Category Archives: Academia

Irish Writers, Anthropologically Speaking: An Interview with Helena Wulff

Anthropologist Helena Wulff has been conducting research on youth culture and multiple art worlds (especially in Western Europe) for over thirty years.

Wulff’s recent book, Rhythms of Writing: An Anthropology of Irish Literature (Bloomsbury, 2017), brings an anthropologist’s questions to the world of contemporary literature.

In a review of her new book for the Irish Times, Irish literary critic, Anna Fogarty, writes:

Her pioneering investigation nicely balances an advocacy of aspects of Irish cultural traditions which may be taken too much for granted by those living and writing in the country with a shrewd and timely critique of the inbuilt sexism of our public institutions and the provincialism of our general outlook.

You can discover more about Helena Wulff’s work on her website here from Stockholm University, where she is a professor and deputy head of the Department of Social Anthropology. Wulff has also held visiting professorships at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, National University of Singapore, University of Vienna, and University of Ulster, as well as a Leverhulme visiting professorship at the University of East London.

You can find downloadable PDFs of many of Wulff’s published journal articles and book chapters here.  Beyond her many scholarly publications, Wulff also occasionally writes popular articles for newspapers and magazines in Sweden and the UK.

With Deborah Reed-Danahay, Wulff edits the new book series, Palgrave Studies in Literary Anthropology, and with Jonathan Skinner she edits another book series, Dance and Performance Studies, for Berghahn Books.

She has served as Chair of the Anthropological Association of Sweden and is a member of the board of the five-year, multidisciplinary research program in Sweden, Cosmopolitan and Vernacular Dynamics in World Literatures. With Dorle Dracklé, she served as Editor-in-Chief of Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale, the journal of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA), and was also Vice-President of EASA.

We recently had an e-conversation about her new, pathbreaking book about Irish writers. Read the interview below.

*

HW: Helena Wulff

AG: Alma Gottlieb

 

AG:  In your previous work, you’ve written about lots of different topics–dancers, emotions, youth, and ethnographic writing and research practices, among others. This book is about a subject that’s quite unusual for an anthropologist. What inspired you to write a book about Irish writers?

HW:  My love of literature goes back to my childhood and youth. I grew up in a home where reading fiction was a central activity, as well as, importantly, talking about it. The fact that my mother preferred reading stories to me and my brother when we were small, rather than cleaning the house, made a lasting impression on me.

I was soon a voracious and precocious reader. Not only did I devour European classics early on, such as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but also, in secret, novels my parents said I was too young to read. Literature was my way of finding out about life, history and the world, although my literary horizon was limited to Europe and North America. This was before the idea of “world literature” would include the circulation and translation of literary work from regional or national to global contexts (which I’ll come back to, as that’s my current research.)

Both my parents had been students of comparative literature. As this was such a strong interest also for me, comparative literature was the only subject I wanted to study when I enrolled at Stockholm University in 1973. I had a fabulous year, but towards the end I realized I wanted to do something different from my parents, to develop on my own.

I had learnt from friends who studied philosophy that there was something called social theory, which seemed useful as a way to understand the world around us. So I took up philosophy. On the whole, I enjoyed it–but I missed attention to empirical evidence, and the link between theory and the empirical world. That was when I found anthropology, a discipline that included both empirical evidence/ethnography and theory–and everything fell into place. I became an anthropologist–first focusing on youth culture, and later on ballet and dance as a transnational occupation. My first study of the dance world (published in 1998) was Ballet across Borders: Career and Culture in the World of Dancers.   

Then Riverdance, the Irish dance show, made a global splash. I was intrigued by its success in very different countries and cultures. So I set out to do a major study of dance in Ireland–a country that, with its difficult history, artistic vein, and eloquence, was a most rewarding place for anthropological research.

In addition, it was easy and cheap to get there from Stockholm. It didn’t take long before I was doing what I came to think of as “yo-yo fieldwork,” going back and forth between Stockholm and Dublin on a regular basis. I spent one or two weeks at a time in the field—altogether, eight months. My study was published in 2007 as Dancing at the Crossroads: Memory and Mobility in Ireland.

It was during the research for this study that I spotted the novel, Dancers Dancing by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, in a Dublin book shop. Thinking it might be relevant for my study, I bought it, read it with great delight, and then was able to interview the author. This was my first contact with the contemporary literary world in Ireland.

I started reading work by Colm Tóibín, Colum McCann, Anne Enright, and Joseph O’Connor–all award-winning writers–and couldn’t stop.

Colum McCann (photo by Bryan Schutmaat for The New York Times)

 

I was impressed by the style and the stories, and I identified an ethnographic presence. I noticed that Roddy Doyle was publishing at a high speed. And, suddenly, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes was everywhere, selling like hotcakes.

Pulling together my lifelong love of literature with my anthropological experience of Ireland, I was thrilled to see a new study emerging: one of Irish writers in terms of their craft and career. It was triggered by one basic question: How come the Irish are such skilled writers? This was followed by two more: How do they learn to write? What does the Irish literary world look like—not just the world of writers, but also publishers, with all the attendant breakthroughs and competition?

 

AG:  I’m struck by how seamless your move from one project to another has felt to you, even though all these projects might appear so different from one another to a casual reader.

Can you talk about the interview process you’ve experienced across these projects? For example, dancers are notoriously reluctant to speak about their art. At least, many dancers I’ve known have often said something like, “If I could tell you about it, I wouldn’t need to dance it”! By contrast, for writers, verbal language is their chosen medium. Were the Irish writers you’ve interviewed happier than other interviewees to keep talking and talking?

HW: I wouldn’t say that the writers were happier than the dancers to keep talking and talking . . . but they were more difficult to get an appointment with, in the first place! (The dancers were easier to get hold of, as I spent many months with their companies, so I was around them on a daily basis.)

With the famous writers–just like the famous dancers–once I had them in front of me, I had to break through their shield of expectations, which inclined them to provide routine answers to journalistic questions that weren’t necessarily well-informed. This shield entailed a risk that they would be indifferent to the situation. I had to surprise them in order to get their engagement.

Asking John Banville, one of the most prominent and prolific contemporary Irish fiction writers: ”Why do you write?” was such a moment. He was taken aback and started thinking out aloud, off track. By then, I had established rapport with him.

I didn’t experience any significant differences between interviewing Irish dancers and Irish writers. There’s definitely a fascinating truth in Isadora Duncan’s famous observation:

“If I could tell you what it means, I would not have to dance it.”

