Until the 1970s, the modal career in anthropology revolved around the regular publication of articles in scholarly journals, and the intermittent publication of book-length ‘monographs.’ Anthropologists now challenge the supposition that these two writing genres embody the only legitimate means to share knowledge. This article charts the variety of new modes of writing that anthropologists increasingly embrace – from memoir, biography, and fiction to flip books, graphic novels, and invented child care guides – as means to disseminate their findings and unique perspectives to broader readerships.
The Myopia of Monopoly
As Johannes Fabian has observed (2011: p. 16), the very phrase ‘ethnographic writing’ is redundant given that the Greek roots of the word ‘ethnography’ mean, literally, ‘writing (about) people.’ Despite this etymological foundation, the early decades of the discipline of anthropology saw little critical reflection on our writing practices. Instead, until the 1970s, the modal career in anthropology revolved around the regular publication of articles in scholarly journals, and the intermittent publication of a particular form of book termed the ‘monograph’ (Wulff et al., 2009). Typically, both writing forms featured a predictable structure. A general overview of a single, seemingly complete, and relatively isolated society classically preceded (or underlay) an analytic argument revolving around a basic theme, and one or more ‘domains.’
Give or take the occasional effort to stray from the path of writing orthodoxy, both the article and the monograph typically relied on two problematic assumptions revolving around their literary production. First, our writing habitus normally presumed that the anthropologist-as-analyst was best left invisible to the reader, a scholarly Peeping Tom peering through the windows of the other’s house. Second, we routinely took for granted that the cumulative emotional effect of this and other features of the work produced a reading experience that should approximate that provided by the natural science report more than that offered by the literary essay. Notwithstanding a few adventurous scholars, until recently the academy has largely left unchallenged, the grip that this model for the properly written scholarly article and monograph have long held on our discipline. To borrow a legal trope, the dominance of these two writing genres constituted a veritable monopoly.
Over a century ago in the United States, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 effectively restricted the reach of monopolies in business; elsewhere, the US law has its analogue in most other modern nations (Joelson, 2006). By contrast, we have not yet passed our own Antitrust Act within the academy. Nevertheless, anthropologists have begun challenging de facto the supposition that the scholarly article and book-length monograph, structured in the ways summarized above, embody the only legitimate means for us to share knowledge. Equally important, we now question the notion that our fellow anthropologists constitute the only legitimate audience for our work. The remainder of this article explores the variety of ways that anthropologists are charting new paths in writing. As we have allowed ourselves to reimagine our writing practices, we have implicitly taken steps to embrace three new possible commitments: aiming our work toward new readerships; injecting new liveliness into the conventional writing genres of our discipline; and experimenting with writing in new genres for our discipline.
Central to the new ethnographic writing practices we explore in this article lies an increasingly urgent commitment to share our scholarly expertise with readers beyond our immediate colleagues (cf Gottlieb, 1997). Foundational to this trend lies a broader political commitment toward using our disciplinary knowledge to promote social justice.
Many scholars enter the field of anthropology in a quest to expose unequal opportunities – whether due to race, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, health status, career choice, neighborhood, educational level, or other structural components of identity. After exposing such inequalities, many further hope that our writings might help expand opportunities for the disadvantaged – whether on a local, national, or global scale. Yet we have discovered that writing jargon-filled work destined for scholarly journals or book series that normally attract dozens or, at best, hundreds of readers limits severely whatever impact we may hope to have on whatever corner of the world (whether ‘at home’ or ‘abroad’) where we have chosen to focus our research. Frustrated by ‘preaching to the choir,’ we have begun expanding our ‘bully pulpit’ to new readerships (Sabloff, 2011).
The American Anthropological Association (AAA) – the discipline’s flagship professional association in the United States, with increasing international membership (AAA, n.d.g), and the largest professional association in the world – now promotes this commitment in myriad ways. In recent years, the AAA has urged anthropologists to share our expertise with a broad public and increase our relevance, creating a host of new initiatives to offer realistic means for achieving this goal, including working with teachers from preschool to adult education classes (AAA, n.d.d), and encouraging anthropologists to read about and participate in public policy debates and other work outside the academy (AAA n.d.a, n.d.c, n.d.e, n.d.f). Other smaller associations and entities likewise promote reaching out to broader publics in myriad ways, including sponsorship of book series aimed at general readers, and production of ‘alternative’ rankings of US doctoral programs in anthropology ranged according to the public effectiveness of each program’s faculty, rather than the conventional academic criteria based on ‘publications, status, and funds obtained’ (Center for a Public Anthropology, n.d.). Outside the United States, many European, Latin American, and Asian scholars have engaged earlier and more comfortably with broader publics than have scholars than in the United States (e.g., Afonso, 2006; Barth, 2001; Eriksen, 2005; Hastrup et al., 2011; Hong Kong Anthropological Society, n.d.; Howell, 2010; Ribeiro, 2004, 2012; Rogers, 2001; Uquillas and Larreamendy, 2006).
