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Practicing engaged anthropology

Many sociocultural anthropologists, perhaps even a majority, have now taken what might be called the “engaged turn,” the decision to formulate research projects in such a way as to critically engage with important issues of our times.  In a dramatic reversal from early conceptualizations of the discipline, which focused on subjects specifically chosen to be as remote as possible from the modern world, and/or which pretended to this remoteness even when it was manifestly not the case, and/or which emphasized a detached, objectivizing stance on the part of the anthropologist – in contrast to all that, most work in contemporary anthropology has moved in the opposite direction.  Projects are now often chosen for their involvement in real-world problems, and/or such involvement is brought to light and highlighted rather than ignored; and/or the anthropologist’s role is understood to be one of critical, and sometimes activist, engagement with the issues at hand.

I realize there will be a range of views as to whether this is a good or bad thing.  Among other things there may be a perception that this kind of work is too “subjective” or “ideological,” not “scientific” or “scholarly” enough, and so forth.  This debate is not the subject of the present paper, but I need to say a few things here.  Speaking of my own work and that of every anthropologist I respect, including the authors to be discussed in this article, I would say that the reality is quite the contrary:  that there is always, in this work, a scrupulous adherence to accuracy of the data, and to the principle that all claims of analysis and interpretation must be based on evidence within the data itself.  In other words, to take an engaged stance does not in any way conflict with an adherence to the principles of accuracy, evidentiary support, and truth which are the basis of any kind of scholarly or scientific work.  The only difference is that the biases of work that does not define itself as engaged tend to be hidden, while the biases of engaged anthropology are declared up front.

Most of us intuitively know what engaged anthropology is, but what does it look like in practice?  In this paper I draw on some recent ethnographic studies in order to think about this question.  I look at them along three broad dimensions of an ethnographic project, corresponding roughly to the conceptualization of the project, the research for the project, and the eventual book.  With respect to conceptualization, I consider the ways in which the study is grounded in critique(s) of asymmetries of power:  racism, sexism, militarism, capitalism, colonialism, etc.  I take this grounding in contexts of power as the sine qua non of engaged or critical anthropology.  With respect to the research, I ask about the range of methodologies employed, particularly in relation to the engaged stance of the project.  Of course, most good ethnography today involves a range of creative research strategies; few anthropologists any longer simply spend a year in a village doing nothing but participant observation.  But the engaged stance pushes methodological creativity in new directions, as I will discuss.   With respect to the book, I ask questions about strategies of representation, including styles of writing, use of visual materials, and other aspects of the text, again specifically in relation to the question of ethnographic engagement.

The four books to be discussed in this article are: Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship by Aimee Meredith Cox; The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail by Jason De León; Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan by David B. Edwards; and The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. They were selected from among the group of books that won awards from sections of the American Anthropological Association, plus the J.I. Staley Prize, in 2018.[1] There were 20 altogether (see the Appendix), and most of these were in one way or another “engaged ethnographies.” These four were chosen from among them as being diverse in subject matter, region, and authorship.

A few preliminary comments.

I note first that there is a great deal of excellent work that has never won a prize.  I am not suggesting that only works that win prizes are worthy of this kind of discussion.  I am simply using the pool of prizewinning ethnographies as a kind of heuristic device that allows me to look at work that has been pre-recognized, as it were, as representing important developments in the field, and representing them well.[2]

Second, this is not a comparative or critical essay.  I am not critically reviewing these books, nor comparing them (critically or otherwise) for differences and variations within engaged anthropology.  I am simply using them as a set of texts that share certain key dimensions of an engaged perspective that I seek to bring to light.

Finally, I am not suggesting that engaged anthropology is a completely new phenomenon.  One could construct genealogies for much of the engaged work today going back at least to the 70s, part of the rise of various political-cum-theoretical movements including Marxism, feminism, anti-colonialism, and critical race studies (see Ortner 2016 for an overview).  I do think, however, that there is a difference in the context for such work today.  In the past engaged anthropology was a relatively small, niche practice, while recently it seems to me that it accounts for the majority of work in the field, at least in the U.S.  In any event, however, this article is not meant to provide a history or genealogy of engaged anthropology, but rather to examine the ways in which an engaged perspective affects, or at least interacts with, the practice of anthropology at the various levels noted above – conceptualization of projects, methods of research, and textual strategies of the books.


As noted, the critique of asymmetries of power in some form is central to, and perhaps definitive of, what counts as “engaged anthropology.”  There are of course many forms of power, and it should be said as well that there are many forms of critique.  This section will serve as a brief introduction to the four ethnographies that are the basis of this article, as well as illustrating the forms of power and the approaches to power that appear in these works.


Shapeshifters:  Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship, by Aimee Meredith Cox, is a study of the experiences of poor Black girls and young women in a homeless shelter in Detroit, Michigan.  The point of departure for the study is that these young women are at the bottom of virtually every major hierarchy of power and status in this society – race, gender and class.  They are Black, they are female, and they are poor.  They are also homeless, outside the safety net of the family, however threadbare that net might be.  Throughout the book we see the ways these elements interact, with respect to the Black community as a whole, and in the experiences of these girls in particular.  We see the deadly combination of race and poverty for all members of the community, yet within that we see that the girls and women have less claims than the boys and men on the limited resources of the community, both materially and affectively. We also see the ways in which the toxic race/gender/poverty combination interacts with the wider political economy in the history of the community over the past decades, as the economy deindustrialized, the city of Detroit literally went broke, and the jobs continued to disappear.