But my questions for the dancers would mostly be about the social organization of the dance world–ranging from ”How come you started to dance?” and ”What is good dance?” to ”What do you think of dance critics?” and ”Tell me about camaraderie as well as competition in the dance world.”

I think it also mattered that I used to dance (ballet), myself. That meant that I had the vocabulary and general understanding of ballet culture, which the dancers appreciated. They often see themselves as misunderstood by other people.

 

AG:  That aspect of “native ethnography” was also relevant, to some extent, in your research with the Irish writers. But they may have also perceived themselves as “native ethnographers” of you, as well. Did you ever find yourself reversing roles with them? That is to say, did you ever fear that the writers might end up interviewing you (or just observing you), to make you into a character in one of their books?

HW: Unlike most Irish writers, who are eloquent speakers as well as sociable people, there was one writer I interviewed who told me beforehand, on e-mail, that she was ”a reserved, private person,” and that she didn’t think she’d be able to contribute all that much to my study. But she agreed for us to meet up in a café in Dublin. I told her that I, too, used to be a shy person. I found her really pleasant, and we did connect, even though the interview was a bit slow in the beginning, as I felt I had to be careful. She kept her low-key approach but seemed to appreciate my questions. Then suddenly, she took charge! Amused, I realized that I was replying to her questions–about anthropology, my research, my writing, and my own family–in a more detailed way than I’d ever done before in an interview I was supposed to be conducting. It was funny and revealing to me. I remember thinking that she seemed to be taking the opportunity to do research for her own writing.

I haven’t come across myself as a character in any of her books yet. But I did notice that John Banville featured an anthropologist as a minor character in one of the books he wrote after I interviewed him!

In a similar vein, I did a pilot interview with Éilís Ní Dhuibhne for my research application for the project on Irish writers that I submitted to the Swedish Research Council.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

 

I was delighted to be awarded three years of funding for the research. Talking to Éilís about my plans for a study of writing as career and craft in Ireland turned out to give her an idea for a novel on the social organization of the literary world in Dublin, with all its collaborations, competitions, and even plagiarisms. It was published as Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow by Blackstaff in Belfast in 2007.

While inspired by certain circumstances in the literary world in Dublin, the novel does exaggerate, in order to make some points–as novels are allowed to do.

Such artistic license is also prevalent in Éilis’ short story, ”A Literary Lunch” (2012), where she satirizes the work of a board that awards literary prizes. In my book, I discuss how literary prizes are considered an important part of a writer’s career, not least because their publishers regard them as evidence that they have selected the right book to publish.

 

AG:  Few anthropologists have chosen either writers or literary texts as their research subject. In the preface, you summarize some of the main points of overlap between anthropology and literature. Any further thoughts about anthropologists who influenced you in your decision to take on this project?

HW:  As a student, I was already aware that Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz had an interest in literature, which I found reassuring. Later, I learned that James Clifford did as well. And when my contemporary, Nigel Rapport, wrote in 1994 about the ”prose and the passion” in the writings of E. M. Forster, I was intrigued and felt an affinity.

Even though I was deeply involved in my fieldwork and writing on ballet as a transnational occupation at the time, a desire to do an anthropological study of literature had already sprung up. It would have to wait, though, until I had completed my study of dance in Ireland. Then it was just a matter of course to stay in Ireland, but move to another topic, a prominent and influential topic in Ireland-–its writers. It made a lot of sense.

This was also when I started attending sessions on literary anthropology at the American Anthropological Association, sponsored by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

With pleasure, I had long identified a literary sensibility in a number of anthropologists who are well-known for something else. Now, I was excited to meet and read the work by anthropologists such as Paul Stoller, Kirin Narayan, Ruth Behar, Kristen Ghodsee, and yourself, who were fully engaged in literary anthropology.

 

AG:  What difference does anthropology make for a study of writers?  Can you talk about how the questions you asked about Irish writers’ lives might be different from the sorts of questions that biographers and literary scholars might ask?

HW:  Many contemporary literary scholars consider cultural, political or historical context, but their focus is on the literariness of the text, while anthropologists would focus on the context, while paying attention to the text. Not only for my study of writers, but also for both my studies of dancers, my guiding light has been Howard Becker’s Art Worlds, where he shows that artists don’t work in isolation, but in “art worlds”–in other words, in professional and cultural contexts.

As for biographers, while they might set their stories against a backdrop of culture, politics or history, their focus tends to be on private and/or professional lives. Mine is a study of a profession that sometimes can be understood through private lives–but, even more, through Ireland’s special situation historically.

 

AG:   I’m struck by how you organized the book. In a work about writers, one might have imagined a focus on a single writer in each chapter. Instead, each chapter addresses a component of the literary career, or the social organization of the literary world. Can you discuss what went into your thinking about how to structure the book’s chapters?

HW:  The structure of the book is chronological.  It starts out with learning how to write, then moves to the making of a writer’s career, breakthroughs, maintaining a reputation, drawbacks, and finally demise. This is also reflected in some writers’ career trajectories, beginning with the local literary milieu in Dublin via varieties of translations of their books into films and musical shows in London and New York; America as hope; and, finally, Irish literature and the world.

 

AG:  Given their literary expertise, are you more nervous about your interviewees reading this book than you have been with earlier projects? Has any of the writers (or agents or others in the publishing world) read it and shared any reactions with you yet?

HW:  I’m not more nervous about this book. Ballet dancers, contemporary dancers, as well as Irish dancers were all experts in the fields I was writing about, and I did get really appreciative feedback from dancers who read those books. I felt mutual respect with them, as I did with the writers.

I may hear about other commentaries, but for now I’m very pleased that two of the writers (that I know of) have read Rhythms of Writing and say that they are ”impressed.” Another reaction is a very favorable review in The Irish Times by Anne Fogarty, an esteemed professor of James Joyce Studies at University College Dublin. This was fabulous not only because the review was substantial and very positive, but also because Fogarty, who is a literary scholar, appreciated my anthropological take on her world.

 

AG:  Speaking of reviews: In the book, you profile the structure of the literary marketplace. Do you see any overlaps with scholarly publishing? Any warning signs for us scholars to take note of? Any lessons we scholar-authors might learn?

HW:  Yes, there are overlaps between literary and scholarly publishing, not least in the notion of a prestige hierarchy of publishers. Among Irish writers it’s more prestigious to publish in London or New York with a global conglomerate than in Dublin with a local boutique publisher, even though that’s where most writers start.

