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  •  363 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 remain at the cutting edge of research-based accounts of social and cultural phenomena—both on the periphery of the modern world system and at the heart of it.

The course examines the range of genres and techniques of representation that anthropologists—and anthropologically-aware writers—have used to convey the lived experience of other cultures—and their own. It contrasts the different styles of description and analysis that have been applied to particular societies, examining the tension within the discipline  between making cultures comprehensible, respecting their difference, and rendering them in a framework of theory. Finally, it considers the aesthetic problems and ethical controversies that arise from writing at the outer limits of academic discourse. Genres addressed in the course 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 of this wealth of research and writing, drawn mainly from accounts of societies in Africa and the Americas. These are set in context by representations in other media, visual and oral.

Texts to be discussed 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.