Category Archives: Current Issues

Writing Ethnographies that Everyone Can Read

Kristen Ghodsee’s new book, From Notes to Narrative: Writing Ethnographies that Everyone Can Read, was recently published by the University of Chicago Press (in 2016).

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The discipline of anthropology desperately needs good writers.  Our writings are often so dense, jargon-packed, and off-putting that I sometimes fear we deserve our reputation for being abstruse and irrelevant.

That’s a shame!

We promote a comparative perspective on the human condition that no other discipline offers.

We’ve created research methods specializing in deep and long-term immersion in communities and languages that no other discipline offers.

And the cumulative data base we’ve constructed is based on extraordinary amounts of research we’ve conducted around the globe, in communities ranging from some of the world’s most vulnerable populations to elites at the center of power.

We have so much to teach people–from political leaders and policy makers to ordinary citizens curious to understand the lives of their neighbors.

But who will listen, if readers can’t get past our first, boring paragraphs?

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Anthropologist Kristen Ghodsee has some great advice for students and scholars who would like their writing to have an impact beyond their professors, students, and colleagues.

And Kristen Ghodsee’s in a great position to teach us how to write.  Her book, Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria (Princeton University Press 2010), won four book prizes.  Another book she co-authored (with Rachel Connelly), Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), has attracted wide attention from reviewers.  And a short story she wrote (“Tito Trivia”) won the 2011 Ethnographic Fiction Prize from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

The author of seven books, Ghodsee has focused her research in Bulgaria, where she’s studied the lives of ordinary men and women, and the effects of political transition on Bulgaria’s Muslim minorities.  Her most recent works have been heavily influenced by humanistic anthropology; Ghodsee has experimented with ethnographic fiction, autoethnography, and photo-ethnography, produce intimate narratives and images of the disorienting impacts of the collapse of Communism on daily life.  She is currently serving as the president of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

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Her latest, short book I’m featuring here, From Notes to Narrative, has fourteen chapters of only about ten pages each. In other words, it’s a quick, easy read—yet it packs a rich punch.

One of our discipline’s best writers, Ruth Behar, has this to say about Kristen Ghodsee’s new book about writing ethnography:

“Thank you, Kristen Ghodsee, for offering an absolutely essential guide to ethnographic writing. I fervently hope From Notes to Narrative will be read by every aspiring ethnographic writer, and, most of all, that its lessons will be put into practice. I can’t wait to read the books that will come from this book!”

And Paul Stoller urges: “[T]his work should be required reading for all social scientists.”

You can find a Table of Contents here.

I recently talked with Kristen Ghodsee about her new book. Here’s a record of our e-conversation:

 

Interview with Kristen Ghodsee

 

Alma Gottlieb (AG): What gave you the idea to write the book?

Kristen Ghodsee (KG): The idea first emerged from my undergraduate students. They reacted strongly to certain ethnographic books I assigned in my senior research seminars. My students are smart, motivated, and eager to learn, but they were impatient and critical of books written in what seemed to be deliberately obtuse language. As I removed the offending books from my syllabus, I started to wonder about the conditions under which ethnographies are produced. Ethnographers spend extended periods of time living in communities, but then turn around and write books and articles that members of the community cannot read. That didn’t seem right to me.

 

AG: Have you always loved writing?

KG: Yes. I always wanted to be a writer. I spent the entire summer between sixth and seventh grade writing my first novel. I wrote poetry and fiction throughout high school, and I majored in creative writing when I was an undergraduate student at UC Santa Cruz. I agree with Ruth Behar that many ethnographers are frustrated novelists, but I don’t agree that ethnography is somehow a “second fiddle.” It is a different type of writing than fiction, but good ethnography can be as well crafted, even if its purpose is education rather than entertainment.

 

AG: When you’re not reading anthropology, what do you like to read?

KG: I actually like reading books about writing and creativity, things like Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. Right now, I’m reading Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style and David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish. Occasionally, I also read memoirs and autobiographies. I just finished Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom, and I can’t wait to dive into Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

 

AG: In your new book, one of your chapters is titled “Minimize Scientism.” Since you’re writing for social scientists, can you explain what you mean by that?

