how to think like an anthropologist

How_to_think_like_an_anthro_ii I came across this passage the other day.  It’s Ian Watt discussing Cervante’s Don Quixote.

Don Quixote’s adventures in his second expedition usually follow a pattern of action that in itself is very simple: a visual stimulus; a misinterpretation of the stimulus by Quixote in terms of his chivalric compulsions; a realistic correction by Sancho Panza, overridden by his master’s complacent imaginative expertise; a challenge; a battle and its result; and a conclusion, in the form of a highly entertaining discussion between Quixote and Sancho, that the reader gets into the habit of eagerly awaiting. 

What he means is:

In the  second expedition, Don Quixote’s adventures have a simple pattern: something happens, Quixote misinterprets it in his chivalric way, Sancho Panza corrects him, Quixote objects, a battle ensues, discussion follows, the reader is pleased.

Never mind.  It’s possible his editors at the Cambridge University Press insist that prose meet air pressure guidelines issued by the Press.  Or perhaps this sort of thing now comes from Brussels.

What I like about Watt’s remark is how effectively he takes us to the heart of Cervante’s enterprise.  He gives us the form behind the text, the hidden structure of the story.  This is precisely the sort of thing we do not see at first.  And we look to someone like Watt to see through the surface of the text to pattern from which it springs.  (Let me say Watt does this brilliant well and I hope he will forgive my impertinence.) 

This is what anthropologists are for.  They look at cultures, not at texts.  And when they make themselves useful, it is because they can "see into" the cultural thing (a movie, a celebrity, a brand, a trend, for instance) and say what makes it what it is.  They are looking for the essentials that define it.  For instance, they are trying to say as clearly as possible who John Cusack is as an actor, so that they can say, as clearly as possible, how he differs from, say, from any of the actors who starred in The Usual Suspects (Kevin Spacey, Kevin Pollack, Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro).  Is this useful?  If you are casting a Hollywood movie, it is, I believe, very useful. Art depends upon it.  Commerce depends upon it. 

Now, you would think this would be a pretty simple statement of what anthropology is, but I must tell you that I am almost the only anthropologist who believes it anymore.  This is because most of the field has fallen under the dark spell of the continental philosophers, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and under this baleful influence they sleep.  Every so often they rouse themselves to write an act of moral, political or epistemological self recrimination, and persuaded that the old kind of anthropology is indeed unlawful and unclean, they return to their fitful, tortured slumber.

But wait, before they go, they will sometimes leave us prose like this:

It thus relativizes discourse not just to form — that familiar  perversion of the modernist; nor to authorial intention — that conceit of the romantics; nor to a foundational world beyond discourse — that desperate grasping for a separate reality of the mystic and scientist alike; nor even to history and ideology — those refuges of the hermeneuticist; nor even less to language — that hypostasized abstraction of the linguist; nor, ultimately, even to discourse — that Nietzschean playground of world-lost signifiers of the structuralist and grammatologist, but to all or none of these, for it is anarchic, though not for the sake of anarchy but because it refuses to become a fetishized object among objects — to be dismantled, compared, classified, and neutered in that parody of scientific scrutiny known as criticism. (Stephen Tyler, ref. below, quote from The Bad Writing Contest, ref. below)

Not everyone is prepared to suffer the concussive effect of these grenades.  Denis Dutton held a bad writing contest in the 1990s.  (Tyler won 2nd place in 1997.)  And Professor Dutton had this to say about another winner:

Thus in A Defense of Poetry, English Prof. Paul Fry writes: “It is the moment of non-construction, disclosing the absentation of actuality from the concept in part through its invitation to emphasize, in reading,  the helplessness — rather than the will to power — of its fall into conceptuality.” If readers are baffled by a phrase like “disclosing the absentation of actuality,” they will imagine it’s due to their own ignorance. Much of what passes for theory in English departments depends on this kind of  natural humility on the part of readers. The writing is intended to look as though Mr. Fry is a physicist struggling to make clear the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Of course, he’s just an English professor showing off.       

