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Reading / writing ethnography

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

by Lye Tuck-Po
21/9/23
[This began as a 10-minute writing exercise, following a tip I learnt in college from Carolyn Bell, now retired]
Random collection of books I picked up in Cologne, 2015. Thanks to Thomas Widlok for the August Sander, which continues to give pleasure., and to Tim Earle for some novels.
Random collection of books I picked up in Cologne, 2015. Thanks to Thomas Widlok for the August Sander, which continues to give pleasure., and to Tim Earle for some novels.

I read a lot. Much of it for pleasure. I've always been like that, ever since I was six years old and found that I understood every word of page 1 of one of Enid Blyton's Secret Seven series. An aunt remembered that she never saw me without a book. When I ran out of children's books (I never read Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, and other such classics), I went to the family shelves and rummaged among books I found there. At school, they let me borrow books from the library: books on polar expeditions being a favourite. [1]
By the time I was 10 or 11, I was reading my grandfather's old books. He died when I was two. He was a voracious reader too. My grandmother remembered that she was always clearing the house of books. Well, he left behind a seemingly huge collection of detective novels. My grandmother read them, my father read them, and I precociously followed: the Ellery Queen series was an early favourite. I developed my tastes then. In secondary school, I got a membership at the public library and read my way through exciting books on art history, stage productions, travel memoirs, biographies, and the like. My tastes were catholic; I read anything and everything.
All through my reading years, I divided my life between "reading for school" and "reading for pleasure". I wouldn't say "never the twain shall meet" because sometimes they did. I really enjoyed history (some of it). I found it easier to understand some scientific concepts and terms by looking them up in a different language (schooling was in Malay and everything else was English).
Then came college. Came the time to declare my major (in my second or third year). I think I must have declared it three times over. It didn't feel right. But try as I might, I couldn't run away. That which I had taken as pleasure—the novel reading of my childhood—could be turned into work. I finally decided—English and Philosophy for me. English—novels, drama, poetry—for fun, and Philosophy—teeth grinding away—for hard work. (Time for a boast: when I graduated from college, I scored one B but otherwise straight As in English)
Books currently spread out around my bedroom. I wanted to show how small is the Bourdieu. This surprised me, as the book is a visual anthropology, with lots of interesting photos. The Haddon is pretty good. The others are Malaysian ethnographies.
Books currently spread out around my bedroom. I wanted to show how small is the Bourdieu. This surprised me, as the book is a visual anthropology, with lots of interesting photos. The Haddon is pretty good. The others are Malaysian ethnographies.

I mention all this because I spend the majority of my time nowadays reading anything related to anthropology and I have to say—so much of it is so boring.
Ethnographies should be readable (less dense with esoteric text) and accessible to the widest possible audience. This means written in straightforward language that even an 18-year-old can understand. Good ethnographies are also attentive to the needs of readers. Many ethnographies are not: they are full of difficult words and long sentences, and/or try to show how clever the ethnographer is.
“For the lay person, such as myself, . . .ethnographic writing tends to be surprisingly boring. How, one asks constantly, could such interesting people doing such interesting things produce such dull books? What did they have to do to themselves?” (Pratt 1986:33).
This seems to me to run against the broader goal of ethnographic writing: to communicate difficult ideas, so that they may inspire other people to learn more.
How you learn to write ethnography is a lifelong process. It will reflect your own growth and maturity, and tastes. [2]
My own models of good ethnographic writing are generally not other anthropologists, but writers of fiction and essayists. I was about to list (and embarrass) my favourite anthropologists for their writing, but I'll just restrict my comment to one: Colin Turnbull. His The Forest People (1961) is the very model of what I'd like to achieve. I took it to the field in 1996. To show the Batek. When I had a moment free, I would lie on the floor with the book, my legs stretched out everywhere as in my childhood. He was talking about trails and sounds, and I could see and hear what he was describing. Reading, such a linear process, became a multi sensory experience for me.
Now that's fine ethnographic writing.

Note
[1] I rather fancied myself on a dog sled going somewhere. Unfortunately, my dreams of being a polar anthropologist (perhaps with Inuit) took a stumble when I felt real snow in Wyoming.
[2] Originally written as a lecture to my students in a class on Ethnography.
References
Pratt, Mary Louise. 1986. Fieldwork in common places. In Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Turnbull, Colin. 1961. The forest people. London: Chatto and Windus.


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