There is a literary movement known as creative nonfiction.  Can creative nonfiction be applied to anthropology?  Creative nonfiction creates factual narratives.  The poet Robert Graves loved Frazer's Golden Bough so much that he compared anthropologists to poets.  I think Frazer saw himself as more of a scientist than a poet, however.  The Golden Bough was one of the first attempts to treat religious phenomena scientifically.  However, it is a very entertaining work and certainly bears the mark of creativity. Ethnography can be done creatively as well.  By using the narratives given to cultural anthropologists by informants they can weave a narrative that is both entertaining and creative as well as scientific.

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This might be entirely off the mark, but perhaps the issue of creative ethnography ultimately comes down to truth and our representation of it. Ethnography weaves a selective narrative by default. The anthropologist/ethnographer selects the most useful bits of the story to fill the reader in, to draw a picture, emphasizing some details of exceptional circumstances while glossing over the more mundane ones or vice versa. That is, we construct a story.

By keeping the facts as “true” as possible based on our experiences, we satisfy our need to maintain academic integrity. Yet, our selectivity is a sort of unavoidable process of producing creative non-fiction. Or, one can even venture further that ethnography is a type of fiction (with a hat tip to the Writing Culture era). Consider, for instance, that virtually everything about fieldwork is contrived, even as we try to convince ourselves that participant-observation means the opposite. Arriving in a place with a field notebook to observe, record, and hope to approximate the behavior of locals is about as fictional an enterprise as you can conjure up.

You mention using first-hand narratives of informants to wholly construct the ethnographic narrative to make it more entertaining. In terms of entertainment value, producing dry and dull ethnographies is one of the worst crimes anthropologists can commit. I think that a good ethnography naturally does justice to the people studied by combining academic integrity with a sense of personal experience, acknowledging that all ethnography is subjective and co-produced. Otherwise, we're doing it wrong.

Perhaps one problem is our anticipated audience. This is a science-wide predicament. When writing for other academics, it’s generally seen as important to strip out the creative fluff and get right down to substance, even when that means bending and twisting our experiential narrative to fit with certain theoretical perspectives, comparative works, or even funding applications.

Yet, once the audience is opened up to a more popular stage – blogs, newspapers, magazines – perhaps we become authors again and less afraid to emphasize the inherent creativity of our anthropological experiences. I always hoped that one of the benefits to creating the OAC would be to open a type relaxed forum where people would be willing to share the more personal and colorful details of their experiences as anthropologists and ethnographers.
I also think that the posts on this blog are a good example of creative ethnographic writing of the kind that you suggest.
Great question, Mitchell. At issue is a strong contrast between fact and fiction as well as a very narrow concept of science. This has been specific to the English-speaking world for about a century and a half. But it was not always so and there are signs that the division is breaking down now. All my adult life I have made a professional living by what I now think of as Analysis -- the attempt to make sense of the world as we find it using logical steps and sources of evidence that are transparent to our scholarly readers and in principle could be checked. This is the ideal, but in practice we produce papers that make undocumented claims, write books that leave a lot out for the sake of style, offer soundbites instead of evidence. I have long told my students that a PhD thesis is not a book. It will be read by only a few specialists and they will want to know if they can trust the claims made there. So a thesis has to be unusually transparent, even if that means bad writing, as it inevitably does. Everything else we write sacrifices that transparency for stylistic reasons, call it entertainment value, if you like.

But the passion of my life has always been Story -- movies, novels and plays. I used to put a lot of effort in my teaching to make Story a means of learning anthropology and doing it. My professional writing stayed within the parameters of Analysis in the main, but I also probably raised more questions than I could find answers to in what I wrote. Now that I am retired, I am free to write any way I like. Yes, I have a novel on the backburner, but what I aim to do is somehow synthesize Analysis and Story.

This is what we normally do anyway, merge fact and fiction, but our professional standards emphasise one extreme and repress the other. So let's look at the key words here: create and science. What do they mean? Is to create to produce something that wasn't there before, to be original in the sense of making something new? Does it mean rearranging the facts to make a better story? Or is it just making things up, a synonym for fiction? A lot depends on what we mean by science. English-speakers settled on a peculiar definition around 1840 when the word 'scientist' was invented, meaning the attempt to be as objective as possible, to put the greatest distance between the observer and the object, by supppressing subjectivity where feasible. This 'positivist' version of science never took hold in Continental Europe, for example, where to be scientific is just to have a systematic approach to gaining knowledge.

And this brings me to my main beef concerning the contrast between ethnographers and writers of fiction. If the issue is truth, as Fran suggests, I know novelists who spend three years researching a time and place so that they don't knowingly make any factual errors and ethnographers who hear a story from a casual acquaintance in a bar which they then report as a factual generalization. Which of these is more likely to make a mistake? So let's fess up to the inevitability of combining fact and fiction, so that we can explore in more detail how creativity and science may actually serve each other in our anthropological enterprise.

Just so we don't reinvent the wheel, there is an interesting discussion of some of these questions at worlds of fiction.
This is an extremely thought provoking topic. If I may I'd like to add some questions/statements. Devil's advocate for the status quo so to speak.