One point of the book is certainly to convey the harshness of these conditions and the asymmetries of justice in the United States that sustain them.  Yet this is not an ethnography of suffering; quite the contrary.  The whole point of the book is to show us the humanity of these girls, and particularly their entitlement to the basic levels of care and protection from society like anyone else.  This is not simply a matter of “resilience.”  Indeed Cox resists the whole resilience trope as part of a gendered asymmetry in which Black women are expected to care for everyone else, but when it comes to needing care for themselves, they are on their own.  Instead Cox sees the women as what she calls “shapeshifters,” as reworking and redefining the spaces and rules that hold them down.  As Cox puts it in one of many passages on the shapeshifting idea, “I am interested in the theories and methods Black girls use to shift the shape of spaces that restrict and punish them as well as those that offer care and support” (2015:26).


The Land of Open Graves:  Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail, by Jason De León, is explicitly situated within the engaged turn in anthropology.  It was published in the California Series in Public Anthropology, the mission of which “emphasizes the anthropologist’s role as an engaged intellectual [and]… a commitment, through ethnography, to reframing the terms of public debate” (front matter, De León 2015). The book is an account, from multiple angles, of the inflicting of violence on, and the experience of violence by, Mexican and other migrants seeking to cross illegally into the United States.  The “power” in question is the power of the American state, specifically in the form of its increasingly brutal immigration policies.  Recent policy changes have created a situation in which people attempting to cross the border without papers are required to traverse the extreme conditions of the Sonoran desert, where many die along the way.

Part of the book shows us the extraordinary tenacity of the migrants, who undertake the grueling journey, sometimes repeatedly, in search of better lives for themselves and their families.  But the main focus of the book is as an ethnography of the desert as a kind of violent surrogate of the state, killing individuals by natural causes – thirst, heatstroke, injuries, and exhaustion – the intentionality of which can be disclaimed by the state’s agents.  Beyond death itself, De León also shows us the ways in which “natural causes” like vultures and insects destroy the bodies, thus causing a kind of ongoing emotional limbo for the victims’ families, who never know the fates of their loved ones.  De León summarizes his intent as follows: “My goal has been to shine a light on the inhumane and hypocritical way that we police our borders and show the devastating impact that our boundary enforcement system has on people’s lives” (2015:284).


Caravan of Martyrs:  Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan, by David Edwards, tells the story of the proliferation and transformation of forms of political violence in Afghanistan over the forty-year period of his engagement with that country and its people.  The power dimension of the story is the power of what might be called global militarism, as first the Soviet army, and later the U.S. army, trampled across the country for their own ends, wreaking enormous damage at every level – economic, social, political, cultural.  It is also a story of the growth of ever more violent forms of resistance, starting with local resistance movements against the Marxist state (both Soviet and Afghan), and subsequently involving transnational movements like Al-Qaeda and more recently ISIS in pursuit of global jihad.  Each subsequent movement has been more violent than the last (2017:215).

Edwards focuses the study through the lens of a very specific phenomenon, the emergence of the figure of the suicide bomber, as both ideal and practice.  Based on earlier research in the region, his own and that of others, Edwards argues that suicide bombing would have been “unthinkable” in the past, as it would have violated deeply rooted cultural norms of masculine honor.  Thus the question for the book is, “Why now?” (2017:15).  The answer takes the form of a history of interaction between invading forces, local effects and responses, and a gradual cultural transformation in which suicide bombing is increasingly normalized.  Defending his commitment to make ethnographic sense of what is at one level an act of atrocity, Edwards writes, “Making sense of the behavior of people in other social worlds is what anthropologists do.  It is critical that we hold to that duty now” (2017:215).


The mushroom may not at first seem like a likely subject for a work of “engaged anthropology,” but in Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s hands it is just that.  In The Mushroom at the End of the World:  On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Tsing uses the social life of the matsutake mushroom as a lens into economic and environmental precarity in the 21st century, and as a metaphor for, as she puts it, “the possibility of life in capitalist ruins.” The book is a wide-ranging ethnographic exploration of the matsutake “supply chain,” showing how capitalist value is made by “salvaging” from sites not fully under capitalist control, such sites including both the forests where the mushrooms grow, and the social relations of mushroom picking/sorting/selling.  The book thus offers new critical perspectives on capitalism, as well as an exploration of “economic diversity,” including what Tsing calls “pericapitalist” formations that may offer alternative visions of social life.  Finally, it is also a multispecies ethnography, exploring forest worlds in which humans are only one element of larger “assemblages,” and asking what they too can tell us about life in capitalist ruins.

