Current Anthropology, January, 2009

Q & A

Could you talk about what drew you to anthropology as a student? You’ve said elsewhere that anthropology is “philosophy as lived by real people.” Can you say a little more about that?

I guess that, like a lot of college students, I was seeking insights about human purpose, the meaning of life. Philosophy is where I expected to find them but my classes seemed to be mainly about conversations between great Western thinkers, polysyllabic and somewhat arid. Anthropology took a while for me to discover but I immediately took to it: ethnography, in particular, is life on a page, life as it is lived and witnessed, an attempt to explain how groups of people can look at the same object and see something completely different.

Can you talk about the process of transforming your anthropology thesis at Amherst into your first book? Were there ways that your studies in anthropology helped or hindered the process?

My undergraduate thesis was titled, “Between Freedom and Poverty: Railroad Tramps of the American West.” It was written in the third person, as I understood it had to be, and had sections on topics such as hobo concepts of time and space, the role of alcohol in social life, and status calculations. At the end, I tucked in an appendix called “A Field Experience in Retrospect”–I borrowed that title from a chapter of Elliot Liebow’s Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men, which I much admired. That part was first person and practically wrote itself, I had so much to say about the personal experience of riding the rails.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the stuff in that section was also what people tended to ask me about. They weren’t so much interested in “risk and distrust as cultural themes” as they were in what it had been like for me to live on the rails. I wrote an article for a student magazine about a morning with one tramp in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The piece was reprinted in the college alumni magazine as a cover story, and that in turn was picked up by the Associated Press. Lots of national media started calling after that, and so for the first time I dared to think, maybe I could sell a book about this.

As far as writing the book: the experience of writing an undergraduate thesis first definitely helped. It really made me organize my ideas about hoboes, and think about their world analytically. But it was probably my experience as a journalist (I had worked summers as a reporter) that was most useful when I sat down to write Rolling Nowhere. Journalism is all about clarity and communicating effectively to a general audience. No jargon, no high-falutin’ arguments; the job is to tell a story, a true story about real people in difficult situations. My editors welcomed the idea of me using myself as one of them–in other words, of me writing in the first person.

Do anthropology and ethnography shape the kind of journalism and writing that you do now? How?

I think a lot of my best writing might be called “topical ethnography.” Two examples are pieces I did on the AIDS epidemic in the 90s. When I heard that East African truckers had been implicated by scientists in the spread of HIV, I thought I could travel with them. When I met a MacArthur Fellow who was trying to plan for the adoption of the orphans she expected the disease to produce in the United States, I thought, I could write about a sick parent about to lose their child. The research for stories like that takes a lot more time than the research for more normal stories–you have to get to know whole worlds of people. And it’s not really ethnography–it’s just inspired by ethnography. But not very many journalists attempt it, and I think it’s a rich vein.

To answer your question another way: I think my writing has a lot of ethnographic detail. Anthropology influenced me a lot as far as what to notice and what to ask. Ethnographers can also teach journalists about depth and empathy. Journalists can teach ethnographers how to reach a larger audience by eschewing jargon and thinking about narrative and topicality.

Do you read ethnography/anthropology now? If not, did you have favorites in college?

Besides Liebow, I was influenced by James Spradley (You Owe Yourself a Drunk), Edmund Leach (Political Systems of Highland Burma), Evans-Pritchard (The Nuer), Colin Turnbull (The Mountain People), Marvin Harris, and the book When Prophecy Fails (Festinger, et. al). Three years ago I began to teach at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. We’re starting a graduate program called Literary Reportage, and I’m developing a course that may be called something like “Ethnography for Journalists.” I’m researching a possible syllabus now, and besides Liebow have been reading books like Striffler’s Chicken, Bourgois’s In Search of Respect, Duneier’s Sidewalk, and some books on field work.

Do you see a distinction between ethnography and participatory journalism?

Yes. Ethnographers, it seems to me, typically have a longer time horizon, arrive with a specific universe of questions (and constraints), and are freer to pursue questions just because they’re interesting. A participatory journalist is mainly after a smart, entertaining, and socially significant story, and might not even know what it is when he or she arrives. The reason for taking notes is different, the audience is different.

Did anyone ever say to you in college—anthropology! What will you do with that? Do you remember how you answered? Or ideas for how other students of anthropology might answer this question?

Well, they certainly did ask. And a good answer might have been, “I’d like to become an anthropologist!” But I wasn’t sure I’d have patience for the highly specialized nature of the training nor for the rigors of academic life–nor was I confident that I was the canniest of the anthro majors I knew. I guess I figured I’d head toward journalism or law. My mind was eased by the number of people who said that liberal arts education is all about broadening your mind; graduate school is for real world skills.

Can you say a little about your most recent project?

Sure. It’s called The Routes of Man and it’s a book about roads–their power to change the places they’re in and the people on them. In some ways it’s a response to Newjack, my book about prison–after that experience of confinement, I just wanted to move. I figured the way to properly research this book would be to do just that: it’s a series of participatory narratives about people on roads in six different places. Each road has a theme: in East Africa, where I traveled with truckers in 1992 and 2003, it’s about roads and disease. In the West Bank, where I traveled with Israeli soldiers and then Palestinian students, it’s about roads and occupation. In the Peruvian Amazon, it’s about roads and development v. the environment.

I’d personally be interested in knowing if you’ve considered doing some kind of follow-up to your book Coyotes, and if you have, what you might do.

Coyotes was my most rewarding book to research–the Mexicans I was with were mainly guys my own age, on the sort of adventure I’m sure I’d be taking if I were in their shoes. They looked out for each other and they looked out for me. If the right follow-up presented itself, I’d definitely be interested in pursuing it. But so far it hasn’t!

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  1. […] fleshes the distinction between ethnography and literary journalism out a little more in a 2009 Q&A with Current Anthropology. He also has some great insight on what the two disciplines can offer each other. I think my […]

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