A warning sign for us scholars to take note of is the rise and impact of the agent. Irish writers who publish internationally all have agents, but I did hear certain reservations about these brokers from both writers and publishers. There were writers who found that they had to revise their texts according to the agent’s criteria, and these criteria would follow the agent’s predictions of the market, rather than the writer’s own literary inclinations. But then, the agent may actually be right.

For publishers, the agents are necessary, as it’s often agents who spot a new talent. Yet one editor was quite frank with me in his description of how agents put their own interests first, in terms of making money for themselves.

There are, of course, already scholar-authors in the U.S. who have agents, and this might well work for them. Still, for those of us who have a firm engagement in writing as a craft, and take a lot of pride in formulating sentences and keep searching for new expressions, the idea to have not only an editor and peer-reviewers but also an agent suggesting revisions, if not enforcing them, seems scary, to say the least. For in the end, who is the author, then?

 

AG:  Let’s end on a happier note! Can you say something about your new research on  “world literatures” beyond the Euro-American traditions?

HW:  This is an anthropological study of the social world of migrant writers and their work in Sweden. I’ve just published a piece introducing the research–“Diversifying from within: Diaspora Writings in Sweden.” It’s part of a major interdisciplinary research program on World Literatures funded by the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences. As with my study of Irish writers, I’m investigating the making of a migrant writer’s career–how these writers learn to write, as well as drawbacks, the publishing industry (including the notion of ”the migrant writer”), their breakthroughs, and their role as public intellectuals.

Sweden used to boast an ethnically welcoming policy, but has now restricted its migration and refugee intake. There is also a growing anti-immigration party. Still, these writers are diversifying Sweden from within. Some of them have international reputations. While the Irish writers were surfing on the mighty fame of their predecessors such as James Joyce and Seamus Heaney, migrant writers in Sweden are not associated with August Strindberg or Astrid Lindgren. So, how is it that the writings of Jonas Hassen Khemiri (of partly Tunisian origin) on terrorism and racism in Sweden have become acclaimed in New York, London, Tokyo and many other places across the globe?

Doing Development the Right Way: A Conversation with Charles Piot

Anthropologist Charlie Piot has been conducting research on the political economy and history of rural West Africa for over thirty years. His first book, Remotely Global: Village Modernity in West Africa (1999), has gained wide attention for re-theorizing a classic, out-of-the-way place as existing within the modern and the global.

 

His next book, Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa after the Cold War (2010), explored shifts in Togolese political culture during the 1990s, when NGOs and charismatic churches reorganized social and political life in the absence of the state.

His current project focuses on Togolese who apply for, and attempt to game, the US Diversity Visa Lottery.

You can find out more about Charles Piot’s work on his Duke University website here.

While pursuing his own research in Togo, Piot now brings undergraduate students from his U.S. campus (Duke University) for short stays in the West African villages of the Kabre people where he has made a second home.  While there over summer and winter breaks, the students have developed and pursued their own, small-scale development projects.  In developing these projects, the students aim to tap into both their own skills and the needs of the villagers.

Neophytes are notoriously doomed to fail in such culturally and politically sensitive work. But these students are lucky to have Professor Piot to guide them in the exceptionally thoughtful and informed way that anthropologists do best.  Many of the projects have already proven transformative, while the failures have proven instructive.

Piot has worked with the students to publish a striking collection of essays chronicling their efforts.  The result: Doing Development in West Africa: A Reader by and for Undergraduates (Duke University Press, 2016).

Anthropologist Brad Weiss calls the book “an innovative . . . eminently readable and teachable text valuable to courses in international relations, political science, and anthropology.”

The book was “Highly recommended” for libraries by Choice.

Recently, Charlie and I had a conversation online about the book.  During part of our conversation, Charlie was actually back in the villages, checking up on recent projects and tweaking them to make improvements.  I think you’ll find the conversation fascinating.

CP: Charles Piot

AG: Alma Gottlieb

 

AG:  This book features projects that your undergraduate students at Duke have undertaken in a rural area of Togo where you’ve conducted research among the Kabre people for a few decades.  What inspired you to compile a book of essays by and about research in West Africa done by American undergrads?

CP: The idea for the book was entirely student-driven!  One year’s group of students with academic leanings – all three went on to graduate study, with one now pursuing a PhD in medical anthropology – asked if they might write up the results of their summer projects in an Independent Study class.

I agreed and put them through the paces – first week, produce an abstract; second week, an Introduction; and so on.  Before you knew it, they each had short articles, which were surprisingly strong.  One of the students asked if we couldn’t try to publish them, and of course I said, “Sure”–while secretly imagining that we’d end up publishing them on a website of our own design.

But one thing led to another.  We added more essays the following year.  We found some money to fly in to Duke an anthropologist (John Hawkins) who had published a similar book of student essays, and he gave us outstanding editorial advice.  We had lunch with a Duke University Press editor who was super-supportive of the idea – for him, it was a novelty, a book by undergraduates for undergraduates about development – and said he’d send the essays out for review.  But then, of course, the real work of producing a book – of editing and fitting all the pieces together – began.

Then, too, the projects themselves have always drawn me in.  These projects – all, student-designed – are interesting and doing important work in the villages.  And they tell interesting cultural stories.

Recipient of the Writer’s Collective Award for Best Poem (with a Duke Student), in a Kabre Village (Togo)

 

Finally, the problems and challenges of development in West Africa are vexing and fascinating.  I didn’t used to think so.  In fact, in years past, I would run the other way when I saw a development worker.  But now I find issues of development not only urgent but also (as Lévi-Strauss might have said) “good to think with.”

2017 Group of Duke University Students in a Kabre Village (Togo) 

 

AG:  Let’s start with that last comment.  As an Africanist, I spent three decades lecturing to students about the failures of large-scale “development” programs across Africa.  I suspect you did, too.  Yet we both find ourselves now working with small-scale “development” projects in our fieldsites.  Or maybe, it’s because we found so much wrong with those large-scale programs that we’ve both now embraced much more local, small-scale projects, in spaces we know well.  (Your work with these projects in Togo is exactly why Philip Graham and I invited you to join the Advisory Board of the Beng Community Fund that we founded, to create small-scale projects with Beng villagers in Côte d’Ivoire.)

In helping your students design their micro-projects, do you find yourself thinking explicitly about the failures of so many past IMF (etc.)-funded projects in Africa, and working with these students to design projects that will avoid those well-documented problems?

