ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Anthropology of storytelling

Location Appleton Tower, Seminar Room 2.12
Date and Start Time 20 June, 2014 at 09:00


Jessica Symons (University of Manchester) email
Rodolfo Maggio (University of Oxford) email
Mail All Convenors


We invite contributions that explore the capacity of storytelling to convey anthropological insight, including ethnographically rich descriptions, fictional stories inspired by ethnography, or playful interventions.

Long Abstract

To what extent is a sense of beauty stimulated through rich description and capturing the imagination? Insights are lost through an author's inability to captivate their audience. Movements gain momentum through leaders' ability to inspire action. Religions gain power through orators' depiction of glorious enlightenment. The sensuous frisson that accompanies a good tale has a resonant and mobilizing force.

Working with creativity as a strategic response to "dealing with the unknown, the uncertain in our lives" (Borofsky 2001:69) allows for everyday creativity but also for significant moments. "Yet there is a sense in which artistic creation, rooted as it may be in the negotiated and partial practices of "flow" in everyday life, also achieves itself by standing out from that background of fluid improvisation of forms and becoming a foreground that crystallises into a new shape" (Strathern and Stewart 2009:xii).

Stories provide shape to the flow of life and ethnography is perfectly situated to throw forms of many kinds. We are interested in what happens when the story takes hold and emerges as an independent crystallization of ethnographic experience. What happens when anthropologists engage in rich description of character and context? Who are the audiences of such an account?

We invite contributions that explore the capacity of storytelling to convey anthropological insights. We hope for ethnographically rich descriptions, stories inspired by ethnographic research or playful interventions. All submissions should seek to engage and captivate the audience.

Discussant: Alexander King

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Lines of reverie

Author: Amanda Ravetz (Manchester Metropolitan University)  email


I am engaged in a project about reverie using poetics as a method. How do daydreams guide anthropological understanding? Can daydreams lead to anthropology? What is the communicative potential of reverie?

Long Abstract

We rent a cottage on a jutting finger of land extending 30 miles into the Irish sea. Once, the Llŷn was used by pilgrims on their way to Bardsey Island and we are pilgrims too, searching for our own version of immortality. Not through supplication to the church, but to creativity, its promised increases, its stimulus to consciousness. Bachelard writes that the house shields the dreamer; this cottage with its crog loft crouching over us like an animal, is made for such protection.

Places where I have dreamt dwell inside me. It is not a straight line between memories and dreams. I am on a wooden slatted frame, being carried through a desert. The litter sways. Cot bars frame the sky. The earth cries like a swarm of tiny flies. The blasted landscape yields nothing but the pattern of my passage across it, a rhythm of phantasy and loss.

I begin by trying to contact childhood daydreams, mindful that the anthro-cosmologies of childhood might best be reached unencumbered by facts. In particular I want to overcome my remorse "at not having lived profoundly enough in an old house" - that of my childhood. I must discover ways to relive suppressed impressions "and the dreams that make us believe in happiness" . To dream enough in this house, with its thick walls, in order to catch hold of the dreams of my childhood home! - and through these, to glimpse the daydreams of others who touched me.

(Quotes from Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space, 56-7)

Uluru Inverted: shock value in desert storytelling

Author: David Brooks (Ngaanyatjarra Council (Aboriginal Corporation))  email


A film has apparently been made puncturing the valued but precarious official meaning of Australian tourist icon Uluru as an Aboriginal site. But far from being outraged or hurt, Desert men relate the tale with relish. In fact it turns out to be largely their invention. What is going on?

Long Abstract

Uluru is an Australian 'icon', an impressively huge red boulder located centrally in the arid continent and tapping deeply into the indigenous past. Often seen as the paramount sacred site of the Aboriginal Dreaming, it is a focal point for many Dreaming 'tracks' of the people of the Western Desert 'bloc' who are its 'traditional owners'. Endless busloads of tourists are taken on walks around the base by Aboriginal guides and exhorted not to show disrespect by climbing to the peak. In a country as divided about indigenous issues as Australia, this is a site that, for once, unambiguously presents a positive and unified face, a space where 'things Aboriginal' are held up and admired for their richness and sublimity. A space where a serious attitude is appropriate. While the occasional young tourist plays pranks foolishly flouting this, who would imagine that some Aboriginal people from the same cultural group as the owners are willing to have a good laugh at themselves over the whole Uluru phenomenon?

Yet so it is. Men whom I have known for nearly thirty years suddenly told me about a commercial film they said they had once watched together, involving a whitefella who constructed an elaborate and clever joke puncturing the seriousness that envelops Aboriginal Uluru, and about how it had them in stitches. This paper relates my search for the film, and explores the many factors that led to the surprising inversion that my friends' telling of the story expresses.

There is no tail to the story: performative traditions in a ritual in Meitei community

Author: Debanjali Biswas (King's College London)  email


This paper explores a performative tradition in the ritual Lai Haraoba as a story-telling method that are instruments for seeing history and social life of a north-east Indian community.

