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Steve Portigal

May 23, 2006, 10:14:52 PM5/23/06
Anthropological Theory : An Introductory History (Paperback)
by R. Jon McGee, Richard Warms

Visions of Culture : An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and
Theorists, Second Edition
by Jerry D. Moore

An Introduction to Theory in Anthropology
by Robert Layton

I did some Googling for survey courses in anthro theory and found
their texts - these three seem like potential starting places - does
anyone have experience with any of these books? Or any others to add?
Or any other input on the material we might use?

Steve Portigal --
blog --

Tom Fisher

May 24, 2006, 7:17:27 AM5/24/06
to User Research Theory Study Group Planning
I like the idea of agreeing on a text and studying a chapter each week
or fortnight with a discussion through that period, or perhaps towards
the end of it. Which of these three is a favourite amongst those who
know (with my background in Fine Art, Design and studies of consumption
I'm not one of those...).

By the way, do I detect in the notion of this group a response to the
report by Grant McCracken on the MSI meeting on ethnography?

Best wishes

Tom Fisher

Mick Khoo

May 24, 2006, 9:42:18 AM5/24/06
to Steve Portigal,
I think it depends on what you want to get up to speed with. If it's
anthropological theory and/or philosophy, - What do anthropologists
think? - What is culture? - and so on, then the event horizon here is
really about the mid 70s, and the work first of Clifford Geertz
(associated with the interpretive turn), and then in the 80s George
Marcus and James Fischer (the latter two being associated with what is
called the 'postmodern turn' in anthropology).

If its anthropological practice, - What do anthropologists do? - then
we may be better off lookking towards specific texts on ethnographic
methods. But I'm assuming to from the discussion so far, that this
group has an interest in theory.

In this light, from the Amazon's 'Statistically Improbable Phrases,'
the Layton book looks as if it focuses very much on material culture
(in the archaeological sense). So a thumbs down here (unless you're
really interested in material culture). The McGee and Warms has 10-15
pages excerpts from a wide range of anthropologists (many of whom are
of historical interest, but whose ideas are no longer used). These
are in thematic sections, with short contextualizing introductions.
Moore has short intellectual bios of many of the people McGee and
Warms cover, but is shorter (and cheaper). I think of these as great
as on-the-shelf, social science reference books - and I can recommend
some more - but I'm not sure how much might be gained from reading and
then discussing 10 pages on Marx, for instance.

Rather than spending time on gaining an overall view, I'd recommend a
little initial recconaissance, and then some bold exploration. So I'd

Monaghan and Just, Social and Cultural Anthropology, A Very Short
Introduction (Oxford University Press).

I have not read this, but I have read other in the VSI series, and
these small books are very substantial. It gets good reviews, and
costs $9.95.

Then, I'd recommend Geertz's 'Interpretation of Cultures.' Whenever
non-anthropologists want to cite an anthropologist, it's often Geertz,
and this book, and in particular the first essay, "Thick description:
Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture." This is where the phrase
'thick description' comes from, although it did not originate with
Geertz, who took it from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Rightly or
wrongly, this is/was an enormously influential essay in anthropology,
even if many of the ideas have subsequently attacked or replaced.
However, the notion of 'thick description,' and also 'deep hanging
out,' as being things that anthropologists do, have endured in the
anthropological lexicon. We should at least read 'Thick Description'
(FYI there's a scan here, but the book has other interesting essays as

As a starting monograph that looks at scientists and technologists,
I'd recommend Diane Forsythe's "Studying Those Who Study Us." This is
a posthumous collection of essays by an anthropologist who spent years
studying artificial intelligence. As an essay collection it can get a
bit repitive, but the advantage is that you can see her ideas
evolving. Further, she also deals in places with questions that have
emerged in other lists, regarding who can (and who is trained to do)
ethnography of science and technology. She advances the pov (to
paraphrase it broadly) that watching users test something for a few
hours, is not ethnography, and certainly not anthropology. This is a
good, readable, introductory text I think, that interweaves
ethnographic, anthropological and theoretical observations in
digestible chunks.

Note the second reviewer!



Marcela Musgrove

May 24, 2006, 9:55:38 AM5/24/06
to Steve Portigal,
In case you want a more formal plan, MIT's opencourseware had what looked like a throrough anthopological introduction:

May 24, 2006, 10:37:30 AM5/24/06
to User Research Theory Study Group Planning
A very good summary. You're absolutely correct about the McGee and
Warms text--although I'd still recommend it as required bookshelf
decoration. It looks very imposing, and I do still take it down from
time to time.

Marcus Fischer is interesting for people who would like to know about
cultural anthropology since the 80s, but unfortunately it's my opinion
that applied anthro/"what we do here" hasn't become post-modern yet.
Maybe that's a topic for discussion.

Geertz is an excellent place to begin.


Carol Shea

May 24, 2006, 10:49:39 AM5/24/06
Silbey's syllabus looks good in this class - but I would prefer a focus on one of Steve's suggested texts (especially Jerry Moore's Vision of Culture).
Take care,

From: [] On Behalf Of Marcela Musgrove
Sent: Wednesday, May 24, 2006 9:56 AM
To: Steve Portigal
Subject: Re: three candidates  


May 24, 2006, 1:43:13 PM5/24/06
to User Research Theory Study Group Planning
Wow, this post is GREAT! I just met with an Anthropology professor
last week to discuss incorporating some into my (self-designed)
Master's degree. He heavily warned me from getting too involved with
the department, since it is heavily academic based. My conversation
with him was driven by the recent McCracken review of the MSI seminar.

I am wholeheartedly motivated to put some shape (theory) around my
knowledge of ethnography and am delighted to participate. I appreciate
the books that some of you have mentioned. I like Tom Fisher's idea of
reading chapters and discussing piecemeal. I would like to dive into
an Anthropological theory book and am absolutely overwhelmed with the
choices, I have no idea where to begin. Recommendations and direction
from peers (all of you) would be fabulous.

Kristi Olson


May 24, 2006, 2:19:26 PM5/24/06
to User Research Theory Study Group Planning
These are all good candidates (there are lots more, both old school and
new school). In terms texts on methodology, I've found that the The
Ethnographers Toolkit series (7 volumes published by Altamira) is very
accessible. Basically a series on ethnographic method and theory
(heavy on the method, light on the theory). All in all, the series is
very accessible, great for active practitioners (both experienced and
starting out) and students alike.



Steve Portigal

May 24, 2006, 3:45:54 PM5/24/06
to Tom Fisher, User Research Theory Study Group Planning

>By the way, do I detect in the notion of this group a response to the
>report by Grant McCracken on the MSI meeting on ethnography?

There are a couple of triggering events for me, that post being one
of them. is the
post in question.

I posted some of my thoughts in the comments there and had some
followup myself
- and also a difficult experience at EPIC last year.
(this last one is about four conferences, with a section about EPIC)

Some of what I've linked to above is negative or critical, involves
our community or even some of us, and I post here it here with some
hesitation because I don't want to re-enter a debate, I want to
(within this group here) address some of the issues I'm facing (and
clearly others) in our own development.

I'd suggest if you want to engage in a discussion on this stuff, post
comments on those blog entries. I'd prefer to see the discussion here
focused on how to most effectively come together to learn more of the
theory stuff.



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