As these points suggest, the key form of “power” in the book is capitalism.  The theoretical framework of the book, in turn, is a form of Marxist-feminism, or feminist-Marxism, that Tsing herself has been involved in developing.  This model begins with the question of the mechanisms of capital accumulation for, as Tsing puts it, “Accumulation … converts ownership into power.  Those with capital can overturn communities and ecologies” (2015:133).  But this is a Marxism for the 21st century, enhanced and transformed through articulations of various kinds with Marxist-feminist theory (especially Gibson-Graham 1996), and ethnographically grounded feminist theory (e.g., Aihwa Ong 2006, Sylvia Yanagisako 2002, and Jane Guyer 2004).  The updating of Marx begins with challenging the model of the factory as the central form of capitalist production, arguing instead that capitalist production is always a form of “salvaging,” “taking advantage of value produced without capitalist control” (2015:63), including both natural resources and human beings.  Supply chains in turn are devices that effect “translations” between various (kinds of) sites, and between capitalist and non-capitalist formations.  All of this is at once an update of Marxist theory, a shift of empirical/ethnographic attention to new kinds of sites, and an attempt to locate the possibilities of new kinds of politics.: “Rather than focus our attention only on the capitalist imaginary, … I have tried to show precarious living in scenes that both use and refuse capitalist governance.  Such assemblages tell us of what’s left, despite capitalist damage” (2015:134).


In sum, in all of these works, and of course in many others not discussed here, there is a grounding of the ethnography in asymmetries of power.  We see how various mixes and intersections of racism, sexism, capitalism, and militarism have created the conditions of harm and damage to the people we now seek to study and understand.  These are all examples of what I have called elsewhere “dark anthropology” (2016); it becomes clear that the engaged turn is also a turn to the darker aspects of life in these times.

This focus on human suffering has been criticized as a form of “misery porn,” as a kind of one-sided emphasis on social negativity, and a neglect of those aspects of social life concerned with love, care, kindness, support and solidarity.[3] Yet none of these books do in fact neglect these questions.  On the contrary, all of them seek in one way or another to bring to light the ways in which people try to enact social support, self-respect, cultural integrity, and political imagination within landscapes of literal or metaphorical ruin.  That is, they say in one way or another that the good and ethical aspects of social life must be understood as taking place within and against formations of power, not outside them.


Anthropology’s methodological tool kit has been expanding since at least the ‘70s in response to a variety of pressures, some of which were fairly closely tied to the engaged turn from the outset, and some of which were parts of broader shifts in the field.  For example, multi-sited fieldwork, first articulated by George Marcus (1998), did not begin as part of an engaged project but is easily and usefully incorporated into one (as, for example, in the case of supply chains).  On the other hand, the increasing use of history by anthropologists was closely associated with the engaged turn at least since the ‘80s, in relation to both Marxism/political economy (e.g., Wolf 1982) and studies of colonialism and post-colonialism (e.g., Dirks 2001).  Most recently, and most directly tied to the engaged turn, we see a range of research strategies formulated to gain access to what are normally inaccessible sites of power, including both the worlds of dominant/powerful groups (e.g., Robben 2007 on the Argentinian military dictatorship government) and the worlds of the enclosed and the dominated (e.g., Burton n.d. on American prisons).

But again my point in this paper is not to construct genealogies but to examine the ways in which the engaged turn interacts with various aspects of anthropological work, and in this case, certain kinds of methodological strategies.  As we turn to the books under discussion, we see a great deal of creativity in terms of specific research strategies, but also a more general eclecticism of method which seems to me to be driven by the very fact of “engagement.”  That is, the project is driven by the desire to answer certain urgent questions, and the approach to methodology is the use of whatever helps to answer those questions:  whatever works.[4]


Aimee Cox spent eight years working in various capacities in a non-profit organization in Detroit, with the aim of understanding the lives of homeless young Black women.  She worked in all branches of the organization, first as a volunteer; later as a paid staff member directing, at different times, two of the programs; and eventually as a contract worker starting an experimental arts program for the organization.  In this case, the striking “methodology” is a kind of intensified version of participant observation itself, including the extended length of time of the research, and the wide range of ways in which Cox became directly involved in the workings of the shelter and the lives of the young women.  Indeed, the women made it clear that this was a condition for the research.  Although everyone was aware that she was an anthropology graduate student observing them as part of her doctoral research, they let her know that she “’wouldn’t be allowed to just sit there and take notes’” (2015:35), and she didn’t.  She writes: “My relationships with both the young women and the staff were shaped through eight years of daily contact that often challenged the boundaries between the social and professional, intimate and public, work and home” (2015:32).

But while the basic principles of ethnographic fieldwork remain the same – deep participant observation in an effort to achieve insight into another cultural world – the engaged aspect comes through in many ways.  For one thing, Cox recognizes the ways in which her identity as a Black woman allows her to gain trust and access, while at the same time her class privilege (in the form of educational capital) sets her apart and creates what she calls a “mutable screen on which ideas of race, class, and gender authenticity were projected” (2015:31).  For another, it never occurs to Cox that she is there to simply “study” some set of people in difficult circumstances; the role she plays throughout goes beyond participant observation and always involves attempts to create new opportunities, new possibilities, new programs that will make some kind of contribution to the lives and futures of these young women.  At one point she comments on other researchers who came to the shelter, but observed from a distance: “I always wondered while running a workshop or participating in a meeting how different the agency looked [to these researchers] from the back of the room, … distanced from the very real stakes that held all of us so tightly in their grasp” (2015:34).