Long Abstract

The Meiteis in north-east India appease their ancestral and sylvan gods through Lai Haraoba. The resilience of the tradition has been measured by how well it has kept its elements intact for a few hundred years of social change through Burmese, Hindu and British invasion. Various mythical-legendary figures, tribal and clan progenitors within the Sanamahi religion and cultural and political heroes are celebrated yearly in harvest seasons.

One significant thread of expressive tradition is the performative rituals danced by the priestesses - Maibis; as preservers and narrators of oral traditions, they perform the myth and memory of the community. My work here places Hakchang Saba - a collection of incantation, hand gestures and body movements as a story-telling ritual by the Maibis who possess an intimate knowledge of the Sanamahi doctrine. The stories incorporate the larger Meitei universe - territory, cosmology, religious instructions and homely metaphors of occupational activities thereby synthesising the other-worldly into the daily, concrete world of narrator and audience without diminishing its complexity. The ritual which ends with a pattern of an ouroboros, generates a sense cosmological continuity which merges with Meitei notions of personhood, emotions, experience and community. The narratives performed, are instruments for seeing history, social life, while through their performances and structures, Meitei hegemony over other tribes (within the Indian state of Manipur) is suggested.

In its broader interrogations, the paper approaches the greater field of ethno-choreology and questions how story-telling mechanisms may comment on the 'ethno-psychological' as well as the 'aesthetic' notions of a community.

A love letter

Author: Mihirini Sirisena (University of Edinburgh)  email


Presented in the form of a letter, this work uses the twists and turns of a relationship of two informants to illustrate the course through which romantic relationships gain meaning in the lives of students at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Long Abstract

This letter tells the story of a young woman and a man I met during fieldwork I conducted with some university students in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 2007/08. Here, Hiranthi - the author - writes a letter to her boyfriend of nine months Anish, interpreting the twists and turns of their relationship. She assesses the event that is her relationship in the context of the process of making of and expectations of 'serious relationships.' In her descriptions of making and expectations of 'serious relationships', I use the stories of those others I met during fieldwork, drawing from and pitting her story against these others. Using creative license to contextualise and interpret Hiranthi's and Anish's story, I use the letter to highlight that romantic relationships of my interlocutors are embedded within particular discourses about the normative conjugal unit, which is essentially heterosexual. It illustrates that romantic relationships consist of a process of investment, a way of embedding one's sense of self, the article highlights the relational aspect of self, pointing out that one's life's worthiness could be tied to the people who are around them.

The watermelon

Author: Eva van Roekel (Utrecht University)  email


Research on feelings suggests structural or constructivist models and evokes person-centred affective experiences very limited. Exploring boundaries between ethnography and fiction offers insights as both employ methodologies and narrative styles that embrace individual affective experiences inclusively.

Long Abstract

Local meanings of death and mourning have been studied by many anthropologists in different cultural settings (Robben 2004; Rosaldo 1989; Scheper-Hughes 1994). In the semi-fictional short story The watermelon I narrate the lived and imagined experience of Gabriel after a fatal car accident in Caracas where his best friend died. Shock, solidarity and social isolation together with different therapeutical remedies, (prescribed) drugs and Santería healing practices shaped Gabriel's life for many years after the accident. Through shared experiences with Gabriel and his family and friends, personal memories of the tragic event, in combination with my latter fieldwork on the local meaning of mourning and experiences of guilt in Argentina, I relocate the ethnographic Venezuelan experience in an imaginative migrant life in contemporary Buenos Aires where a particular local interpretation of psychoanalysis, memories and trauma shape people's affective lives on a daily basis. The semi-fictional short story departs from the epistemological premise that knowledge on feelings should be explored in the complex accumulation of people's transformative lives and locate these experiences in a dynamic social context of globalising and multicultural imaginative worlds. By doing so, it in-directly explores the boundaries between ethnography and fiction and suggest in-depth insights in the cultural dynamics of people's feelings at a particular time and place. Only through this intimate convergence of ethnography and fiction, where the narrator's imagination thoughtfully follows situated cultural logics, the semi-fictional story evokes Gabriel's feelings of guilt and loss in a righteous and inclusive sense.

The genie of Pig Wood

Author: Emma Parfitt (University of Warwick)  email


My PhD involves the potential of narrative in terms of emotional and behavioural management. In this creative piece I explore what happens when three boys discover a genie in aluminium can. What could they wish for and does this differ from what they should wish for?

Long Abstract

I am interested in whether different narrative forms are beneficial for young people in terms of emotion and behavioural management. In Pig Wood I am exploring what is important to a group of three boys who live in an urban area of Coventry. Three boys release a genie from an old aluminium can leading them to question what they could wish for, and what they should wish for now they have potentially been given the chance to make a difference in the world.

Making use of my own environmental interests this paper discusses the source of my inspiration through the things young people discussed as part of my research.

In group discussion traditional storytelling, as a conversational trigger, led in unexpected directions to provide a picture of what it is currently like to be a young person in today's society, and what types of narratives guide their attitudes and aspirations. In my creative piece Pig's Wood I attempt to place a fairy story in a contemporary urban setting. In this way I hope to bring a different perspective to life as a teenage boy in Coventry while twisting traditional genie stereotypes.