 

CP: Everything we do in Togo is tied to the spectre of development’s many failures that you reference.  My own feeling is that many of those failures, whether large-scale or small, are due to the failure to understand or engage with local culture.  How can you introduce new systems of debt (that come in with a microfinance project) if you don’t understand local notions of debt?  How can you design farming or health projects if you don’t understand local labor and cultivation practices, the way gender and labor intersect, and even local conceptions of the body?  But, astonishingly, most development projects never get down in the weeds of the local like this.  They assume the benefits of their projects will be obvious to all.  So they hire technicians and economists and agronomists, who are all well-versed in the Western sciences—but, rarely, anthropologists!

All of our projects in Togo – a microfinance opportunity for teens, a village health insurance system, computer classes, a writers’ collective – attempt to draw on local knowledge from the get-go, from design to implementation.  If we’ve had any success at all–and I believe we have– it’s because of our attention to local culture and history.

But there are no guarantees!  Indeed, as a provocation, I tell the students they shouldn’t get their hopes up too much, they should remain humble (and assume that locals know much more than they do – about farming, their bodies, local institutions), and even expect failure.  But such failure can be instructive in informing future efforts.

Another blind spot of many development projects is sustainability and follow-up.  Do they ever think about the time, five or ten years down the road, when the outside director or project manager will no longer be there?  Usually not.  This is a topic I’m preoccupied with right now.  What will happen to these projects after I stop taking students to Togo?  And what happens each year after we leave?  Do the computer classes live on, does the microfinance project continue to function?  I’m actually in Togo right now for a few weeks for that very reason, to follow up on all of the projects and continue to brainstorm the question of sustainability.

Charlie Piot Drinking Sorghum Beer with a Local Chief in a Togolese Village

 

AG: That’s fantastic that you’re writing about this from the village–using Internet supplied by one of your students’ projects.  That would certainly be one of the success stories.   Can you talk about the projects that have been the most–and least–sustainable?  In the case of the projects that are faltering, are the obstacles more technical, or sociological, or economic, or emotional . . .or a combination of some or all the above?  Are there things you now realize you could do in the future to make new student projects more sustainable?

Wireless Relay Station outside a Kabre Village (Togo) Demonstrated by Duke Student

 

CP: A nice question!  I’ll respond by discussing two examples of projects of ours that have had mixed success.

First, the health insurance system we’ve set up in a village clinic.  With this project, member families get free consultation and pay 25% the normal cost of medications, all for $4 a year per family.  The project has had fluctuating membership since it began 10 years ago, with only 25 families out of 200 currently enrolled.  And this, despite the fact that all insurees are unanimous in their praise of the benefits of the system.  Every year, we interview members and non-members to try to get to the bottom of why more families aren’t signing up.

Some of their responses: the health insurance scheme requires payment on a schedule, while the local system of payment and debt is more accommodating to unforeseen contingencies; the indigenous system of medicines is also efficacious and cheaper (you never “thank” a healer until after you are cured, with payment in kind – some beer, a chicken); some worry that paying for a cure before you fall sick might (through mystical means) bring on the sickness; others want to know if they can get their money back at the end of the year if they never attend the clinic.  All these responses make us realize how culturally shaped the idea of “health insurance” is!

The second example involves the cyber café.

                Muddy Flip-flops Left outside the Entrance to the Kudwe Cyber Café                          in a Kabre Village (Togo)

 

The computer classes we’ve offered while we’re there have been wildly successful.

Schoolroom Chalkboard Demonstrating the French Keyboard in a Kabre Village (Togo)

And we’ve found a high school student, a real wiz, who took our classes, to teach them to others after we left.  That could make the project sustainable beyond our presence.

Students inside Classroom in a Kabre Village (Togo)

But last month, when I was visiting the villages, I discovered that the cyber café has been closed to classes since we left last August, because the person responsible was transferred to a town fifty miles away,  and the person taking over hasn’t yet done what they call a “transfer of power” (passation de service), because no one has yet compiled an inventory of the materials in the cyber café.

So, as you can see, these are not technical problems–they’re social and cultural.  And while both projects are “successful” – the health plan works well for some families, and we’ve taught computer and Internet skills to several hundred youth in the villages – they’ve nevertheless fallen short of realizing their full potential.

 

AG: You’re unusually honest in assessing the weak spots of promising projects. I’m guessing this is because your training as an anthropologist compels you to see the social fissures that are invisible to the directors of so many large-scale development projects, who often focus on the technical components alone.  Our propensity as anthropologists to see the invisible but powerful lines of the social universe may make it easy for us to spot problems that elude the gaze of others.

But, does that skill also enable us to fix the problems?  For example, once you discovered the personnel problem with the cyber café, did you perceive any viable way to tackle it?

The insurance situation strikes me as even more challenging, because there, you’re dealing with a clash of values, and that’s almost always far trickier to address than other challenges.

Thinking about both these projects–with their encouraging yet mixed successes–I wonder if you have thoughts about how the next group of Duke students you bring to Togo might brainstorm solutions that could further address this thorny but critical question of sustainability.

CP: I do think our training as anthropologists aims our attention to the social life of communities, with all its messiness and conflict and fissure.  Do these insights also enable us to find solutions to the problems of development in small-scale contexts like this?  In principle, yes.

To stay with the example of the cyber café we’ve installed: despite the frustrating loss of time – eight months of inactivity – my students and I have familiarity with the lines of authority at the cyber café and in the larger community, and we know what jealousies might be in play—so we are able to brainstorm solutions with local allies.

In this case, a promising outcome is in progress – and one that may vault the cyber-café into a whole new orbit of activity, with a private entrepreneur from a different ethnic group managing it, while adding a photo-copier and printer, and installing a money transfer kiosk. (Local wisdom is to go outside the community to look for a manager, as locals might attempt to poach on the goodwill of a family member or close acquaintance, quickly bankrupting the enterprise.)  So – perhaps!  Only time will tell if this will be a failure-into-success story.  If it does, even a success will surely generate its own new round of challenges and setbacks.

But, development in such a context is always like this.  If we’re lucky, we might take three steps forward for every two steps back.  And, in any case, staying with the challenges has its own rewards.

