for.

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VISUAL TURN IV: People and Stuff– A Conversation with Keith M. Murphy (2/2)

In a previous post, I described the process of an ‘Ethnocharrette’ – essentially a strategy that incorporates aspects of design methodology into anthropological practice. As part of a longer series thinking about how art/design modalities are increasingly commonplace in anthropologies that aren’t designated as visual anthropology. I wondered if this attention to art and design in anthropology is ‘new’ or simply new to me given my recent collaboration with two artists? Is there something of a “visualisation of anthropology” underway? I discussed these questions with Keith M Murphy, author of Swedish Design: An Ethnography. This post is the second half of our conversation. Continue reading

VISUAL TURN III: Anthropology of/by Design — A Conversation with Keith M. Murphy (1/2)

Encounters with art and design by an anthropologist and curious non-expert in visual culture.

Since starting to work alongside an artist and a designer, I’ve become more aware of ethnographic practice inflected by art and design. There seems to be a growing number of institutional spaces, degree programs, courses, workshops and books devoted to exploring different combinations of art/design aesthetics and ethnography. While audience and aims vary, one can’t help but wonder what it means for there to be a kind mushrooming of art/design inflected methods and outputs (Design Anthropology, Anthropology Design, Design Ethnography, Sensory Ethnography to name a few and see for instance a last year’s ANTROPOLOGY + DESIGN series on Savage Minds). While visual anthropology has an extended history, and anthropologists have long been interested in the intersections of aesthetic and cultural production, is there something of a “visualisation of anthropology” (Grimshaw & Ravetz 2005) underway? Is an attention to art and design in anthropology ‘new’ or simply new to me? For those of us not designated as ‘visual’ anthropologists, are we being asked/invited/demanded to engage with different modalities for fieldwork and scholarly output?

I decided ask an expert. Keith M. Murphy is an anthropologist of design. His new book Swedish Design: An Ethnography is just that. It is a rich description and analysis of how everyday things (furniture, lighting) are made to mean through processes of design within the context of larger cultural flows. Like some of the iconic objects he describes, Keith’s writing is sharp, uncluttered and politically aware. Continue reading

Visual Turn II: Teaching to Take Stock

Encounters with art and design by an anthropologist and curious non-expert in visual culture.

Earlier this year I was reading the Internet and came across Duke University Press’ list of “Best books of 2014”. Scrolling through, I was held by the title Syllabus: Notes from An Accidental Professor. Cartoonist and author Lynda Barry’s work Syllabus is not easy to pigeonhole into a genre. It is one part how-to manual, two parts graphic novel and a dash of memoir. Its form mimics the inexpensive composition books she asks her students to work in for the semester. Drawn in by her use of images (pardon the pun) I ordered a copy. Continue reading

Committing Crimes during Fieldwork: Ethics, Ethnography, and “On The Run”

At this point the debate about Alice Goffman’s book On The Run looks something like this:

  1. Goffman writes a successful ethnography.
  2. Journalists are peeved that Goffman followed social science protocols and not journalistic ones.
  3. Journalist verify that Goffman’s book is accurate.

  4. Journalists remain peeved that Goffman followed social science protocols and not journalistic ones.

Although I’m sure no one feels this way, I think this is a success for everyone: Goffman is more or less vindicated, her discipline demonstrates it can withstand external scrutiny, and journalists do what they are supposed to do and take no one’s words for granted. In this clash of cultures, I think both sociology and journalism can walk away with their dignity intact.

There are still some outstanding issues, of course. One is Goffman’s claim that police checked hospital records looking for people to arrest — something I’d like to deal with later on. Here, I want to focus on the claim not that Goffman was inaccurate in her reportage, but that she broke the law during her fieldwork.

