Ethnography as Commentary

Writing from the Virtual Archive

Ethnography as Commentary

Visit the Language and Popular Culture in Africa website.
Book Pages: 152 Illustrations: Published: August 2008

Author: Johannes Fabian

African Studies, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology

The Internet allows ethnographers to deposit the textual materials on which they base their writing in virtual archives. Electronically archived fieldwork documents can be accessed at any time by the writer, his or her readers, and the people studied. Johannes Fabian, a leading theorist of anthropological practice, argues that virtual archives have the potential to shift the emphasis in ethnographic writing from the monograph to commentary. In this insightful study, he returns to the recording of a conversation he had with a ritual healer in the Congolese town of Lubumbashi more than three decades ago. Fabian’s transcript and translation of the exchange have been deposited on a website (Language and Popular Culture in Africa), and in Ethnography as Commentary he provides a model of writing in the presence of a virtual archive.

In his commentary, Fabian reconstructs his meeting with the healer Kahenga Mukonkwa Michel, in which the two discussed the ritual that Kahenga performed to protect Fabian’s home from burglary. Fabian reflects on the expectations and terminology that shape his description of Kahenga’s ritual and meditates on how ethnographic texts are made, considering the settings, the participants, the technologies, and the linguistic medium that influence the transcription and translation of a recording and thus fashion ethnographic knowledge. Turning more directly to Kahenga—as a practitioner, a person, and an ethnographic subject—and to the questions posed to him, Fabian reconsiders questions of ethnic identity, politics, and religion. While Fabian hopes that emerging anthropologists will share their fieldwork through virtual archives, he does not suggest that traditional ethnography will disappear. It will become part of a broader project facilitated by new media.


Ethnography as Commentary is a fabulous (and short) book. It is an excellent introduction to the detailed practice of ethnographic interpretation; it is also a very thoughtprovoking meditation on the changing possibilities of the ethnographic monograph after the Internet and of the idea of ethnography as commentary.” — Christopher Kelty, American Anthropologist

“Central African specialists and those interested in genre and/or innovation in ethnography will form a natural readership for this book. However, Ethnography as Commentary has much to offer to anthropologists beyond these groups. I particularly thought of students, and not just for the insights which Fabian gives into fieldwork experience (as indicated on the back cover), but for the glimpse which the book offers into the thoughts of a distinguished scholar and fieldworker towards the close of his career.” — Nicholas Swann, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“The author presents an interesting and insightful discussion of an event that is usually not written about by anthropologists: how a recorded dialogue is turned into what we call 'ethnography'. . . . It is refreshing to read a work by an anthropologist who is not engulfed by jargon but is carefully articulating, defining, and questioning the terms he uses. . . . Ethnography as Commentary addresses students of anthropology as well as seasoned ethnographers because it stresses issues of anthropological methods that are often neglected in practical ethnographic work as well as in general methods classes. I found Chapter two especially helpful while teaching an undergraduate course on fieldwork methods. Students appreciated the good read and it offered interesting thoughts for discussing the 'making' of ethnographic texts.” — Barbara Gerke, Anthropology Review Database

“This slim volume is both an incisive discussion of ethnographic methodology and a pensive reflection on the nature of anthropological knowledge. . . . Because of its ability to lay bare the process of ethnography with disarming honesty the book would be very well-suited for classroom use, either in a course on ethnographic representation and writing or in social research methods courses.” — Niklas Hultin, Interventions

Ethnography as Commentary is a timely contribution to contemporary problems of anthropological knowledge-making. It is an argument about what ethnography has come to and an experiment about what it might still become more than two decades after the intense period of critiquing anthropology’s emblematic research practices.” — George E. Marcus, co-author of Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary

“Johannes Fabian is one of the most prominent and original thinkers in anthropology. With Ethnography as Commentary, he makes a significant contribution to debates about modes of writing in anthropology and adjacent disciplines and to anthropological knowledge of postcolonial Central African culture and society. Younger scholars especially will find it a very instructive close-up portrayal of intensive ethnographic work.” — Ulf Hannerz, author of Foreign News: Exploring the World of Foreign Correspondents


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Johannes Fabian is Professor Emeritus of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the Amsterdam School of Social Research. He is the author of many books, including Memory against Culture: Arguments and Reminders, also published by Duke University Press; Out of Our Minds: Reason and Madness in the Exploration of Central Africa; Remembering the Present: Painting and Popular History in Zaire; Language and Colonial Power: The Appropriation of Swahili in the Former Belgian Congo, 1880–1938; and Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface vii

Introduction. Closing House--A Late Ethnography 1

Chapter 1. An Event: Closing the House 21

Chapter 2. A Text: Made, Not Found 39

Chapter 3. Kahenga's Work 55

Chapter 4. Kahenga's World 73

Chapter 5. Kahenga's Thoughts 91

Chapter 6. Endings and Ends 111

Notes 125

Works Cited 133

Index 137
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4283-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4261-8
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