Anthropologists, when they bought the continental lie, took up showing off in a big way. To be honest, there was much else  to do.  Anthropology was pretty much extinct.  Anthropologists could no longer make assertion about the world.   The long trek started by the likes of Morgan and Spencer in the 19th century was over.  The field was now just so many skateboarders working on their Ollie.  (And let me reassure Dr. Tyler that I mean this impertinence with near Victorian sincerity.)  As a result, anthropology is in a bit of a shambles and those who would borrow from anthropology must choose with care.  (Think of this as the last helicopter out.) 

Let’s say this as a minimum.  Anthropology looks for the core of the thing, it’s defining characteristics, it’s essence.  And this means usually a set of propositions that together make an argument which may then be judged as a whole and by its parts.  This sounds a little general, I’m sure.  Have a look, if you wouldn’t mind, at my post on the "artisanal trend" for a case in point.

No, it isn’t perfect.  Yes, I am sure it generalizing in a way that offends the delicate sensibilities of the postmodern anthropologist, but then it doesn’t pretend to be anything but a provisional way of looking at things, altogether risible where it not so very much better than nothing (and delirium).   This anthropological approach is rough and ready.  It intellectually opportunistic, slapping together concepts and insights like a Thor Heyerdahl hoping for landfall soon, because, let’s face it, this implausible floating machine isn’t floating very much longer.  But that is the point of the exercise.  We are not seeking perfection.  We are seeking to construct an idea just robust enough to get us from confusion to clarity.  Once we get there, it can gracefully decay on the beach for all we care, the object now of nothing more than touristic curiosity. "TThey got here on that?"  (I am assuming that most of the readers of this blog are themselves creatures who live by their wits, that they are people who are constantly being asked to come up with a provisional, "actionable" way of looking at things often by lunch time and more often right now.) 

Were my account more learned, elegant, sophisticated, it would look exactly the classic liberal arts notion of the "argument."  And it is I think just entirely astonishing that anyone should now be called upon to describe what an "argument" is.  I mean, really.  To walk away from the intellectual machinery (if you will) that brought us the magnificent ideas that make us possible, it’s really, well, just bizarre.  I picture Watson and Crick sitting at the Double Eagle pub in Cambridge.  One of them reaches into the envelope that contains the grainy X-ray and our first glimpse of DNA.  The other say, "so what do we have?"  The reply, "Oh, geez, I can’t tell.  You know….  Couldn’t be.  F*ck it.  How about another pint."  For all of its vaunted philosophy, the postmodernists’ repudiation of clarity was every bit as cavalier as this."  (Impertinence to Watson and Crick devoutly regretted.)

It makes me think of a conversation I had with a student at McGill.  I was a guest lecturer in her class, and after I finished speaking, she asked a question.  Well, no, not a question, really.  She raised a number of issues in a manner so, well, allusive that it wasn’t clear what the issues were.  And there were lots of issues, it turned out, and after awhile….I didn’t know what to think.  You can imagine me with my swiss-army-knife practicality, this was frustrating and I asked, please would she clarify?’  She took this as clearance to do another couple of laps around the airfield.  And a barrel roll or two.  But no, no question.  My patience (to say nothing of Dutton’s  "natural humility") began to wear a little and I said, "I’m sorry, what is the question?"  As she set out on another lonely journey, it became clear that for this student of the new liberal arts, illumination came from many remarks heaped upon a rhetorical bonfire out of which sparks must eventually fly penetrating and illuminating the mind of the listener.  But not me.  Not my mind.  No, the only spark coming my way was a dismal one: she was actually incapable of asking a question, that she was a captive of the sleeping kingdom. 

