Anthropology – Literature – Travel Writing


(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

When I began to read anthropology texts about the Middle East. I found, as with travel books, anthropology is always fixated on “just vanishing, dusk-shrouded other whose shape can be discerned at the moment it slips forever from sight’ (Gilsenan 232). Literature, luckily, is not embedded with the same, depressing ‘it’s all over’ rhetoric of travel writing and anthropology. But it was interesting to see Peacock try to work out the relationship between the genres:

Ethnography is unlike literature and like science in that it endeavors to describe real people systematically and accurately, but it resembles literature in that it weaves facts into a form that highlights patterns and principles. As in good literature, so in good ethnography the message comes not through explicit statement of generalities but as concrete portrayal. (83)

What is significant is the vision of someone’s (the native’s) existence interpreted through he sensibilities of someone else (the ethnographer) in order to inform and enrich the understanding of the third party (the reader or listener). Ethnography in this sense is like literature: as a source of psychological and philosophical insight (and possibly aesthetic pleasure) when read as the author’s struggle to elucidate a perspective on life through his portrayal of a way of living – as he experienced it and analyzed it. (100)

Peacock, James. The Anthropological Lens: Harsh Light, Soft Focus. CUP; New York, 1986.