KG: Many of the social sciences, but especially political science, economics, and psychology, have been seduced by the language and style of the natural sciences, creating neologisms or producing technical vocabularies. Sometimes these vocabularies are necessary, but often authors use complex words for simple ideas because they think those words make their work sound more “scientific,” and by extension more important. I think ethnographers should try to write their books for broader audiences, saving disciplinary-specific jargon for their conference presentations and journal articles.

 

AG: Another chapter is titled “Embrace Dialogue.” Some social scientists are nervous about writing dialogue –- partly because they’re unsure of the mechanics, but also because they’d be afraid of inaccurately filling in gaps in conversations they didn’t record. What are your thoughts about the space between fiction and non-fiction?

KG: Regarding the use of dialogue: Every ethnographer has to make a personal decision based on her own individual circumstances. There is always the risk of filling in the gaps of conversations they didn’t record, and this is especially true if you are working in a foreign language and translating other people’s words into English. But I think it is possible to be true to the content of a conversation while representing it in dialogue form. The problem is that ethnographers don’t learn the mechanics of dialogue and tend to rely on lengthy block quotations that are less interesting for the reader.

Producing accurate dialogue is hard work, and I understand that not everyone has the time or inclination to do so in scholarly texts. Some books are written for a handful of scholarly peers, and it may not be worth the extra effort. I recently saw the production budget for a book from a major university press, and it assumes that academic monographs won’t sell more than 750 copies in their lifetime. With such a small audience, why invest time in making a book readable? But maybe the reason only 750 people read any given academic book is because they are so damn difficult to read.

 

AG: The penultimate chapter is called “Find Your Process.” That might sound rather funky and even a bit mystical to some scholars. What would you say to social scientists who might be surprised by this chapter?

KG: It sounds mystical, but it is really about finding time to write, and optimizing the conditions under which you write. All of the academics I interviewed had specific writing rituals that helped them work, and this chapter is really about exploring the tips and tricks that people have to make them more productive.

 

AG: What’s the one question you’re most hoping interviewers will ask you about the book?

KG: Is it easier to write a book about writing ethnography than it is to write an actual ethnography?

KG: Not easier, but more fun. Writing this book actually made me a better writer, because I have started taking my own advice!

It’s Never “Just a Symbol”

Symbolic anthropologists, take note.  What’s in a symbol?  Everything, when it comes to politics.  Especially, election-year politics.  And especially when a major political candidate claims ignorance of centuries-old symbolism used to discriminate against an oppressed minority.

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Was Trump being anti-Semitic, or was he being stupid, when he Tweeted an accusation that Hillary Clinton is “the most corrupt candidate ever”–with Clinton’s photo accompanied by a Star of David overlaying countless dollar bills?

For someone who is one of two candidates credibly vying for the planet’s most politically powerful position, either scenario is deeply troubling.

Rethinking BDS

A shorter version of this post has just appeared online as a podcast, in coordination with the motion put to a vote among the membership of the American Anthropological Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions.  Here’s the text . . .

 

The first thing I want to say is that I firmly support Palestinian rights and a Palestinian state; I firmly oppose the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestinian communities; and I strongly critique Israeli policies mistreating Palestinians in myriad ways.

 

In fact, I grew up in a household in which Palestinian rights was, literally, a nightly dinner-table conversation because my father worked as a public relations director of the only Jewish, anti-Zionist organization in the US, through my childhood in the 1960s.

 

The second thing I want to say is that I’m also deeply troubled by the prospect of boycotting any scholarly colleagues, whether Israeli or anyone else, because of the abuses of their government.

 

I get the logic of economic boycotts. These involve refraining from buying products that have ethical issues deeply implicated in the social conditions of their manufacture. Damaging a corporation or government where it most hurts—their bottom line—is also pragmatic. That produces an optimal fit between means and end.