My research analysis involved Nvivo coding of storytelling and focus group sessions one hour long, over five subsequent weeks, with young people from 12-14 years. In total, there were six groups of four children, of mixed ethnicity, ability, and socio-economic background, from three schools within Warwickshire.

A dog story from Newfoundland (revisited)

Author: John Harries (University of Edinburgh)  email


I will be telling a story from Newfoundland about a man who had to shot his favorite hunting dog. It was told many years ago. I have told it again many times when teaching and now will speak to what issues the ways this story has lived on raises what we, anthropologists, make of stories once told us.

Long Abstract

Many years ago now, when I was doing my first bit of "ethnographic" research in a small village on the southwest coast of the island of Newfoundland a man told a story about a dog. We were sitting in the kitchen and dog stories were going around and he told of how he had to shot his favorite hunting dog. Later in the evening a wrote a version of this tale into my field-notes. Later on still I "interpreted" the significance of this story in a naive exercise of thick description. Later on still I would perform more versions of this story and reveal my interpretation while teaching 2nd year students about ethnography and interpretive anthropology. In telling it again at the ASA I wish to excavate my own performance of this story in different contexts and, in revisiting a story of a death of good dog told many years ago, consider the what we, as anthropologists, do with the stories told by others.

Sanctifying human experience in terms of social communication

Author: Marilena Papachristophorou (University of Ioannina )  email


The paper discusses storytelling practices in terms of everyday communication that convey human experience as part of the local cosmology in a small insular community in Greece.

Long Abstract

Talking about miracles, sacred objects, and encounters of humans with demons and saints constitutes an everyday practice in the island of Lipsi (southeast Aegean, Greece). This "flow" of stories told by all members of the community at every kind of gathering makes a collective identity trait through which the islanders communicate their perception of local history and shape their present lives as well. In our ethnography of Lipsi, storytelling emerges as an "art", in terms of aesthetic expression through performance. However, at the 'very moment' of our fieldwork experience, which lasted a little over ten years, one cannot clearly perceive the lines that separate religious worldview from dominant ideology within the community: in that system of ideas and representations, the natural and supernatural worlds are perceived as an indivisible whole whose parts are in constant communication, either through miracles, hierophanies and visions or through an abundance of wishes and invocations that people utter all the time in their everyday routine. Storytelling and vernacular religion are complementary on multiple levels in this example, with the use of common symbols proving to be more durable than practices, even when the framework of official religion has changed. It is on this narrative web, which unfolds as oral tradition, as ritual practices or as landscape, that community members portray their routes over space and time.

The paper will focus on the storytelling practices of the community, presenting fieldwork data registered during 2005-2011.

"Once upon a time...": a story of ethnographic exploration

Author: Juliet Rayment (City University London)  email


Weaving a traditional story with 'true life' tales from an ethnography of midwives' work, this paper will explore the potential of performance storytelling to present ethnographic findings.

Long Abstract

The 'strange land' is a common trope of traditional storytelling. Travellers explore somewhere new and unusual, and then return with insights into their homeland. So too does the ethnographer, even when working close to home. Similarly ethnographers, like the protagonists of many traditional stories, have to learn the social rules of new places but also not take what is familiar for granted. The themes from traditional stories continue to echo widely in our contemporary lives.

As a playful intervention between traditional and ethnographic storytelling, this paper will take the form of a story that weaves together a traditional tale with 'true life' stories taken from an ethnography of midwives' work in a UK hospital. The story aims to explore the experience of 'doing' ethnography, as well as examining the potential for performance storytelling to present ethnographic findings.

Documenting unheard voices: the power of stories in endangered indigenous languages

Author: Alexander King (Franklin & Marshall College)  email


This paper uses a project to document Koryak (Russia) to theorise storytelling with an attention to the interconnectedness of form & content. Writing oral narratives in indigenous languages moves across three frames: from one code to another, from one culture another, and from orality to literacy.

Long Abstract

This paper builds upon Dell Hymes theory of voice and ethnopoetics to argue for the value of documenting storytelling in the original language of minority indigenous peoples. Ethnopoetics acknowledges that form and content are so intertwined that it is impossible to disentangle one from the other. Ethnopoetic analysis requires learning the grammatical structures of a story's original language in order approach a full analysis of a story. Franz Boas certainly understood this axiom, as is clear from his insistence on the publication of texts in the original language with interlinear glosses as well as free translations. I use translations in the plural because the movements are across several frames simultaneously: from one lexico-grammatical frame to another, from one cultural frame to another, and from an oral frame to a written one. The three translations of code, context, and mode are intertwined, of course, as form and content are inseparable. Commentary and criticism of Hymesian ethnopoetics has tended to dwell on the last frame shift—from speech to written verse organized by threes and fives or twos and fours. Translation is more than just choosing the right words or rendering an exotic tongue into English with the right effect. Hymes's work demonstrates that good translation is both possible and desirable. Linguistic anthropologists developed theories and methods for quality translations over 30 years ago, but these developments have not entered the mainstream of social anthropology. My argument draws upon examples of stories recorded as part of a project to document varieties of Koryak, spoken in NE Asia.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.