Anthropological Warning Signs and How to Spot Them
I’m engaged in research mode right now for the second book of Isabella’s memoirs. But this isn’t the focused, targeted research of the Onyx Court series, where I know my time and place and am looking for details; I’m trying to decide what time(s) and place(s) I’m going to be drawing from to begin with. Since the general sphere of this second book is going to be “sub-Saharan Africa,” that means doing a fair bit of 101-level familiarization, before I decide where to dig down further.
One of the books I just read had me rolling my eyes at certain obvious flaws, and I figured that when I write up my “books read” post in a few weeks, I’d dismiss it with a flippant sentence that would make teleidoplex and albionidaho laugh, and move on with my life. But then it occurred to me that the flaws I see as obvious actually may not be. I spent ten years in anthropology and related disciplines; I’m familiar with the ways in which anthropological writing can go wrong. Not everybody else is. And it might be useful for me to talk to more than just the anthropologists in my audience.
So here, with an illustrative example, is how to look critically at the genre. This isn’t in-depth technical stuff, where you need to know the region or the theory to spot where it’s going wrong; this is just critical thinking, of a mildly specialized sort. But the flaws are a type that can slip under the radar, if you’re not accustomed to them.