Behind all these efforts – both collective and individual – lies not just the content of what we write, but the style of how we write it (Geertz, 1989). In effect, the above-mentioned initiatives, and others elsewhere like them, constitute a mandate for creating texts to engage readers beyond doctorate-bearing scholars. Insofar as writing is central to our scholarly practice, reaching new readers requires writing for those readers. How have anthropologists changed their writing style to make their message appealing to an ‘educated public’ that has an interest in an anthropological approach to understanding social life but lacks a doctorate in anthropology?
An accessible text easily draws new readers to our research and our insights. And who are better than anthropologists to provide the comparative framework linking the global and the local, to humanize both near and distant others, to explain seemingly inexplicable behavior … in short, to propose creative ways to address the extraordinary opportunities and challenges of the twenty-first century?
Before the 1970s, the clamor for alternative writing remained marginal, with few feeling courageous enough to venture beyond the strict contours of the scholarly article or book; most saved the human stories-from-the-field for professional parties and the occasional classroom lecture. But the major cultural and political upheavals across Western societies during the 1970s saw echoes in major intellectual upheavals in the social sciences in general, and anthropology in particular – including upheavals in writing conventions. With the anti- Vietnam War movement, civil rights movement, women’s rights movement, and associated ‘sexual revolution,’ growing interest in Hinduism and Buddhism, and development of alternative pop culture all combining to question long-accepted practices of both quotidian and political life, is it any wonder that anthropologists – observers of society par excellence – responded by questioning our own practices? The feminist revolution had an especially pronounced effect on our writing practices, although it took some time to be acknowledged (Gordon, 1988).
Unlike earlier generations, many junior scholars today aim to convey the sensory and emotional texture, and range of the human experience via a greater variety of textual styles. No longer are most of us content to write ethnographies that are, as Jeremy MacClancy wrote of an earlier generation of scholarship, “boring, and . virtually unreadable” (1996: p. 237). No longer do we consider it a badge of honor when a friend or relative expresses excitement on hearing about our research, only to confess confusion after dipping into our scholarly publications. Fewer among us feel content to exclusively write scholarly texts that turn off ordinary readers despite the inherent fascination of our topics.
Moreover, fewer academic publishers are willing to publish such works. It should be no surprise that good writing sells, and that means, in one way or another, good stories. Our species has aptly been dubbed homo narrans (Niles, 1999). Thoughtful observers of the human condition ranging from communication scholars (Fisher, 1987), literature professors (Gottschall, 2012), and psychiatrists (Coles, 1989) to urban planners (Eckstein and Throgmorton, 2003) and organizational sociologists (Gabriel, 2000) argue that storytelling is central both to our survival and to our nature. To sell more books, editors now advise authors via a simple homily: “More stories, less theory.”
Many junior scholars are heeding the editors’ advice. Increasingly, they express a desire either for a nonacademic career, or a career that combines academic research with nonacademic projects and publications. In both cases, their goal is to use their expertise to make a difference in arenas beyond the college classroom. Key to success in achieving this aim is honing the ability to write for readers beyond fellow scholars.
With this in mind, graduate students often seek out opportunities that will train them to hone their writing skills. In dissertation-writing workshops, students respond positively when urged to ‘write from the heart’ (Aronie, 1998) in turning their research data into theses. A long-ago piece of advice by the respected East Africanist, Ed Winter, may resonate today with doctoral students more forcefully than it did when it was first preferred over three decades ago (Gottlieb, n.d.).
“Don’t look at your fieldnotes,” Winter urged students just back from their field research. “Just write what you remember. You’ll remember the good stuff. The important stuff. You can always check your notes later, make sure you got the details right.”
If students were unlikely to take that antipositivist advice three decades ago, that is less the case today. Psychologists tell us that we humans live our lives at least as much in our feelings as we do in our thoughts (e.g., LeDoux, 1998). When neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (2010) studied people who could no longer feel emotions due to brain injuries, he discovered that these individuals had difficulty in making decisions about matters ranging from what to eat to where to live, despite being able to articulate rationally the advantages and disadvantages of their options. A recent theory of politics posits that a combination of emotion and reason accounts for the political stances we all take as citizens (Marcus et al., 2000). And within cultural anthropology, a growing number of scholars suggest that the same reality characterizes the methodological heart of our discipline – our fieldwork practice. That is, we bring our emotional biographies with us to the field, where they meet up with myriad emotional biographies of those in the communities we are studying (e.g., Ahmed, 2004; Hunt, 1989; Kleinman and Kopp, 1993; Kulick and Willson, 1995; Wulff, 2007). However else we might portray it, the anthropological field encounter can be described as an emotional cauldron.