Nestle Boycott

Academic boycotts are another creature. I’m convinced that the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, like all academic boycotts, takes aim at the wrong target. I oppose academic boycotts on philosophical and ethical grounds for four reasons:

 

First: The claim by supporters of this boycott that the boycott targets “institutions and not individuals” is disingenuous. As anthropologists, we’re trained to pay attention to the human effects of institutional processes. Indeed, that’s our stock-in-trade.

 

Boycotting an institution means, by definition, boycotting the people who work for the institution.

 

In the case at hand, if a majority of AAA members vote to support the proposed boycott, faculty and students at Israeli academic institutions, for example, would no longer have access to journals published by the AAA that are supplied to their institutions by the AAA’s distribution network, AnthroSource.

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They wouldn’t be permitted to participate in the AAA’s Career Center or Graduate School Fair—if, say, they wanted to leave Israel for a US institution, either as a student or a professor.

AAA Career Center

They wouldn’t be listed in the AAA’s Guide to Departments. In short, they would be considered non-persons as far as our social universe is concerned. What sense does this make as a way to engage with our scholarly colleagues?

AnthroGuide 2015-16

Assuming all these effects would actually be upheld legally (and some of them might not–already, the American Studies Association is being sued by four scholars for its BDS vote), how would they possibly further the cause of Palestinian rights?

 

Secondly: By tarring a group of scholars with the same brush, we essentialize people by reference to their nationality. Surely, that’s a move we anthropologists have been in the forefront of opposing in so many other contexts.

 

In the case of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, we would target precisely—indeed, perversely–many scholars who are among the most vocal opponents of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands—the very occupation that supporters of the boycott themselves oppose.

 

This is upside-down logic.

 

Thirdly: Beyond the specifics of this boycott lies an even more important issue: the broader political question of global ethics. If we decide to hold scholars and their scholarly institutions responsible for the misguided, unethical and brutal policies of their governments, why stop at Israel? Why not include all scholars based in China? All scholars based in Myanmar? All scholars based in Saudi Arabia? Sudan? Russia? N. Korea? When we start voting against our favorite repressive regime, the candidates start multiplying alarmingly.

 

Will we have any colleagues left in the world with whom to engage?

 

What about those of us in the US? Should we not boycott academic institutions of higher learning in the US for being complicit, both in the past and present, with objectionable policies?

 

Take your pick—racist “stop-and-frisk” practices, Iraq and Afghanistan bombing, ROTC recruitment on campuses to our unethical military, TSA over-reach, campus investment in environmentally polluting corporations, university hiring policies that promote exploitation of part-time/adjunct faculty—there’s plenty to hold American scholars accountable for, if our tactic is to equate scholars and their institutions with their governments’ (or campuses’) policies.

 

If we want to be consistent—and, surely, that’s one of the central aims of strong scholarship–where should an academic boycott end?

In designing any sort of political action, it’s crucial to keep the goal front and center. Losing track of the goal risks imitating the behavior we wish to condemn.

 

Fourth, and finally: we need to be mindful of the precise target of this proposed boycott. The vast majority of scholars who would be affected are Jews.

 

Deciding to target Jews for the abuses of their government, when we are not similarly targeting members of other religions and nations for the abuses of their governments, starts moving implicitly—if not unintentionally–toward anti-Semitism.

 

Given the history of anti-Semitism, which has produced brutal forms of oppression across over 2,000 years, including the Inquisition and the Holocaust, I think were ethically bound to be sensitive to the historical overtones and symbolic resonance of this boycott. To Jews, this academic boycott—targeting only residents of one of the many governments that has disturbing policies oppressing minority populations–is starting to feel all too familiar.

 

As a body of thoughtful scholars, the AAA should indeed forge means to oppose Israeli occupation of Palestinian communities and support the creation of a Palestinian state—means that will actually be consistent with, and promote, our goal.

