how to blog like an anthropologist II


Yesterday, I raised the topic of anthropological blogging as an unexplored opportunity. For want of better blogging, many of the most telling details of contemporary life disappear without a trace and historians will someday be obliged to reconstruct the details by watching The King of Queens.

I am calling this anthropology but it is something like an archeology, as the blogger digs down into the details of every day life and unearths cultural assumptions and practices. The trick is to proceed with precision and perspective. We need to set the focal plane first on macro and then on infinity. We want to see everyday life close up and as if from a long way off.

We could begin anywhere, but let’s begin working by the light of a 5 watt bulb. I mean, of course, the fridge. We want a thorough documentation, both photographic and written. We begin with our fridge as it exists right now (no tidying up, or cleaning out, for posterity). We photograph both the outside (all those fridge magnets, notes to self, a post card from friends in Mozambique). Now the inside: wide shots and close ups.

We want to document each item in the fridge with photos. This means taking everything out and photographing it front, back and sides. (I know you’ve been looking for an excuse to give the place a good cleaning.) Now, a “bio” of each product. Recently, I switched from flavored to plain yogurt. Why? Someone told me that “refined sugar” is a bad thing. Do I know what “refined sugar” is? Not really.

I need to dig as deep as I can.. From whom did I get the news about refined sugar? Why and how did it make sense to me? As I begin to examine my assumptions, I can report that I believe that food is better for me the closer it is to its natural state. (Someone told me the food chain is poisoned and the higher up the chain we eat, the higher the concentrations of toxins.) As a 53 year old, I am old enough to remember another regime that said that food was better when transformed by processing and the “miracle of science” (Tang!). I can also say that I first heard this notion being resisted in the 1960s (thank you Adele Davis) and that my shift away from processed food has been taking place since then (but is still underway). This puts me in a position to report a relative distrust of the big food manufacturers and a new sense of vigilance about what I eat. In the process, I will reveal what I think a “body” is, what I think “health” is, how I think food works, and the larger web of assumptions that makes my world make sense. Now we are beginning to capture the overall cultural trends that shape my beliefs and practices concerning food.

Some of you will be asking, “What in God’s name is the point of recording this man’s half baked notions about health? Surely, the biology texts will survive and suffice.” In fact no one but the medical and a small part of the scientific community embrace the definitive view. For anthropological purposes, what matters is the common place one. Some years ago Sellar, Reatman and Muir had the bright idea of asking the English men and women to recount their national history, and reported the outcome in a book called “1066 & All That.” The results are funny because some of these people have only a vague idea of the details, and what they don’t know they make up or fill in (with airy phrases like, “You know, 1066 and all that.”) Funny it may be, but it is also grist for the anthropological mill because it reveals history as a living thing.

There are plenty of other topics that will emerge from our reflections. Eventually, we will end up noticing and commenting on the notions of “comfort food,” food as a nutriceutical, food as a source of fear, eating and cooking as a solitary activity, eating and cooking as a social activity, “grazing,” brand loyalties, brand disloyalties, fridge magnets, family communications, shopping habits, waste, recycling, and a glimpse of the gods of influence: The Joy of Cooking, Julia Child, Martha Stewart, Nigella Lawson, Emeril, Adelle Davis, and so on.

As I performed my study, I begin to think of my fridge as an American town. I have the standard package of things I have eaten for ages. I have relative new comers who have been in place for a decade or so. And I have an immigrant population struggling to find and sustain a place there. This dynamic set is driven by deep cultural convictions that do not change, the advent of trends that came and stayed, and the various but continual gusts of changing fashion. Properly documented, my fridge is an illuminating manuscript, an entire world enameled, ready to tell its story even after it has been carted off to the dump. Our blog gives the historians a chance to see the advent of these trends by other measures, but now they’ll have something like a “real time” opportunity to see them in the context of a single life. I know that it seems like a lot of work, but these historians will confer on you the Pepys’ reward: immortality

We could perform this study for the other centers in the household: the closet, the home entertainment center, the desk and work area, the living room and so on. Always the method is the same: document the option most particularly and then “dolly back” to the larger assumptions and practices that make it make sense to us. (This latter process can be performed by asking ourselves the question “why is that?” every time we offer an assertion about an object. These can be posted in pieces and eventually bound together for presentation for the Smithsonian. You think I’m kidding. The Smithsonian would be droolingly grateful to receive such a document.

One last point: every so often I search the web for blogs that have undertaken this process of documentation. So far, no luck. Please, if you hear of something good, let me know. I will give it a place of honor in the margin to the right.


Sellar, W.C. R.J Reatman, and Frank Muir. 1997. 1066 & All That: A Memorable History of England. London (?): National Book Network.

Steve Portigal tells me that the Pepys diary is now on line at
(Thank you, Steve, very much.)

12 thoughts on “how to blog like an anthropologist II

  1. Steve Portigal

    Grant – the diary is online, but it’s online AS A BLOG! That was the “ooh wow” aspect of it, I thought, given your points about the value of his diary but the lack of value of blogs. Or something.

