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Reading texts

The first part of writing in anthropology is learning how to read anthropological texts. Texts in anthropology can come in many different forms — ethnographies, scholarly essays, book reviews, case studies, and site reports, to name a few. 

In this unit, you will learn more about how to approach texts in anthropology by: situating texts within a context; grappling with difficult passages, and; applying and reflecting on analytic lenses in your own work. 

Situate it

As anthropologists, we aim to understand as much about a social context as we can. This is because anthropological analysis is deeply contextualized: we believe that the specificity of the time and place matters for interpreting any given statement, action, process, event or object. 

Contextualize sources and claims

  • Who wrote it? What is the positionality of the author?
  • When was it written?
  • Is it written in a particular academic tradition?
  • What are the assumptions that the author makes about their subject, data, evidence, and argumentation that enable them to confidently state what they think?
  • What do these assumptions enable the author to recognize, do, or claim?
  • What do these assumptions inhibit the author from recognizing, doing, and claiming?

Pay attention to the structure of the argument

  • The order in which the author presents points, the structure of the book or the text, parallelism, repetition, and more can help you decode the meaning of the text. 
  • The context within which statements are made (the text around a particular claim) is not incidental to the meaning of the claim, it is essential to the meaning (meaning in context). Try to remember how the author introduces major claims and where this leads. 

Grapple with it

Don't Read Instrumentally

What is the value of reading difficult texts?
Professor Steve Caton discusses how not to read solely for a section or class but for the value of “inhabiting” the text.

Why grapple with a difficult text or theory? Why not just do the easiest and quickest reading you can? 

Think of reading theory as building your capacity to move abductively between theory and social life and back again to build stronger understandings of the social worlds.

Grappling with a difficult text trains you for one of the most important aspects of doing anthropological research: reflecting critically on the academic and ideological frameworks through which we encounter our lives, estranging ourselves from them, and considering whether there are better ways to think about complex social phenomena.

You are unlikely to be prepared to "do" grounded theory if you simply take the most easy interpretation of complex material you've encountered before. Be an active reader, grapple with the text, ask questions of the text, and remember any sources of confusion or discomfort for discussion in class, in papers, and with your peers.

Apply and Reflect upon it

While it is true that what we as scholars see and notice in our field sites has as much to do with our own positionalities as it does with the theories we're drawn to, it is also very important that we allow contradictions and challenges from our fields help us reflect back on our own assumptions.

Theory can be immensely useful for understanding what we're seeing in our field sites or in our own lives, but it can also be the case that a particular theoretical framework is not as helpful at understanding something as we previously thought. In these moments, your research can allow you to push back against common theoretical assumptions, and may prompt you to reflect more critically upon the theory itself.

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Working with Theory

Professor Steve Caton delves into difficult passages from Adorno's Negative Dialectics in order to illustrate the value of situating it within a context, grappling with a text, and applying key concepts to analysis in his own work. Whatever the type of text, you are most likely going to encounter theory, but this doesn't have to be daunting.

Put simply, theory is a lens or framing device, a means through which the noise of daily life gets filtered into meaningful, understandable chunks for analysis (though, of course, all people operate with ideologies or theories that help them navigate their social worlds whether they are trained as anthropologists or not).


Contextualizing Negative Dialectics by Theodor Adorno

How many times must one read a text to really grasp it? Professor Caton discusses the larger context of  Adorno's work and some of the analytic contributions of his research.

To Approach a Constellation: A Close Reading of Adorno

Professor Caton takes us through a close reading of a few passages of Negative Dialectics to demonstrate how we might grapple with difficult concepts in a dense work.

From Abstract to Visual: Dialectical Views of Lawrence of Arabia

Negative Dialectics was a key theoretical driver of Professor Caton's book Lawrence of Arabia: A Film's Anthropology. He discusses how Adorno's work informs his dialectical reading of Lawrence of Arabia.