The point of every formal intellectual exercise is to decide what the question is, to survey the answer "options," to refine or reform the questions where necessary, to work out our propositions and refine and reform those too.  This is what Western thinkers are so very good at.  This is precisely why Western thought managed, in the notion of Levi-Strauss, to escape circularities and insularities of "wild thought" and find its way to ideas that were ever more transparent to a reality.   And this of course is the first principle of post modernism, that there is no real real, everything is constructed, idea is everything.  To think that this "discourse" is largely composed on a computer which is if nothing else, a demonstration of the ability of  IBM labs to make electrical charges dance with unfailing precision on the head of a pin, well, it’s sad and strange.  And it does make you wonder about issues of "fitness for office."  This creatures of the humanities and the interpretive social sciences, should we not take the university away from them?  Pay them off if need be.  But for God’s sake, send them home. They have wrecked the liberal arts.  They have made it near impossible to study contemporary culture.  This is to say they have imposed opacity at two of the places we hope for light.

Oh, but there’s me on my hobby horse again.  Sorry.  Grant, dude.  (And I know you inner ear supplied this, but popular culture species this particular vocalization of "dude" as an extenuated, falling U, the entreaty U, let’s call it.)   All I mean to say here is that for our purposes anthropology operates like a glass bottom boat.   (I know.  I know.  Enough with all  the helicopters, airfields, kingdoms and now, geez, glass bottom boats!  Dude!  I am hoping you issued your own "mixed metaphor advisory" a couple of hundred words ago.  Apply and use snow chains for remaining paragraphs.) 

But in the spirit of intellectual opportunism, glass bottom boat is apt.  Before the act of anthropological analysis, the object of our interest is obscured by a shifting surfaces and refracting light.  After our analysis, it is evident, there, clear to the eye.  Sure, there may be something illusory about this clarity, but anything is better than an English professor showing off.  (Because finally he knows what the pragmatist lives by, nothing comes of nothing.) 

There I go again.  Sorry.  Here’s what I want to say.  To think like an anthropologist, it is necessary to observe the world as carefully as you can.  (Use "noticing" as a key work on this blog for more on this step.) And then it is to decide what we might say about what we think we see.  And it is then to proceed with the construction of several propositions as a kind of scaffolding of the most general, powerful and clear things we think we can say about the topic at hand. 

The argument is propositional and segmental.  It is made up of working parts any one of which may be scrutinized and in the popular phrase "swapped out."  There is always a calculation being performed as the argument is being worked and reworked.  Does this particular intellectual intervention succeed in fixing the part only to ruin the whole.  At some point, we may have to decide the thing is a mess.  "Put the argument down and walk away." 

There is always also Kuhnian grounds for starting again.  Because there may be something in our "problem set" that that doesn’t quite make sense, an anomaly that resists our explanatory scheme.  And if we stop and honor it, that is to say, if we stop and think the things that make it clear instead of anamolous, this can reconfigure the explanation altogether.  And often of course this comes all of sudden, as if done by elves while we sleep.  Suddenly, we get it.  (See Kuhn’s wonderfully clear idea of paradigms and anomalies in The Structure of Scientific Revolution.)

But it’s not only anomalies that must be honored.  The ordinary, run of the mill, data at hand must be honored too.  We must resist the temptation to haul out our favorite explanation because, in that wonderful phrase, to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.  But not to us.  No, we intend to find the hammer assumed by these nails.  Or invent it, if it does not exist. 

But we are responsible not just to the data, anomalous or standard issue.  We are also in possession of a set of things we think about the world.  These are assumptions but because we have used them over and over and tested them over and over, they have a better-than-assumption status.  Of all the ideas we have ever thought and used, these are our favorite, the ones with the greatest wattage.  But of course, any given project will serve as an opportunity to rework even these.   

Then comes a bit for clarity.  We go back and remove everything the reader doesn’t need to know or hear.  This is a "signal to noise" issue.  The more content we can take out of the signal, the clearer we make it.  This notion of parsimony was long ago abandoned by English professors because otherwise ollies are out of the question.  And in a more perfect world, more sincere world, I would go back and clear up this text, and give it clarity and bullet points and all the things our clients demand of us. I would particularly remove all the taunting of the postmodernists, because, really, who cares?  I know I don’t.