2017 Teen Microfinance Awardees (and Family Member Guarantors) in a Kabre Village (Togo)

 

Is History Over? How Can Power be Soft? Ask Ulf Hannerz

 

  • The end of history
  • The clash of civilizations
  • The coming anarchy
  • Soft power

We’ve all heard these trendy mottos, and most of us have probably cringed.

Anthropologists know the world as an infinitely more complex place than such simplistic catch-phrases and predictions can possibly describe.

Yet simplistic catch-phrases and predictions are–well, catchy.

In a new book, instead of dismissing them out of hand, Ulf Hannerz tackles these pseudo-scholarly slogans head-on.

One of our discipline’s most renowned, thoughtful, and witty writers, Hannerz has just published a new collection of tightly interrelated essays analyzing the blockbuster books that have promoted popular yet maddeningly misleading scenarios predicting anything from political realignment of continents to doom and gloom for the world.

UlfHannerzKolkata2015

Writing Future Worlds: An Anthropologist Explores Global Scenarios (Springer/Palgrave, 2016) appears as part of a new series, Palgrave Studies in Literary Anthropology, edited by Deborah Reed-Danahay and Helena Wulff.

The book’s prologue + nine chapters (some, previously published in different forms) combine to make a case that anthropology is more relevant than ever.

Anthropologist Didier Fassin has this to say about the book:

With his uniquely elegant style and subtle irony, Ulf Hannerz offers a penetrating anthropological reflection on this singular anticipatory genre that simplifies and dramatizes the representation of global tensions. Multiplying examples and crossing perspectives, he proposes an indispensable critical analysis of the way in which our worldviews are shaped.

And Michael Herzfeld cheekily sums up the book’s importance by urging:

This book deserves greater and longer-lasting prominence than those with which it engages.

You can find a Table of Contents and an excerpt from the Prologue here.

And the publisher offers discounted e-books for sale here.

Hannerz, Writing Future Worlds-Photo (Front & Back Covers)

I recently interviewed Ulf Hannerz online.  Here’s what he had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; UH = Ulf Hannerz):

 

Interview with Ulf Hannerz

AG:

Traditionally, cultural anthropologists have specialized in local, micro-communities.  In this book, instead of a remote village, you train your eyes on a very different tribe: the miniscule set of public intellectuals who have published books claiming to explain everything occurring in the modern world, and predicting what will happen next to our species and our planet.  As an anthropologist, what special insights can you bring to this tribe?

 

UH:

Let me contextualize and historicize a bit. There was a time when most social science and humanities disciplines were quite Eurocentric, and anthropologists seemed to have much of the world more or less to themselves, as far as the production of scholarly knowledge was concerned. That began to change in the Cold War era with “area studies programs” and the like, and then toward the end of the twentieth century, terms like “globalization” and “transnational” entered our vocabulary. Some time in the 1990s, after periods of field work in a Nigerian town for one thing (and finding “creolization”), I began to take an overall interest in the landscape of transnational knowledge production, in and out of academia. I did a first conference paper identifying three categories of professional people who, like anthropologists, had been pioneers in that field: spies, missionaries, and foreign correspondents. Their objectives and working circumstances were, of course, quite different from those of anthropologists. And, characteristically, the relationships between them and the anthropologists have tended to be complicated. I described that effort as “studying sideways,” and that is what I have been doing since.

“Studying up” and “studying down” in anthropology have involved mostly differences in power and privilege. “Studying sideways” is more a matter of looking at groups on more or less parallel tracks of knowledge production–in the scholarly disciplines, in the media, or wherever. I turned first to news media foreign correspondents, and a book came out of that – Foreign News (2004). Incidentally, when I first made contact with some of them, introducing myself as an anthropologist, they responded, “So we will be your tribe.”

Now, what can I bring as an anthropologist, studying sideways into the genre of global future scenarios? For one thing, a knowledge of relevant ethnography. Even when the writers in question do touch ground somewhere in the world, you may get eloquent, impressionistic reporting, but often shoddy, misleading description. And that reporting is very uneven – people’s everyday life can be very important in generating their futures, and the scenario writers tend to give little attention to that. Probably they have seen little of it, in other parts of the world.

I would also compare their concepts with ours. For one thing, a number of them use the culture concept in ways that few anthropologists would now accept.  Indeed, they may be inclined to what, within our discipline, has recently been described as “cultural fundamentalism.” Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis stands out as one example. I know there are anthropologists who feel that as the concept is often misused, we should just give up on “culture.” I think that is an ostrich policy. The concept will not go away just because one academic discipline turns away from it. If it is a key notion in understanding human life, and involves matters where we may still be recognized as having some intellectual authority, let us use that in whistleblowing when we feel that the culture concept is misused. So I use it above all as a matter of understanding the organization of human diversity, varying in scale between the global ecumene and microcultures, and always in motion in time and space. That matters, whether you are dealing with “soft power” or “Jihad versus McWorld.”

 

AG:

The authors you profile in this book propose models for understanding human societies that most anthropologists would dismiss as hopelessly reductionistic. Besteman and Gusterson (2005) and others have already scorned these “pundits” for having gotten everything wrong.  What made you decide to spend more time commenting on their simplistic (often binary) models?

 

UH:

Part of the answer is that I had already started on this before Besteman’s and Gusterson’s Why America’s Top Pundits are Wrong came out. I fundamentally agreed with their and their collaborators’ critiques. But I also felt that there was much more to be said. For one thing, there was that title. Certainly, these “top pundits” may have been American, and addressing primarily U.S. readers – a general audience, but sometimes not least the White House, Foggy Bottom and Pentagon.

Even in the American context, the place of the “scenarios” in public culture seemed interesting. The writers inhabited a complex terrain of academia, media, think tanks and politics, and there was an interplay between the long-term views of the scenarios they proposed, and that daily coverage of international news that I knew about from my study of foreign correspondents.  Since I came from an anthropological interest in the ways that networks weave in and out of institutional contexts, that probably intrigued me.

But then, the simplistic “scenarios” that those scholars and journalists proposed actually found quite a lot of readers just about everywhere. A number of these authors appeared on ranking lists of “top global public intellectuals.” I soon found their books, in the original or in translation, in airport book stalls all over Europe and Asia—often, next to how-to-succeed-in-business type books.) When Samuel Huntington died in 2006, one obituary noted that his “clash of civilizations” book had been translated into three dozen languages. For that matter, I could read in Swedish newspapers that the leader of the growing Swedish neonationalist, more or less xenophobic, political party had talked about the “clash of civilizations” as if it were an established fact, at campaign meetings in 2014.