This criticism comes from law professor Steven Lubet. Having loved Goffman’s book, I thought it would be easy to dismiss Lubet’s critique — especially the part where Lubet asked a cop whether details of Goffman’s book were true and the cop is like: “No we never do that to black people” and I was like: “Well I’m glad we got to the bottom of that, since police accounts of their treatment of minorities is always 100% accurate.” But in fact Lubet’s piece is clearly written and carefully argued and I found it very convincing. That said, how much of a problem does it pose to Goffman’s book? Continue reading

Investment’s Rituals: Legitimating an Andean Gold Mine

This post was contributed by Eric Hirsch, and is part of a series on ‘Rending land investible‘, guest edited by Jenny E Goldstein and Julian S Yates.

Eric is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago. His research looks at different forms of economic development intervention in Andean Peru’s Colca Valley – from small-scale NGO investments to mining and extractivism – and investigates how they intersect with local conceptions of indigeneity, sustainability, and permanence.


What happens when an Andean family finds gold on its land? Upon my return to the Colca Valley village of Yanque, in Peru’s southern Andes, last year after attending a conference in the United States, my host father Ricardo Flores cautiously approached me.[1] “We may have found some gold on Leonora’s estancia, way up there by Tayta Mismi.” He said this quietly, so as to keep the information a secret.

Because of Yanque’s densely gridded configuration of homes—each of which is the node of a local family’s “archipelago” of properties for dwelling, grazing animals, and growing crops (Murra 1972)—any talk of gold had to be hushed. Property lines aren’t always clear, and this applies both to the horizontal and—as we’ll see just below—vertical dimensions of land. Now, it was certainly clear to the Flores family. Leonora’s birthplace was close to the estancia property, located several kilometers from Tayta (Lord) Mismi, a mountain peak (Apu) that is the village’s main water source and thus a hugely important ritual site. Her family’s alpacas had grazed on that land. But the family did not yet have the documentation to prove it. And based on the Flores’ past experiences with Peruvian bureaucracy, this made the land vulnerable: anybody with better access to experts could easily make a claim to the property.

That was not the main source of urgency for the Flores family, however. Buenaventura, one of Peru’s largest mining enterprises, had been frantically buying up large expanses of land in the area and showed no signs of slowing down. According to the property map that David, one of the Flores’ sons-in-law, drew with marker on a large piece of graph paper (papelote) as he led an October family meeting at the Flores home on how to go about extracting gold from this land, their property was almost completely surrounded. Given the enterprise’s intimacy with state authorities, which have license to claim subsoil rights and set the terms of prior consultation, the estancia was sure to be seized soon if the family did not act.

The global land rush has been particularly pronounced in Peru, whose mineral resources have been largely responsible for the country’s astronomical aggregate growth. Copper, silver, and gold have made Peru the fastest-growing nation in South America for most of the previous decade.[2] Of course, aggregate growth does not tell the whole story, and wealth accumulation from mining profits has disproportionately benefited elites, tracing familiar historical lines of inequality. These elements’ importance for Peru’s growth has also been a source of ambivalence and anxiety, for mining is a perfect example of completely unsustainable development. During the portion of my fieldwork that I spent in the Peruvian cities of Lima and Arequipa, endless academic and NGO conferences were held to address the worry about what will happen to Peru after the mining boom. 2013 and 2014 saw a flurry of books published with titles like “What can be done about Peru?” (Ghezzi and Gallardo 2013). When Lima hosted the 2014 UN conference on global climate change, one of the chants animating the event’s main protest, the People’s Climate March, was this: “There is gold! There is copper! The people are still poor!” (“Hay oro! Hay cobre! El pueblo sigue pobre!”)

Tania Murray Li, in her recent piece “What is Land?”, asks: “why the rush?” (2014: 594). The idea of a land “rush,” Li writes, entails “a sudden, hyped interest in a resource because of its newly enhanced value…Do it now before others spot the value, and profit margins decrease.” For the Flores family in Yanque, Buenaventura was the reason to rush. A second reason to rush was a distinct source of pressure: many of the Flores men, manual laborers and, in one case, an entrepreneur who had just shuttered his video game café business, were unemployed. If Leonora’s estancia really did have gold in its depths, this was the time to find it: mineral prosperity stood to save family members from intense economic desperation.

