We finally have Elisa Oreglia join Ethnography Matters for a guest post! Elisa is a PhD candidate at the UC Berkeley School of Information. She studies the circulation and use of mobile phones and computers in China, especially in the countryside, and despite two summers spent helping out in the fields, she’s still a hopeless farmer.
… something borrowed, something blue… no, I’m not talking about ethnographies of weddings, even though weddings, funerals, and all social rituals are a staple of anthropological writing. This is my guiding rhyme to choose summer readings, and make sure that they deviate from the usual goal-driven reading of the rest of the year.
So, something old:
When a young mother in rural Taiwan is behaving in odd ways, maybe possessed by evil spirits, what does a budding anthropologist make of it? A conscientious researcher will do interviews, read the literature, and publish a paper about traditional beliefs and modern psychoanalysis. Anthropologist Margery Wolf, in a Thrice-Told-Tale, tells the episode first as a fictional story, then as an excerpt from her field notes, and finally as the academic paper she published years later. A masterful showing, rather than telling, of what ethnography is and how it works.
As Tricia notices, ethnographers are not always great storytellers, and we could learn a thing or two from historians about writing to capture readers, rather than to punish them. There’s something about plague epidemics that seems to inspire great storytelling, so I have high hopes for Ralph Tailor’s Summer: A Scrivener, His City and the Plague, by Keith Wrightson. In 1636, the plague struck Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The scrivener Ralph Tailor went around the city writing down the last wills and testaments of his fellow citizens, and Wrightson reconstructs the life of the city through writings left by Tailor and other documents.
My I-School colleague Janaki Srinivasan, explorer extraordinaire of the life of information in India, lent me Katherine Verdery’s The Vanishing Hectare to help me understand what happens to land and farmers when communist regimes collapse and free markets and private property take over. Added bonuses: the book is set in Transylvania, and it starts with a superb quote: “Privatization is when someone who doesn’t know who the real owner is and doesn’t know what it is really worth sells it to someone who doesn’t have any money.” (Polish Privatization Minister Janusz Lewandowski)
What’s more summery than a book whose cover features a deep blue sky crossed by a candy-cotton white cloud, and entitled The Secret World of Doing Nothing? And it’s a bona fide ethnography, too, of what happens when apparently nothing happens. Authors Orvar Löfgren and Billy Ehn write about people staring into the void, queuing up silently, daydreaming by a window: a lot goes on in such moments, and it’s something worth thinking about as mobile phones, tablets, MP3 players are invading more and more of this empty space.
If sticklers for tradition demand “the silver sixpence on her shoe,” as the rhyme ends… well, the sixpence represents a wish of wealth for the newly wed, so what’s better than Viviana A. Zelizer’s The Purchase of Intimacy, which looks at what happens when economic matters are intertwined with social and intimate ties, and something goes bad?
Happy summer of reading!