That first generation of America’s top pundits, too, was in large part based somewhere on the stretch between Cambridge, MA, via New York to Washington, DC – with some trans-Atlantic commuters from Britain. This is the home ground of a lot of American academic, media, and political power. I add some number of writers from that group, like Joseph Nye, Robert Kagan and Niall Ferguson. Then, however, I go on to consider the contributions of a number of other, mostly later writers. Some of them resemble that prominent cohort of anthropologists, particularly in the United States, who have sometimes playfully described themselves as “halfies”: people who have some of their personal background linking them to other parts of the world. This includes people like Amy Chua (actually more famous for her “Tiger mother” book on tough-minded parenthood) and Fareed Zakaria – with his Harvard Ph.D. (advised by Samuel Huntington) but more recently a CNN talk show host, and a Washington Post columnist.

But I also consider a number of contributors to the scenario genre from elsewhere in the world: including Bernard-Henri Lévy and Amin Maalouf from France, and Kishore Mahbubani from Singapore. These, again, are global public intellectuals, with mixed academic, political, and media involvements. With people like these, the “global future scenario” genre really becomes part of a world-wide public culture. I would like to see it as a space of conversations about the future of the world. Yet the trouble is that there is not a whole lot of dialogue. Those European and Asian writers are frequently familiar with the American pundits and comment on them, but the Americans do not seem to pay much attention to these far-away others.  That, of course, is another, dubious, aspect of American soft power.

 

AG:

Most anthropologists do face-to-face ethnographic fieldwork with live humans living in communities.  You’ve done plenty of this sort of fieldwork yourself.  But in this book, your interlocutors are authors, many of them fellow Ph.D.-bearing scholars in the social sciences who you’ve never met (notably, Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, Joseph Nye, Thomas Friedman, among others).  Moreover, unlike your book about foreign correspondents—who you interviewed—for this book, your data set is the corpus of books, not their authors.  What was it like to do this sort of virtual fieldwork in the “virtual community,” if we might call it that, of quasi-scholarly books, without doing a single interview, let alone “participant observation”?  Or, do you consider the act of reading the books you discuss here, a literary form of “participant observation”?

 

UH:

With the foreign correspondents, I had interviews of a kind I like to think of extended, free-flowing conversations, and I liked many of them as persons. I tend not to feel comfortable in the role of adversarial interviewer – I suspect many anthropologists don’t – and talking to writers of whose work I am in large part critical, that is what I would have to have been.

Hannerz, Foreign News-Front Cover

Moreover, I have heard people who have interviewed veteran interviewees complain that these would tend to drift into their routine responses, without listening very carefully to the questions. I suspect that might have happened too often, had I been given a chance to talk to the stars of scenario writing.  So, in my book I really don’t say very much about the writers themselves.  Instead, concentrate on the texts and their reception–their impact both nationally and transnationally.

I did conduct a set of interviews with academics in Tokyo about how the “scenarios” were received in Japan. As far as the texts are concerned, I found them interesting not only in terms of content, but also with regard to style. Writing about the future is necessarily at least semi-fiction, so I place the scenarios next to other such varieties of writing, like “subjunctive reporting” and “counterfactual history.” There is also the way their various key messages are summarized as fast food for thought, often through more or less counterintuitive catch phrases, like “the end of history,” or “the world is .”

 

AG:

Ha, yes–more like marketing slogans than analytic concepts.  There’s an argument to be made that these “future scenario” books really belong more in the genre of science fiction than social science.

 

UH:

Then, certainly, there is also the issue of the success or failure of the scenarios in anticipating what would really happen in the world, and the relationship between texts and coming realities. A hundred years ago, you had the famous commentator-muckraker Lincoln Steffens proclaim, “I have seen the future, and it works.” He made that remark about the young Soviet Union. Well, it did not really. That cohort of future scenarios that started appearing after the Soviet Union came to an end has also been a set of clear failures and mixed successes.

But what part did they play in shaping the future? Some commentators feared that Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” scenario might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So far, that has hardly happened – at least not on any major scale.

In fact, if you see the scenarios as in large part dystopic, early warnings, you may see them as the opposite–possibly self-destructive.  People read them, shake their heads, and do something about the threats.

Again, I would think one can most usefully see the scenarios as a kind of global conversation pieces. But then, it helps if they are really well-informed, and manage to reach out at the same time.

 

AG:

The books you analyze all claim to predict the future.  This past year has caught many “pundits” in the prediction business by surprise.  Looking back on two of the biggest political surprises to “experts” in the UK and the US—the Brexit and Trump votes—can you say that any of the authors you discuss in your book would have predicted these outcomes?

 

UH:

I suspect Robert Kaplan, who stands out as a conservative anti-elitist–in a way, a populist–might be least surprised, given the books he’s written reporting on his travels in the US. Samuel Huntington, rather anti-Muslim in his “clash of civilizations” scenario (“Islam has bloody borders”) and warning of Mexican immigration in his last book, Who Are We? (2004), could just have fit into a Trump administration if he had been alive.

Probably most of the others would have been fairly surprised. If there had ever been an “end of history” of the kind once sketched by Fukuyama, Trump seems more likely to start it going again – intentionally or unintentionally. Thomas Friedman certainly shows in his New York Times columns that he is no Trump admirer. And Joseph Nye’s program for “soft power” will not get much funding from Donald Trump.

 

AG:

Given your vast reading of world history, what surprised you the most in 2016?

 

UH:

In October 2016, before the election, I did two commentaries on the election campaign, one for a Cultural Anthropology  blog–presumably mostly for an American audience—and another one in Swedish for the new blog site of the Swedish Anthropological Association.  It was an interesting experience, writing about the same thing for two different audiences.

Looking back at them, I see that I did not take a Clinton victory for granted. But then, I had been reading some “early warning literature” relating to the American scene – beginning with Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2005)–a fair number of years ago, and then, coming closer, Mark Leibovich’s This Town (2013), about the Washington, DC elite, and George Packer’s The Unwinding the same year, an account of a country coming apart, to mention some. And then, around mid-year 2016, one book quickly became a bestseller: J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, basically an auto-ethnography. In large part, these are books by journalists. I was only a little sorry not to find more anthropologists contributing some visible grassroots ethnography to this literature.

 

AG:

Indeed, that’s a real failing on our part.