Anthropologists increasingly acknowledge that it does not make intellectual sense to divorce affective considerations from our analyses when they are a key component of the experiences that form the bedrock of our understanding. And given that narrative inherently offers the capacity to effectively evoke human emotion (Hogan, 2003; Hsu, 2008), anthropologists are increasingly discovering that narrative and related writing genres may actually offer more accurate – hence, more scientific – means for us as scholars to convey the full range of the human experience than do the conventional scholarly article and monograph. Echoing the wisdom of this growing interdisciplinary body of research, the best ethnographies, many now assert, engage our hearts and minds in equal doses.
In some cases, a traumatic incident in the field may so shake fieldworkers that they feel compelled to write about it in some deeply personal way. The usual distanced academic prose simply cannot capture enough of such events to satisfy either author or reader. For example, witnessing (or, in other cases, experiencing) sexual violence has produced riveting narratives by female anthropologists, who have drawn on their traumatic experiences to explore disturbing issues (di Leonardo, 1997; Winkler, 2002). Such emotionally engulfing events can be turned into compelling platforms from which to think frankly about the workings and bodily effects of power inequities, in ways that more conventional scholarly accounts cannot accomplish. Other returned fieldworkers may not experience such a single dramatic moment but nevertheless may have felt every aspect of newness so deeply, and listened so deeply to these feelings, that the cumulative result compels them to work through their emotions on the printed page. In either case, ethnographers who pay attention to the emotional core of their fieldwork experiences are likely to produce rich texts that leave an impact, and much to contemplate, well beyond the last page.
The mainstreaming of such texts signals important changes occurring in our discipline. The Victor Turner Prize in Ethnography (sponsored by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, a unit of the AAA) has awarded $500 annually since 1990 for the most gripping ethnography published in the previous 2 years. As of 2013, 74 books have won a prize or honorable mention in the competition (Society for Humanistic Anthropology, n.d.). This corpus of engagingly written ethnographies suggests that many among the current generation of scholars seem inclined to write from the heart as much as from the mind.
For example, John Chernoff ’s two-volume biography of Hawa, a Ghanaian bar girl who is herself a storyteller’s storyteller, by turns enchants, delights, and outrages the reader with a riveting account as hard to put down as the most gripping novel. The factual narrative describes an actual life that dignifies the particularities of a woman who has encountered and, in some ways triumphed over, hardships great and small. At the same time, the account evokes the challenges and life strategies of so many other working women whose lives are little short of heroic yet rarely generate written biographies (Chernoff, 2003, 2005). The rich ethnography conveyed by such accounts offers incomparable insights into the texture of human lives as lived in particular times and places.
The mandate to communicate our knowledge to a broad public becomes more realistic if we provide training for scholars in the writing skills that can convey the content of our research in an inviting manner. Thankfully, more scholars now teach such writing skills. Workshops on writing ethnographic fiction, poetry, and other ‘alternative’ genres are offered annually at the annual AAA conference (sponsored by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology), and they are increasingly oversubscribed. Moreover, semester-length courses on ethnographic writing are increasingly sprouting up in top-rated doctoral programs in anthropology across the United States and, more recently, in Europe. As such courses proliferate, programs increasingly train students to take the craft of writing seriously.
Writing for broad readerships lends itself to engaging with public issues and, in some doctoral programs, thus, goes hand in hand with a new emphasis on public anthropology (in the United States, as of this writing, in programs such as the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Oregon, Wayne State University, and the University of South Florida, among others). Such an emphasis characterizes doctoral programs beyond the United States as well. In Brazil, for example, “a minimum amount of advocacy on behalf of indigenous groups is expected. The lack of a dichotomy between ‘getting involved’ in the social and political struggles of study populations. and the academic ivory tower means that Brazilian anthropologists are university professors and political activists at the same time” (Chelekis, n.d.). Such a focus also characterizes a masters degree program in “applied anthropology and participatory development” in Australia, which is “designed for people working in government, nongovernment organizations, or as independent consultants . to manage development projects, including undertaking social assessment and advising on their cultural and social impacts” (Australia National University, n.d.). Such programs train students based on the premise that anthropological expertise in understanding the human condition merits promoting beyond the academy (on India, see Mahapatra, 2006).
In the United States, to increase the likelihood that the intellectual contributions of faculty in such programs receive proper recognition, the AAA has developed guidelines for tenure and promotion committees to use in evaluating efforts beyond scholarly writing (AAA, n.d.h, 2011). The AAA has also launched an online ‘Writers Circle’ that pairs scholars eager to write for a broader audience with seasoned scholars who have successfully done just that, and that makes such published writings available online as models (AAA, n.d.b).