They snapped into action. They are, at present, engaged in a costly race against time to formalize their property title, constitute the family as an enterprise, and fulfill the other bureaucratic rituals necessary for convincing authorities that they are legitimately entitled to mine the property, against the specter of the state’s usufruct rights and Buenaventura’s profound political advantage.

So this was the Flores family’s first task: get the necessary documents in order. In theory, we can see how land titles serve as protective devices. The Andes and, much more intensely, the Amazonian region of Peru, have seen an “epidemic” of illegal artisanal mining, whose practitioners tend not to meet state regulations or undergo the inspections necessary to be cleared for an extractive activity that poses high risks to substantial parcels of land. These artisanal miners also risk invading territories that belong to others who are often politically weaker than them, and subsequently destroying those territories. If a land title can offer protection, the quest for this protection is another story: state bureaucracy is a significantly more difficult structural obstacle for a small family whose members have limited schooling and even more limited political capital than it is for a large mining corporation.

The Flores family is simultaneously racing to render the site investable by seeking a different kind of permission: the land’s. This permission can be attained through the pago a la tierra (offering to the earth), a ritual fundamental to life in much of the Andes which involves an elaborate process of breathing on and burning, in a highly regulated way, an assemblage of materials including coca leaves and an alpaca fetus. For this ritual, and in order to work the land, a constant supply of chicha (fermented maize and barley) also had to nourish the land, as well as its workers, and making chicha was itself a labor-intensive activity requiring days of preparation. On another of David’s papelotes at the Flores family meeting was a budget, which contained a category he labeled “investments.” Investments here did not only include machinery, the costs of copying and processing documents, gasoline for the truck, and food costs. It also included each of those ritual elements essential to any kind of labor that uses the land to cultivate prosperity.

This second set of tasks was key for rendering the land investable on the family’s—and the land’s—own terms. The consequences of failing to conduct the pago or doing it wrong could be grave, ranging from simply finding no gold to deadly accidents and bad luck on the site and beyond. Even before finalizing the title (something which has yet to happen), Flores family members had made a number of trips to the site lasting up to several days, where they excavated samples for laboratory analysis to attain a better sense of how much gold might be awaiting them. During those trips, they also had to make the place habitable. This means that in a much more mundane way, rendering land investable at the supra-terranean level also has directly to do with transforming the property into a livable space. Labor was required to cook both the chicha and enough food to last each work trip, and to keep the small shelter adequately warm in hostile cold conditions at what was an extremely high altitude. When I accompanied them to the site in January, our project for the day was to re-thatch the small shelter’s old rooftop in preparation for longer stays.

So let’s return to the fundamental discussion question we are each addressing here: What is land? Yes, it is a source of supplies and nutrition, the ground beneath our feet, a commodity, a place, a space, and even that small site on which physical occupation by one person excludes physical occupation by another (Li 2014). But it is also an animated environment, a spirit, a kind of political actor (De la Cadena 2010). The earth and the ground were specifically described as a mother during many rituals I was able to observe in Colca. A patient nurturer and a protector, yes, but also a being personified as somebody who can get hungry and angry and wreak destruction when displeased.

Beyond the simple opposition between “state”/“official”/“secular” and “local”/“spiritual” registers of legitimation, the Flores’ urgent race to render land investable brings multivalent ontologies and ethics into the space of explicit acknowledgment and valuation. And making these things explicit, all together and at once, is not only a common feature of ritual as an interactional genre. This is also a strategy for not leaving anything out, for covering all the bases and pulling out all the stops. In this effort, the Flores family challenges Buenaventura, the state, and just as importantly, the whims of the land itself by recruiting, engaging, and framing on their own terms—while always careful not to resist outright—that which our panel organizers have called “the capitalist-centric framing of rendering land investable.”


De la Cadena, Marisol. 2010. Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond Politics. Cultural Anthropology 25(2): 334-370.