 

UH:

Then I might add that some time ago, I wrote a piece titled “The American Theater State,” inspired by Clifford Geertz’ interpretation of the precolonial Balinese state. This essay just appeared in the book, America Observed, edited by Virginia Dominguez and Jasmin Habib (2016). Changing the notion of the theater state into a traveling and comparative concept, I suggested that Americans had turned it over sideways: if the Balinese had celebrated hierarchy, the ruling obsession in American political culture became one of a dramatization of egalitarianism – no less urgent when real social inequality actually grew. As I see it, in the campaign phase of American party politics, each candidate must build his/her own campaign apparatus, and create his/her own personal “brand.” A presidential candidate should be someone to identify with: someone with appealing interests and personality. But again and again, it helps that the boundaries of politics are porous, so that existing symbolic capital can be imported from other domains: the entertainment industry, big business, televangelism, the drama of warfare.

 

So Donald Trump may be an extreme case, but he is not the first one to move in his career from show business into politics: remember Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fred Thompson. And at present, there is a senator from Minnesota who came into politics from “Saturday Night Live.”  My favorite case here is really George Wallace’s third-party campaign in 1968. Governor Wallace, a populist in his time, tried to recruit John Wayne from Hollywood for the vice-presidential slot – Wayne was just then on the screens in Green Berets, the Vietnam War epic. But Wayne stayed loyal to the Republicans. So then Wallace reputedly attempted to get Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), to take on this part, before ending up with General Curtis LeMay. Which was a disaster.

 

AG:

Ha, you probably have a better memory of these strange nooks and crannies of American political history than most Americans.

Well, however much they disagree on particular points, all the “scenarios” you discuss in this book share a broad look at global politics.  By contrast, both the US and the UK have recently voted for a candidate or a policy, respectively, that would drastically close borders and limit immigrants.  Beyond these leading Anglophone nations, one might suggest that the opposed forces of globalization and xenophobia are at war in many nations these days.  Or, perhaps, that’s yet another simplistic binary scenario.  Regardless: who do you think best explains the current moment?

 

UH:

Probably there is no simple explanation. Above all, there is probably the fact that globalization has had its winners and its losers – which is not only a matter of competition, but also of technological changes. And established political elites have tended to pay too little attention to this, which has left a wide field open to protest parties and politicians, strong in declining areas, and combining economic messages with xenophobic scaremongering. I actually have a chapter on this in Writing Future Worlds, focusing on an early phase with such scenario notions as “Eurabia” and “Londonistan,” and Huntington’s anti-Mexican book. Islamist terrorism seems to me to be a mirror image of this, in the Middle East and in the banlieus of western Europe.

But then, one should see that 2017 has also brought some reasonably good news. It is true that xenophobic populism is now on the scene more or less everywhere in Europe, with political parties that are among the larger in many countries–but that has been in large part because the opposition to them is divided into so many parties, from establishment conservatives to Greens and post-Communists. They are mostly far from a majority of their own – the elections in the Netherlands, France, and Britain have shown that. In part, of course, that may be a reaction to Donald Trump’s presidency. And that in itself is a result of that peculiarity of the American electoral system whereby the loser of the popular vote has become president in two recent elections out of five.

One more thing: the early cohort of scenario writers paid little or no attention to the new media, which then grew and diversified extremely quickly in the period that followed.  Obviously, social media have played a major role, everywhere from the abortive 2011 Arab Spring to the 2016 election in the United States. That is a real revolution, penetrating social life just about everywhere.

 

AG:

Indeed–and we anthropologists, like other scholars, have been slow to catch up with those horses long out of the gate.

In many other arenas, you’ve been on the vanguard.  You’ve produced one of the first urban ethnographies of African-American communities, you’ve pioneered the anthropology of transnational flows, and you’ve interrogated the contemporary moment in anthropology.  What’s next?

 

UH:

Actually, I also have another new book, Small Countries: Structures and Sensibilities (2017), co-edited with Andre Gingrich, my friend and colleague in Vienna. We deal largely with countries up to 10 million inhabitants or so.  That includes some European countries like the Scandinavian countries and Austria, but we also have contributors writing about Jamaica, Sierra Leone, Israel, Singapore and New Zealand. A major point is that smallness may be both absolute and relative: the size of the population, on one hand, with its implications for the structure of social relationships; but also, perhaps, the presence of some large, more or less dominant neighbor, on the other. Ireland next to Great Britain, for example; or Austria next to Germany; or New Zealand next to Australia.

Hannerz & Gingrich, Small Countries-Structures & Sensibilities

Mostly, in my anthropological endeavors, I have not written much about my home country of Sweden, but in this case, in a concluding chapter, I get somewhat auto-ethnographic: I try to show how Swedish smallness is reflected in my own encounter with His Majesty the King, in the context and aftermath of the assassination of a prime minister, and in the festivities surrounding Nobel Prize awards.

After this editing project: well, I am leaning back a bit, but playing with different possibilities.

 

AG:  Any time you want to take a break from well-deserved relaxation, your many fans await.

 

Writing Future Worlds-Front Cover

 

 

A Review of “Euphoria” by Lily King

The novel, Euphoria, by Lily King, published in 2014, became a national best-seller and won several major literary awards.  Based loosely on a brief period in the life of Margaret Mead as she hesitated between Reo Fortune (to whom she was married) and Gregory Bateson (who the couple met while conducting research in New Guinea), the book brought wide attention to the iconic figure of 20th century American anthropology.  How did the novel shape up as a piece of intellectual history?

*

I should say from the outset that I enjoyed Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014). I read it in a week.  At the literary level, it’s wonderfully written. I didn’t wince at awkward language or edit paragraphs in my head.  I understood why the book became a national bestseller and won several literary prizes.

Euphoria

Nevertheless, a few days after having finished it, I found myself increasingly critical and disappointed.

Spoiler alert: The rest of this review is all about the book’s ending.

Sorry about that. But for me, as an anthropologist, the ending is what really stuck with me as the book lingered in my mind.

So here’s the basic storyline.

Margaret Mead (“Nell Stone”) and fellow anthropologist, the New Zealand-born Reo Fortune (“Sedgwick Fenwick,” nicknamed “Fen”), meet on a ship and fall in love. Margaret Mead and another fellow anthropologist, Ruth Benedict (“Helen”), have an affair. Reo Fortune gives Margaret Mead a choice of him or Benedict, and she chooses Fortune. Mead and Fortune marry (in 1928) and travel to New Guinea to conduct fieldwork with two ethnic groups (in 1931-33). Their marriage is problematic. The more we get to know Reo Fortune, the more odious he seems. It’s easy to imagine why Mead is looking for an excuse to leave him. Enter yet another anthropologist, the British-born Gregory Bateson (“Andrew Bankson”).

