In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Writing Culture

  • Introduction
  • Legacy and Future

Anthropology Writing Culture
Olaf Zenker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0030


Writing Culture is the title of a highly influential volume, edited by James Clifford and George Marcus in 1986 (see Clifford and Marcus 1986 cited under Writing Culture Debate: Writing Culture and Concomitant Texts), which deals with the “poetics and politics of ethnography,” as its subtitle reads. Highlighting the epistemic and political predicaments adhering in ethnographic representation, this book became eponymous for a broader controversy during the late 1980s and early 1990s. This Writing Culture debate concerned itself with adequate forms of ethnographic writing, reflexivity, objectivity, and the culture-concept, as well as ethnographic authority in an increasingly fragmented, globalized, and (post)colonial world. Marking an important turn in anthropology, variously described as “literary,” “reflexive,” “postmodern,” “deconstructive,” or “post-structural,” the volume and companion publications (especially Anthropology as Cultural Critique by Marcus and Fischer 1986, cited under Writing Culture Debate: Writing Culture and Concomitant Texts) strongly polarized the anthropological community at the time; celebratory attempts at canonizing Writing Culture as a long overdue (post)modernist critique of anthropology starkly contrasted with demonizing dismissals, portraying Writing Culture as threatening the professional discipline (in both senses of the term). Throughout the 1990s, debates surrounding the so-called “crisis of representation” ushered in by Writing Culture increasingly cooled down, giving way to more nuanced and mediated responses in related fields. In this sense, repercussions of Writing Culture can be traced in important redefinitions of anthropology regarding issues such as who should do fieldwork (e.g., people “at home” in the field or “native” anthropologists); how it should be done (e.g., collaboratively, including “informants”; in a reflexive way, problematizing “culture” and being sensitive to issues of gender, race, and class; or tracing the translocal in multiple localities); what topics should be studied (e.g., the “home” countries of anthropology, Western knowledge and science, or literary practices); and how the results should be ethnographically represented (e.g., experimentally). Methodologically speaking, it is difficult, and contestable, to relate such common concerns and systematic equivalences within contemporaneous and subsequent developments to intellectual genealogies “descending” from Writing Culture. This poses anew the question of the legacy of Writing Culture and also leads to reflections about the book’s continued capacity to capture the imagination for anthropology in the future. For now it seems clear, however, that Writing Culture has indeed become the standard reference point in, and a prime shorthand description for, discussions of postmodernism and ethnographic representation in anthropology. It remains an open question of what to make of the ironic fact that Writing Culture thus epitomizes a canonical moment in the discipline’s history, radically questioning all anthropological canons.

The Writing Culture Debate

Although Writing Culture was to give rise to multifaceted debates on reflexivity, objectivity, epistemology, culture, ethnography of the world system, and the politics of representation, the text itself primarily dealt with the poetics of ethnography, largely sidelining political and epistemological matters. In its textualist attempt to challenge then-conventional ways of ethnographic writing, Writing Culture could draw on a growing body of more experimental ethnographies. Of these texts, critically engaging with the hegemonic genre of ethnographic realism, Miner 1956 is one of the earliest; it performs (as hidden parody), rather than speaks about, the estrangement effect that conventional ethnography often exercises in exoticizing “the Other.” Later texts, especially since the 1970s, have consciously broken with the convention largely to exclude personal experience, of observer and observed alike. These include the vivid and touching depictions of old people in America by Myerhoff 1978 and the detailed engagement with the life of a !Kung woman in the Kalahari in Shostak 2000. Emphasizing particularly the dialogic engagements between ethnographer and local interlocutors during fieldwork, Crapanzano 1980 reveals the, at times, magic reality of the author’s interactions with the Moroccan Tuhami, whereas Rabinow 2007 and Dwyer 1982 show how fieldwork engages, and puts into question, both locals and researchers. Favret-Saada 1980, in its engagement with contemporary witchcraft in rural France, reflexively demonstrates the limitations of realist assumptions about the neutral transparent text under conditions, in which representing witchcraft is identical to practicing it. Marcus and Cushman 1982 is an early attempt at mapping the emergent field of “ethnographies as texts,” in which ethnographic realism is theoretically criticized and practically transcended in experimental writings.

  • Crapanzano, Vincent. 1980. Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A sensitive and bold interpretive ethnography, presenting the life and world of Tuhami, an illiterate Moroccan tile maker who believes himself married to a camel-footed she-demon and suffers nightly visitations from the demons and saints who haunt his life.

  • Dwyer, Kevin. 1982. Moroccan dialogues: Anthropology in question. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    A dialogue-based account of encounters with Faqir Muhammad, a villager from humble beginnings who has spent most of his life farming his land, in which the strengths and vulnerabilities of both fieldworker and local are dialectically exposed.

  • Favret-Saada, Jeanne. 1980. Deadly words: Witchcraft in the Bocage. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Originally published in French in 1977, this book explores witchcraft beliefs and experiences in the Bocage, a rural area of western France. It self-reflexively presents the progress of the ethnographer’s inquiries, suggesting that a full knowledge of witchcraft involves being “caught up” in it oneself, since speaking about witchcraft means practicing it.

  • Marcus, George E., and Dick Cushman. 1982. Ethnographies as texts. Annual Review of Anthropology 11:25–69.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    An early review article of anthropological studies treating “ethnographies as texts,” both critically engaging with the conventions of the by then still-dominant genre of “ethnographic realism” and exhibiting a contemporaneous trend toward experimentation in ethnographic writing.

  • Miner, Horace. 1956. Body ritual among the Nacirema. American Anthropologist 58.3: 503–507.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1956.58.3.02a00080

    An early, short, and highly entertaining critique of the overconfident science of anthropology, parodying its magisterial tone in depicting the non-Western “Other” through exoticizing the “American” under the inverted name “Nacirema” almost beyond recognition; great introductory text taking undergraduates directly to the heart of what Writing Culture came to describe in its subtitle as “the poetics and politics of ethnography.”

  • Myerhoff, Barbara G. 1978. Number our days: A triumph of continuity and culture among Jewish old people in an urban ghetto. New York: Simon and Schuster.

    A poignant account of a culture of aging in contemporary America, highlighting the triumph of individual and collective creativity to deal with the daily problems of poverty, neglect, loneliness, ill health, inadequate housing, and physical danger.

  • Rabinow, Paul. 2007. Reflections on fieldwork in Morocco. 30th anniversary ed. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    An engagingly written account of the anthropologist as neophyte. Key questions of disciplinary practice are asked in the context of the personal narrative. Problematizes the conventional suppression of personal experience in written ethnographies, as anthropological authority is shown as rooted in field research. Originally published in 1977.

  • Shostak, Marjorie. 2000. Nisa, the life and words of a !Kung woman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Originally published in 1981, this is a highly personal account of the life history of Nisa, a !Kung woman of the Kalahari desert in southern Africa, written by the wife of an anthropologist involved in the Harvard Kalahari Project. Often used in introductory anthropology courses.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.