Ghezzi, Piero and José Gallardo. 2013. ¿Qué se puede hacer con el Perú? Ideas para sostener el crecimiento económico en el largo plazo. Lima: Universidad del Pacífico/PUCP

Li, Tania Murray. 2014. What is land? Assembling a resource for global investment. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 39(4): 589-602.

Murra, John V. 1972. “El ‘control vertical’ de un máximo de pisos ecológicos en la economía de las sociedades andinas” (pp. 427-476). In Iñigo Ortiz de Zúñiga (1967-1972[1562]), Visita de la provincia de León de Huánuco en 1562. Vol. 2. John V. Murra (ed.). Huánuco: Universidad Nacional Hermilio Valdizán.


[1] All names have been changed to minimize the risk of this post revealing the owners of a property that may have gold on it. Note that “Flores,” which is my anonymizing substitute for a Quechua-language surname, is one of the most widely shared surnames of Spanish origin in Peru.

[2] This piece in The Economist describes Peru’s “Asian-style” growth between 2003-2013, and describes the instability of subjection to a “commodity lottery”: http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21610305-colombia-overtakes-peru-become-regions-fastest-growing-big-economy-passing

Don’t Trust Your Memory!

While this Slate article uses the recent news about Brian Williams as a hook, I think the advice it gives is very useful for anthropologists doing fieldwork. Whatever you think about Brian Williams, there is more and more evidence that human memories can’t be trusted. This is important for anthropologists who often rely upon their memories as a research tool. The article gives some good advice for avoiding that problem, much of which most anthropologists are probably already doing (keeping notes!) but it helps make clear just how important these practices are.

After decades of well-documented, prominent cases of memory distortion, people whose professions put a premium on facts and truth—journalists, politicians, business leaders, judges, lawyers, and public figures—should be aware of these limits. In fact, they have a responsibility to understand the fallibility of their memories and to take steps to minimize memory mistakes. If you are relying exclusively on your own memory when saying anything of consequence, especially when someone’s reputation is at stake, you must think twice.

I especially like the point that our most vivid and frequently recalled memories may be the most subject to distortion because “each recounting has the potential to introduce new distortions.” Worth keeping in mind!

Announcing the Spring 2015 Writers’ Workshop Series

What are you writing right now? Are you writing right now? An article, a paper, a book, a dissertation. A poem, a report, a proposal, an exam. A blog post. Who are you talking to about your writing? Who is reading your writing?

book shelf


One year ago, we launched the Writers’ Workshop series here on Savage Minds to provide a new space for reflecting on writing. We’ve now had two successful seasons with twenty-one anthropologists contributing: Continue reading

Ethnographers as Writers: Write First Drafts in One Go

Many doctoral students fail to earn their PhDs because they never finish their dissertations. They complete their coursework, pass their qualifying exams, and do all of their research, but writing the thesis proves an insurmountable barrier. Why does the dissertation present such a challenge? Because students can’t push past the first chapter. Too many dissertators start with their introduction and find that they have nothing to say. Or they realize they have no idea what they are trying to introduce.

"How do I cut and paste on this thing?"
“How do I cut and paste on this thing?”

In Anne Lamott’s brilliant book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, the author advises all would be writers to embrace what she calls the “sh*tty first draft” (SFD). Decide what you’re going to write, and then write it straight through without stopping. If you need an article, spend some time thinking of an abstract that captures the essence of your argument and the data you have to substantiate it. You can take a few days to put together a really good abstract. Once you have it, use it as you introductory paragraph and start writing.

Keep putting words on the page until you reach what you think will be the end. Never go back and read what you have already written. This may seem difficult, but you can learn to let your thoughts flow. If you find yourself stuck at a section or in need of a particular fact or reference not at hand, leave placeholders in your text. Phrases like “insert quote here” or “discuss relevant studies here” litter my first drafts. If I need to stop working for the day, I always type the letters “XXX” in my electronic document. When I come back to the file, I open the document and search for the “XXX,” thus bypassing the text I’ve previously written.

