International Anthropology Day on Feb 19th

National Anthropology Day

In recognition of International Anthropology Day on February 19th we reached out to our CIE friends, members and favorite anthropologists to ask them:

What books or people have inspired your imagination as an anthropologist?

Here they are! May they inspire you to imagine too…

Also check out our guest blog entry at the UTP Teaching Anthropology Blog here.

Denielle Elliott


One of my favorites is “The Vulnerable Observer:  Anthropology that Breaks your Heart” by Ruth Behar.

Carolyn Kenny, Antioch University

I’d nominate Terry Prachett’s Discworld series.  Not all are equally good (some are actually a bit naff), but at their best they show the ways in which satirical comedic fantasy can be used to shed light on more ‘serious’ topics – kind of like an extended version of “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”.   I also love the way he copies – and subverts – various academic conventions such as footnotes.

Kirsten Bell, University of British Columbia

Michael Taussig’s I Swear I saw This, Lynda Barry- Syllabus: Notes from An Accidental Professor, Karen Strassler’s Refracted Visions

My writing teachers, Anna Camilleri and Cordelia Strube ; for narrative drive: Ruth Behar, Kirin Narayan; and for theoretical curiosities — Lauren Berlant, Beth Povinelli.

Ethnographic Terminalia– I saw the New Orleans exhibit and felt like I woke up.

Lindsay Bell, SUNY-Oswego

My ethnography continues to be inspired by fictional writers – for the last few years it has been by writers like Nadine Gordimer who seem to effortlessly write about the violences, the subtleties, and the nuances of racial tensions and colonial histories, and with such eloquence. My favourites: July’s People and the Conservationist.

Anthropologists? During the first year of the PhD our class read A Space on the Side of the Road by Kathleen Stewart. To this day, it is still one of my favourite ethnographies. More recent works of inspiration include Hugh Raffles’ Insectopedia and Anne Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling, both for their attention to the peripheral and everyday quotidian. They give stories to things, places, and moments that so many of us look past.

Denielle Elliott, York University

Marvin Harris, the author of “Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches.” Ursula K. LeGuin, a “legacy” anthropologist (both her parents were also anthropologists) who is probably best known for her novels, including the life-changer “The Left Hand of Darkness” and the political watershed novel, “The Dispossessed.” Karl Heider, from whom I took a Cornell University class in the very early days of ethnographic film (round two, I guess), Jack Weatherford, whom I think is a historian, but who wrote a fabulously anthropological book called “Indian Givers” about the psychic, cultural, and political impact exerted upon European society by the 1492 First Contact event, instead of the more usual other way around. Victor Turner, especially his work on the anthropology of performance. Robert Gardner, one of my profs at Cornell and Simon Ottenberg, at University of Washington, pretty much the entire Royal Anthropological Institute, and Marc Maguire, at National University of Ireland — Maynooth. And, of course, our very own Dara Culhane!

Kerric Harvey, George Washington University

There are two: one is Life Exposed: Biological Citizenship after Chernobyl by Adriana Petryna and In Amazonia by Hugh Raffles. Both inspire me to think about place and space in imaginative ways, and illustrate the creativity that ethnography enables and captures.

Elsa Fan, Webster University

RUTH LANDES (1908-1991) inspires me first and foremost with her courage. She imagined the possibilities and political potential of anthropology practiced outside of and despite the leading figures and the disciplinary canon of her day. Although Landes was trained by and was an admirer of Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead, her independence of mind and spirit, and her commitment to collaboration in the field, and to radical politics brought her into frequent conflict with authorities in academies and governments. Landes imagined an anthropology led by “informants”, ethnographic practices that celebrated diversity, creativity, agency, and alignments with political activism. Landes imagined her work making a world “otherwise”, and hers was a career on the margins, without apologies.

Dara Culhane, Simon Fraser University

-Marilyn Houlberg, my anthropology professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago influenced me tremendously. I first traveled to Haiti in 1980/81 with Marilyn as a young art student interested in the overlaps between performance art and ritual possession. RIP, Marilyn.

-March E. Blanchard, without whom I would not have started my work in Cuba in 2005. RIP, el profesor.

