Why Does Anthropology Worry about Jared Diamond when they have Nigel Barley?

The Anthropology blogosphere (including Ethnography.com, SavageMinds.org, anthropologyreport.com and even National Public Radio) has recently lit up with critiques of Jared Diamond’s new book The World Until Yesterday.  Jared Diamonditis seems to be a regular affliction of anthropology, re-emerging every time that the esteemed Professor of Geography (and Physiology) publishes a new tome of big picture history.  The manner that Diamond does this is something that anthros really don’t seem to like.  This is because besides his own field of Geography, Diamond borrows data liberally from all four fields of anthropology to make big generalizations in a manner a cultural geographer, comparative historian, or field ecologist might. But oh yeah, Diamond is a geographer by departmental affiliation, and a field ecologist by training and predilection.

It also seems to bother anthros that Diamond also on occasion—though not always—wanders off the reservation and lets his political views seep into his analysis.  And since these political views don’t typically jibe with those of the anthros, particularly when it comes to oil companies, well you get the idea.  But then there is a counterpoint, someone finally ends up pointing out that since no anthro since Eric Wolf has done such big picture stuff in Europe and the People without History published way back in 1982, anthro has no right to complain.  And so it goes back and forth until the next big tome from Diamond comes out, and Jared Diamonditis flares up again.

Ok, that’s my two paragraphs for the current “controversy.”  In response, I want to write about an anthropologist—an ethnographer actually—who I think is greatly undervalued in anthropology, Nigel Barley.  Barley describes well what anthropologists do best in The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut published in 1984.  This is the book I point students to when they want to understand field work, ethnography, and cultural anthropology.  As a sociologist, this is one of the anthro books I truly admire, because it reflects well on my own field experiences in Tanzania.  Oddly, I find few anthropologists who have read it, much less heard of it.

The Innocent Anthropologist is a memorably written story of Nigel Barley’s experience doing fieldwork among the Dowayo in rural Cameroon in the early 1980s.  The strength of the book is that it includes the personal problems that emerge with the frustrations, boredom, tribulations, and mis-interpretations that inevitably emerge in the context of “doing ethnography.”  In this sense the book is much different than the dispassionate, theoretical, and methodologically rigorous ethnography typically assigned undergraduates.  In such ethnograpny in  the ethnographer somehow ends up erudite, insightful, and making references to Bourdieu and Baudrillard while drinking the local brew.  Nothing wrong with this, but let’s face it, it is not the sort of thing that a 19 year-old taking your Intro to Cultural Anthro course for General Education credit identifies with.

Barley also does a great job explaining the nuts and bolts of doing ethnography in a remote Cameroonian village.  There are empathetic descriptions of coming-of-age rituals, ancestor cults, gender relations, the agricultural cycle, and a well-written nod to Malinowski.  There are also empathetic passages describing boredom, cross-cultural frustrations, and hilarious language learning errors.  And what students will really remember is Barley’s explanation of how the mechanic at the dentist’s office removed his two front teeth.  Such an account would never make its way into a standard ethnography (sorry, no spoiler here–you need to get the book!). And of course such tales, which are really the center of the ethnographic experience are left out by the likes of the ever-dignified Professor Malinowski.

But the scene from Barley’s book I spend most of my time mulling about is at the very end, and has little to do with Africa, but everything to do with ethnography, culture, and the human condition.  Barley spent a year and a half in Cameroon being bored, sick, confused, and frustrated while ostensibly “doing ethnography.” Oddly though, after returning to England, he still wants to tell everyone he meets about this wonderful world he encountered in Cameroon—something that he quickly discovers no one really cares about.  Or worse, they treat him like a raving lunatic because he approaches everyday problems with a vigor and habitus appropriate to a Cameroonian village, rather than that of a staid tweed-jacketed English lecturer.

So Barley returns to England, where he finds out that life is—as it had always been, despite his field work in the Cameroon. People ask him how Cameroon was, complain about the English weather, and then launch off into conversations about the more mundane things of life, like what was on television the previous evening, or the doings of the local football team.  Most mundane is the friend who complains because Barley left a sweater at his apartment some two years ago—could he please pick it up some time?  Like, who cares about a sweater when you have been dealing with ancestor cults, goat farts (sorry no spoiler on that one either!), shamanistic ritual, and have lost your two front teeth!?!?

