The Secret of Good Ethnographies - Engaging Anthropology Part III

If anthropologists want to have a larger impact on society, they have to write better. This is the main argument of Thomas Hylland Eriksen's book Engaging Anthropology. A central question raised in the book: How can anthropology become more relevant for the "outside world"? See part I and part II of my review. Here's the third and last part.

The fact may be that when anthropologists fail to reach the general intellectual public, it is because they have been taught to be more worried about the reactions from the people they eat lunch with than what people outside the university might think. As a result, they sometimes seem to write badly on purpose.


To my mind, the single most important characteristic of anthropological writings is that it tends to be chiefly analytical. This means that it is more difficult to get into and less easy to remember than narratives. Stories are the stuff of life; analysis is for specialists


With modest but determined effort, some of this work could have made a difference outside the subject and indeed outside the academy. Provided, of course, this is considered worthwhile.

(my emphasis as I guess this is a crucial point: many anthropologists I know, don't want to have much publicity around their work)

How can this be done? How to write better? What are the secrets of good ethnographies?

Essential: As a writer, he argues, you have to care for your readers. Readers want stories. And if you tell your stories well, readers accept dwelving into complex issues (see popular books on sociobiology). Don't hesitate and let you inspire and pick up a technique or two from journalists: short sentences, not too much jargon, the conclusion in the beginning instead in the end. Less analysis, more narrative. Or rather: Weave the analysis into the narrative!

Many of the best writers address their readers as accomplices, as friends or fellow-travellers, or as adversaries to be won over. That was Montaigne's method in Essais, and its potential has not been exhausted yet. Arguably, the open-ended storytelling mode would have been appropriate for a discipline like anthropology in its current incarnation, where few final answers are offered and theoretical conclusions tend to be provisional.

Eriksen is convinced, that it's possible to turn the research findings into compelling narratives without losing their analytical complexity.

That many anthropologists are perfectly capable of writing well, is regularly demonstrated in the pages of a magazine such as Anthropology Today. In fact, many of the publications are so good, so well written and interesting for a general readership, that one can only lament the fact that this magazine (...) is only being distributed to anthropologists.

In chapter 5 and 6 which are the most interesting ones in my opinion, he reviews som ethnographies.

Douglas Holmes (2000): Integral Europe is an analysis of right-wing populists in England and France. He does almost everything right, Eriksen writes. Holmes has actually spun a narrative, a story relating his own process of discovery but:

"If it were to become really successful in terms of influence, however, it would need to be even sharper in its central formulations on the connections between fast-capitalism, multiculturalism and neofascism, it would have to integrate the analytical framework more seamlessly, and most importantly, it would have to tell the story in a more straightforward and engaging way."

Aihwa Ong (1999): Flexible Citizenship is a multi-sited ethnography on transnationalism and citizenship among Chinese, the spread of Chinese economic interests worldwide - topics that according to Eriksen many people are interested in, but Ong is "bound to lose at least half of the potential readership on the first ten pages" because of the jargon she uses ("the tranational practices and imaginings of the nomadic subject" or "embeddedness in differently configured regimes of power")

The book Eriksen likes best is Wade Davis (1995): The Serpent and the Rainbow - "one kind of anthropology at its very best", "a rare example of an anthropology book from recent decades which has enjoyed popular success as well as respectful nods from fellow academics", he writes:

Through his book, Davis comes across first and foremost as an adventurer and a storyteller, and almost incidentally as an academic. It could make the rest of us think that maybe we have this in ourselves too, but - alas - we never cared to look.

The book is a singe-person narrative where the reader follows the anthropologist on his path of discovery. Because of his literary language and his ability to tell stories, Eriksen writes, the reader is prepared to accept as much contextual complexity as it takes to get at the bottom of voudun (zombies in Haiti, the book's topic).

