anthropologists on writing: introductory holiday reads

Anthropologists often worry about writing. It’s the sheer presumption – of making meaning of other people’s lives and then putting those understandings into a written or multimedia form – that bothers them. A lot. They’ve long fretted about it, and generated a habit of writing about their writing as a result.

Those who write about academic writing haven’t, until recently, strongly connected with this anthropological thinking. If you are doing a doctorate in a field other than anthropology or a related social science, then you may not yet have come across this body of work. Maybe this is because it’s still possible to find doctoral writing advice books which don’t move outside their linguistic and literary originary boundaries.

However, I think the anthropological work is pretty interesting and relevant well beyond the discipline. And I’m not the only one. Many of you may already have come across the Writing across Boundaries project, led by Bob Simpson and Robin Humphrey from Durham University. They wrote about this project recently for the LSE impact blog. The WAB web resources feature a lot of anthropologists, and you do get a strong flavour from their various posts about the kinds of discussions that are now integral to their discipline.

If you want to go further into writing and anthropology, here are three texts to get you started. These are not recommendations to purchase by the way – these books should be in most university libraries. If you really want to buy, you can probably pick them up as used copies.

Geertz, Clifford (1988) Works and lives. The anthropologist as author. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Clifford J and Marcus, G (1986) Eds. Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkely: University of California Press

Waterson A. and Vesperi. M. D. (2009) Anthropology off the shelf. Anthropologists on writing. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.

You might also check out:
Cultural Anthropology journal webpage on Literature, Writing and Anthropology

Zero Anthropology

Savage Minds

Open Anthropology Cooperative

Ethnography Matters, including their page on ethnography and speculative fiction

Many anthropologists also now routinely use a range of writing genres. If your library subscribes (sigh) the journal Anthropology and Humanism, which always has sections for academic papers, fiction and poetry, is an interesting starting point.

Any more you’d add as “introductory”?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, anthropology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to anthropologists on writing: introductory holiday reads

  1. Sue Gollifer says:

    Thanks Pat, a very useful and relevant reading list for the new year-look forward to more of your words of wisdom as I start the serious writing process this year-Happy New Year to you and your family!


  2. This is from a different angle:The Anthropology of Writing ( It’s not about how to write anthropology/anthropologically. But it does give a social history of writing, and has examples of how writing practices both shape and are shaped by social practices and needs. For example, it explores the function and semiotics of graffiti and how urban identities both shape and are shaped by graffiti. It also looks at the impact of writing logs on agricultural practices. And it gives insights into French research in this area.


  3. Alison says:

    Coincidentally this notice landed in my email today. The issues about writing as a process and writing creatively within academic research that are addressed from cultural geography seem to intersect with the approaches to writing that you’re discussing here.
    Cultural Geographies is available online: January 2014; Vol. 21, No. 1


  4. Taylor says:

    It’s great that you posted this. Being in anthropology, I kind of assumed everyone else obsessed and worried over authority, voice, and legitimacy in their writing. Also a good read is “Women Writing Culture,” by Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon. It’s a response to “Writing Culture” by Clifford and Marcus.


  5. Simon Warren says:

    As ever, simultaneously challenging, inspiring, and informative. I always look forward to your posts. Happy New Year (Athbhliain faoi shéan agus faoi shona duit0


  6. anthokosmos says:

    Great post! Very helpful, thanks a lot!


  7. Yvonne Salt says:

    great post. What about ‘When They read What We Write’ by Caroline Brettel. It’s about the politics, ethics and responsibility of writing about people. Important issues not just for anthropologists for all those in the social sciences and humanities writing about other people.


  8. Reblogged this on and commented:
    I’m at the point in my academic career where good writing informed by better research is critical to my survival. This often leads me to seek out articles and books on (sound the trumpets!) WRITING!! This is a pretty neat article that I found with familiar thoughts and great resources!


  9. peasant says:

    Great to read about WAB here! Myself a soc. anthropology student at Durham, I am much looking forward to the next WAB workshop!

    Talking about books, what about M. Strathern’s ‘Partial Connections’ — an answer and perhaps an alternative to the reflexive turn in anthropology started with Writing Culture. PC is definitely not the easiest book to read, but it does offer an interesting meta-methodology of writing.


  10. Pippa says:

    For me no list would be complete without Tim Ingold, to this list I’d add, Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture (2013); and Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description (2011). Kirin Narayan’s little yellow book: Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov is wonderful. And I’m just about to start Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright’s edited volume called:Between Art and Anthropology: Contemporary Ethnographic Practice, which promises to be good.


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