Anth 280: The edge of anthropology

How ethnographic writing responds to its subject

By John Ryle  •  2017  •  Bard College  •  Anthropology 280  •  Human Rights, Written Arts, Africana  •  338 words

Course description  

Anthropological writing is diverse and innovative in both style and subject. Although “ethnography” and “fieldwork” are terms that have become widely used in other disciplines, writers identifying themselves as anthropologists are still at the cutting edge of research-based factual writing—usually about small-scale societies, both those on the periphery of the world system and those at the heart of it. The course examines the range of genres and techniques that anthropologists and others have used to convey the lived experience of other cultures. It examines the tension within the discipline between making these cultures comprehensible, respecting their difference and rendering them in a framework of theory. And it considers the aesthetic problems and ethical controversies that arise from writing at the limits of academic discourse. The genres addressed include classic field-based ethnographic monographs, travel narratives, historically-informed indigenous critiques of earlier ethnographies, reflexive accounts of the process of field work, journalistic reportage, and works of fiction. The course takes the form of close readings of outstanding examples, drawn mainly from accounts of societies in Africa and in South and Central America. These are set in context by representations in other media, oral and visual.

Texts to be studied will be drawn from the following: Bronislaw Malinowski A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term; Claude Lévi-Strauss Tristes Tropiques; Napoleon Chagnon The Yanomamo: The Fierce People; Jacques Lizot Tales of the Yanomami: Daily Life in the Venezuelan Forest; Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman; Ruth Landes The City of Women; Don Kulick Travestí; Michael Taussig My Cocaine Museum; Carlos Castaneda Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge; Sharon Hutchinson Nuer Dilemmas; Dave Eggers (with Valentino Ajak) What Is the What; Leni Riefenstahl The Last of the Nuba; Adam Ashforth Madumo, A Man Bewitched; Paul Gauguin Noa Noa; V.S.Naipaul A House for Mr Biswas; James Clifford and George E.Marcus (Eds) Writing Culture; The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography; Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon (Eds) Women Writing Culture.