This interview with Carlo Rotella, Director of American Studies and Professor of English at Boston College, is a must-read for anthropologists who imagine themselves writing engaging ethnography. The following is a brief sample.

I’m allergic to abstraction. Especially in my first two books, I was telling the story of the transformation of urban America, especially in the so-called “rust belt,” and of the decline of the industrial city and the rise of post-industrialism. But I could only tell it as a series of locally inflected stories about particular characters at particular moments in particular landscapes. 

Doesn't that sound like the best kind of humanistic anthropology? If not, why not?

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Comment by John McCreery on June 21, 2012 at 5:23am

John McPhee is one of my favorite writers. It would, however, be naive in the extreme to think that he enters the field, whatever topic he's writing about, with an empty mind. He normally writes about things that he already knows a lot about and then discovers a lot more through his research. His storytelling becomes a way of putting across big ideas. The same is clearly true of Carlo Rotella. I see in both a process like the one described by Victor Turner in "Social Dramas and Ritual Metaphors" (Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors:Symbolic Action in Human Society, Cornell, 1974, pp. 23-59).

In this chapter I shall trace some of the influences that led to the formulation of concepts I developed in the course of my anthropological field work and to consider how they may be used in the analysis of ritual symbols. In moving from experience of social life to conceptualization and intellectual history, I follow the path of anthropologists almost everywhere. Although we take theories into the field with us, these become relevant only if and when they illuminate social reality. Moreover, we tend to find very frequently that it is not a theorist's whole system which so illuminates, but his scattered ideas, his flashes of insight taken out of systemic context and applied to scattered data. Such ideas have a virtue of their own and may generate new hypotheses. They even show how scattered facts may be systematically connected! Randomly distributed through some monstrous logical system, they resemble nourishing raisins in a cellular mass of inedible dough. The intuitions, not the tissue of logic connecting them, are what tend to survive in the field experience.(p. 23)

Comment by M Izabel on June 21, 2012 at 4:37am

Another good article on how nonfictional stories are gathered in the field.

I liked what was attributed to John McPhee:

“Nonfiction writers go out not knowing what to expect. In a way you’re like a cook foraging for materials, and in many ways, like a cook, you’re only as good as your materials. You go out looking for characters to sketch, arresting places to describe, dialogue to capture – the way you would gather berries.”


Comment by M Izabel on June 21, 2012 at 1:56am

" I tend to fit the approach to the story. I once had a travel piece about going to Chicago to see music, but I tried not to see blues, which is what I had been raised on. I ended up going to all these polka places, which got me into Eastern European and Mexican Chicago because the music is quite similar. That was very much an article that said, “Let’s go and see what we find.” And sometimes I’m a fly on the wall, which is quite different."


"The trick is that the evidence of the senses has to be present. If the story is just abstract, all telling and no showing, it doesn’t work. There’s a misapprehension when scholars write for general audiences, and it goes like this: You take the kernel of your scholarly knowledge and wrap it into a piece of baloney of narrative and character. It’s like feeding a pill to your dog by wrapping it in a piece of meat. It’s exactly wrong. The better way is showing how messy, three-dimensional characters live the consequences of a bigger argument. That gives the reader a sensory experience, and as an author you are undertaking a project of persuasion to convince the reader that the contours of the larger thing are evident in the way someone boxes, or the way someone makes music." 


"For me, writing non-fiction is the study of what people have been up to. In the humanities, that is what interests me, and it stands in contrast to writing about nature, for example. The reason I go out into the city, or why I am interested in urban landscapes, is to pursue that question. My thoughts are already influenced by the work of big scholars like David Harvey, the people that you read in graduate school and cannibalize and use as a template for your own thinking. What I want to avoid is finding real world examples that prove their theory. I’m much more interested in the opposite: In following people through the world until I can arrive at a more general understanding."


I'll settle on these three.  As far as my reading is concerned, he goes to the field and becomes an observer, listener, and writer of anything that goes in that field and what anyone from that field does.

Comment by John McCreery on June 21, 2012 at 1:06am

"Let the field speak"? Is this really what Rotella is recommending? I don't think so. He isn't a therapist or translator, staying out of the way to let the other speak for herself. Rotella is a writer with a project, "telling the story of the transformation of urban America," and a theory, "the decline of the industrial city and the rise of post-industrialism." His locally inflected stories about particular characters are a technique. He shows us the world through the eyes of others, but what we see is what he sees. Their lives are the medium for his message.

Do you think it likely that the boxer and blues musician that Rotella describes in his books, who were, at least in the case of the musician, living in the 1950s, were thinking about their lives in terms of industrial and post-industrial cities?

Comment by Keith Hart on June 20, 2012 at 4:05pm

I think of it as the tension between Analysis and Story. Over a decade ago, I decided to quit writing for the academy and to take up varieties of fiction and non-fiction. I had a New York agent who was prepared to part-finance the time needed for hanging out in American cities (if I was aiming at the US market). But I discovered that I didn't have much talent for it and in any case needed more precise language not less if I wanted to get my message across in a reproducible form. But I now feel that a hybrid of Analysis and Story is possible and that good historians exploit that range of possibility. Nor is the pursuit of some intellectual clarity incompatible with humanistic writing. I take inspiration from David Hume whose first two philosophical treatises bombed, then his History of England was a blockbuster which sold enough copies to make him financially independent.

By the way I am reading Hilary Mantel's historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, and loving it. And I have my own novel on the backburner, a science fiction murder mystery set today and in the age of Star Trek...

Comment by M Izabel on June 20, 2012 at 3:41pm

That's what I have always believed, John, and have been saying.  Letting the field speak, without doing our planned practice and employing the theory we hold dear, we can write unaffected, unlimited local stories. 


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