A larger quote:

Now, The Serpent and the Rainbow arguably veers towards exoticism, but at the same time, it treats Haitians respectfully and makes it possible for Western readers without much exposure to "other cultures" to understand how and why it can be that Haitians are both different from and similar to ourselves. In this shared, shrinking world of ours, anthropologists have a duty to do what they do best, namely to make credible translations between different life-worlds and world-views, and to show how such translations make embarrassing reading for global elites who see themselves asthe guardians of universal humanism. Rather than regurgitating the relativist views of early twentieth-century anthropology, a contemporary public anthropology can represent a universal humanism which recognizes the significance of difference. By virtue of its experience-near material, anthropologists are in a better position than most to do this crucial job.


Anthropology can teach humility and empathy, and also the ability to listen, arguably one of the scarcest resources in the rich parts of the world these days. It can even be fun

No doubt, Engaging Anthropology is an important book, a book that had to be written and will trigger neccessary debates. Most of my recent reviews (in Norwegian) contained some remarks on the unreadable style of writing, "postmodern tribal language" etc. But unfortunately it's not one of Eriksen's best written books. It's not well structured, quite repetitive. And I wonder why he hasn't treated the possible role of the internet for a more relevant public anthropology.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen is going to write more about these issues. He will be guestblogger on Savage Minds, as it just has been announced

UPDATE: Eriksen's first posts: A drop of complexity and A predicament of sport and What is good anthropological writing?


More and more anthropologists, but they're absent from public debates - "Engaging Anthropology" (1)

Why anthropology fails to arouse interest among the public - Engaging Anthropology (2)

Chapter 1 of Engaging anthropology: The Case for a Public Presence


Comment from: Tad McIlwraith [Visitor]
Tad McIlwraith

Thanks for the review, Lorenz. I am anxious now to take a look at this book and to follow the Savage Minds discussion.

I share the concern for good and accessible writing … and struggle with that in my own work. Could we possibly start/continue a discussion about anthropology writings and texts that do what Eriksen (and you) are calling for? I have, for example, blogged about Julie Cruikshank’s work and would include her writings in accessible, narrative-style anthropology.

One of the best at this is Keith Basso, whose book Wisdom Sits in Places (Apache ethnography from Arizona, USA) is remarkable in its readability and a model for me of writing with concern for the reading audience. Basso’s earlier study of Apache joking, Portraits of the Whiteman, also fits the bill.

09.01.06 @ 04:45
Comment from: [Member]

Good idea, Tad. One of my favorites in this regards is In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio by Philippe Bourgois. I especially like the numerous dialogues. I’ll add more later.

09.01.06 @ 08:35
Comment from: Celia [Visitor]  

Lorenz, thanks so much for this review.

I’m a grad student struggling with the pressure to amass data and publish theoretically, when what I came in for was to live with people and tell stories.

I recently read Kristin Ghodsee’s “Red Riviera,” which stood out as an idea-focused book that still had strong elements of clear writing and story. I’d love to hear of more ethnographies like this, and even to develop a community that encourages writing stories for the public.

11.09.09 @ 03:46
Comment from: [Member]

Thanks Celia for your comment and your book recommendation. I found the book description and an interview with Kristen Ghodsee.

There are some lists about the most compelling ethnographies (Culture Matters, 7.3.08) and Popular Ethnographies (Alex Golub, 7.2.05)

16.09.09 @ 00:47
Comment from: AJ [Visitor]

I really enjoyed reading this post. It hit some chords with me.

I know this is an old post, but it’s a pertinent one to someone who’s just finished a PhD and is deeply disillusioned with ‘academic’ anthropology and its irrelevance.

However, although the bright note about anthropologists using the internet more is a positive note, it’s my experience that sites like Savage Minds are dominated by the same old same old academic, obscurists, obsessed with the endless trope of post-everything, obtuse, unclear writing and writers (i.e. Homi Bhabha).

I would like to see anthropology concerned less with inter-academic argument and working on how to share the real learnings that anthropology and ethnography have with the rest of the world.

And yes, I work in applied anthropology!

13.02.11 @ 04:42
Comment from: [Member]

Thanks for your comment. It’ easy to get disillusioned! I’m glad I’m not really part of the system! Savage Minds has changed a bit recently and has turned into an internal US-centric anthro forum. But I suppose these discussions might be necessary as well. There are lots of (too many?) other blogs.

13.02.11 @ 22:57

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