i am currently writing up the results of a year of fieldwork in a Greek island. consequently, i am thinking a lot about writing 'styles'. more and more i find that writing up ethnographic examples requires some sort of 'flowing', descriptive style, which can sometimes wax poetical, but most of the time does not match very well with what follows, which is analytical text, discussion, quotation of authorities etc. i have noticed this is especially true of published anthropological papers, where a section of 'hard' theory is followed by 'ethnogrpahy' resulting in juxtaposing styles and wierd literary effects.
the problem i guess is 'how to cite ethnographic experiences' without subsuming the analytical part or the empirical part to each other. i am still at a loss on how to do this and produce a gripping text at the same time. do people here have good examples of ethnographic writing in mind (perhaps their own) that they would like to suggest? who do you have in mind when you write ethnography? who is your influence? have you read a book you would have loved to have written yourself? do share!
Hello, Aris. What is the theme of your fieldwork? (I do mine on a Dalmatian island.) Well, I REALLY like the study by Eric R. Wolf and John W. Cole: The hidden frontier - Ecology and ethnicity in an Alpine valley. It is really inspiring and well written ... and about pretty much everything! Urska
Hello Urska, thanks for the reply. I am working in Poros island Greece, studying the reactions and interactions of people to archaeology, archaeologists, and the material remains of the ancient past. As i said, the fieldwork is over, and we are sitting down to write the thing, so we are immediately faced with a lot of problems of how to express our inferences and results, without misrepresenting local voices. What are you looking for in your fieldwork? Are you near writing up? Have you thought about the issues involved in the writing?
I like Eric Wolf's writing a lot. I continuously read and re-read 'Europe and the people without history' throughout my BA and found it very inspirational. I admit i have not read any ethnographies by him, but judging from this book, i like the way he writes. I think it is (deceptively) simple: writing simply is very difficult! What do you like about this book, and what are the points that his writing made you go 'aha!'? I remember one metaphor he used in 'Europe and the people w/out History' of nations (ethnicities?) as billiard balls, colliding with each other. That i guess made me think back then 'so, metaphors can be used to illustrate points in anthropological writing'. It sound silly now, but at the time it was a revelation!
Hi Johana, thanks for replying. I was hoping that people might contribute more than suggestions, by discussing their own writing styles and how they have been influenced by their favourite writers. Suggestions of course are more than welcome. I do not speak spanish, but i am sure that other readers of this discussion might, so feel free!
Johana Kunin said:
Hi I am Argentine and if your read Spanish I could suggest you some texts in Spanish....
I'm sorry for coming in with a late reply. I think the issue you raise is salient as it points to an unintended disjuncture (unless deliberate) between evocation and analysis when one tries to reproduce complex surfaces and depths of the issues one is immersed in, thus the weird literary effects the reader gets when reading the text. I suppose that Harry G. West does a fantastic job overcoming these kinds of disjuncture in his short 93-page narrative Ethnographic Sorcery. The text has both a flowing descriptive and analytic style that is seductive, humorous, hopeful and gripping and it's a dense and open-ended narrative that requires much unpacking. Another work that I find inspiring in its style is Hugh Raffles’ In Amazon: A Natural History, as well as Jake Kosek's Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern Mexico. Moving away slightly from ethnography into non-fiction journalism, I find James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men both moving and inspiring in the way it weaves passages of literary complexity, poetic beauty, and factual reporting. Yesterday my advisor asked me to take a look at Edwin Wilmsen's Land Filled with Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari, which in terms of writing style richly combines biography, poetry, and anthropological analysis to portray the intense realities of life in the Kalahari. Maybe you could also check out Ruth Behar’s finely crafted Translated Woman: Crossing the Border With Experanza's Story and The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart or Julie Cruikshank’s texts, particularly Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. I’m still at an early stage of exploring modes of ethnographic writing, and still don’t have any piece that really makes sense! However, one article that has made me cautious about the way I think of approaching writing is Catherine Lutz’s “The Gender of Theory” which is available online or in Ruth Behar (ed.) Women Writing Culture. Uskar poses a useful question about the theme of your fieldwork as any writer inevitably has to come to grips with the nature of one’s subject, positionality, intention and readership as these go to shape one’s writing style. Perhaps if some of us in the group could read some of your work, we would offer an impression of two that you may find useful!