    There are various “What’s in your briefcase? What’s in your gadget bag?” type of blog entries that don’t get deeply into the “why” but do poke a little at what you are talking about.

    Of course, there’s a person in Santa Cruz who posts a daily photo of their stool (and we’re not talking about seating) – oh it’s an “art” project.

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  4. Tom


    There is a Heideggerian version of the, “why is that?” question. It is the question: “who is the person who?” It goes something like, “who is the person who posts daily photos of their stool?”, and then goes about explicating the foundational elements of that person’s “life-world,” preferably through a dialogue. But, if dialogue is not possible, some “imaginative variations” on the question provide avenues for exploration.

  5. Robin

    Hi Grant.  Long time reader, first time poster. 🙂

    Blogging (not blogging about blogging) IS a self-absorbed activity.  Perhaps the content of yours is something of an exception-that-proves the rule as a result of your training and workaholic tendencies.  Well-trafficked, influential blogs like instapundit or volokh conspiracy are well in the minority and will likely prove to be anthropologically useful. But they tend to be the work of academics and others with very specialised interests coupled with a facility for language that not everyone has (not to mention the time). You seem to be in search of anthropologists, not bloggers.

    I just started my own blog recently and I have to agree with you that bloggers are preoccupied with the mundane.  I know I am! I have entries on the evolution of my hair and the colour of my toenails (blue). But I’m not looking for opinions far and wide; my blog is intended for people who have a very narrow interest – Me. Its a sort of bridge between the front stage and back stage behaviours (insert nod to Goffman here) and their mingling produces some of who I am and some of how I want you to see me.

    Isn’t it somehow fitting that quotidian post (I did this, then I did this, then I did this) is considered “not very illuminating” and yet, mainstream popular culture that is the neglected object of study is often characterised as, well, “not very illuminating”? It is diffuse and the level of depth you choose to engage with it can and does vary widely. What you describe is the double edged sword of the ease and accessibility of the enabling technology. It is user-friendly and Users tend to repay the debt in the cheapest ways possible. I would never say things in a blog that I might say in a diary and I think that goes for Pepys also. I agree with Steve above who makes the point that Pepys illuminating is that he is NOT a blogger and therefore, fascinating AS a blog.

    Maybe the the challenge for anthropologists is in the _aggregation_ of the data that bloggers present to the world since the kind of specimen you’re after is a rare bird, indeed.

    Maybe we’re missing the forest for the trees and blogging is, itself, the cultural moment?

    The approach you take to the fridge is where blogging ought to be; updates on my hair is where its at. And now that I’ve seen the inside of your fridge, Grant, you are officially at “orange” on my Scurvy Alert!

    Blog O’ Mine, in case you’re interested:

    (sorry so long)

  6. Grant

    Steve: yeah, I saw that but I thought there was something weird about playing out the blog in real time…as if Pepys were a blogger. In fact, he was so private about his records that he wrote them in code. But still the point is a good one. Daily visits will let us watch the thing unfold. Thanks, Grant

    Tom, that’s very interesting, someone should collect all the little techniques that can serve us a thinking and blogging devices. I for one can use all the help I can get. Thanks, Grant

    Robin, I take your point, but I still think that the blogging world is a technology in search of an application, and it seems to me that while anthropologists prove so unforthcoming in the study of their own culture, we could seize the moment. I think the people posting unadorned and highly selective details are, as I noted, either writing for friends or they are testing our patience. Why would we want to read the recitation of unadorned detail? Some of these bloggers are the very people who accuse the media of being too low content. But this is darn close to no content. If the blogging world is to be a community, the anthropological opportunity is, I think, a good one. Congrats on your own very stylist blog. It is witty and engaging. We will read it with interest. (Won’t we?) Thanks, Grant

  7. steve

    If you’ve read James Lilek’s Bleats over the last few years, rife with obsessive attention to the details and artifacts of pop culture (as well as lots of surprisingly good Mr. Mom stuff), you may come close to what you’re looking for. It’s not as systematic as you propose, but he does describe minute details about going to the store, etc.

    Also, the man has an insane collector’s impulse for artifacts of twentieth century culture, which are all available on his site ( Nobody else, to my knowledge, has collected so many old motel postcards (alphabetized by state!) along with some hilarious captioned commentary. Matchbooks, old men’s mags, corporate stock certificates–he’s got quite a collection.

  8. Grant

    Steve, thanks, I will check him out, collectors are a problem, aren’t they? High end or low, what they want are the objects and damn the data. We need to expand the definition of “provenance” so that it includes much more about the life and times of the owner. Thanks! Grant

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  11. william

    Hi Grant,

    For what it’s worth, 1066 and All That was more a deliberate parody of history as absorbed by public schoolboys, and not so much based on person-in-the-street interviews. Also, it was actually written by Sellar and Yeatman — I suspect that Frank Muir, a gentle humorist of a later generation, wrote the preface to the edition you reference.

  12. Grant

    William, thanks, I thought, incorrectly, it was more genuinely ethnographic. And good to know about Muir’s part. I will revise the citation accordingly. Thanks again, Grant

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