Why is anthropological writing so boring? New issue of Anthropology Matters

Writing Up and Feeling Down is the topic of the new issue of the Anthropology Matters Journal. The articles outline the challenges involved when moving from fieldwork to writing, when trying to draw an argument out of unwieldy case studies, when you are told that your writing is not academic enough – or when you suddenly face the dangers of writing for a non-academic audience.

Ingie Hovland writes in her introduction:

The first thing that strikes many PhD students when they sit down to start writing up is that there is a strong tension between the very ‘lively’ experiences of fieldwork and the ‘deadening’ process of writing them down afterwards. In the words of one apocryphal PhD student, captured by Jean-Paul Dumont (1978:6): ‘How is the writing going?’ - ‘Oh it should move along quite well, once I get through beating the life out of my material…’


Anthropology departments try to prepare their PhD students for the intensity of fieldwork, but they come nowhere close to preparing the students for the intense emotions that writing triggers - such as anxiety, loss of self-confidence, and anger, to name but a few - or how to deal with these.

Given the way things are set up, it is perhaps not surprising that the result is, as Mary Louise Pratt (1986:33) notes, that,

For the lay person, such as myself, the main evidence of a problem is the simple fact that ethnographic writing tends to be surprisingly boring. How, one asks constantly, could such interesting people doing such interesting things produce such dull books? What did they have to do to themselves?

>> read the whole introduction

In Anthropology Matters, Melania Calestani, Ioannis Kyriakakis and Nico Tassi recount a part of their own process of being disciplined into what and how to write and not to write in order for their work to be deemed ‘anthropological’.

>> read “Three narratives of anthropological engagement”

Harriet Matsaert, Zahir Ahmed, Faruqe Hussain and Noushin Islam explore expectations and pressures that suddenly and without warning make themselves known if you are one of those anthropologists trying to write for a non-academic (or even just non-anthropological) audience.

>> read “The dangers of writing up: a cautionary tale from Bangladesh”

Paul O’Hare reflects upon his doctoral thesis write-up, and in particular, the writing up of his empirical work. Writing up is not simply a matter of reporting how we “did” the research.

>> read “Getting down to writing up: navigating from the field to the desk and the (re)presentation of fieldwork”

The final contribution to this issue presents new research from Meher Varma about transnational call centres in India’. Her article examines the increasing presence of North American call centres in Bangalore and Delhi and analyses the ways in which these products of transnationalism have impacted notions of Indian national identity.

>> read “India wiring out: ethnographic reflections from two transnational call centres in India”


Six reasons for bad academic writing

The Secret of Good Ethnographies - Engaging Anthropology Part III

Thomas Hylland Eriksen (Savage Minds): What is good anthropological writing?

How To Present A Paper - or Can Anthropologists Talk? A wishlist

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