Ethnography these days can be like a jumble of different genres, including poetry, prose, narrative, memoirs and other forms of experimental writing. This pastiche captures anthropology as an art form rather than as a science.
The term ethnography means to write about people. Most early ethnography tried to seem objective by using constructions such as the passive tense, third person pronouns and scientific terminology (Maynard and Cahnmann-Taylor 2010, 2). Yet this detached tone was misleading, since ethnographers are individuals with distinct experiences who can only ever create interpretations of social reality. Since Geertz argued that anthropology is more of an art form, many ethnographers have written “thick description” and embraced their subjectivity by and being reflective of their own position (1979).
Anthropologists such as Adrie Kusserow, Nomi Stone, Michael Jackson, Ivan Brady and Renato Rosaldo have been using poetry to represent their perspectives in ethnography since the 1980s (Maynard and Cahnmann-Taylor 2010, 5). The Society for Humanistic Anthropology also runs an annual poetry competition, to prompt anthropologists to explore the interests of their discipline in other literary forms. Poetry already shares many of the same seeds of cultural anthropology, it is based on human experiences and representation.
Ethnographic poetry is not to be confused with the analysis of poetry within ethnography. Some ethnographers analyse the metaphor and literary forms of a culture, whereas other ethnographers use poetry as a literary genre to convey their experiences during field work. Clearly some ethnographic texts are more suitable to use poetry than others. When encountering a poem nestled in an ethnography, the reader might wonder why the anthropologist doesn’t just pursue poetry as a separate practice, rather than trying to be like a renaissance figure who tries to dabble in a bit of everything. Poetry is an abstract form that might cause misunderstanding for anthropologists who are trying to describe elements of human culture.
But if we assume that anthropology is not just about advancing knowledge, but an attempt to capture and translate other life rhythms and experiences, then poetry is a good fit for anthropology. If everything that could have been known has been known before, there are only “new ways of making them felt- of examining what those ideas feel like being lived” (Lorde 1977, 250). Lorde considers poetry the “revelatory distillation of experience” (248). It should never be considered as a luxury practice that is hidden away in private notebooks (248), just as anthropologists should not be limited to rigid writing styles to circulate within the confines of their ivory towers. For example, the anthropologist Ruth Benedict published her poetry under the name “Anne Singleton”, to avoid scrutiny from Franz Boaz and her other academic associates, who didn’t take poetry seriously (Maynard and Cahnmann-Taylor 2010, 5). The potential of poetry to capture insights into human experience is clear in the following poem of anthropologist and poet Adrie Kusserow (2016, 27-28):
Thirty-One, Anthropologist, No Gods Left,
If meaning has shape,
then I am searching for a bowl of it.
I don’t know anything anymore
If Knowledge came to me
in the thickest part of the night,
woke me with a ﬂashlight,
asked me, What do you know?
I would say, nothing, nothing at all,
except diving, and loving this world.
There is plenty of academic writing in ethnography that unfortunately leaves the reader feeling indifferent, alienated or bored. Even the subjects of ethnography, whether people or places, can become “frozen in time” (Kusserow 2013, n.p). Poetry in ethnography can capture the flashes of perception that ethnographers experience. This can have a jolting effect, by displacing the reader from a sense of comfort and reserved distance. For this reason, ethnographers should accept poetic licence as a gift.
Tyler, S. 1984, The Poetic Turn in Postmodern Anthropology: The Poetry of Paul Friedrich. American Anthropologist, 86(2), new series. pp 328-336
Geertz, Clifford. 1973, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books. pp 3–30.
Maynard, K, Cahnmann‐Taylor, M. 2010, Anthropology at the Edge of Words: Where Poetry and Ethnography Meet. Anthropology and Humanism, Vol. 35, Issue 1, pp 2–19,
Kusserow, A. 2016, A Different Kind of Ethnography: Imaginative Practices and Creative Methodologies. Edited by Elliott, D and Culhane, D. pp 27- 29.
Lorde, A. 1977, “Poetry Is Not A Luxury”. Chrysalis: A Magazine of Female Culture. Pp 248-250.
Polston, P. 2013, A Conversation With Anthropologist/Poet Adrie Kusserow. Seven Days. https://www.sevendaysvt.com/LiveCulture/archives/2013/06/05/a-conversation-with-anthropologistpoet-adrie-kusserow