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“Lessons from the bush”: an afternoon with Paul Stoller

By Luciana Massaro

Writing ethnography can be an intimidating experience. As anthropologists we face the challenge to write and interpret what research participants share with us in a way that respects their points of view, experiences, and beliefs. With his lecture “Lessons from the bush”, Paul Stoller dived into his academic and personal life to show us how to welcome this challenge and produce relevant content that seduces readers to turn the page. Stoller’s long-term dedication to anthropology and ethnography reveals how writing can be an embodying activity, and how exposing our vulnerability is the key to unfold even the most entangled issues.

During his lecture, Stoller stood on his mentors’ shoulders, distinguished academic European figures and respected West-African shamans, arguing that personal stories and life anecdotes can connect us as human beings, beyond science. According to him, scientific productions are unstable by nature, theories can change, and new academic findings can revolutionize a discipline. Instead, stories stay, and through storytelling anthropologists can spread indigenous wisdom to a wider audience. Ethnography, Stoller argues, has the power to evoke memories that last, and create knowledge that runs far and wide.

Stoller suggests that ethnographers should be ready to live in the moment, to open themselves and embrace risks. He advocates a “slow anthropology”, which practically consists of acquiring knowledge by visiting the same people and places over and over through years. For him, becoming a worthy custodian of indigenous knowledge takes time, a lifetime even. Of course, getting this vulnerable is not an easy challenge, and having the time to carry out slow anthropology in contemporary academia sounds like a utopia. Many anthropologists (and academics in general) are crushed between the lack of funding and the pressure of publishing. Still, Stoller’s lessons from the bush fascinated us in a way that made us leave aside all academic challenges, at least for a bit.

The lecture worked as the perfect incipit for what came next: a four-day-workshop about writing evocative ethnography, about “weaving the world”, as Stoller calls it. During the workshop he shared precious tips on how to link ethnographic description to social analysis, and provided a strategy to write something that takes the reader’s breath away.

It all begins with giving a sense of place. Diving into sensuous descriptions of a scene is a fundamental part of ethnography that helps the reader to have an immersive experience. Stoller gave examples from his books and then invited the participants to write a short piece about a place. He particularly recommended to go beyond the visual descriptions, and to explore noises, smells and textures. Finding the right amount of details to trigger the reader’s imagination without becoming tedious is the real challenge. While the workshop progressed, we filled our descriptions of space and places with people and dialogues. We were invited to explore the challenge of showing without telling, to make people alive in the reader’s mind. And finally, crafting the character by retracing all those little details and the distinctiveness that make that talking head “a person”. Describing a particular feature of the body, a gesture and a way of moving are essential traits to build relevant anthropological narratives.

The workshop became a 4-day bubble to focus exclusively on ethnography. Each participant had the privilege to dedicate time to write and listen, and to receive feedback from Stoller as well as the fellow participants. Stoller gave us tools to tackle doubts and hesitations, and renewed our enthusiasm for storytelling. He brilliantly brightened up our grey autumn days at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

Luciana Massaro is a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Paul Stoller is Professor of Anthropology at West Chester University. He published 14 books (memoirs, novels and ethnographies) and has conducted research in West Africa (Niger) and New York City. More information on Paul Stoller is available here. Stoller’s blogs for the Huffington Post are available here.

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