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Ethnographers as Writers: Consider Endnotes

Most students and scholars learn the disciplinary conventions regarding citation and never think about them again. But citation practices vary widely both between and within disciplines, and once you’re past the dissertation, you have far more flexibility in choosing your own citation style than you think. To be sure, academic journals have their own house styles for articles. The 2009 style guide for all journals of the American Anthropological Association states: “All references must be cited in author-date form; all author-date citations must be referenced,” and the guide provides detailed instructions for how to use the author-date format for e-mails, websites, brochures, and other eclectic materials.

Maybe in-text citations were also easier to include when folks used to write on typewriters.  Footnotes must have been a nightmare!
Maybe in-text citations were also easier to include when folks used to write on typewriters. Footnotes must have been a nightmare!

But where did these conventions originate and how did they come to anthropology? The standard of in-text author-date citation derives from something called the “Harvard style,” which originated in the field of zoology. In 1881, the zoologist Edward Laurens Mark published an important paper on the garden slug wherein he included the first parenthetical author-date citation. This system spread out from zoology to other natural sciences where the author’s name and the date of the publication are the two most important pieces of information. Prior to Mark’s invention of the author-date referencing system, footnotes were sprinkled randomly throughout the text and signaled by asterisks and other printer’s marks. The author-date system streamlined citations and favored brevity and clarity.

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Ethnographers as Writers: Theory and Data – Part II

So I’m staring at some fieldnotes and trying to sort out the best way to blend my theoretical analysis with my ethnographic data. Where to start? How to find the right balance? Once again, I decided to contact fellow ethnographers to gather insights about their writing processes. Sociologist Olga Shevchenko also struggles with what parts of her fieldnotes to include:

I almost never know in advance which parts of the field notes will go into the text, because it takes me some time, and a lot of writing, to figure out what it is exactly that I am going to argue! With interviews, it’s different. There are some turns of phrase that seem to leap off the page, and these are usually those that capture experience in a fresh or complex way. I also tend to notice when a turn of phase, or a metaphor emerges more than once. When I heard a third person compare their everyday life with living on a volcano, I knew it was going to be in the book in a major way. But it also got me thinking about what this metaphor accomplished, which sent me right back to the field notes. When I can’t find a place in the text for an evocative image or turn of phrase that I hear from a respondent, this causes me great torments!

Coding your fieldnotes the old fashioned way
Coding your fieldnotes the old fashioned way

Like Olga, I now spend a lot of time reading my fieldnotes and deciding what material I want to include before I figure out my core argument, a process sometimes called “grounded theory,” a way of incorporating theoretical insights that emerge organically from the fieldwork. I also search for great quotes or turns of phrase that capture something about the everyday experience of my informants.

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Ethnographers as Writers: Theory and Data – Part I

There's nothing more intimidating than a blank page.
There’s nothing more intimidating than a blank page.

Every ethnographer must find a balance between theory and data. Our fieldwork and our specific case studies render our work original, but this work fails to be scholarly if it lacks dialogue with larger theoretical concerns. When writing the dissertation the literature review section remains de rigueur, but most acquisitions editors demand that this section be exorcised from the eventual book manuscript. This means that the theoretical insights inspired by your participant observation must somehow be woven into the final text so as to elucidate your original ideas without burying the reader under an avalanche of information about what other scholars, studying other cases, have said before you.

The task of integrating theory proves difficult for even the most experienced ethnographers, and different scholars maintain varying opinions on its importance. In a 1999 article, anthropologist Ruth Behar argues that theory for theory’s sake undermines the potential vibrancy of ethnographic writing:

What I do find tiresome is the habit of using whatever theory happens to be fashionable…as a substitute for really engaging the tough questions posed by those whom we encounter on our journeys as ethnographers. When ethnographers working in far corners of the globe are all citing the same two pages from the work of the latest trendy theorist, without reflecting on the politics of how that theory travels, you can be sure they have killed the life in their ethnography.

