best books

Wed, 21 Jun 1995 09:42:07 EDT

Since, like Kathi Kitner-Salazar I'm stuck at a desk job this summer,
I thought I'd get into the "best books" discussion. Since I've only
been "in anthropology" for four years as a student, bear in mind that
I'm still learning what makes a book good anthropologically. Also,
my choices come from someone who has one foot in history, another in
anthro, a hand in American studies, a hand in human rights and (very
recently) legal studies, and an elbow in religion and creative
writing. So, the winners are. . .

1) *Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn*, by Karen McCarthy
Brown (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1991). This is one
the richest, most honest, and most penetrating ethnographies I have
yet to read. This book was the prime reason I applied to graduate
school (and to Drew, Brown's home institution, in particular); it
wonderfully and powerfully blended everything I like about doing
cultural anthropology in its story of a woman academic's research and
friendship with a Haitian vodou priestess and her extended family.
She uses participant observation, history, and even fiction to create
a "thickly descriptive" portrait of her subject and herself, without
narcissism or tears. She tackles politics, belief, life history, and
the depth of everyday life, fearlessly exposing her research problems
and ambiguities but also giving us sharp analysis of her subject. I
loved the writing, the organization, and the insights (theoretical as
well as personal). It's a great book for students *and* professors.
Some might take umbrage with her approach (she tells part of the
family's life history through fiction, and she is definitely not a
distant, objective observer), but no matter what your theoretical
perspective, this book will make you think.

2) *Culture and Truth*, by Renato Rosaldo (Boston, Beacon Press,
1989). More theoretical and contentious than Brown's book (and in
some ways farther from "the field"), but very provocative and eye-
opening. Rosaldo challenges anthropology to continue the process of
re-viewing how social life works, and how anthropology works to
inflect that viewing and how we must keep our selves in mind (and
emotion), as well as the context of interaction that our research
creates. This call for mindfulness is salient, esp. given the
excesses and potential indulgences of postmodernism, as well as more
traditional anthropological theory.

3) "Ethnographies as Texts/Ethnographers as Griots," by Paul Stoller.
*American Ethnologist* 21:353+ (1994). This article got me excited
about doing fieldwork after a year of ambivalence over the
possibilities and responsibilities of anthropology. Stoller outlines
the potentials of ethnography and also pushes for new ways to see how
we study social life. Blending personal experience with professional
proclamation, this article nicely sums up what is good in
anthropology, and what can be better.

4) *Cultural Identity and Global Process*, by Jonathan Friedman
(London, Sage, 1994). This is a sweeping metatheoretical collection
that is sometimes too general or disconnected from particulars, but
that also never fails to make you ponder how the "global system"
works and how it affects the work of anthropology. Friedman's 1992
*American Anthroplogist* article on the politics of cultural identity
epitomized for me the potentials of "global anthropology," and he is
at his best when he directly engages issues like primitivism,
identity, and the uses of social science with his encompassing
critical perspective. This is a great primer for both the overarcing
issues of anthropological scholarship and production in the global
system, and for the study of a few pieces of the "Western
perspective" and the context in which we do our work.

5) *Social Experience and Anthropological Knowledge*, edited by
Kirsten Hastrup and Peter Hervik (London, Routledge, 1994). This is
a smashing collection of essays by European anthropologists on the
problems of fieldwork, experience, translation, and knowledge
production. While I don't agree with all the perspectives propounded
in this volume, it is a very stimulating and diverse array of
discussions and reflections on the practice of anthropology and how
the results of that practice become texts and ideas. I wish I had it
in front of me to point out the best stuff, but it's hard to not find
something worthwhile in this collection. The introduction in
particular nicely delineates current issues and nudges us towards
some good working solutions.

Well, that's enough of that!! I hope that more of you out there in
e-land tell us about your best books. I look forward to discussing
(or debating) this topic and these works some more!!

Best regards,

John Stevens
UMass Boston/Cornell University