In pursuit of his intention to observe, describe, explain, and understand the violence of the immigration system on the U.S.-Mexico border, Jason De León employs a strikingly varied tool kit of methods.  Trained in archaeology but embarking on an ethnographic project, De León explicitly draws on all four fields of anthropology – “ethnography, archaeology, forensic science, and linguistics” – in order “to challenge preconceived notions about what a holistic anthropology can look like and how it can be deployed in politically hostile terrain” (2015:14).  With respect to ethnography, first, he spends time in a shelter for migrants on the Mexican side of the border, and interviews migrants and others on la linéa, the strip of land along the wall where would-be migrants and associated people hang out, negotiate arrangements, and gather information.  His ethnographic work later includes visits with and interviews of family members of migrants in several cities (Cuenca, Ecuador and Queens/New York City), as well as ongoing conversations in both Mexico and the U.S. with two migrants – Memo and Lucho – with whom he had initially become close in the shelter.

De León specifically decides not to join an actual border crossing attempt, partly because it is in fact illegal, and partly because he is concerned about possibly impeding the efforts of the group and disrupting their attempt in some way.  In addition, although he had been able to gather fragments of crossing narratives in the interviews, people were reluctant to tell these often-painful stories at length, and he had few full-length accounts of the experience of the crossing itself.  This then is where the archaeology comes in.  He had created something called the Undocumented Migration Project, involving teams of students over a number of years using archaeological techniques to survey the material remains of border crossing scattered throughout the desert, including human bones, articles of clothing, food and water containers, backpacks (sometimes still containing personal papers), and so forth.  The forensic science comes in with the analysis of the human remains, mostly bones, while the archaeology comes in in interpreting what the other material artifacts can tell us about the intimate experience – the pain, suffering, and exhaustion, sometimes to the point of death – of the crossing itself.


In his study of the rise of the suicide bomber in Afghanistan, David Edwards relies on two methodological strategies:  the use of narrative history, and the interpretation of public cultural forms.  History, first, is central to Edwards’s story because he wants to understand a dramatic cultural change, the rise of a new form of violence, suicide bombing, which – he will argue – is at the same time a transformation of old cultural forms, including martyrdom and sacrifice.  The history includes both a series of events – the Russian occupation 1979-1989, the arrival of what are locally called the “Afghan Arabs” (including Osama bin Laden) during and beyond the Russian occupation, the American invasion after 9/11/2001, and more – and a story of how these events articulated with local social and political arrangements as well as local cultural values.  Although the practice of suicide bombing originated in Palestine, and Edwards provides some of that background as well, he argues nonetheless that an account of the travel of the practice can only be one part of the story, the other part being a question of “how and why suicide bombing took root in different places and how it is connected to the social and political histories and formations that exist in different countries and cultures” (2017:210).

Edwards argues that the whole tribal system of the country was disrupted and destabilized by the series of military invasions and occupations, which shifted the locus of power and authority away from the tribes and towards the various political interests of the invaders/occupiers.  But the shift was as much cultural as it was social and political, and this is where the interpretation of public cultural materials comes in.  Edwards tracks the growing acceptability, and indeed glorification, of suicide bombing through a series of close readings of popular magazines, videos, and websites.  For example, noting the importance of poetry as a “vehicle for the expression of cultural values and norms and political beliefs” in Afghanistan as elsewhere in the Middle East (2017:35), Edwards does a series of readings of poems to show how the meaning of martyrdom changed over time (2017: Chs. 2 and 3).  He looks at websites hosted by young women who support and romanticize the men who sacrifice themselves in suicide bombing.   He also looks at the political spectacularization of capital punishment as performed in public arenas and broadcast on videos, part of a larger campaign of “morality policing.”  With all this he is able to construct a narrative of the ways in which a violent transnational movement draws on local cultural values to take root in a particular context.


In The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Tsing makes use of three broad methodological strategies: multi-sited fieldwork, the extensive use of “history,” and a multispecies perspective. The multi-sited fieldwork, first, is intrinsic to following “supply chains” in general, and in this case the supply chain of the matsutake mushroom.  One starting point of this supply chain is a mushroom-picking camp in Oregon; the end point is the luxury market for these mushrooms in Japan; Tsing spends time at both ends.  But the idea of the supply chain is not simply that goods/commodities travel through space, but that they go through different moments of commodification and de-commodification, and through different sites of production, distribution, and consumption, and Tsing carefully plots these processes all along the way.

The deployment of “history,” next, takes at least two different forms.  In one version, history is explanatory.  For example, looking at the American side of the matsutake supply chain, she asks, “Why [are there] so many middlemen?” in the process, and she answers, “The best answer may be a history” (2105:67), that is, a history that focuses on the changing ethnic and language-speaking populations at various points along the way.  The other use of “history” in the book is as a signifier of indeterminacy, of accidents of time and place that produce different outcomes.  Thus in the history of the Japanese side of the supply chain noted above, Tsing shows that the very form of the supply chain emerged not from American self-styled know-how and ingenuity, as the dominant narrative would have it, but from the creativity deployed in the course of Japan’s encounter with the world market.  She writes:  “When humble commodities are allowed to illuminate big histories, the world economy is revealed as emerging within historical conjunctures:  the indeterminacies of encounter” (2015:119).