 

We Are All Africans

An impressively interdisciplinary team of geneticists, biological anthropologists, archaeologists, and geologists has just published an article detailing the genetic makeup of a man who lived in Ethiopia some 4,500 years ago. Why is this relevant today? The analysis shows close genetic ties between some contemporary Sardinian farmers, German farmers from 7,000 years ago, and contemporary people living in Ethiopia and elsewhere in the Horn of Africa. That’s big news in these days of far too many complaints about “too many immigrants,” and far too much discussion about “race” as if it were a simple category with immutable boundaries.

But the larger story embedded in this research packs an even bigger punch. We humans have been on the move for a good 70,000 years, and our connections across Africa, the Middle East, and Europe have been actively maintained, with criss-crossed migrations and gene sharing ever since. Leaders of today’s far-right parties claim that ethnic and racial mixing is unnatural, and that migration goes against our nature. Donald Trump, Scott Walker, and Marine Le Pen need to study their history.

Racist Anti-Immigration Poster Racist, anti-immigration poster of the English Defence League, a far-right street protest group dedicated to opposing Muslims living in the UK

Anthropology and the MidEast Crisis

There’s surely something to offend every political sensibility in a provocative essay, “Let the Palestinians Have Their State,” just published by Liel Leibovitz in The Tablet.  But for that reason, it’s worth reading.  Equal-opportunity-offender essays are bold enough to propose solutions that–dare I say?–might just be viable, if all those who are offended actually considered their proposals.

Anthropology teaches us that we remain comfortable in our preconceived assumptions and prejudices at our peril.  Why not imply the insight to the mess that is the MidEast?
Examine Your Assumptions

As Usual, The Devil’s in the Details; or, Why Ethnography Matters for Everything

A new study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Tennessee fail to achieve any long-term gains. Republican lawmakers are already seizing on the news as evidence that pre-K programs don’t work in general, and should no longer be funded.

By contrast, the same study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Boston are achieving significant long-term gains. Democratic lawmakers will no doubt seize on the news as evidence that pre-K programs do work in general, and should be further funded.

As usual, the devil’s in the details.

The Tennessee program emphasizes passive classroom strategies that are dull even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children sit and listen while a teacher talks.

Students Sleep in Lecture
The Boston program emphasizes active learning strategies that are tried-and-true even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children learn to measure distance by measuring the shadows their bodies cast on the ground, and brainstorm about making their city a better place by using skills they learn in reading, math, art and science to present a proposal to City Hall.

Boy Measures Own Shadow
My conclusions:

1. Conclusions are only as good as the data they draw from.

2. “Think global, study local” should be the official Congressional mantra.

3. Everything is better with ethnography.

Donald Trump vs. Blood Magic

Donald Trump has revived old stereotypes in claiming that Fox News commentator/Republican debate moderator Megyn Kelly was ruled by her hormones (“bleeding from her wherever”) when she critiqued his multiple sexist statements and stances.  Explaining away women’s anger by reference to the menstrual cycle is an old habit of those who wish to exclude women from decision-making positions.  Let’s see if I become a new target of Donald Trump after being quoted in this NPR blog post by Susan Brink . . .

PMS 5 Beware of PMS

Meanwhile, I’m honored that an essay I wrote about Beng menstrual beliefs and practices was just quoted in an article by Candida Moss, “Weak Men Like Trump Have Always Feared Menstruation,” in The Daily Beast.

Fabulous Art from Abandoned Flip-flops

Cleaning up beach waste in the form of abandoned rubber flip-flops . . . recycling landfill-able castoffs . . . training low-income men and women in job skills and providing them with living wages in Nairobi . . . creating beautiful art . . . saving fish, dolphins and baby turtles from choking on rubber detritus . . . educating local residents in recycling options . . . so much goodness in one small company!Dolphin Sculpture from FlipflopsThis small effort may not solve the world’s pollution and poverty problems, but it does highlight one local success story.

The Ocean Sole Company that makes sculptures from flip-flops funnels 5% of its profits into its educational foundation.  That’s not a huge percent, but it’s something.  Its website says: “The Ocean Sole Foundation works with communities, scientists, conservationists, artists, governments, industries and other not-for-profit organisations that are raising awareness and actively involved in marine conservation. We support actions that recycle, reduce and reuse marine and waterway debris.”

