More Favorite Ethnographies, April 2009

Oct 17, 2013

Last November, I submitted a column that detailed some of our colleagues’ favorite ethnographies. This column is a continuation of that effort to share information about which ethnographies give us the most pleasure to read, inspire our teaching and research efforts, and make us glad that we’re anthropologists. Maria Papapavlou (U Athens) recommends The Last Word: Women Death and Divination in Inner Mani, by C Nadia Seremetakis (1991). “An unsurpassed classic in the context of European Studies; its analyses of poetics, labor, ritual, divination, exchange and modernization are still thought provoking, while the analysis of dreaming and dreams remains unique in anthropology. It is also a pleasure to read this book. The writing style justly gained distinction from the Victor Turner awards, an honorary plaque from Greek authorities, and made the book the subject of a public television documentary in Greece. Translated in Greek, in its 4th edition now, it has been breeding younger scholars for more than a decade and continues inspiring anthropologists of various areas of expertise around the world. In my classes it is the best received ethnography, often used simultaneously in both editions, Greek and English, for it serves as an excellent example of cultural translation (performed by the author herself). Books like this make me believe every time I re-read them that good ethnography never dies.” David Nugent (Emory U and AES President) endorses The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico, by Joseph Masco (2006). Nugent writes, “In this strikingly original volume, Joseph Masco provides a fascinating analysis of the nuclear age, and the ways that that the apocalyptic fears of the era, and the preoccupation with secrecy and security, helped create a new national imaginary. Much of The Nuclear Borderlands focuses on the diverse communities in north western New Mexico that were most directly affected by the Manhattan Project—weapons scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Pueblo Indian nations, Nuevomexicano communities and antinuclear activists—who mobilized in Manhattan’s shadow to debate the terms and meanings of national belonging. But the author also provides a more general discussion of how the Manhattan Project—and the nuclear age more generally—helped generate new cognitive orientations toward everyday live, reconfiguring notions of space, time, citizenship, race and nature. This is a major contribution, overflowing with insight and innovation.” Asli Baykal (U Richmond) writes, “One of my favorite ethnographies to teach is Fredrik Barth’s Balinese Worlds (1993). Barth’s focus is on the diversity in northern Balinese villages. Islamic communities and Bali-Hindu villages are located side by side; in some villages hierarchical notions are emphasized, in others an egalitarian ideology dominates. He also examines the ways in which Balinese men and women use various traditions of knowledge to give shape to their actions in particular social settings. Their interpretations, as well as the world in which they live, is always in a state of flux. What makes the book a valuable teaching tool is Barth’s challenge of the idea of culture as a shared, coherent map of the world: Balinese people create diversity as much as they reproduce traditions. His advocacy of an anthropology of experience, and the study of cultures as highly variable sets of ideas and institutions that are generated out of people’s everyday concerns and choices, makes this book particularly compelling.” Finally, Diana Wells (Ashoka President) recommends Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family, by Jean L Briggs (1970), especially because of the way Briggs demystifies the fieldwork process through her candid portrayal of the trials and tribulations of intimate and emotionally intense fieldwork. This ethnography, according to Wells, pushed anthropological inquiry into the presumed “natural” realm of emotional life and established a solid and compelling case for the social construction of emotional experience.