Bateson, Mead and Fortune in 1933.

Bateson, Mead, and Fortune in Sydney, Australia (1933)

The rest of the book works out this steamy, jungle–based love triangle (sometimes morphing into a love quadrangle, with Ruth Benedict lingering like a shadow in the background, half a world away).  The local New Guineans serve as exotic and useful backdrops, with cameo appearances and disappearances of individuals but, unfortunately, no well-sketched characters rounded out the way Mead, Benedict, and Fortune are.

The plot is basically Boy Meets Girl (interspersed from time to time with Girl Meets Girl), Second Boy Meets Girl, Girl Agonizes over which Boy to Choose, Girl Gets Pregnant by Boy #1, and . . . Girl Dies in Childbirth?!

Anyone who’s familiar with the four protagonists knows how this story ended in real life. Reo Fortune lost, Ruth Benedict lost, Gregory Bateson won (he and Mead married in 1936), and Catherine Bateson was the result (born in 1939), attesting to this love tri/quadrangle’s outcome. At least, that’s how things turned out until Bateson left Mead in 1947, later to be replaced by fellow anthropologist Rhoda Métraux as Mead’s partner from 1955 until Mead’s death in 1978 of pancreatic cancer. Margaret Mead & Gregory Bateson

Mead and Bateson among the Iatmul in New Guinea (1961)

 

But not in Lily King’s book.

In this alternate reality, before Margaret Mead has a chance to decide to leave Reo Fortune, she miscarries while on a ship to New York, and she dies at sea from hemorrhaging. Gregory Bateson learns of the tragedy while preparing to sail to New York to try once again to convince Margaret Mead to leave Reo Fortune and spend the rest of her life with him.

*

Well, Lily King is a fiction writer.  By definition, she’s allowed to make stuff up.  In fact, she could make everything up.  That’s her stock in trade.

But she’s decided to craft a novel populated by characters based on actual people whose actual lives are actually documented. She’s taken pains to conduct meticulous research on the lives of Mead, Fortune, and Bateson while in New Guinea. Of course, the love scenes are imagined, but the basic contours of what they were doing, and where, hews closely in many ways to their known biographies. Up to the bizarre ending, King has painted an entirely plausible portrait of three people’s lives based on their documented experiences. But then she suddenly switches gears to imagine a substantially alternate reality for these real people who lived real lives in the public eye. If King had good reason for doing so, I could have remained a fan of the book. But she never clarifies, at least for me, why she suddenly fictionalized the basic facts into a drastically alternate scenario.

Had King’s fictional scenario come to pass, the history of anthropology in the 20th century would have looked different. If Margaret Mead’s life had been tragically cut short in the 1930s, as this fiction proposes, what might have been the result? After the years chronicled in the novel, the actual Margaret Mead became the only true public intellectual American anthropology has yet produced–with household name recognition, thanks to her monthly columns in the Ladies Home Journal. If Mead had died in the 1930s, the discipline might well have languished with far less funding, far less prestige, many fewer students taking courses, fewer departments in universities, and far fewer women entering anthropology (and maybe other social sciences as well). Mead not only publicized anthropology, she forged and publicized the possibility of a major female scholar gaining international attention.

Mead Speaking on UN Radio, 1958

Mead speaking on United Nations Radio about the Seminar on Mental Health and Infant Development sponsored by the World Federation of Mental Health (1952)

Mead on Steps of US Capital Bldg, 197

Mead on the steps of the US Capital with the staff that created her signature look in her later years (Jan. 1, 1973)

Of course, we can’t ever know, for sure, what the discipline of anthropology might have become without Mead’s last forty years —that’s the nature of counterfactual stories. But it would have been intriguing for King to speculate on this “What-if” scenario that she postulates. Instead, the story stops short at Mead’s untimely death, with only a brief postscript of sorts, decades later–recounting a brief scene with Gregory Bateson in the American Museum of Natural History in New York (where the real Margaret Mead in fact worked as a curator of ethnology for most of her career, as sexism kept her from a tenure-track or tenured position in any university).

Absent any speculation about how different anthropology would have looked without the giant figure of Margaret Mead, who publicized our discipline as no one, before or since, has ever done, the book’s ending thudded hard for me, with a crashing weight. Lily King hasn’t gifted us with her vision of how her counterfactual narrative might have played out. Right at the moment when the book promises to get insanely interesting, the story aborts.

And why did Lily King even imagine an untimely death of Margaret Mead, preventing her character from having the impact both on the discipline, and on American society, that she went on to have? Again, with that abrupt ending, that question is never answered.

Okay, fiction writers are allowed to pose questions they don’t answer. But, why this question for this character?

This reader was left frustrated.

*

Meanwhile, young women seeking professional role models could do far worse than to read the works of Margaret Mead, memoirs of her life (1901-78) by those who knew her, and Mead’s own early autobiography (Blackberry Winter) and her fascinating Letters from the Field. She was an amazing woman, ahead of her time on so many levels. King starts to show us how. I wish she’d finished the job.

 

Howard, Mead-A LifeBowman-Kruhm, Mead BioGrainger, Uncommon Lives-My Life w M Mead

Lutkehaus, Mead-The Making of an American Icon Mead Bio for Kids Med, Blackberry WinterMead, Letters from the Field
  Saunders, Mead-The World Was Her Family

Anthropologist Author Interviews

Today, I began a new series on my blog: interviews with anthropologists about their new books!

author-interview-image

We anthropologists often write wonderful books . . . that find too few readers.

What better way to find new readers for a book than to interview its author?

I begin this series by interviewing Kristen Ghodsee about her fabulous new book about the craft of writing readable ethnography (From Notes to Narrative: Writing Ethnography that Everyone Can Read).  You can find this inaugural interview here.

Watch out for upcoming interviews with Rosa DeJorio (Cultural Heritage in Mali in the Neoliberal Era) and Jennifer Cole (Affective Circuits: African Migrations to Europe and the Pursuit of Social Regeneration)!

Anthropologists: If you’ve got a new book coming out (or just out recently) and would like to do an e-interview with me about it, let me know!

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).

ghodsee-from-notes-to-narrative-book-cover

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?

no-jargon-allowed

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.

kristen-ghodsee

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!