Ursula Le Guin and the ethnography of future worlds

The late Ursula Le Guin could be called an interplanetary anthropologist, since her stories are the twilight zone between ethnography and science fiction. They include anthropologist characters, descriptions, and most importantly, glimpses of possibilities for our planet through the exploration of what appear to be faraway futuristic worlds.

There already are many similarities between works of fiction and ethnographic texts in general. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz even said that ethnographic texts are more-or-less fiction (1973), since they are inevitably shaped by the ethnographer. How about exploring the other side of the coin, that science fiction books could be anticipatory anthropology?

Le Guin’s worlds are so believable because her way of writing about culture is informed by ethnographic writing. Many of her stories include thick description and detailed accounts of cultural practices, so that they may be are accessible to readers who are outsiders to these ways of life.

Her utopias are also never depicted as perfect places, spaces, or social systems. Every society is challenged in different ways, but “the real utopia in Le Guin’s work is […]the act of self transcendence and cross cultural understanding” (Baker-Cristales 2012, 25). As anthropologists know, the endeavour to transcend bias is like the vision of a “utopia”, it is not a place that can ever be reached. But above all, it a task that is worth pursuing.

Le Guin’s writing goes beyond imagining exotic or magical worlds through rich language or fictional tropes, the stories experiment with social structures and human possibilities. Her books also appear realistic because they abandon the gender and race stereotypes that were standard in the fantastical novels in her era. They often portray people of colour and people who are gender fluid, which was fairly radical for the 1980s science fiction scene. The plots also stray from the fantasy and sci-fi tropes that revolve around great conquests and adventures and instead meander through the hum drum lives of inhabitants of other planes.

Latour made a grand claim that the “task of anthropology is to account for how worlds are composed” (2013, 274). Le Guin’s book The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia accounts the social structures of whole planets, it traces a scientist who leaves his anarchist home planet to visit an Earth-like planet. The Dispossessed is similar to a good ethnography in that it makes current social systems appear unusual, throwing our own world into question and experimentation. Viveiros de Castro says in Cannibal Metaphysics that fictions are alternate realities which should be taken seriously. He makes a departure from Latour’s claim, to say that task of anthropology “is not the task of explaining the world of the other, but that of multiplying our world” (2014, 196). Le Guin shows how nothing is permanent or universal, and that people have the power to shape the world.

It is this reason that Le Guin often worked with anthropologists such as Anna Tsing to create works such as Arts of Living On A Damaged Planet. This anthology weaves fictional texts with anthropological texts and works from other disciplines to confront the oncoming storm of our entangled world.

Anthropology is moving further away from trying to represent “realities”, and towards representing what exists in imagined worlds. What is the future of ethnography? Le Guin’s work can raise a lamp to the murky vision of anthropology, which will involve discipline and genre-blurring work in anticipation of the future. For an example of imagining how anthropologists might imagine future worlds, see Dyan’s post PLANTS IN SPACE! On Botanical Colonialism and Selecting “Acceptable” Plants for Space Habitation.

What the literature of Le Guin and the discipline of anthropology both share is a they practice empathy and try overcome the barriers towards mutual understanding. Her work fulfils a vision of cultural anthropology, to make the strange seem familiar and the familiar seem strange. How distant are Ursula Le Guin’s imagined worlds? They may be as distant as we want them to be.


Baker-Cristales, B. 2012, “Poiesis of Possibility: The Ethnographic Sensibilities of Ursula K. Le Guin”. Anthropology and Humanism. Vol. 37, Issue 1, pp 15–26.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 3–30. New York: Basic Books.

Senior, W. 1996, Cultural Anthropology and Rituals of Exchange in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Earthsea”. Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, 29(4), 101-113.

Viveiros de Castro, E B. 2014, Cannibal metaphysics : for a post-structural anthropology. Minneapolis, MN :Univocal, pp 196.

See also:

Maddie’s post on myth and storytelling in ethnography

Imo and my post on the Anthropo scene part II, which discusses Haraway, who was a friend of Le Guin and a fan of speculative anthropology.

Dyan’s article PLANTS IN SPACE! On Botanical Colonialism and Selecting “Acceptable” Plants for Space Habitation

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