Hello Achirri, and many thanks for the useful pointers, most of which i was not familiar with. I have read Behar's work, and i think it is very good. You are right about the disjuncture between analytical and descriptive language (if i read you correctly), but i also think that bizzarre efects also have to do with the politics of journals that demand more 'explicit' theory in clearly demarcated chunks. To me, the best theory is that which is embedded in the text, that which informs ethnographic detail, rather than dominating it. But i am sure that would make many hard-core anthropologists cringe. My most serious influence in this respect is E.P. Thompson's 'embedded' theory. But, granted, this sometimes produces very opaque writing styles which hide their author very well (one such example is Clifford Geertz). Most of my friends swear by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro but i have not yet come around to reading any of his work.
I would be delighted if people had the patience to read some of my stuff, in fact i think this group would profit immensely from the exchange of texts and comments. For the time being i am nowhere near a readable draft ( I rewrite and edit a lot from initial sketches), but will share as soon as i have made some progress.
Hello, Aris. As a practicing anthropologist living in Brasil conducting ethnographic research for a book, I too have spent many hours considering just how to approach the writing-up of my research. As a result, I revisited many of my favorite writers from the body of literature such as Wolf, Rosaldo, and Geertz (albeit Geertz can sometimes be very dense). I tend to write more in the style of the continental writers of Europe. So, that will not really help you. However, I am especially fond of Ellen R. Kintz's work, Life Under the Tropical Canopy. It seems to me that she has solved the problem of how to present ethnography and the analytical/empirical in a very descriptive, sometimes anecdoctal style of writing. Perhaps, this will help you.
Hello Neil, thanks for the reply, I will look for Kintz's book, although i am not sure i can locate it in a library in Greece. Your note also sent me back to Rosaldo (I guess you mean Renato), whom I find at times even denser that Geertz. Btw, I think, but i am not sure, that Geertz was influenced by the writing of analytic philosophers and in particular Gilbert Ryle, whose example of the wink as an overdetermined sign he mentions in, i think, think description (?). Of course i do not recommend reading Ryle, except to the insomniac or the philosoper (or both), but his The Concept of Mind is a good philosophical expose which has been largely overlooked. (Pedantic excursion over) ... Enjoy Brasil!
Hi- I've just joined this group and this discussion because I am at a point where I must think beyond merely making coherent scholarly arguments and focus on writing in an evocative and engaging style. I have the rather daunting brief for my book of writing beyond an audience of my anthropological peers. Hey- these days even academic publishers want books that will sell! For me, a book I find exemplary, with appeal to anthropologist and laymen alike, and which manages to do so without sacrificing its scholarly integrity is Piers Vitebsky's Reindeer People: Living With Animals and Spirits in Siberia. Rather significantly, this is an ethnography published by Harper Collins!
I am also involved in a project on intimacy and commitment in ethnographic fieldwork, and this demands a very reflexive and confessional approach to writing. For this project, a recent volume of essays I consider exemplary is Significant Others: Interpersonal and Professional Commitments in Anthropology, edited by Richard Handler, in the prestigious History of Anthropology series edited by George Stocking. What is significant about these essays is that they do not merely represent a set of narcissistic essays about great anthropological predecessors like Turner, Gluckman and Hallowell, but they also make profound arguments about the production of anthropological knowledge. And of course, they are very well written essays.
Hello Ari. i was thinking the book of Peter Loisos about Cyprus (i m sorry, i can't remember the exact title) and George Tsimouris' book "Imvrioi". i like the way Tsimouris combines the narrations with the analytical texts. I don't know Viveiro de Castro.. not even as a name.. . hmm :(
i will think about it, search my books, my notes and we will talk again!
Hello Georgia, you probably mean "The Greek Gift". I read this book as an undergarduate student, and I think Loizos did a marvellous job in coming to terms with profound social change. If I remember correctly, he was in Cyprus during the invasion, and I am sure he had some trouble re-framing his research. It would be interesting to have a chat with him on the difficulties he encountered in writing this book, for I am sure he was aiming to write something completely different. I will look up Tsimouris's book in a Greek bookstore asap!