-Two books by Michael Taussig, The Magic of the State and Mimesis & Alterity, inspired some of the ways I was thinking about performance and identity when I was completing my MFA in Studio Art.

-Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Coco Fusco’s generative concept of “reverse ethnography” has been useful to the development of my own ethnographic performance practice.

-Anthropologists and performance ethnographers like Grete Viddal and Laurie Frederik, whose work I respect tremendously.

-Dara Culhane, et al, at CIE, inspire me to continue to explore the intersections between my work as an artist and a scholar.

Shannon Rose Riley, San Jose State University

As an Anthropology Editor at the University of Toronto Press, I meet plenty of people I respect, and plenty of people who inspire me, but I have to admit that it was my  encounter with Eileen Kane, a 70-something, Irish-American Anthropologist, that had the most lasting impact. When Eileen contacted me a number of years ago to see if I would consider publishing her anthropological memoir, I was skeptical. Everyone can, and should, write a memoir, but not every memoir should be published. Eileen’s was different though. She had somehow managed to blend a critique of Anthropology and its long history with Indigenous peoples, with her own marginalization as a working-class Irish-American woman growing up in Youngstown, Ohio in mid-century America. More importantly, she did so while telling a great yarn of a story that was both funny and effortless to read. In person, Eileen’s eyes twinkle with the mischief of a good storyteller with a great sense of humour. As a writer, she manages to translate this mischief into compelling story arcs, vivid characters, funny dialogue, and piercing insights into Anthropology as a discipline. I didn’t know it was possible to write Anthropology this way. All I knew was that I wanted people to read it. In 2010, we published Trickster: An Anthropological Memoir. It was our bestselling book that year, and has been taken up in Anthropology classes across North American ever since. More importantly though, Eileen’s example has inspired me to move down a road of experimenting with publishing more imaginative forms of ethnography. She proved that you could approach Anthropology and ethnography with less reverence and more fun, with keen observation and gentle humour, all without sacrificing serious content.

Anne Brackenbury, University of Toronto Press

I found so many inspiring anthropologists, articles, quotes, and ethnographies that I had to put them all in a hat and simply draw one. Out of the hat came … Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, and her wonderful book Friction.

Three sections particularly come to mind: 1) the construction of the frontier, as “a zone of unmapping” (p. 28), undoing, redrawing, and pervasive violence (p. 27ff);

2) the ways stories travel as they are re-told in different times, places, and contexts (p. 227ff); and 3) most inspiring of all, that amazing chapter (p. 155ff ) on ‘nature’ and “list-making” (p. 168), bordered by names and descriptions of animals, plants, and mushrooms, and ending with “a celebration of fungal abundance” (p. 170):

“Kulat kulangit

Bintang bintangit

Kulat di tanah

Bintang di langit.”

It is a Meratus pantun rhyme. The first two lines are just for rhythm; read them for their sounds. Then say: ‘Mushrooms on the ground are like stars in the sky.’” (ibid.)

When I read this chapter with my students, I like to bring them piles of spices, flowers, leaves, dried grasses, and seeds from parks or urban gardens, and ask them to try and classify them, to remind us of the complex processes involved in naming and listing.

Cristina Moretti, Simon Fraser University

Dara Culhane’s The Pleasure of the Crown. Dara Culhane has been my most significant influence and inspiration. Her book, The Pleasure of the Crown, and other published work, her graduate seminars I attended, and our countless conversations have shaped who I am today as an anthropologist, ethnographer, and performance studies scholar. Her determination to speak to power, commitment to social justice and ethnographically grounded activism always impel me to push the boundaries in both my professional and personal life.

And Barbara Myerhoff’s Number Our Days: A Triumph of Continuity and Culture Among Jewish Old People in an Urban Ghetto. One of the most exquisite ethnographies I’ve ever read – sensitive, compassionate and engaging. While still on the cusp of the Writing Culture era, it is a breakthrough in anthropological reflexivity, dialogism, storytelling, and performative ethnography. Let’s hope for more works of such humility and insight in the years to come!

Magda Kazubowski-Houston, York University

Leave a Reply