But this indeed is how the big adventures of life often end: In a question about a forgotten sweater.  This happens whether we are ethnographers, archaeologists, or any other kind of long-term traveler who becomes embedded in a new culture.  Certainly it happens to my undergraduate students who leave home for Chico State the first time, and then return to the parents at Thanksgiving or Christmas brimming with tales of college life, only to be told by their parents to be sure to eat enough lettuce and clean up their room.  Indeed such dissonance happens to anyone returning from a adventure in which they embed themselves in a culture different from their own.  And this indeed is the great ethnographic lesson Barley teaches my undergraduates.  What is more, it is a lesson every bit as big as what Jared Diamond makes with his massive tomes.

Oh, despite his frustrations, whining, and moaning, did I mention that Barley returned to the Cameroon a few months later?  He was indeed hooked on field work and the need to experience new cultures, as we hope our students will—after all the complaining and lost teeth, he was back in Cameroon as quickly as he could.

It has long mystified me that The Innocent Anthropologist is not a staple of Intro to Cultural Anthropology courses.  It is well written, funny, empathetic, theoretical, and easy to read.  And students are happy to read it—the whole thing.  Most importantly, it is a fantastic introduction to what ethnographers do, why they do it, and what an anthropological viewpoint has to say about not just a small place in Cameroon, but the human condition.  I have used this book in my undergraduate social science classes a number of times, and it has always worked well to get students dreaming about the possibilities of culture and travel—i.e. the things that I would expect a good Intro to Cultural Anthropology course to do.  And the neat thing is that it can do it by celebrating what anthropology does best—while leaving poor irrelevant Jared Diamond out of the story.


7 thoughts on “Why Does Anthropology Worry about Jared Diamond when they have Nigel Barley?

  1. The point you make — that Barley’s book is rarely read — is one of the main reasons that so many anthropologists are upset by Diamond’s tendency to homogenize stereotypes of ‘the other’. It is because Diamond (and the Diamond-hyping industry that surrounds him) is so widely read and accepted as authoritative, that anthropologists who have more detailed, nuanced and accurate understandings of the peoples that Diamond continually others get rankled. Further, it’s not as though he hasn’t been told of his tendency to misinterpret, cherry-pick, plagiarize and distort data. Some of the anthropologists who participate in critiques Diamond had reached out to him, as professional and academic colleagues. Yet he has continued to perpetuate misleading stereotypes and erroneous analyses, because that’s what sells books in the popular media. So now, we have to teach against Diamond, in addition to all the other, perhaps less eloquent, stereotypists out there.

  2. Tony

    Thanks for the comment, which in many parts I agree with. But is it in the best interests of the discipline to invest so much virtual “ink” in a critique of other disciplines, or, as in the case of Napoleon Chagnon, on excommunicating members of the tribe. After all, why stop with Diamond? Why not spend some more time going after the Evolutionary Psychologists, Socio-biologists, Economic determinists, Bell Curve types etc., etc. All these critiques are true–but they also detract from the elegance of the ethnographic method which I think can very well stand on its own.

    Anthropology has a chance to the more detailed, nuanced, and “accurate” presentation of ethnographic data you described via the audiences of students in General Education classes that are common in the United States and other countries.

    I know that it is frustrating that Jared Diamond and others who are subject to such withering critiques do not respond. But if he (or someone else) were to critique your work as vociferously as anthropology does his, what would you do?

    I still think that the most effective way to “teach against Diamond” is to provide the detailed, nuanced, and accurate presentation of which I agree with you anthropology provides.

  3. mbb

    For similar reasons, I have been using a similar text to Nigel Barley’s, from the same publisher (Waveland press): Mad Dogs, Englishmen and the Errant Anthropologist by Douglas Raybeck. It is similarly amusing and gives the background story to ethnography. I considered Barley’s book as well – but I hesitated because I felt that his writing style might put students off. It seemed somewhat pompous to me. But after reading your post, I’m going to take another look.

  4. Tony

    @mbb. I have seen references to Raybeck’s book, but haven’t read it. I will have a look! Thanks for the tip.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>