Is there Art in Anthropology?

“To desire art in ethnography is to cast doubt on our commitment to maintaining the sobriety and respectability of anthropology within the university system. To long for art in ethnography is to risk losing it all–our academic departments; our scientific grants; the jobs that eventually allow us to settle down surrounded by native rugs, clay pots, and bark paintings that we are always certain must be of much better quality than the second-rate stuff sold to the tourists; the conferences that awaken us from our poetic day-dreaming and remind us of the real intellectual work remaining to be done” (Behar 2007, p. 154).

You may have noticed that a couple of my posts contain quotes from works of fiction (here and here). I have always loved reading novels and I think that they can be of use to anthropologists in a variety of ways. Like Monaghan and Just (2000) say in Social & Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction “often we [anthropologists] have found our greatest strengths to be those of the storyteller” (pp. 3-4), the disciplines of anthropology and creative writing have many similarities and often overlap.

However, anthropology has always straddled a hard line between ‘art’ and ‘science,’ which is one of the reasons people like me love it so much, but also makes it difficult to pin down to a specific genre. As Behar notes above, too much art in anthropology might lead to diminishing the prestige of our work. In her article on the art of ethnography, Behar contemplates what it would mean for anthropologists to write more artfully. What I think is missing from the article is a set description of what audience she is proclaiming we should write to, but I think this space can be filled with the work of other anthropologists. For example, Eugene Hunn (2006) advocates for a type of ‘master narrative,’ accessible by all audiences, that is supplemented by more theoretical narratives. Tim Ingold (2016) is another interesting scholar to look at — in his article “From science and art and back again: The pendulum of an anthropologist” he discusses the goals of both science and art in anthropology.

Anthropology is a diverse subject, with a variety of themes and theories that anthropologists use as well as differing writing styles. By accepting art and creative writing into anthropologists’ work, we are simply creating a more inclusive field of study, in which public audiences can understand our work as much as academics. It also doesn’t mean we must get rid of all scientific writing. There exists in our field space for both art and science.


Behar, Ruth. 2007. Ethnography in a Time of Blurred Genres. Anthropology and Humanism 32(2), pp. 145-155.

Hunn, Eugene. 2006. Meeting of the Minds: how do we share our appreciation of traditional environmental knowledge. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, pp. S143-S160.

Ingold, Tim. 2016. From science to art and back again: The pendulum of an anthropologist. ANUAC 5(1), pp. 5-23

Monaghan, John. and Just, Peter. 2000. Social & Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


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