The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Sam Ladner’s summer reading list mixes creativity with time, religion, & humor [guest contributor]

We welcome back Ethnography Matter’s first guest contributor, Sam Ladner! Instead of telling us why corporate ethnography can suck, Sam shares with us her summer reading. She discuses an experience that many of us are familiar with – how graduate school ruins the joy of reading. Much to her surprise, Sam tells us that she still loved theory post-grad school! 

If you would like to contribute to the “Ethnographer’s Reading List,” send us an email! – Tricia


Grad school has a way of ruining the pleasure of reading. You have stacks of books and articles, many of which you have no hope of ever finishing, much less enjoying. Since leaving grad school, I’ve reveled in the freedom to read whatever I want. Imagine my horror when I realized I continue to read academic books! Yes, when left to my own devices, I tend to gravitate to heady theory and dense research.

Below are a few of my crazy picks. Unlike when I was in grad school, however, I allow myself to read as much or as little as I choose.

1. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Csikszentmihalyi blew my mind when I read his famous Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, so I was pretty interested to learn what he has to say about creativity. He interviewed dozens of eminent scientists, writers, artists and business leaders. I’m personally intrigued about their working processes, which is not at all what I expected.

This book will give you insight into your own ethnographic practice. I’ve already learned about the conditions under which I am more creative in doing my analysis and writing up my findings.




2. Time and Philosophy by John McCumber

My ongoing interest in all things temporal lead me to pick up this weighty tome at the Congress 2012 Book Fair. McCumber takes you on a world-tour that starts in Greece and ends in California. Granted, most of the time he takes you to Europe (and Germany, more specifically) but you don’t really mind. His wonderful anecdotes include one about Hegel, who dejectedly holds his manuscript as he watches a triumphant Napoleon march past him and another about Heidegger ruthlessly pressuring a chemistry professor under his rectorship to produce chemicals for the Nazis. But don’t be fooled — this book is as intellectual as they come. He traces philosophy’s problem of being “outside time” and how continental philosophers such as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard attempt to address it and the nature of time itself. He ends in California with Judith Butler’s recent work.

For me, this work gives me food for temporal thought. I regularly consider the temporal aspects of my participants’ experience, and this book gives me new ideas of how to understand that. It also inspired me to employ more creative non-fiction when writing heavy theoretical works.

3. Answer to Job by Carl Jung.

Jung’s famous essay was recommended to me by fellow sociologist Sal Zerilli, who has read this “many many times” over the years. In this very readable book, Jung attempts to explain why the Old Testament God is so ruthless while the New Testament God is so full of love. To do this, Jung psychoanalyzes God, using his treatment of Job as a case study. He finds God omniscient, yet flawed. A deeply thoughtful account of religion and the human psyche.

This work comes from an entirely different school of thought, one that doesn’t immediately appear to be relevant to socio-cultural research. But fans of Joseph Campbell will know that archetypical deconstruction is a skill that all ethnographers should know and practice. Jung, of course, is a master at this and could probably craft the most mind-blowing design personas of all time.

4. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

The absolutely hilarious hijinx of a woman who’s rural Texas childhood has scarred her (and now me!) for life. In the spirit of David Sedaris, Jenny Lawson takes everyday events seem like surreal horror movie tropes that somehow still manage to be funny. Among her must reads: the time her family’s pet turkey embarrassed her in the hallway at school, the time her father found a “magic” squirrel which was actually…well you’ll just have to read to find out.

Lawson herself may not realize it, but she is a masterful ethnographer. She notices tiny details and brings them to life. She also has a keen awareness of established social norms and the hilarity that ensues when they are broken. Ethnographers will get a laugh out of this, but they also learn to develop a fresh eye to their own fieldwork.

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