Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Required Reading: Texts that Mattered


What texts had a profound impact on you in becoming the anthropologist or social scientist you are? I sent this query to colleagues on the anthrodesign listserv and contributors to the Handbook of Anthropology in Business. Initial responses escalated into an unexpected flood of (sometimes annotated) recommendations that, together, speak to the paths we’ve taken and the texts and mentors who mattered. Thanks to everyone who weighed in—it’s become quite a list! In parsing it, my goal was to illuminate, not definitively classify. First a few observations.

If inspiration has been fueled by contemplation of geographic others (see Classics and Tales that Stuck), perspective has been honed by a gaze closer to home (see Work that Was Not So Far Afield) and by voices outside of anthropology (see Muses From Other Fields) whether in history, sociology, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, even economics. And it wasn’t just tales and texts. Contributors to this list were galvanized by teachers (see The Power of Mentors), fiction writers or the serendipitous juxtaposition (see Early Muses), often while reading. I’ve included some of the contributors’ editorial comments to give a palpable sense of impact.

The Enterprise: This includes work that has and continues to recalibrate what it is we do—forms of engagement, objects of engagement, outcomes and implications of doing. If early muses were tales from afar, today’s enterprise re-scopes the landscape. Geography is recalibrated by institutions; others inverted to ourselves; discovery replaced by influence; ‘what is’ understood through many senses.

Finally, it seems clear that our particular biographies-through-reading are serendipitous from the get-go. So it is fitting that this list ends with Composing A Life.

Happy reading.

Cheers, Rita

Classics, Anthropology + Goffman

Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific
Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa
Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture
Claude Levi Strauss, The Savage Mind; The Raw and the Cooked; Tristes Tropiques

Tristes Tropiques was essential, partly it was exotic, partly it was the journey from fascism, and wholly it was the comments on a world meeting up with greater and greater technology.” —Frank Romagosa

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger
Victor Turner, Forest of Symbols; The Ritual Process
Geertz, Interpretations of Culture; Works and Lives; Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali; Local Knowledge
Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern

“It challenges everything… except the good anthropological tradition, open to the world as it is, in all its richness and diversity!” —Franck Cochoy

Mauss, The Gift
Anything by Erving Goffman

And speaking of sociologists…

Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life
Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Tales that Stuck (a lot!)

Barbara Myerhoff, Peyote Hunt
Colin Turnbull, The Forest People
Vincent Crapanzano, Tuhami
Lila Abu-Lughod, Veiled Sentiments

“One of my favorites (and I tell marketing students to read this one) is Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments. It’s not only a fine ethnographic account that sheds great light on what many would say is a repressive culture, but I love how she also brings her own self-identity struggles into the discussion (her father is Arab). I have passed that book on to others who have said it got them interested in anthropology, too!” —Timothy Malefyt

Richard Price, The Convict and the Colonel
Pierre Clastres, Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians
Ernesto de Martino, The Land of Remorse: A Study of Southern Italian Tarantism
Charles Wagley, Welcome of Tears
Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, Guests of the Sheik
Jean Briggs, Never In Anger
Richard Lee, The !Kung San
Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels
Elenore Smith Bowen, Return to Laughter
Paul Stoller, In Sorcery’s Shadow
Carlos Casteneda, Teachings of Don Juan
Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft among the Azande; The Nuer
Ruth Benedict, Chrysanthemum and the Sword
Catherine Allen, The Hold Life Has
Karen Hansen, Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia
Ronald Dore, Shinohata
Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power
The Bible (King James translation) [vs. the fossil record of hominids]

Work That Was Not So Far Afield (whether anthropology or sociology)

Some classics

William F. Whyte, Street Corner Society
Oscar Lewis, The Children of Sanchez, Oscar’s Children, La Vida
Elliot Liebow, Tally’s Corner
Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown; Middletown in Transition
Lloyd Warner, Yankee City
Floyd Hunter, Community Power Structure
Robert Ezra Park, The Immigrant Press and its Control
Louis Wirth, The Ghetto
Harvey Zorbaugh, The Gold Coast and the Slum
Roger Abrahams, Deep Down in the Jungle
John Seeley, Crestwood Heights
Horace Miner, Body Ritual of the Nacirema

And later,

Johnetta B. Cole, Anthropology for the Nineties
Marvin Harris, America Now
Philippe Bourgois, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio

“After reading Oscar Lewis’ La Vida about cultural ideas supporting victimization, the book by Bourgois turned my head to structure and limited access to education, employment and health as causes of drug addiction, poverty and inequality.” —Maryann McCabe

Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History
Barbara Myerhoff, Number Our Days
Paul Willis, Learning to Labour
Faye Ginsburg, Contested Lives
Sharon Traweek, Beamtimes and Lifetimes

“My faculty didn’t understand the culture I was studying, so I read independently for a year to prepare for my comps.” —Natalie Hanson

Mizuko Ito et al., Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out
Emily Martin, The Woman in the Body

The Enterprise: Work That Has Made Us Think About The Things We Engage With. Some Are Classics (others listed elsewhere could also go here…)

Marshall Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason; Culture in Practice; Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture
David Graeber, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value
Ulf Hannerz, Cultural Complexity
Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social, “The topofil of Boa Vista” (in Pandora’s Hope), The Berlin Key or How to Do Things With Words, Le grand partage, Revue du Mauss, n° 1, troisième trimestre, nouvelle série, pp. 27-64.