Contrast this encouraging account of garbage-to-art with the typical gloom-and-doom story about sub-Saharan Africa that lands in the Western press.  If more journalists published reports like this, instead of yet another lament about ebola, civil war, corruption, or AIDS, what might white people’s images be of the land from which their long-ago ancestors came?

I’m not advocating that Africa’s considerable challenges be ignored.  But how about a bit more journalistic balance?

Otherwise, there’s always the stereotype-reinforcing strategy that Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainana offers, instructing would-be authors how (not) to write about Africa:

Binyavanga Wainaina

“Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.”

 

P.S.  Check out the awesome “open letter” recently addressed to the producer of the popular CBS news show, “60 Minutes,” about the unacceptable biases in the show’s (rare) coverage of Africa.  Dare we hope this passionately and intelligently argued plea, signed by dozens of prominent scholars and other thoughtful people, might produce some positive changes in the show?

Social Change: One Petition at a Time?

As a high school student, I remember the excitement of going door-to-door to solicit signatures on petitions of various sorts.

Adding one’s name to a list of other names on a single piece of paper may not seem consequential.  But when that sheet joins hundreds or thousands of others, suddenly the list has the potential to gain notice.Sign the Petition! Clipboard

One petition I promoted urged people across the U.S. to boycott buying table grapes, in support of the Latino/a grape pickers on strike in California.  Organized by legendary union leader, Cesar Chavez, the movement united farm workers to demand a living wage and decent working conditions.

In the case of the United Farm Workers, such petitions contributed to what became a national boycott of table grapes (lasting from 1965-70).  Although many contemporary farm workers still suffer unacceptable working conditions and low wages, the boycott produced the first union contracts for farm workers, who began a national conversation about better pay, benefits, and protections–a conversation that continues today.

green-grapes

In those days, collecting thousands of signatures for a petition meant having a well-organized, healthy cadre of footsoldiers.  Nowadays, websites such as Change.org make the process infinitely easier.

Take the case of Amazon.  A current online petition urges Amazon to change the name of the Amazon Mom program to Amazon Family.

Sure, names are just one (small) part of the problem of challenging gender stereotypes and expectations.  But “starting somewhere” to promote social justice means just that: starting somewhere.  And changing the very public name of a very popular program is a great start.

At the individual level, we all know how names matter to our sense of personal identity. The case of a nine-year-old girl from New Zealand is instructive.  Desperate to change her name, she found legal redress: In 2008, “a judge in New Zealand made a young girl a ward of court so that she could change the name she hated – Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii.  Judge Rob Murfitt said that the name embarrassed the nine-year-old and could expose her to teasing,” such that the judge termed the name a “social disability.”

At the corporate level, CEOs know how names matter to a company’s bottom line.  In the U.S., despite the enormous expense and hassle involved, over 1,900 companies changed their names last year.  They had diverse reasons for doing so, but whatever the motivations, their directors decided that the benefit of changing the company name outweighed the cost. Financial managers would only undertake such an ambitious and complicated shift if the symbolic resonance to names mattered.

And they do matter.  While changing the Amazon Mom program to the Amazon Family won’t solve the problem of patriarchy in the modern world, that corporate name change will give boys who consider what kind of fathers they want to become (inseminators vs. hands-on parents?) one more model of where they might see themselves as involved fathers (as part of an “Amazon Family”) . . . and one less model of where their masculinity is not welcome (as an “Amazon Mom”).

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Besides, from Amazon’s perspective, such a name change would make good business sense.  If a dedicated father can “see himself” in an “Amazon Family” program (but not in the “Amazon Mom” program), he’s more likely to commit precious resources–family funds–to buy consumer goods on that website, and not another.  And in a capitalist world, promoting business ethics from the standpoint of the financial bottom line may (for better or worse) be our most realistic option.

You can sign the Amazon petition here.

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