‘What are you reading?’  Ethnographies of choice from vicanthropology

Welcome to the first blog post of Vicanthropology!  Thanks for having a look.

Like most departments, we’re often overwhelmed by the enormous amount of great anthropology being done around the world, learning daily of new avenues of research that we didn’t know existed.  ‘What are you reading?’ is a common phrase sung across the corridors of Vic, and recommendations for great books are always welcome, so we thought we’d start the blog by sharing some of our favourite ethnographies in a hope that next time we ask ‘What are you reading?’ the answer will be one from below.

Lorena Gibson

One of my all-time favourite ethnographies is Philippe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. It was the second ethnography I ever read as an undergraduate at Massey University (the first was Colin Turnbull’s The Mountain People – probably not the best introduction to ethnography) and it basically put me on the path to becoming a public anthropologist. It showed me that you could do anthropology ‘at home’ on important issues such as poverty and racism, and I love the critical reflexivity he shows in discussing the ethics of research and the politics of representation. I still pull it out today when I’m stuck for ways to view my ethnographic material through a political economy lens.

Kirin Narayan is my go-to anthropologist for all things to do with writing ethnography. I love her memoir My Family and Other Saints for her vivid prose and wonderful storytelling ability. Her latest book Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov is my constant writing companion. In it she combines a story of writer Anton Chekhov with her own experiences as an anthropologist to provide incredibly useful writing tips and techniques. I actually bought the book in hard copy and kindle format so I could access it from anywhere.

Caroline Bennett

I can never forget Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum by William Foote Whyte (1943).  Ok, so its a sociological ethnography, but I was given it to read in the second year of my undergrad at UCL, and nearly twenty years on, the book (and Doc, the leader of the gang, and Foote Whyte’s main informant) remains with me.  It was reading this that made me realise the power of immersive fieldwork and its importance for good anthropo(socio)logical research.

I’m cheating for my second ethnography, because I couldn’t narrow my choices to two.  I love Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (1993), because while lots of us do research in places where lives are dispensable, few of us can write with the insight, depth and emotion of Scheper-Hughes.  Alma Gottlieb’s The Afterlife is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa (2004) is unique for being an ethnography on religion that places babies as reincarnated beings at its centre, which I love.  And Michael Lambek inspires a lot of my work, so I felt I had to mention his monograph The Weight of the Past: Living with History in Mahajanga, Madagascar (2002).

Hal Levine

Primeval Kinship by Bernard Chapais (2008).  Not an ethnography but best anth book I have read in a long time because it links evolution with social cultural aspects of kinship.

Graeme Whimp

Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco by Paul Rabinow (1977).  Not so much an ethnography as a study of the ethnographic process that led to Rabinow’s 1975 ethnography, Symbolic Domination: Cultural Form and Historical Change in Morocco. Based on his own take on a phenomenological approach, it is notable for anticipating by a decade the concerns about fieldwork and representation that would emerge in the 1980s.

Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment by Han F Vermeulen (2015).  Vermeulen meticulously traces the origins of ethnography, ethnology, and anthropology back to German scholars’ exploratory investigations within the Russian empire in the 18th century and minutely documents their passage through to the establishment of Boasian four-field anthropology in the US in the early 20th century. Style is bumpy in parts but it is an amazing piece of research taking the history of the discipline back more than a hundred years.

Annabel Bennett

Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection – Anna Tsing (2005).  A rich ethnography set in the rainforests of Indonesia and extending beyond to understand the diverse global interactions that converge in this “zone of awkward engagement”. Engrossing and poetic, this unique ethnography is an excellent read.

Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories – Lila Abu-Lughod (1993).  This ethnography puts Bedouin women’s narratives at the centre of an exploration of gender and culture. I like this book because of its refreshing take on writing ethnography, and the way the author positions herself in the research in a personal and deeply compelling way.

Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston (1937).  Not actually an ethnography, but I loved reading this novel by African-American anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. The original writing style draws you in; I’d recommend as a holiday read – you can’t put it down!

Tom Loffhagen

Everyday Ethics: Voices from the Front Line of Community Psychiatry by Paul Brodwin (2013).  Brodwin’s ‘Everyday Ethics’ speaks to the moral and ethical dilemmas involved in community psychiatric care, historically situated, he speaks to the challenges of trying to provide ‘good care’ while maintaining professional boundaries, raises questions of formal bioethics and caring for those most vulnerable. This has gone a long way in informing my own research, particularly by understanding some of the ethical and practical limits to achieving care for the mentally unwell.

Depression in Japan: Psychiatric Cures for a Society in Distress by Junko Kitanaka.  I see this book as being the etiology of my interest in mental health and suicide, and even medical anthropology more generally. Kitanaka is able to give a concise yet complex historical view of the evolution of psychiatry as a dominant ideological response to issues of mental health. What I love about this book is how she is able to show the intersections, tensions, and contradictions that lie both within and between socio-cultural and medicalised explanations of depression in Japan.

Hannah Gibson

I am currently reading Extractions: An Ethnography of Reproductive Tourism by Michel Nahman (2013).  This ethnography traces the Israeli cross-border egg donation sector, providing a rich and in-depth look at the ethics around the selling and buying of bodily tissue. Her focus on citizenship rights and nationalism as well as the parralell she draws between the extraction of eggs from a woman’s body to the permeable borders of the Israeli state is fascinating.

An ethnography that I love is Birthing a Mother: The Surrogate Body and the Pregnant Self by Elly Teman (2010).  This ethnography inspires me on so many different levels. One of the few ethnographies about surrogacy, Birthing a Mother explores the bonds developed and practices that women undertake during the gestational surrogacy process in Israel. Easy to read, and full of insight into the world these women live.

So there’s the current recommendations from just a few of us.  Feel free to drop us a line and let us know your thoughts, or send us your recommendations to add to the piles!


2 thoughts on “‘What are you reading?’  Ethnographies of choice from vicanthropology

  1. I am excited to see that one of Dr Lorena Gibson’s favorite works of ethnography is Bourgois’s “In Search of Respect.” This is my go-to recommendation for anyone who questions the sociological influences that keep minorities under apartheid.


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