In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Literary Anthropology

  • Introduction

Anthropology Literary Anthropology
Nigel Rapport
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0067


The field of “literary anthropology” actually covers two fields of study. The first is an exploration of the role that literature plays in social life and individual experience, in particular social, cultural, and historical settings. Included in this study is the question of what “literature” is. Literary anthropology can be understood here as an exploration of different kinds of genre of expression, and how these genres can be said to have a historical specificity, a cultural evaluation, and a social institutionalism attached to them. The anthropologist might examine literature as the oral recounting and exchange of myth among 20th-century Amazonian hunter-gatherers, or the focus might be on the establishment of printed daily newspapers in Hungary and its links to the 19th-century rise of Hungarian nationalism. Secondly, literary anthropology is a study of the nature of anthropology itself as a discipline. What role does writing play in the processes of accruing anthropological knowledge? What is the history of the relationship between anthropology and particular kinds of writing? Should exponents be happy to proceed with this historical tradition or is it appropriate that anthropology now reimagine itself in terms of different kinds of expression—visual, audible, sensory—or different kinds of literary genre: fictional or poetic or dialogic? It can be seen that these two fields of study—the first, more traditional approach and the latter “literary turn” to the very nature of knowing and representation—are not discrete. In asking what kinds of expression it should adopt for getting to know its research subject and for disseminating the results of its research, anthropology is also considering the role of literary and other forms of expression to do work—to make sense—at particular historical, social-structural, political, and personal moments. Literary anthropology has thus been a focus of growing anthropological concern for the way in which it throws light on the entire complex of the human social condition, including the role of narrative in consciousness, the nature of creativity in social life, and the way in which anthropology might do justice to evidencing the subjectivity of experience.

The Literary Turn

In a key text, Geertz 1988, Clifford Geertz suggested that writings by some of anthropology’s past grand masters bore a distinct authorial signature, a writerly identity. Albeit that anthropological texts purported, or at least aimed, at simply presenting a true and detached view of the world, they did not come from nowhere, and they did not give onto an unbiased reality: inevitably they represented historico-socio-cultural documents. Indeed, the very claim to truth represented a particular rhetoric, a narrative and stylistic technique, which served to obscure the links between those representations, the “knowledge” they constructed, the relations of power they embodied, and the interests they furthered. Geertz’s work was evidence of a difficulty that was seen to be emerging concerning the whys and wherefores of the act of representing “others.” What had once been an unproblematic process and relationship became “the subject”—for some “the crisis”—of anthropology as such. “The literary turn,” most broadly, can be understood as anthropology turning its attention to its own processes of inscription. Was not anthropology part of its own local and national literary traditions? (See Boon 1972.) Far from analytic and scientific, were not anthropological concepts such as “culture” and “society” part of their own “folk tradition” (Wagner 1975)? Opinion was divided, however, on the question of what recognition of the literariness intrinsic to anthropology should amount to. For some there was now a lack of persuasiveness in anthropology’s traditional claim to explain others by going “there” and sorting strange facts into familiar categories for perusal “here” (Strathern 1987). For others, talk of a moral and epistemological gap—of words being inadequate to experience and of Western words being a continuation of asymmetrical power relations laid down during contexts of colonialism—was an irresponsible affectation, leading to a dereliction of scientific duty to know and improve the human condition (Gellner 1992). For still others, the literary turn represented an opportunity for reassessing the possibilities of fine anthropological writing (Campbell 1989), for substantiating the universality of the literary endeavor (Hymes 1973), or for examining universal creative processes and the ubiquity of “writing social reality” (Rapport 1994).

  • Boon, James. 1972. From symbolism to structuralism: Lévi-Strauss in a literary tradition. New York: Harper & Row.

    An examination of how French structural anthropology (Lévi-Strauss’s work in particular) belongs to a French literary tradition that includes the symbolist writings of Mallarme, Rimbaud, and Huysmans. Is not an experiencing of another culture equivalent to experiencing a literary text? Both are bodies of systematized data conveying information.

  • Campbell, Alan Tormaid. 1989. To square with Genesis: Causal statements and shamanic ideas in Wayapi. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.

    Posits the claim that “barbarous writing is bad work,” and that literary borrowings, thus far sporadic and ad hoc in anthropology, must be extended to the point that the degeneracies of the current disciplinary diction are overcome (and “borrowings” are no longer recognized as such at all).

  • Geertz, Clifford. 1988. Works and lives: The anthropologist as author. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    An analysis of the writings of four prominent anthropologists—Malinowski, Benedict, Evans-Pritchard, and Lévi-Strauss—to argue that authorship is necessarily an imparting of an identity and a personal signature to texts. Anthropological writings are fictions—things fashioned and made—though not thereby unfactual.

  • Gellner, Ernest. 1992. Postmodernism, reason and religion. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203410431

    Three positions on truth compete for our intellectual affiliation: religious faith, relativism, and enlightenment rationalism. Only rationalism takes truth seriously. Current “postmodern” anthropology is relativist, mistakenly indulging in subjectivism as a form of expiation for the supposed sins of colonialism—here is truth used as a kind of cultural decoration.

  • Hymes, Dell. 1973. An ethnographic perspective. In Special issue: What is literature? New Literary History 5.1: 431–457.

    In the context of a study of North American Indian literary traditions, it is argued that “literature” is universal. Ethnography and literary criticism must surely be seen as indispensable to each other, mutually contributing to what is at base the same enterprise of cultural interpretation.

  • Rapport, Nigel. 1994. The prose and the passion: Anthropology, literature, and the writing of E. M. Forster. Manchester, UK: Manchester Univ. Press.

    An overview of the historical relationship between anthropology and literature, and an argument for its reassessment. Sharing an ethos and an epistemology, anthropological field data and literary characterization can be read “through” one another, throwing new light on creativity, authorship, reflexivity and irony, and the nature of disciplines and genres.

  • Strathern, Marilyn. 1987. Out of context: The persuasive fictions of anthropology. Current Anthropology 28.3: 251–281.

    DOI: 10.1086/203527

    The history of anthropology is a history of the routinization of particular relations between writers and readers of ethnographies. Now anthropology finds itself in a new “aesthetic”: the single sociocultural observer is no longer an image of authenticity, nor is the one culture or society a valid object of study.

  • Wagner, Roy. 1975. The invention of culture. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

    Argues for a recognition of how anthropologists invent “a culture” for their informants: the imagination of a plausible explanation of what they understand their research subjects generally to have been doing. The “invention of culture” is an example of the universal “symbolization processes” by which human beings construct original meaning.

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