Dutton, Denis.  The Bad Writing Contest. here

Tyler, Stephen.  1986.  Post-modern ethnography: from document of the occult to occult document. in Writing Culture,   edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus.  University of California Press.

Watt, Ian.  1996.   Myths of Modern Individualism.  New York: Cambridge University Press.   


For more on the English Professor’s Ollie, see the Wikipedia entry here


Thanks to Jonathan Feinberg and his fine program Wordle at for the opening image. 

16 thoughts on “how to think like an anthropologist

  1. Bonnie L

    Grant, you get an A+. What is an ollie?

    Small is the new big.
    Short is the new long.

    richmond, va

  2. Brian Johnson

    I found this really refreshing in relation to some of the usual conversation that takes place on certain other anthropology blogs 🙂


  3. Thomas Malaby

    I love the pragmatism. What’s depressing is how, over the long term, it’s just so difficult to sustain that pragmatic view in the face of those seeking the easier score of an exceptionalist explanation (postmodernist, positivist, what have you).

  4. John Postill

    Hi Grant

    An enjoyable post. Yes, I agree there is some poor anthropological writing out there but there’s also some really good stuff. A number of well-written books spring to mind (by no means a comprehensive list):

    Tuzin “Social Complexity in the Making”
    Gewertz and Errington “Twisted Histories”
    Bloch “How We Think They Think”
    Gledhill “Power and Its Disguises”
    Peterson “Anthropology & Mass Communication”
    Turner “Fields, Dramas and Metaphors”

    …etc etc


  5. JT

    Random, lazy, layman speculation: I wonder if the circularity of postmodern thought derives from the structure of French.

    Great post.

  6. Amy Alkon

    Grant, I just love your blog. Discovered you the other day via my pal Virginia Postrel’s blog.

    Anthropology looks for the core of the thing, its defining characteristics, its essence.

    There’s a book I want to recommend – just started reading it, and it’s on this topic, by an evolutionary psychologist I know, Lisa Zunshine, from University of Kentucky, but now teaching on a Guggenheim Fellowship at Yale.

    Just started reading it, and it’s as fantastic as her last one (“Why We Read Fiction,” on Theory Of Mind). This one’s called “Strange Concepts and The Stories They Make Possible.” Hope you find it interesting.

    Anyway, I’ll be back, and I’ll link to you. Thanks –a treat to read you.

  7. Amy Alkon

    Sorry – the html didn’t work — can you please toss some quotation marks around the sentence of yours in my comment above that I tried to italicize?

    “Anthropology looks for the core of the thing, its defining characteristics, its essence.”

  8. Christopher

    I was trying to explain to someone (much younger) the other day about what it was like to be an undergrad in the early 1990s; the post-modern war was raging high. It was the old guard against the new guard! And both exhilarating and a little bit confusing for a 19 y.o. But it seemed right at the time, as a queer northerner in the middle of Mr. Jefferson’s Virginia, I wanted to, of course, rebel against anything and everything I could. (All that tradition that was both attracting and repelling. All those young good old boys (who were both sexually attracting and repelling) and southern chivalry and history and tradition that I didn’t understand.)

    So I often found myself on the side of the PoMo. But of course, this did have a downside that I was immediately aware — what I really wanted to study was sort of a made up Urban Studies curriculum. (There’s that rebelling again, I was in the middle of the American pastoral ideal and wanted to study the city.) And that meant trying to forge something multidisciplinary — mixing in architecture history and sociology and urban government. Sociology, though, and government were all sort of the enemy of the anthro department, so although I wasn’t prevented from taking classes there. It definitely raised eyebrows. And drew some comments of displeasure. And there was downsides that perhaps I was only aware of later, manly that the intellectual battles as it was is and was interesting and should have been commented on more, instead we were forced to pick sides. I barely knew who I was.