And finally, for the multispecies perspective, this is embedded in a different kind of multi-sited ethnography, which involves visiting different kinds of forests, and examining processes of forest management, in four different sites:  in the U.S. and Japan, and also in southwest China and northern Finland.   Where the supply-chain question asks about what Tsing calls “translations” along the chain, the forest ethnographies are comparative, asking about different culturally shaped ways of living and working with forests.  And here Tsing uses the trademark move of multispecies ethnography, pushing forward as much as possible the active role (she does not say “agency”) of non-human species like the pine tree in shaping the environment.


Ethnographic fieldwork has always involved a great deal of creativity and improvisation.  This is in the very nature of a form of research that is specifically committed to remaining open to the unexpected, and to coming to see the non-obvious.  Thus some of the approaches just discussed, like multi-sited fieldwork or multi-species ethnography (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010) have emerged as part of other efforts to rethink ethnography in general.  But engaged anthropology poses new methodological challenges.  Some of these are related to questions of accessibility, which tend to come to the fore when the practices and effects of unequal power are central to the project:  both the powerful and the powerless tend to be shielded from normal social access and from the ethnographic gaze (Ortner 2010).  But as I suggested earlier, there is also a way in which an engaged perspective elicits a broader eclecticism of methodologies.  The work is driven by what are felt to be urgent problems, to be addressed with whatever methodologies provide maximum insight, and even perhaps some solutions.  Thus we also see in these books a kind of fearlessly varied toolkit, that builds on participant observation but also includes history, political economy, archaeology, public culture, forensic and environmental science, and much more, in pursuit of a critical agenda.[5]


In this final section I look at the four ethnographies as texts that have their own forms of engagement.  Like all scholarly texts, they convey knowledge, information, insight.  In addition, however, I will look at them as conveying affect – passion, compassion, sadness, anger; this too is part of what we mean by “engagement.”  And finally I will ask about their endings, about the ways they point toward the future.


With respect to knowledge, first, I return to the point that there is no contradiction between an engaged perspective and a commitment to standards of scholarly rigor.  Thus the first thing to be said about all of these books is that they are in fact enormously rich in information, knowledge, facts, interpretation, analysis, insight.  Aimee Cox’s book, based as we have seen on eight years of research with the young women in a homeless shelter in Detroit, provides us with profound insight into what it is like for poor, Black homeless young women to try to put their lives together and move forward, almost literally against all odds.  Jason De León’s book, based on the deployment of an unusually wide array of methods, provides us with deep insight into both the inner workings of the US immigration system, and the thinking of desperate migrants who try to evade it.  David Edwards’s book, based on over forty years of research involvement in the greater Afghan region, puts his vast knowledge of the region to work in helping us understand the forces that converged to enable the emergence and normalization of suicide bombers.  Anna Tsing’s book, based like De León’s on an unusually wide range of methodologies, provides not only a rich transnational and multi-species ethnography of the matsutake mushroom supply chain, but a re-theorization of capitalism itself.  In other words, the substantive empirical, analytic, and interpretive contributions of the books must be recognized and affirmed before we turn to questions of affect.


To say that these books “convey affect” is to say several different things.  On the one hand the authors are not afraid to express their own feelings about what they are writing about.  They express their anxieties about the fates of their interlocutors.  They express anger at the forces that are causing harm to the people they study.  They express despair over what seem in some cases to be irreversible conditions of damage and harm, whether to people, societies, or environments.  All of this is one part of being “engaged,” of caring deeply about the subject and the people, rather than adopting a stance of detachment.

But these expressions of the author’s affect are at the same time directed at the reader; the authors clearly seek to engage the reader in similar reactions.  Along these lines, other devices are deployed beyond the verbal text, presumably meant as further affective provocations.  De León and Edwards both use quite disturbing photographs. Edwards published photographs of suicide bombers before and after death, and screen grabs from videos of public executions.  De León published a photograph of the body of a woman who died on the migrant trail through the desert.  In both cases the photos are meant to bring the reader face to face with the forms of political violence against which the authors are writing.  In De León’s case, he also writes about objections to his having published the photo of the woman’s body.  He defends himself vigorously, arguing that disturbing the reader is part of the point: “It makes readers and viewers uncomfortable, which is fine because it made … us as researchers uncomfortable.  When this type of death starts to feel normal, that’s when we should worry” (2015:210).

Aimee Cox uses a different affective device:  poetry.  The young women of Cox’s study are dependent on public transportation to get to work, but the public transportation is completely unreliable.  One of the women in Cox’s arts workshop wrote the following poem, which captures the ways in which a simple thing like a late bus can destroy the fragile arrangements of work and family on which the poor depend:

Rain Wind Hot Sun and Snow

all the seasons pass by

and She is still


On this spot





her boss won’t wait

and by the time she arrives

it is always too late

Turn right back around to go home again

But the No. 58 don’t care about

your baby

your rent


you (2015:225).

The affectively loaded writing, the disturbing photos, the poem that combines anger and sadness, these are some of the devices the authors use to both express affect and provoke the reader to engage, as the anthropologist is engaged, with the problematic conditions that the book addresses.  In some cases these devices are also part of the on-the-ground politics of the story.  Although the photos of suicide bombers were in the public domain, some of other the materials that Edwards published were passed on to him by an Afghani journalist who wanted to see them come to light (2015:130).  The photo of the woman’s body in the desert allowed De León to find her family, inform them of her fate, and thus at least provide some relief from the endless state of not knowing what happened to her.  And the poem about the bus turned out to be the prelude to some very creative street theater at a bus stop, organized by some of the women in the arts workshop.