I personally believe that our writing/presentation styles should attract a wider audience. It is one of the reasons I scour the media for "anthropology" type shows in an effort to show my students (when I am teaching) what other cultures are like compared to our own. However I also feel some shows/books/magazines/journals etc. etc. mix to much romanticism in to attract that wider audience and in doing this reduce the clarity of the discussion. Is this a good or appropriate thing to do?

I am reminded of early writers in Australian history. James Cook being a brilliant example, who wrote about indigenous Australians in glowing terms but in doing so made it appear to the Admiralty (British Navy officers for those who are wondering) and very early settlers back in the late 18th century that they were child like/simple/infantile living in a veritable Eden. Then when the relationship inevitably turned sour other writers went the other way and all of a sudden the presentation style labelled them as sub human and the land as harsh and needing subjugation by the superior European (actually English) people. My point is history shows that being creative in writing can and does create an image that is nothing like reality. Is this appropriate? can a happy medium be found?

There are modern examples of this phenomena. The Roma being one group who are a, for the want of a better term, political football because of writing/presentation styles. Like I said I believe we need to attract a wider audience, but, at what expense? What is more important clarity or popular romanticism? Remembering that our target audience in all probability has a very limited understanding of the topic in reality can we build an image using creative writing/presentation styles that doesn't potentially mislead the reader/viewer?
We are far nowadays from these fictional narratives of '' noble savages '' , there's no more place for that in this globalased World.
Are we? The truth is Australia, the parts Cook had seen, and Indigenous Australians were as Cook described when compared to England and the English of the day. The issue is with the interpretation of Cooks writing not actually with what Cook wrote. The globalised world thrives on material like this, tourism thrives on promoting difference to the norm. Why go on holiday to get away from it all only to have the same things as you have at home. Tourism to New Zealand promotes Maori culture not English culture, tourism to places like Hawaii promote Islander culture not Western (American) culture. The globalised world loves the idea of "the noble savage" simply because, in my opinion, it helps us to see an alternative to ourselves.
SURE , but in the most of the cases this image or idea is falsified for commercial reasons and poor tourists cannit know so they get what is served in the menu of the touristic agents.

Like I said two posts ago

Michael Findlay said:
The issue is with the interpretation of Cooks writing not actually with what Cook wrote.

This discussion is now about to go towards discussing supply and demand. For all intents and purposes the imagery is correct and "poor tourists who cannot know", and because it is pretty accurate anyway, don't need to know as they are going to learn from their holiday experience anyway. Tourist agencies serve what the tourist wants, if they didn't they wouldn't have any customers.

The point is, being creative in describing creates a drawcard to something. The problem is not the writing/presentation, although I think it could change somewhat to avoid this exact issue, it is how people interpret it. To much creativity can lead to the reader/viewer creating more on their own, it is a domino effect.
Every written description may be distorted by the writer interest or opinion. Assuming that the writer is honest and try to show the reality, there is a creative way to do this. Let's compared writing with photography. A photography is supposed to be the best way to show reality. However, we can have a professional and a amateur photographer taking a shot of the same object. The professional photographer will choose a good angle and find the best light. His picture will look better, but he will not distort anything. He is creative. On the other hand, we can have a bad professional photographer trying to distort the reality. He may choose a special angle in order to hide or over expose something. May use photoshop to enhance or distort the reality. He is creative too, but not honest. So, we have to make distinction between creativity and honesty.

Possibly a good idea for Anthropologists to write Historical fiction. This limits the tedium of meeting the criteria to fall under the category of non-fiction yet offers the ethnologist the opportunity to keep the research results accurate and inject enough style in order to bring the book to a wider audience.


A friend told me a while back, "K, if you write your work up for an academic audience, most of those scientists already understand much of your research findings. On the other hand, your average non academic will find the work dry and uninteresting"


With historical fiction if we inadvertently make a few mistakes in our field work/subsequent analysis of what!! It's Historical Fiction. If on the other hand we can weave the human experience, History and true life situations from the indigenous into the right format we may still retain the academic readers attention and we might actually succeeding creating a viable, respected, and long lasting ethnography.

This creative non-fiction reminds me of chilean diplomat, explorer and writer Mr. Miguel Serrano (1917-2009). Among many of his books, he wrote a "Trilogy of the search in the external world", which contained;

-       “Neither by land nor by sea”

-       “Invitation to the Icefields”

-       “The Serpent of Paradise: Story of an Indian pilgrimage”

They dealt with the spiritual search, starting from his early life in the city and the poetic/political movements from that time to then continue in a trip through many chilean cities and finally arrive to Antarctica. He was one of the first civilians in doing so. The entire book describes spiritual aspects of Chile as a country and as a legacy from indigenous people, The Mapuche. It is poetry written in prose, always keeping historical data intact.

The third part of this trilogy examines life in India from the perspective of a “pilgrim”. The creativity of these writings frequently uses lots of historical parallels as reference, always keeping a creative language.

I think Serrano is one of the few chileans that rescued the essence of our folk in some of his texts. He tried to find out the roots of our psyche as folk, taking in account our poetry, religious views and racial aspects.


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