Anthropologists are staking out new territory by dipping into other genres, in a dual quest to reinvigorate traditional readerships and attract new ones. In the United States, Margaret Mead set an early precedent (e.g., Mead, 2005). Despite the many detractors who scorned the status she constructed for herself as public intellectual – especially through monthly columns in the popular women’s magazine, Redbook, among other public venues – Mead established a powerful case for the relevance of an anthropological approach to understanding the challenges of contemporary Western(ized) lives. Nowadays, after some especially vigorous critiques from colleagues, her intellectual legacy is being restored (di Leonardo, 2001; Lutkehaus, 2008; Shankman, 2009). Inspired by Mead’s example, contemporary anthropologists are rediscovering that well-written editorial (‘Op-Ed’) pieces, letters to the editor, magazine articles, and radio pieces offer further tools to draw readers to our work. In the United States, a new Public Voices Fellowship Program (organized by an entity termed the Op-Ed Project) is providing training in just such genres: “This yearlong experience is designed to help professors … reach beyond the academic audience and share our ideas and experiences with a larger lay audience” (Colón-Ramos, 2013; cf The Op-Ed Project, n.d.). The Internet now offers unprecedented access to expanding readerships. Influential anthropologists such as Thomas Eriksen, Paul Stoller, and others now write blogs and guest posts for websites with enormous reach, while junior scholars experiment with new software programs to share findings in creative new formats (Balakian, 2011).
The classic genres of literature also offer appealing avenues for sharing our expertise. Early anthropologists such as Edward Sapir and Ruth Benedict published poetry that gained them readers beyond their scholarly colleagues (Caffrey, 1989; Flores, 1986; Handler, 1986). In recent years, cultural anthropologist Renato Rosaldo has won the widely respected American Book Award for his poetry (Rosaldo, 2003). Likewise, the early ethnographic novels of Adolf Bandalier (1971/1890), Ella Deloria (1988), Zora Neale Hurston (1937), and Laura Bohannan (Bowen, 1954) have many contemporary counterparts in novels by anthropologists Tobias Hecht (2006), Kirin Narayan (1994), Paul Stoller (1999, 2005), and others (cf. Laterz, 2007). Indeed, the Society for Humanistic Anthropology now offers annual awards in ethnographic poetry and short fiction, with winning pieces published in its peer-reviewed journal, Anthropology and Humanism (Society for Humanistic Anthropology, n.d.).
Beyond the two classic literary genres of poetry and fiction, anthropologists in recent years have begun exploring the possibility of sharing their expertise through other creative writing genres as well. Some anthropologists have written up their ethnography in the form of plays (e.g., Allen and Garner, 1997; Parada, 2008; Saldaña, 2005), mysteries (Nanda, 2009; Price and Price, 1995), biographies (Behar, 1993; Brown, 1991; Crapanzano, 1980; Shostak, 1981), and memoirs (e.g., Briggs, 1970; Cesara, 1982; Dumont, 1978; Gottlieb and Graham, 1993, 2012; Orlove, 2002; Stoller and Olkes, 1987; Tedlock, 1981).
Beyond these established writing genres, the world of writing offers a plethora of genres that we normally exclude from our scholarly purview, though we may engage them daily outside our academic lives. As participants in what we might term a veritable riot of literacy, scholars are intimately acquainted with a dazzling array of texts of every shape, size, and sort. Creatively engaging with such texts, some anthropologists venture beyond even the ‘new’ genres discussed above to create their own.
Back in the 1960s, not content with the conventional genres, the ever-maverick Gregory Bateson went so far as to invent a charming genre of writing that he called ‘metalogues’ (1972) in which he wrote partly fictionalized conversations about the most arcane of topics – conversations that he supposedly held with his partly imagined daughter (whose real-life model grew up to become anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson). In recent years, a few experimental works by anthropologists and other social scientists have followed in Bateson’s footsteps to draw creatively from other genres to convey ethnographic information in lively formats. Examples include a graphic exposition of the discipline (Galman, 2007), an imagined Socratic dialogue between European and African historical figures (Nzegwu, 2006), an extended photo essay (Behar, 2007), a political cookbook (Fair, 2008), imagined local child care guides à la Dr. Spock (DeLoache and Gottlieb, 2000), ‘factional ethnography’ (Sillitoe and Sillitoe, 2009), and an ethnographic, children’s book-style ‘flip book’ (Taylor, 1998).
This growing corpus of ‘alternative’ texts suggests that increasing numbers of anthropologists are now ‘finding their own jig to dance with genre.’ As writing practices expand to attract multiple new audiences, the Internet beckons, with its extraordinary opportunities to find new readers. Anthropologists stand ideally poised to augment the discipline’s reach in offering the insights into our lives as social creatures that are the hallmark of this unique academic field of inquiry.
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