Finally, then, I look at the endings of the books, which always both summarize the books’ intent, and encapsulate the authors’ visions of the future.  The engaged stance means that the books are meant not simply to tell a true story of power, even a story with strong affective impact, but to point toward some kind of way out of the unjust and/or violent situations we have read about.  Given the diversity of subject matter, each book necessarily offers a different vision for the future.  Yet all of them emphasize the ways in which ethnography can contribute to the possibilities of change.

At the end of Land of Open Graves, first, Jason De León explicitly places his hopes in the value and power of ethnography itself.   He describes the book as “looking behind the curtain” of federal immigration policy, and says, “If this book does anything, I hope that it makes visible the effects of US border enforcement practices designed to be hidden, and draws more attention to the violent logic” on which it is based (2015:284). In addition he describes the book as “a testimony given by survivors of the Sonoran Desert [complex] and an obituary for those who succumb to it” (2015:284).  Citing Judith Butler, he sees grieving for these victims as “facilitating a sense of political community,” and concludes:  “If we can publicly grieve for Maricela, José, and the thousands of others who suffer and die as the result of a cruel border policy and a globalized economy that continuously pushes and pulls people to seek work in the United States, we might better understand how our worlds are intertwined and the ethical responsibility we have to one another as humans” (2015:284-5).

At the end of Caravan of Martyrs, next, David Edwards puts his hope for the future in another aspect of ethnographic value, the fundamental anthropological quest to understand other points of view and other cultural worlds, no matter how alien they may be to our own.  This is not only about the suicide bombers but about the whole recent history of Afghanistan, in which “each generation has been more venomous than the last, Bin Laden’s Afghan Arabs now giving way to followers of [ISIS] who revel in the opportunity to create their videos of torture and suffering” (2017:215).  Edwards continues with his argument for anthropological understanding: “To seek out the roots of this catastrophe is not to apply to it the kind of weak-kneed moral relativism of which anthropologists are sometimes accused.  Representing the native point of view in order to understand it does not mean embracing or justifying it” (2017:215).  Thus in the face of what may feel like an utter impasse, he calls for “respect and compassion across lines of difference and in the face of blind incomprehension” (2017:215).

Aimee Cox tries to imagine what kinds of on-the-ground politics might grow out of what she learned in her ethnographic research.   Early in Shapeshifters, she cites Black feminist scholar Cathy Cohen’s notion of transformational politics, “which is a politics that does not search for opportunities to integrate into dominant institutions or normative social relationships but instead pursues a political agenda that seeks to change values, definitions, and laws that make these institutions and relationships oppressive” (in Cox 2015:27).  The shapeshifters of Cox’s title are people, like the girls and women who are the subjects of her book, who implicitly enact this agenda in their lives and their relationships.  Cox ends her book by urging us all to continue the kind of struggle that brought the young women to the performance at the bus stop:  “If we… want to map a different world, we have to use all our faculties to imagine life that is not beholden to the state and controlled through capitalism.  As the shapeshifters create new publics and remap Detroit streets as sites for performance, networks of care, and spaces for open critique, they [call us]… to further struggle, to renewed political agitation” (2015:234).

Finally Anna Tsing, like Aimee Cox, uses her project to think more explicitly about a political agenda.  In contrast to the expressions of strong (negative) affect in three of the books discussed earlier, the affective tone of Tsing’s text might be described as relatively cool, even at times playful.  This may seem strange in a book about what may literally be the end of the world.  Yet it makes sense in relation to the fact that Tsing keeps her eye on a very practical political objective, the necessity of finding commonalities across groups of people with extremely diverse lifestyles, worldviews, and politics, if we are going to have any serious possibility of the kinds of global politics we will need to solve the world’s environmental problems.

Tsing recognizes not only that it is difficult to come up with solutions to the environmental crisis, but that it is difficult to imagine what activist politics themselves look like in the contemporary moment.  Such politics, she says, were once grounded in the idea of “progress,” but the idea of progress was part of an earlier and more hopeful era, and has “stopped making sense” today (2015:25).  Thus we must re-think the kinds of politics we will need to both deal with capitalist destruction, and to imagine “the possibility of life in capitalist ruins.”  Here then ethnography again comes to the fore: “To understand capitalism … we can’t just stay inside the logics of capitalists; we need an ethnographic eye to see the economic diversity through which accumulation is possible” (2015:66).  The final piece of her argument, then, is to urge us to see the many forms of cooperation and collaboration, what she calls the “latent commons,” at work in these diverse economies, for these are the bases of possible political solidarities: “… any gathering contains many inchoate political futures and … political work consists of helping some of those come into being… To listen politically is to detect the traces of not-yet-articulated common agendas” (2015:254).


