Skip to content

Are Ethnographies Novels?

One of my class assignments is to ask students to provide a short review of chapters in the ethnographies they read. Students are to include the following in the reviews: 1) a concise summary of the chapter; 2) a point or two noting the relevance of the chapter to the course and/or anthropology in general; and 3) a question that the chapter raises for them and a potential answer to the question. (This question and answer should not be provided in the book.) For interest, the ethnographies I am using this semester are: John Barker’s Ancestral Lines (Maisin of Papua New Guinea), Robert Jarvenpa’s Northern Passage (Han of the Yukon and Chipewyan of Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories), Herdt’s The Sambia (The Sambia of Papua New Guinea), and Lila Abu-Lughod’s Writing Women’s Worlds (Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin of Egypt).

Inevitably, I will receive about 10% of the reviews which refer to the ethnography under review as a novel. This is perplexing to me because, for me, the term novel implies fiction in the sense of a straightforward dichotomy of fiction and non-fiction. I’ve started wondering, however, if students are taught a very specific definition of novel in literature classes – and whether or not that definition is consistent with what they read in the ethnographies I’ve assigned. So, I turned to my English Literature colleagues and, not surprisingly, was treated to a sophisticated explanation of what a novel is and is not. In sum, there is agreement that a novel is fiction, but that the term novel is best used in conjunction with a modifier like ‘poetic novel’ or ‘comic novel.’ Further, we agree that novels, like ethnographies, include narratives but narrative is not synonymous with fiction. We are also in agreement that fiction can be ethnographic and while we didn’t discuss specifics, I offered The Wire as one example of a fictional, yet ethnographic television series.

(I understand that fiction is a tricky term given the post-modern perspective that tells us that all ethnographic writings are fictions in the sense of being a creation of an author who makes choices about what to include and what to leave out. But that’s not really my question. I’m wondering if ethnographies are novels. Indeed, I think I’d be content if my students said their ethnography is a fiction instead of a novel.)

What do I say to students who call ethnographies novels? What do anthropologists think novels are?

Sphere: Related Content


  1. You say NO NOT NOVELS! I get the same thing over and over as well. I make a point of saying that an ethnography is not a novel; a novel is not an ethnography.

    There are great ‘anthropological’ novels (i.e. Bowen’s Return to Laughter; or even Eden Robsinson’s Monkey Beach). There are novel like ethnographies (Taussig’s The wildman, perhaps). Perhaps our students just are not familiar enough with non-fiction genres in general?

    I think that you are being, perhaps, too generous with your students. That is, you are trying to give them the benifit of the doubt. However, I don’t think it’s what they have been taught, but the fact that for many who may have only read textbooks, novels, comics, newspapers, or webpages an ethnography is a strange form of writing to them.

    Or maybe, they weren’t listening . . . I have university-aged children and occasional, I get the strong sense they weren’t listening. . . .

    Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 9:03 pm | Permalink
  2. Charles … you are absolutely right, of course. I think it’s a function of what students read and don’t read.

    It’s just that I’ve had such a hoot discussing this question with my colleagues in English, I had to ask the question here!


    Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 5:12 am | Permalink
  3. PS … I do wonder about students’ perceptions of fiction and non-fiction. I remember being taught in elementary school the difference between the two. My elementary school library was organized in a way which separated the fiction from the non-fiction – and, if I remember correctly, that dichotomy is built right into the Dewey Decimal System.

    Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 5:51 am | Permalink
  4. Liz McCausland wrote:

    Comments too long for that crazy FB discussion:

    1. I think we’ve all agreed that students are careless with terminology, and none of us likes that. If we want to give them some more benefit of the doubt, however, the classic realist novel (which is mostly what they read in high school, and many of them read little or no other fiction) uses some “ethnographic” techniques to create its realistic effect: description of objects, mundane details of daily life, etc. As well as, of course, highly unrealistic techniques like an omniscient narrator.

    2. Another thing a novel has that ethnographic narratives probably largely lack is plot. The arrangement of events into a plot is a large part of how a novel makes meaning out of them (we do this with our own lives, too–a memoir is really only readable if it “plots” a life).

    3. In the one and only anthro course I took years ago . . . we read a novel! Ursula Leguin’s Left Hand of Darkness (it was a course on gender–I didn’t go to a women’s college for nothin’). I think at least one of Leguin’s parents was an anthropologist, and she’s talked about some of her speculative fiction as imaginary/speculative anthropology. BUT we were all clear that this was NOT the same kind of text as the ethnographies we also read.

    4. I love this discussion because part of my dissertation looked at how Victorians used imperial/proto-ethnographic rhetoric and techniques to depict the city “at home” and the urban poor (in both fiction and non-fiction).

    Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink
  5. Liz – thank you for moving some of these ideas out of Facebook and onto the blog! Charles noted too the presence of ethnographic fictions in the anthropology canon. Plot is a tricky thing, I sense. Are plot and narrative thread in any way the same thing? Many ethnographies include a narrative arc of some kind which creates consistency and continuity. Some use overtly plot-like techniques, like introducing ‘characters’ and slowly revealing the conclusions of the anthropologist. Perhaps this is akin to a novelist using ethnographic techniques?