“Latour compares the geographic knowledge of the local Chinese inhabitants of the Sakhaline island with the ones of La Pérouse, tracing the subtle connexions and differences between the two. This example is also developed in: Bruno Latour, «Comment redistribuer le Grand Partage», Revue de Synthèse, 1983, 203-236. And also in “les vues de l’esprit”: –Franck Cochoy

Claude Meillassoux, The Development of Indigenous Trade and Markets in West Africa
Parry and M. Bloch, Money and the Morality of Exchange
Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things
Henrietta Moore, A Passion for Difference
Sherry Ortner, Female to Male as Nature is to Culture
Michael Agar, The Professional Stranger
Alfred Gell, Art and Agency
Paul Farmer, Pathologies of Power
Nakane Chie, Japanese Society
Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi and Eugene Halton, The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self
Daniel Miller, The Comfort of Things
Alison Clarke, Design Anthropology: Object Culture In The 21st Century 

Attention to the craft

George Marcus and Dick Cushman, “Ethnographies as Texts,” Annual Review of Anthropology 11: 25-69.
George Marcus and Michael Fischer, Anthropology As Cultural Critique
James Clifford and George Marcus, Writing Culture

“I stumbled across Writing Culture in a Borders Bookstore circa 1993 when trying to decide what to do next with my life. It challenged my thinking in many ways, brought my understanding of the discipline to a new level, and inspired me to head off to grad school.” —Jay Hasbrouck

John Van Maanen, Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography

“…about voice in ethnography and how you (can) tell the story—one of the tricky choices you (have to) make as an anthropologist/ethnographer. The book is in my humble opinion very well written (and easy to read) and brings you close to the sometimes painful practicalities of doing ethnography.” —Mikkel Ask Rasmussen

Kamala Visweswaran, Fictions of Feminist Ethnography
Akhil Gupta & James Ferguson, Anthropological Locations
Margery Wolf, A Thrice Told Tale: Feminism, Postmodernism, and Ethnographic Responsibility

It totally changed the way I thought about the possible permutations of fieldwork. “ —Tricia Wang 

Seeing through vision: honing a visual sense

“the idea that I could tell thoughtful stories about culture and do that in a creative way was so exciting!”—Natalie Hanson

Susan Sontag, On Photography
Roland Barth, Camera Lucida
The Cinematic Griot (on Rouch)
John Collier, Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method
Diane Hagaman, How I learned Not to be a Photojournalist
Paul Hockings, Principles of Visual Anthropology
Marcus Banks, Visual Methods in Social Research
Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies
Dennis O’Rourke, Cannibal Tours
“Ongka’s Big Moka” (film)
Anything by Jean Rouch

Being through doing: other senses

Marcel Mauss, Techniques of the Body
Edward Hall, The Silent Language
Paul Stoller, The Taste of Ethnographic Things
Francois Laplantine, Life of the Senses 

(Early) Muses: Fiction and Otherwise

“Although I might not stand by my impulses as a young man, these are two books I remember making a great impact—one is anthropology (written by what I later realized is considered a controversial anthropologist [Chagnon]), the other is ‘participant observation journalism’ [Hunter Thompson].” —Martin Hoyem 


Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

“evocatively illustrated the excitement, perils, and potential devastation of cross-cultural contact” —Bob Morais

George Orwell, Down and out in Paris and London

“His eagerness to live and work among those whose lives he was writing about and then to try to make sense of those lives within bigger cultural, political and economic frames was, in my opinion, absolutely the spirit of participant observation, cultural relativism and cultural analysis…It’s one of the very best of the books my Dad gave me to read as a teenager and one which I only later recognized as anthropological. Spoiler alert: it was wayyyyy more fun to be broke in Paris than London.” —Charley Scull

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Hunter Thompson, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs


And otherwise

Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain, originally published in 1632

“It raised the ghosts that still haunt that world and brought them to life, allowing my young self to see things in quite a different light for subsequent work.” —Kathi Kitner

Richard F. Burton, A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome

“Sir Richard Burton’ s account of his 2 years as a “captive” at the court of the king of Dahomey: an Amazon Army for real, the source of voodoo. A real page turner.” —Eric Arnould

Rey Ventura, Underground in Japan
Margot Adler’s work on neo-paganism

“Reading her book and listening to her report on NPR gave me the idea that I could be an anthropologist without being an academic (says the academic).”—Lisa DiCarlo

Kurt Vonnegut on how he ended up studying anthropology at University of Chicago, see Wampeters, Foma, & Granfalloons
Sarah Thornton, 7 Days in the Art World
Living around the block from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City
Joel, Johnson, “Welcome, Wired. We call this land ‘Internet'” 

