Re: Build Your Own Best-Seller [was work (markets)]

Kathleen A. Gillogly (Kagillogly@AOL.COM)
Tue, 8 Oct 1996 14:11:43 -0400

Michael Cahill <MCBlueline@AOL.COM> writes:

>I like looking at the world from inside a character when I start a book.
>Characters are, for me, the hook. I can think of a couple of great
>community studies in anthropology -- fascinating accounts with real market
>potential -- that missed the boat because they used the old anthropological
>formula of introducing the locale first. Even the best descriptions of
>places tend to be rather dry. Openings, I think, need to strike a chord.

This is a key point in terms of readability. I think it makes a
theoretically important point, too, putting the 'subjects' of the study front
and center, so that the story is as much their's as we can make it.
Anthropologists are well-situated to be mediators between worlds and
explaining why groups do what they do.

Has anyone else on the list ever been dumbfounded at how much of their
fieldwork time is spent explaining different groups to each other? In my
first field work (about 15 years ago), I was imbued with ideas of keeping my
distance, being an observer, not polluting the local cultural pool. Ha! I
couldn't keep anyone from asking endless questions about me, my country, the
government, different cultural practices. As militantly culturally
autonomous as those people were, they certainly wanted to know about others.
After being perplexed, initially, I began to see this as a strength of
anthropology. Peoples' reactions to what they saw others doing was certainly
an excellent way to get at what they thought they were doing. And who is
better suited to do this 'translation' than someone who chooses to be
'between cultures,' if only for a little while.

But back to developing a 'hook' to draw in readers. This hook serves the
purpose, also, of putting the reader as much as is possible into the world of
the people or persons about whom they're reading. The goal should be to
really draw them in, like a good movie or work of fiction does, because
understanding of another way of life doesn't come from a description of
geography and statistics. That's not how most people experience life; life
is what you do every day, what you eat, who you speak to, why you do what you
do, what your problems are and how you respond to them.

I'm trying to do this with my dissertation. The diss is dealing with a lot
of different levels of organization -- the village, the households, the
project, the forestry department, bureaucrats from the capital city, national
policy, and international policy. Understanding what decisions families make
today can only be understood in the context of international policy on down
(especially history). The villagers don't know what happened, they just know
they have to deal with it. But they wanted to know how they'd gotten to
where they were, and I hope others do, too.

Now the usual way to write about this is to start from one end of the
equation and move along linearly (GLR?). Since the information on on
international policy, national policy, bureaucrats, forestry departments,
project, etc. is contextualizing information, it's easier, conceptually (and
for the sake of verbal economy) to develop the 'story' in that direction.
But where does that leave the real focus of the story -- the villagers?
What I want to do is start everything with chapter just about the villagers,
their daily lives, what they talk about, what they like to do. I want to
write it in a non-academic style. In fact, I might even sign up for a
creative writing class to work on the right kind of style for this, because
I'm so used to writing in academic style that I find it hard to stop! I want
to put all the details right in there, and that doesn't work. I need to
develop something more evocative, something that will stay in the mind while
I go back into history to explain how the villagers got to where they are

I don't think plot and characterization are the best answers. Well, not for
a dissertation, at least. I'm thinking of something more like a memoir. And
how do we deal with plot and characterization given our real obligations to
'our informants' and to trying to be accurate? I'm thinking of an account of
villagers and their life as I knew it; then a chapter with 'snapshots' of
life in three other villages (1968, 1970, and 1984). This will lead me into
discussion of differences in social organization, and to explain those I will
then leap to discussion of the national and international policies and
practices surrounding the village. But I must say I find these transitions
difficult to contemplate.

It does seem that we have the potential for our own network here. That would
enable us to get to the nitty-gritty of writing and sharing our work without
boring everyone else (and subjecting ourselves to flames, a sure way to get

>In my view, this "other half" of America -- we might call it Institutional
>America -- is what has been largely missing in the anthropology of the US.

By the way, Jack Bilmes of the University of Hawaii did some interesting
research on the Federal Trade Commission. His focus was on conversational
analysis and decision-making. Anyone interested in 'institutional' America
will find his work intriguing.

Kate Gillogly
Dept. of Anthropology, Univ. of Michigan