    Thanks for continuing the conversation. -Tad

    Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink
  6. Liz McCausland wrote:

    I am NOT a narrative theorist, but this is what I tell my Intro to Fiction students about plot: Plot is the arrangement of events, actions, and situations in a narrative [which includes how you tell the story–narrative voice, point of view]. When constructing a plot, an author selects some events from a story to narrate, and leaves out others. You can find lots of discussions about the classical Aristotelian model of plot on the web (rising action, climax, falling action–looks a lot like a graph of sexual response, as I like to point out). Definitions of plot tend to point out that writers select and arrange events to create particular effects.

    It’s been a long time since I read any ethnographies, but I think you could do some of the same things. E.g. organizing an ethnographic narrative chronologically could emphasize a recurring cycle of seasons or events, but you could also organize discussion thematically (coming of age? family life?). Any such arrangement is, of course, an act of interpretation–and in fiction, it constrains possible interpretations of the text.

    What you put at the beginning and at the end also assumes particular significance (we tend to interpret other events in light of those). I like to think of plot as a circle: think a classic detective story or episode of CSI, where we open with a mystery–Colonel Mustard dead in the library, whatever–and from there the plot moves both forward towards a conclusion–the progress of the investigation towards explaining the mystery–and back in time–we learn more about what led up to the initial mysterious scene, which we only really understand once we get to the end of the story. I’m not sure there’d really be an ethnographic parallel to that. But possibly, if you’re understanding the current shape of a culture in part by reference to its past.

    Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  7. Liz … this is very helpful to me. I am now more convinced that the best ethnographies contain plot elements or ‘like-plot’ elements of novels. Frankly, I think that’s why I choose some of the ethnographies I do for students. While I’m not particularly interested in teaching truly fictional ethnographies, I am interested in making ethnographic writing accessible and, thus, debatable to first year students.

    And, I’d agree completely that playing with time (ie history) is a central trope (uh oh) in a lot of ethnography.

    Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 4:57 pm | Permalink
  8. Liz McCausland wrote:

    You said “trope.” Now you must read Derrida! But first . . . .

    Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 5:48 pm | Permalink
  9. … I sense some Ginsu knives in my future.

    Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 6:35 pm | Permalink
  10. I received this comment in a different forum:

    “The most novelistic ethnography I can think of off the top of my head: “Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family” by Jean L. Briggs (which I just taught); the most ethnographic novel I can think of off the top of my head: “That Old Ace in the Hole” by Annie Proulx (marvelous).

    Both genres borrow from one another. Best to get to the root of both universal and culture-specific story-telling impulses and see how they are deployed to different ends.

    Also: “The Wire” owes its main debt to Émile Zola, who pioneered the ethnographic novel, though he didn’t use that term.”

    Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 6:09 am | Permalink
  11. Another comment from another forum:

    “I second the opinion re Briggs’ ethnography. Would have to go back to Proulx’ book. I wonder if that is why I liked it so much. hmmm. I know that I have read several novels that are ethnographic in nature and in one of my undergraduate courses that I took, we read “The Sicilian” by Mario Puzo.”

    Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  12. More:

    “So are ethnographic films docu-dramas? I would think some are …

    Oh and ethnographies that I might be tempted to label docu-drama include some oldies but goodies: The Hunters – a !Kung Bushmen film; and then debatable whether they are ethnographies or “just” documentaries, I offer “Nanook of the North” and “In the Land of the Head-Hunters” (both silent films). Or maybe they aren’t even documentaries???”

    Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  13. And, back to me:

    “Yah, docu-dramas. Makes sense. The problem as I see it is that drama evokes ‘fake’ for many when that isn’t the intent.

    I show parts of Nanook of the North in one of my classes and pair it with Asen Balicki’s Inuit films from the 60s and The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. Together, the three films from three eras make for a really interesting study in how film depictions of the Inuit have changed. Nanook offers a plot line in the way that Balicki’s work doesn’t. The Journals is set up with a plot too (although far too slow a plot for some audiences!). In the Land of the Headhunters has been critiqued wide, of course. The Wikipedia page for it actually has a subsection called ‘plot.’ And, it has been recently restored. Lots of information here:

    Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 10:34 am | Permalink
  14. Vincent Bell wrote:

    I call this a rather stern pronouncement in spite of the fact that as a university teacher I spend a lot of time telling my students that they need to be able to justify their responses and interpretations by reference to textual and other non-whimsical evidence. I do this because although the academic discussion of literature has to insist upon such standards in order to establish ground rules for discussion and debate, I do not think that readers (as against students or critics) of novels are – or ever have been – obliged to remain within the boundaries of the academically authorized. Indeed, were it possible to render ‘whimsical responses’ impossible, then I suspect that novel reading would be a lot less popular than it is today. This is not to argue that works of fiction impose no constraints on what we imagine while we are reading them. Indeed, it is precisely because our responses, our imaginings, have to confront and negotiate with what cannot be changed in a novel that the reading of fiction is able to model what it is like to live in the social and material world, and I expand upon this point in comments on computer games in Chapter 5 .

    Thursday, August 8, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink