About 20 years ago, I attended some kind of workshop or gathering for postgraduate anthropology students at the Australian National University, where I was a PhD student in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology. I can’t even remember what this gathering was all about. But I do remember that one of the speakers was Professor Jim Fox, and I remember very distinctly what he had to say to our group of relatively new MA and PhD anthropology students. If you want to become an anthropologist, he told us, start by reading 100 ethnographies.
The ethnography, defined by Marcus & Cushman (1982: 27) as “an account resulting from having done fieldwork”, is one of sociocultural anthropology’s most important contributions to the social sciences and humanities. I have used the long-form ethnography—in other words, ethnographic monographs—as an essential part of my teaching here at STU since I arrived 12 years ago. It is my belief that the ethnography is an important representation of anthropological practice. We learn about other ways of life not by spending a week here and a week there in different places, but by a long-term immersion among particular groups of people. We do this because we are committed to the idea that unique aspects of the human experience can only be known in this way. So it seems to me that the ethnographic monograph is the best representation of how anthropologists come to know things about the world, although the broader question of “What makes something ethnographic?” is open to interpretation.
So Fox’s exhortation to read 100 ethnographies was, I think, an appeal not to immerse ourselves in other ways of life (which we all had either already done or were about to do), but rather to immerse ourselves in anthropology’s project to understand ways of life in the broadest sense, and to acquire professional competence, in part, by a virtual and literary apprenticeship. To quote the late Clifford Geertz:
[I]f you want to understand what a science is, you should look in the first instance not at its theories or its findings, and certainly not at what its apologists say about it; you should look at what the practitioners of it do. In anthropology, or anyway social anthropology, what the practitioners do is ethnography. And it is in understanding what ethnography is, or more exactly what doing ethnography is, that a start can be made toward grasping what anthropological analysis amounts to as a form of knowledge (1973: 5-6).
I think that, over the years, I have probably achieved Fox’s goal of reading 100 ethnographies (although he did say to “start by” reading that many, not “finish”), although somewhat haphazardly. And I regularly find myself dipping into ethnographies that I know I should have read but haven’t. So I want to embark on this journey a second time as a more self-conscious exercise to explore the foundations of anthropological knowledge.
I’m not entirely sure how long this will take—probably years, given the other demands on my reading time. But I will create a new post here on STUAnthroBlog for each one as I complete it, to share my thoughts and reflections. I invite any readers of STUAnthroBlog, especially our students, to contribute as well—if for no other reason than to keep me company. I will happily post your thoughts and observations.
First up: W. Lloyd Warner’s A Black Civilization.