I follow these conclusions with briefest conclusions of my own.  I have tried to sketch out the kinds of labor – of conceptualization, of research, of writing – that go into what we call engaged anthropology.  For the purposes of such work, I have emphasized the importance of critiques of power, of creative and diverse methodologies, and of writing that combines rigorous presentation of data with powerful textual strategies.  And finally I looked at the kinds of hopes for the future that grow out of such scholarship, at least in these four texts.  All of them in some way put part of their hopes in ethnography itself, to reveal truths that those in power keep hidden, to promote understanding across cultural and political divides, to provide us with models of grappling with injustice, and to offer us visions of forms of collaboration despite deep differences.



American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology. 

Margaret Mead Award, 2018:

Jennifer Mack, The Construction of Equality:  Syriac Immigration and the Swedish City.

American Ethnological Society.

Senior Book Prize, 2018: 

David B. Edwards, Caravan of Martyrs:  Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan.

Sharon Stephens First Book Award, 2018 (co-winners): 

Jon Bialecki, Diagram for Fire:  Miracles and Variation in an American Charismatic Movement.   

Nyanika Mathur, Paper Tiger:  Law, Bureaucracy and the Developmental State in Himalayan India.

Anthropology and Environment Society. 

Julian Steward Book Award, 2017:[7]

Anna L. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World.[8]

Association for Africanist Anthropology. 

Elliott P. Skinner Book Award, 2018. 

Jean Hunleth, Children as Caregivers:  The Global Fight Against Tuberculosis and HIV in Zambia.

Association for Feminist Anthropology. 

Michelle Z. Rosaldo Book Prize, 2017:[9]  

Saida Hodžić, The Twilight of Cutting:  African Activism and Life After NGO’s.

Association for Political and Legal Anthropology

Association for Political and Legal Anthropology Book Prize, 2018: 

Isaias Rojas-Perez, Mourning Remains:  State Atrocity, Exhumations, and Governing the Disappeared in Peru’s Postwar Andes.

Association for Queer Anthropology. 

Ruth Benedict Prize, 2018: 

George Paul Meiu, Ethno-erotic Economies:  Sexuality, Money, and Belonging in Kenya.

School of Advanced Research. 

J.I. Staley Prize, 2018: 

Jason De León, The Land of Open Graves:  Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail.

Society for the Anthropology of Europe.

William A. Douglass Book Prize in Europeanist Anthropology, 2018: 

Elif M. Babül, Bureaucratic Intimacies:  Translating Human Rights in Turkey.

Society for the Anthropology of North America. 

Delmos Jones and Jagna Sharff Memorial Book Prize for the Critical Study of North America, 2016-2017[10] (co-winners): 

Aimee Meredith Cox, Shapeshifters:  Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship.

Jason De León, Land of Open Graves:  Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail.[11]

Society for the Anthropology of Religion. 

Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion, 2018: 

N. Fadeke Castor, Spiritual Citizenship:  Transnational Pathways from Black Power to Ifá in Trinidad.

Society for the Anthropology of Work.

Society for the Anthropology of Work Book Prize, 2018: 

Penny McCall Howard, Environment, Labour, and Capitalism at Sea:  “Working the Ground” in Scotland.

Diana Forsythe Prize, 2017:[12]  

Sareeta Amrute, Encoding Race, Encoding Class:  Indian IT Workers in Berlin. 

Society for Cultural Anthropology. 

Gregory Bateson Prize, 2018: 

Louise Meintjes, Dust of the Zulu:  Ngoma Aesthetics After Apartheid.

Society for Economic Anthropology

Society for Economic Anthropology Book Prize, 2018: 

Deborah James, Money From Nothing:  Indebtedness and Aspiration in South Africa.

Society for Humanistic Anthropology. 

Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing, 2018: 

Katherine Verdery, My Life as a Spy:  Investigations in a Secret Police File.

Society for Urban, National, and Transnational/Global Anthropology. 

Anthony Leeds Prize in Urban Anthropology, 2018. 

Caroline Melly, Bottleneck:  Moving, Building, and Belonging in an African City.



Amrute, Sareeta.  2016.  Encoding Race, Encoding Class:  Indian IT Workers in Berlin.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

Babül, Elif M.  2017.  Bureaucratic Intimacies:  Translating Human Rights in Turkey.  Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press.

Bialecki, Jon.  2017.  Diagram for Fire:  Miracles and Variation in an American Charismatic Movement. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Burton, Orisanmi.  n.d.  “Epistolary Praxis:  Prisons, Letters, and Black Radical Kinship.” Lecture presented to the sociocultural anthropology colloquium at UCLA, Culture, Power, Social Change (CPSC), Spring 2018.

Caldwell, John T.  2013.  “Para-Industry:  Researching Hollywood’s Blackwaters.”  Cinema Journal 52. No. 3:  157-165.

Castor, N. Fadeke.  2017.  Spiritual Citizenship:  Transnational Pathways from Black Power to Ifá in Trinidad.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

Cox, Aimee Meredith.  2015.  Shapeshifters:  Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

De León, Jason.  2015.  The Land of Open Graves:  Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail.  Oakland, CA:  University of California Press.

Dirks, Nicholas B.  2001.  Castes of Mind:  Colonialism and the Making of Modern India.  Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press.

Edwards, David B.  2017.  Caravan of Martyrs:  Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan.  Oakland, CA:  University of California Press.

Gibson-Graham, J.K.  1996.  The End of Capitalism (as we knew it):  A Feminist Critique of Political Economy.  Malden, MA:  Blackwell Publishers.

