Anthropology without Villains: Kurt’s Vonnegut’s Master’s Degree in Anthropology for Cat’s Cradle


Kurt Vonnegut just got published in the Chicago Tribune, even though he has been quite dead for the last nine years. So it goes. The title of the article is “The Secret Ingredient in my Books is that there Never has been a Villain,” even though he wrote about things like atomic bombs, The Holocaust, and the firebombing of Dresden. But the new newspaper article is not about these depressing things, rather it is mostly about the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago where his M. A. Thesis was rejected twice. And then once Vonnegut was famous, they accepted his novel Cat’s Cradle as a substitute thesis in 1964 or so, a fact that Chicago no longer acknowledge on their web site. So graciously, not even in the Anthropology Department of Chicago is Vonnegut accorded the status of villain.

Famously, Vonnegut was a Prisoner of War in Dresden during the fire bombing of Dresden by the United States and Britain near the end of World War II. As an Allied prisoner of war, he was kept in an underground meat locker, and brought to the surface only after the city was destroyed. In his novel Slaughterhouse Five: The Children’s Crusade, Vonnegut highlighted the execution of a fellow prisoner of war for stealing a teapot in the midst of both the Holocaust and fire-bombing of Dresden, two of the world’s great crimes. In which case the execution of a poor American p.o.w. for stealing a teapot while cleaning up the wreckage the Americans inflicted on Dresden seems just strange. It is indeed a strange place not to find any villains, isn’t it?

Anyway, Vonnegut returned to America, and used the GI Bill to attend the University of Chicago where he submitted his Master’s Thesis on some now forgotten topic, and the thesis was then rejected. He eventually submitted a second thesis which was also rejected. He then wrote a novel Cat’s Cradle, and became famous. So the University of Chicago Department of Anthropology issued the degree because the novel itself constituted his Master’s thesis even if it was um, made up. It takes place on San Lorenzo, an island that is made up, and it includes stories about what the guy who invented the atom bomb was doing when Hiroshima was bombed (i.e. playing the children’s game “cat’s cradle with bits of string), and more about a fictional bit of stuff that turns dictators into ice. As indeed perhaps the prisoner of war executed for the teapot was made up.

Which brings me back to the subject of ethnography, which is never supposed to be made up, except when it is. Just ask Alice Goffman whose ethnography On the Run was run through the ethnographic wringer last year because in the process of obscuring identities she got a number of the facts wrong. The facts may have been wrong which caused the huffing and puffing in the reviews, even though her broader point about the damage that aggressive policing tactics was pretty much unassailable. Getting the facts wrong helps the critics change the subject regarding her larger point about the damage of aggressive policing. Kind of like the weird story of an American soldier getting executed in the middle of a war crime, and the biggest humanitarian crime of all, The Holocaust. What is the death of a soldier stealing a teapot in the context of a smoldering Dresden?

Ethnography is of course an art. Every ethnographer has the right and responsibility to create a narrative flow to draw the reader into broader tale that they are trying to tell. In this respect, what is the difference between an ethnographer and a novelist? Perhaps it is that ethnographers go to IRBs, and novelists don’t? Or perhaps more appropriately it is that ethnographers have systematic methods of data collection, which is why there are so many classes on the collection of qualitative data. But still in the end, there is that shared narrative thread, which is made up.

And for that reason, I think that the University of Chicago did the right thing in awarding Vonnegut the degree in anthropology for a novel. The narrative thread is all-important in any ethnography. Alice Goffman had it, and so does Kurt Vonnegut. And judging from the precedent of the University of Chicago, ethnographers can be awarded degrees for doing that as well. Or as Vonnegut might have wrote: And it can even happen when there are no villains. Imagine that in modern anthropology?

Look at all that humans can do! They’re versatile. They can ride a unicycle. They can play the harp. They can, apparently, do anything.

Anyway, I liked the University of Chicago. They didn’t like me.


Originally posted at on Apr. 30, 2016