“The article, but more importantly the comments, a steady stream that would sustain a conversation on the future of print for 10 days, was a level of commenting on a post almost unheard of in 2009. I was a web editor for a magazine publisher—reading this and watching the comments unfold over 10 days led me to go get my MSc in digital anthro at UCL.” —Rachel Singh

Reported as perhaps embarrassing in retrospect

Robert Ardrey, African Genesis
Marvin Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches
Napoleon Chagnon, Yanomamo

The Power of Mentors, Teachers

Michel Crozier, The Bureaucratic Phenomenon, 1964
Katherine Verdery, What Was Socialism and What Comes Next?

“I wanted to go into the foreign service, but she made clear the reasons why they systemically miss the boat. Didn’t hurt that Katherine herself was (and is) a total badass who taught in leather skirts, like a nerdier Debbie Harry. I was in awe.” —Dawn Nafus

Alan Campbell, To Square with Genesis

“It’s a book about a people in the Amazon written by a lecturer at Edinburgh, where I studied. Campbell regularly got standing ovations in his lectures even from dopey first year students. His extraordinary passion and love for the people he had lived and worked with was one reason.  But the main one was the immense humanism he brought to the discipline. I guess I credit him with my realisation that understanding not judgement lies at the heart of the exercise.” —Simon Roberts

Richard Madsen, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life

I didn’t go to grad school until 2007, but the book had a lasting impact on me because I knew that rigorous ethnographic work could be written in a compelling jargon-free way for the public AND just as importantly, collaborative fieldwork is possible, even in academia.” —Tricia Wang

Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

“…allowed me to analyse in class just what was going on between Lionel Caplan and my fellow students, as well as among ourselves. Magical stuff—as were Lionel’s eyebrows as he listened to me!” —Brian Moeran

Muses from Other Fields

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow
Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space
JB Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape

“It also shows from a very different methodological and theoretical perspective, what it means to take every day human life seriously—to value what people value, and especially not to de-value what seems ugly or boring to an outsider.” —Elizabeth Goodman

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities
Howard Becker, Outsiders
Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice; Distinction; Logic of Practice; Invitation to Reflexive Sociology
Michel De Certeau, Practice of Everyday Life
Michel Maffesoli, Time of Tribes
Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom
Thomas Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss, Discovery of Grounded Theory
Vladimir Propp, Historical Roots of the Wonder Tale
Roman Jakobson, The Framework of Language
William Labov, Sociolinguistic Patterns
Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology
Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (a classic if you’re a sociologist)
Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation
Eric Hobsbawm and Terrance Ranger, The Invention of Tradition
Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

“I read Harold Garfinkel (Studies in Ethnomethodology) in my second year of Sociology at Uni. This led me to conduct a covert disruptive participant-observation study of social reality/norms in a university cafe. I would spontaneously assume the persona of a megalomaniac robot that would intrude upon the personal space of customers in various creative ways. I documented in detail the various reactions of people and drew certain conclusions about what was acceptable and what was unacceptable. The exercise really exploded my preconceptions of observation as a technique. It showed me that reactivity can and is informative data if reflected upon with rigour, as well as probing one’s own subjective experience as the researcher.” —Nicholas Agafonoff

In the Field: Muses in Design, Consumer Research

Sherry, John F. (1991) Postmodern Alternatives: The Interpretive Turn in Consumer Research Thomas Robertson, Harold Kassarjian (Eds.), Handbook of Consumer Behavior, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ (1991), pp. 548–591
Timothy Malefyt and Brian Moeran, Advertising Cultures
Patricia Sunderland and Rita Denny, Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research
Donna Flynn, “‘But My Customers Are Different!’ Identity, Difference and the Political Economy of Design,” in Ethnography in the Corporate Encounter: Reflection on Research on and in Corporations, M. Cefkin, Ed. New York: Berghahn Books, 2009, pp. 41–57.
Rick Robinson, “Let’s have a conversation” EPIC2005 Proceedings
Malaby, Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab And Second Life.
MacKay, Wendy E. “Is paper safer? The role of paper flight strips in air traffic control.” ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) 6.4 (1999): 311-340.

“Many of my designer friends wonder why people would not use “innovative” technology. This paper discusses the advantages and context of paper as a medium in flight control.” —Jan Dittrich

Paul R. Carlile, Transferring, Translating, and Transforming: An Integrative Framework for Managing Knowledge Across Boundaries. Organization Science 15(5): 555–568
Papers by Dori Tunstall
Susan Weinschenk, 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People
IDEO, Human-Centered Design Toolkit

In sailing forth,

Mary Catherine Bateson, Composing A Life



Rita Denny, Practica Group

Rita Denny is an anthropologist and a founding partner of Practica Group, a consumer research and strategic consultancy based in NYC and Chicago. She is co-editor of Handbook of Anthropology in Business and co-author of Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research.