Guyer, Jane.  2004.  Marginal Gains:  Monetary Transactions in Atlantic Africa.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Hodžić, Saida.  2016.  The Twilight of Cutting:  African Activism and Life After NGO’s.  Oakland, CA:  University of California Press.

Howard, Penny McCall.  2017.  Environment, Labour, and Capitalism at Sea: “Working the Ground” in Scotland.  Manchester, UK:  Manchester University Press.

Hubert, Henri and Marcel Mauss.  1964 [1898].  Sacrifice:  Its Nature and Function.  Trans. W.D. Halls.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Hunleth, Jean.  2017.  Children as Caregivers:  The Global Fight Against Tuberculosis and HIV in Zambia.  New Brunswick, NJ:  Rutgers University Press.

James, Deborah.  2015.  Money From Nothing:  Indebtedness and Aspiration in South Africa.  Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press.

Kirksey, S. Eben, and Stefan Helmreich.  2010. “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography.”  In “Multispecies Ethnography.”  Special issue, Cultural Anthropology 25(4):545-576.

Mack, Jennifer.  2017.  The Construction of Equality:  Syriac Immigration and the Swedish City.  Minneapolis, MN:  University of Minnesota Press.

Marcus, George.  1998. “Ethnography in/of the World System:  The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography.”  In G. Marcus, ed., Ethnography through Thick and Thin,” pp. 79-104.  Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press.

Mathur, Nyanika.  2017.  Paper Tiger:  Law, Bureaucracy and the Developmental State in Himalayan India.  Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press.

Meintjes, Louise.  2017.  Dust of the Zulu:  Ngoma Aesthetics After Apartheid.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

Meiu, George Paul.  2017.  Ethno-erotic Economies:  Sexuality, Money, and Belonging in Kenya.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Melly, Caroline.  2017.  Bottleneck:  Moving, Building, and Belonging in an African City.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Ong, Aihwa.  2006.  Neoliberalism as Exception:  Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

Ortner, Sherry B.  2010.  “Access:  Reflections on Studying Up in Hollywood.”  Ethnography 11(2):211-233.

2016.  “Dark Anthropology and its Others:  Theory Since the 80s.”  HAU:  Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(1):47-73.

Robben, Antonius C.G.M.  2007.  Political Violence and Trauma in Argentina.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press.

Rojas-Perez, Isaias.  2017.  Mourning Remains:  State Atrocity, Exhumations, and Governing the Disappeared in Peru’s Postwar Andes.  Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt.  2015.  The Mushroom at the End of the World:  On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.  Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press.

Verdery, Katherine.  2018.  My Life as a Spy:  Investigations in a Secret Police File.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

Wolf, Eric.  1982.  Europe and the People Without History.  Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press.

Yanagisako, Sylvia Junko.  2002.  Producing Culture and Capital:  Family Firms in Italy.  Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press.



Thanks to Timothy D. Taylor, Charles Stafford, and the wonderful colleagues and students in the sociocultural anthropology colloquium at UCLA, Culture/Power/Social Change (CPSC), who all provided outstanding comments and criticisms as well as ongoing collegial support.  I can’t express how much I depend on both the high-level quality control and the collegial solidarity, and I am deeply grateful.

  1. [1]To keep the numbers under control, I decided to consider only the most recent award cycle at the time I conceived of this article.  For the majority of prizes, the award year was 2018.  However some awards are not given every year, so the most recent award in those categories would have been a year or two earlier.  De León, Edwards, and Tsing all won awards in 2018.  (De León and Tsing also won awards in earlier years.)  Cox won her award in the most recent year in which that particular prize was given, which was 2016-2017.  I also checked whether there are book prizes in anthropology in the UK, and as far as I could discover, there are not.
  2. [2]I plan to dip into this pool again for a paper for a fest-panel for Ulf Hannerz at the 2019 AAA meetings.
  3. [3]See Ortner 2016 for a summary of this debate.
  4. [4]The same can be said about “theory.”  The reader may have noticed that I did not make “theory” a central category for this paper.  This is partly because I covered it extensively in another recent paper (Ortner 2016), but also because it did not seem to dominate the framing of the ethnographies under discussion.  None of them were driven by a single overarching theoretical framework.  Rather theory was used, like methodology, eclectically:  whatever works.  But this does not mean theoretical incoherence.  It means that the coherence of the book was generated through the problem rather than the methods and/or theories.
  5. [5]For an extremely useful discussion of the importance of, and some dimensions of, a varied methodological toolkit, see Caldwell 2013.  The article is about the toolkit for the study of “media industries” (e.g., “Hollywood,”), but it provides a kind of template that could be usefully deployed in any ethnographic project.
  6. [6]Additions and corrections to the list are welcome.  The 2018 date refers to the year of the prize, not the year of publication.  Full citations, with years of publication, are in the Bibliography.
  7. [7]This prize is awarded every other year.  2017 is the most recent year.
  8. [8]This book has won other prizes in earlier years.
  9. [9]This prize is awarded every other year.  2017 is the most recent year.
  10. [10]This prize is awarded for pairs of years.  2016-17 is the most recent pair.
  11. [11]This book has won other prizes in previous years.
  12. [12]This prize is awarded every other year.  2017 is the most recent award.

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