    But this isn’t to bemoan my failed educational goals. Well not the big ones, just the smaller ones. Roy Wagner did and does teach in that department and I did take a fantastic class from him — the Anthropology of Everyday Life — which still influences me (and got me on a lifelong habit of Michael Lewis. We read Liar’s Poker for Wagner.) But your post reminded me that I never took Wagner’s Castaneda and Don Juan. Perhaps I need to add that to my reading list, and throw in some Wagner as well. Thanks.

  9. John A Arkansawyer

    When you say, “What he means is: In the second expedition, Don Quixote’s adventures have a simple pattern: something happens” you miss a detail: Watt specifies that Quixote sees something–it’s not event-driven, but specifically sight-driven.

    Is that important? I don’t know. That you take the detail out suggests you don’t find it so, but I’d have to read the original to know for certain.

  10. nick gogerty

    Excellent post. Anthropology has indeed fallen under the spell of the other social sciences where paragraph long sentences with obtuse verbage count as legitimate contribution. Bring back amateurs like Boaz!

    Lets hope the spartan prose of the field anthropologist returns.

    In my work with various scientists at an advanced research lab (starlab) modelled on the MIT media lab, I always found those who could communicate the most clearly were the only one who truly had something to say or work to show. Those seeking legitimacy stood behind postmodern purple prose piled on by the poound with a “you just don’t get it look of conceit.”

    Almost to a one there efforts were as banal as their posturing. Currently as an anthropologist, hedge fund guy, I believe in field work combined with tight sharp reporting.

  11. kayt davies

    I’m interested in where journalism sits with all this because I suspect that it is the new growing generation of long-form journalists who will end up drinking with the last of the old school anthropologists and taking their wisdom forward (feel free to go nuts with random mixed metaphors about being the grail knights of anthropology or something).
    I just read a brilliant NYT piece called “the trolls among us”, similar in style to the much-syndicated “Naked on the internet” piece and several Chris Anderson classics, these stories are ethnographic in their process and anthropological in their attempts to read patterns in the data, and they are travelling the world and being consumed by magazine readers and not just academics. They are doing the work of facilitating social understanding.
    In my own faculty there is a clear divide between the journalism academics and ‘those cultural studies types’ and it is precisely over journalism’s natural fondness for solid reality and cultural studies aversion to it.

    This is the nexus my own study is sitting on and so your post was really relevant.
    Thanks 🙂

  12. Anthrodiva

    I think it may also be because most ‘academic’ anthropologists rarely do much fieldwork. They go one place, a few times, and write about it the rest of their lives in an echo chamber with other anthropologists. Getting out there and actually doing it requires concision and clarity.

  13. Michael Powell

    Not that I feel it’s necesseary to defend Stephen Tyler, but he was one of my professors in graduate school and I think of him as a friend. My sense is that he would enjoy this debate a lot, as he always entertained my more optimistic take on the usefulness of anthropology. As I see it, the critique of representation in the 1980’s, particularly as it is found in Writing Culture, was also a debate and not an agreement (compare very carefully, for example, Tyler’s essay with Rabinow’s essay in that volume). Some felt that the critique of representation deconstructed anthropology itself (Tyler), while others felt that this critique could be more of a tool that would help anthropology shift its focus from studying behavior and the immediately observable into a study/critique of knowledge production in the contemporary world (Rabinow) in multiple connected sites and spaces. So, to some extent, I see great value in this and can understand why it became such a difficult matter to grapple with, theoretically and academically. Where things got lost, I think, is in all of the academic posing, posturing and arguing. And here is where Steven Tyler would be the first to agree…After all, he was originally led down this path by rebelling against the academic rigidity of an early advisor, Gregory Bateson. After Tyler wrote the book on Cognitive Anthropology, he started to change his mind. But Tyler, too, got caught up in the theoretical rigidity of poststructuralism, ironically enough, and he fully recognized the conundrum that Grant points out. The way he described a career in academia? He recommended that I read the Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse. From there, I think he was telling me that I should make up my own mind on how to play the game.

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