This Week in Ethnography: Does Jared Diamond do Ethnography?

This week in Ethnography, I realized that “DIY anthropologist” Jared Diamond is now moving into the area of anthropology I hold most dear – ethnography.  In earlier publications and movies, Diamond has dabbled in other areas of anthropology (e.g., archeology and physical) but his latest work cuts too close for my comfort.  Barbara J. King posted a review of Diamond’s latest book entitled, “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?” at Why Does Jared Diamond Make Anthropologists So Mad?  In this post, King closes with a point that many anthropologists have held about Diamond’s DIY anthropology:

Where, at least since 1982 and Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History, are the “big books” in which we anthropologists do a better job than Diamond?

Although I used to share King’s perspective, I’m now changing my tune because Diamond has brought his DIY anthropology right to my yard as it were.  Since King’s anthropology is oriented towards primate behavior, she is a safe distance from Diamond’s reach.

Diamond’s DIY anthropology could be thought of in at least three ways:

1. “Big Booking”: Barbara King’s version that argues that at least someone is doing grand theory in anthropology.

2. “Academic Pornography”: Jason Antrosio’s version which highlights Diamond’s ability to sensationalize to the point of spectacle or “academic porn”.

3. Neo-Armchair Anthropology:  Of course this new definition of “arm-chair anthropology” would have to be updated to include modern realities like cheap flights and eco-tourism, which facilitate visits to exotic locals but the core idea of scholars reading others’ work and musing about them through complex, imaginative mashups would still apply to this definition.  Kerim Friedman actually predicted a less critical version of this in 2005 in a post entitled Armchair Anthropology in the Cyber Age?

I found the following picture on the Animal Attraction page of the Australian Broadcasting Company.  The funny thing about it is that it follows the critical observation of many of my anthropological theory students’ that “anthropological theory is the story of a long line of white bearded men in armchairs”!







7 thoughts on “This Week in Ethnography: Does Jared Diamond do Ethnography?

  1. Jared Diamond certainly seems to have raised the ire of much of anthropology! The discussion over at and other blogs on the internet are interesting and engaging.

    But why do anthropologists take Diamond so seriously? I get the academic critique of his work, but the same critiques can be made of any number of social scientists from economics, political science, psychology, linguistics etc. Diamond is hardly the only social scientist to use his data to discuss issues of the day. I can appreciate most of them for their approaches, while disagreeing with some (not all) of their conclusions. Indeed I think that such give and take is what good social science is about.

    As for Diamond, I have always appreciated his ability to synthesize archaeological, linguistic, ecological, historical, and ethnographic data in ways that few others can. He has also done it about unusual parts of the world like Easter Island, Greenland, Taiwan, Central America, and New Guinea which are rarely put in the same basket for analysis. This seems to be a pretty cool thing, even if you do not always agree with how he does it!

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