Navigators of the Contemporary: Why Ethnography Matters

Navigators of the Contemporary: Why Ethnography Matters

Navigators of the Contemporary: Why Ethnography Matters

Navigators of the Contemporary: Why Ethnography Matters

Synopsis

As the image of anthropologists exploring exotic locales and filling in blanks on the map has faded, the idea that cultural anthropology has much to say about the contemporary world has likewise diminished. In an increasingly smaller world, how can anthropology help us to tackle the concerns of a global society? David A. Westbrook argues that the traditional tool of the cultural anthropologist- ethnography- can still function as an intellectually exciting way to understand our interconnected, yet mysterious worlds.
Navigators of the Contemporary describes the changing nature of ethnography as anthropologists use it to analyze places closer to home. Westbrook maintains that a conversational style of ethnography can help us look beyond our assumptions and gain new insight into arenas of contemporary life such as corporations, financial institutions, science, the military, and religion. Westbrook's witty, absorbing book is a friendly challenge to anthropologists to shed light on the present and join broader streams of intellectual life. And for those outside the discipline, his inspiring vision of ethnography opens up the prospect of understanding our own world in much greater depth.

Excerpt

This short book is meant to be read in a number of different ways:

as a sympathetic outsider's report on specific intellectual problems for some
U.S. anthropologists seeking to use their discipline to confront the situations in
which they (and many other people) presently find themselves;

as a response to these problems through a conceptual reconfiguration of the
geometry of traditional ethnography that nonetheless aspires to satisfy much
the same intellectual, indeed aesthetic, desires as ethnography has long done;

as an abstract statement of one way forward—what younger or more nostal
gic folks might have written as a manifesto;

as a way of articulating broader concerns about the possibilities for intellec
tual life (and unavoidably, political life) under contemporary conditions;

as a suggestion of how one might be an intellectual for whom education is
a form of travel writing, the life of the mind (potentially including academic
life) is an adventure, and thought (even social criticism) is not just cheerful but
happy; and

as the trace, if not the text, of conversation—one kind of solution.

This book presents ideas that have emerged through a threefold conversation among Douglas Holmes, George Marcus, and me. Doug and George are anthropologists, and for some years now, we have been talking about the situation of and possibilities for contemporary ethnography, conversations that easily shade into (or more truly, are required by) broader concerns regarding the discipline of anthropology vis-a-vis its institutional setting in the university, and vis-a-vis competing ways of understanding the world and our places within it. Such discussions tend to become about . . .

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