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Ethnographers as Writers: Getting Started

Every article, book, or thesis begins with a first word, but getting started feels overwhelming. My worst prose derives from disorganized thinking and writing, and over the years I’ve experimented with different systems to help me get my projects off the ground. When I map out some incremental steps, my projects seem more manageable.

First I ask myself: what do I want (or need) to write? This helps determine the best format for my research results. In some cases the format was predetermined for me – when I was a doctoral student I had to produce a dissertation of a certain minimum length. When I write for a journal, they enforce specific word counts. These days, I have a bit more freedom, but I still struggle to determine if I have a book length argument or if my research is best presented as a series of articles.

Before I write the first sentence, I try to visualize the contours of my project. I once typed up outlines, but now I imagine less formal ways to physically manifest a project. At the outset, I spend hours examining my research, beginning to define the distinct sections or chapters. I need a concrete guide that will help me tackle the writing tasks necessary to get from the first to the last word of the project.

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A Death in the Field

Serendipity confounds me. I spent most of Monday writing the following reflections on the death of a Bulgarian woman, one of my “key informants,” who unexpectedly passed away two weeks ago while I was in Sofia. You can imagine my surprise when I logged on to Savage Minds this morning to post my short tribute to Ana. I encountered Ruth Behar’s beautiful piece on the passing of Esperanza, her comadre in Mexico and the inspiration for Translated Woman. Behar’s essay moved me to tears, and my own purple prose pales in comparison to her poetic rumination on the way an ethnographer’s life can become intertwined with those whose stories we have the privilege to tell. Journalists would say that I’d “been scooped,” since this post evokes many of the same issues and emotions as Behar’s and she is by far the more accomplished writer and anthropologist. But for Ana’s sake, I’ll post this humble essay anyway. The fleeting immortality of the written word is the only gift we ethnographers have to give.

Sveti Sedmochislenitsi church in Sofia, Bulgaria
Sveti Sedmochislenitsi church in Sofia, Bulgaria

Getting to know people across the barriers of language, culture, and generations provides one of the greatest joys of ethnographic fieldwork. I dislike the term “informant” because of its negative connotations, especially in the postsocialist context where people once “informed” on each other to the secret police. I prefer the term “fieldwork friends.”

I’ve conducted ethnographic research in Southeastern Europe for eighteen years, and I recognize the difficult power imbalances and the hierarchy of privileges that underpin relationships in the field. My position as an American – first as graduate student, then as professor – provides certain advantages that my fieldwork friends lack. Despite these challenges, I’ve forged close relations with many Bulgarian men and women who’ve shared their lives with me over the years.

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Ethnographers as Writers: An Introduction

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Kristen Ghodsee.]

Ethngraphers as writers - Introduction
A writer’s tool

I am thrilled for the opportunity to write as a Savage Minds guest blogger for this first month of 2015. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to become a better writer, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months poring through style guides and manuals trying to learn the writer’s craft. This is not because I am writing my first book. Unfortunately, I am almost five books into my career, and only now do I feel compelled to improve my prose. As an ethnographer, I privileged the message over the medium.

I’ve taught ethnographies for thirteen years, and at the end of each semester, I survey student opinions of the required books on my syllabi. “Reading [this book] was like being forced to read Facebook’s terms and conditions for class,” a student wrote about one of the texts I assigned. The book in question suited the course subject, and contained field-changing theoretical insights. As a piece of scholarship, the book excelled, winning a major award from a large professional society. As a piece of writing, however, the book failed. My students judged the prose opaque, circular, jargon-laden, and gratuitously verbose. I agreed. I prepared a lecture on the core arguments, and spared my students the headaches induced by needless erudition.

University students, especially at the undergraduate level, despise inaccessible books that use language to obfuscate rather than clarify. I have purged many a smart ethnography from my syllabi after watching students struggle to extract the main arguments from a fog of impenetrable prose. Each year, I explore university press offerings to find well-written ethnographies. The continued production of un-teachable books amazes me.

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