The ethnographic nook – In the aftermath of humbuggery: Interview with Susan Blum

The ethnographic nook is a new series of interviews with scholars who participated in a recent, NET-organised workshop entitled “Fakery, Insincerity, and the Anthropology of Humbuggery.” The ethnographic nook is a space of conviviality and intimacy, situated in the backroom of an undisclosed café which possibly does, or does not exist outside of the internet. It is furnished with worn yet beautifully-aged lacquered floors. It has comfortable, cocktail armchairs from the 50s – although patrons sometimes choose to sit on the rugged carpet and place their beverages on the Paulownia low-table in front of them. We invite scholars to sit down and talk to us about what makes them tick in their work and everyday life. We talk about what they are reading, their writing habits, opinions about current affairs, and of course ethnography.


Our guest this week is Susan Blum, professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. Susan’s rich corpus of ethnographic work in China focuses onaspects of alterity, deception and ethnicity, and how people construct and enact their identities in relation to those of others. Her latest work is a critical exploration of education and in the US and elsewhere, and focuses on dimensions pedagogy, learning (and its relationship to schooling), and authorship.

[NET]: Welcome to the nook Susan! Your book My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture is a fascinating exploration of cheating and plagiarism in US colleges. What made you interested in these particular topics? Do you understand cheating and plagiarism as something confined in college culture, or are these practices that can unveil more foundational dimensions of human behaviour?

[SB]: I was interested for a number of reasons. One was that I had previously studied truth and deception in China, and I was interested in the ideologies connected with following prescriptive rules about the referential nature of language, where some version of the truth conditions governed evaluation of utterances—despite a century of anthropological research on “phatic communion” and the last half-century of focus on pragmatics. In some sense I was interested in ideologies of “how to do things with words,” in different times and places.

One of the common human affordances of language is the possibility of lying, and our ability to predict others’ responses, or what is sometimes called Theory of Mind, means that we can easily deceive others. The rewards for cheating, deception, and lying are often great, and the punishment may or may not suffice to keep people on the straight-and-narrow path of truth telling. Human cheating, deception, conning, lying, and more are found in every society alongside prescriptions for honesty. The specific guidelines for who deserves what kind of truth and why always require fieldwork to uncover.

As a linguistic and cultural anthropologist, I am of course interested in authorship: Where do our words come from, and where do we think they come from?

6203491._UY400_SS400_It is a cliché from Bakhtin that “the word in language is half someone else’s.” In contemporary White Anglo-American middle-class society, we have a celebration of originality, of uniqueness. But it is also obvious, as for example when I type on my phone or iPad, that a lot of people have constructed sentences a lot like mine. I am scarcely original, most of the time. Yet not only are our words not our own entirely, we have this absolutist rule—impossible to follow—that we must give credit to anything we ourselves did not create, as an individual. I had come to suspect that students did not have quite the same strict ideas about tracing all influences of our utterances that govern academic notions of citation and “academic integrity”—ideas that actually vary considerably from field to field, even within academia and in the world of letters. But grown-up academics forget ever having learned this, and take it as natural and obvious.

The relationship between speaker and self similarly gives rise to longstanding interests of mine in the nature of the self and the person—whether in terms of ethnic identity in the context of an authoritarian nation-state or in terms of performing a certain version of selfhood for a certain perceived good—a high grade, in the case of school.

I also had come to want to understand my students better. All around me colleagues were either complaining about student writing and entitlement, or they were celebrating their stellar achievements. (I’m at a high-achiever-filled institution.) I wanted to see both what they were doing instead of re-writing their drafts, in terms of their preoccupations outside classes, and what they thought was happening in classes.

One of the biggest surprises to me, as someone who had always focused on the academic side of things, is how little I—not generalizing entirely to all college faculty—shared with my students—about their understanding of writing, authorship, the importance of reading, the goals of college, and the importance of a singular(-ish) sense ofself.

But I could understand them, once I got over judging and used my anthropological perspective. Isn’t that the classical outcome of ethnography? But in some ways it was even harder to accomplish in that I was living in my fieldsite, all the time, but carried with me judgments from another universe.

This led me on to my subsequent book, “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College, which sent me deeply into the anthropology of learning, which is really a classic anthropological topic, though it surfaced in the early days in terms of “socialization.” Language socialization and the linguistic anthropology of education were rich sources of my thinking, and I ventured once again, as I had in Lies That Bind, into studies beyond the human.

[NET]: It must also be said that the aforementioned book does not vilify plagiarism and cheating but rather problematises the disconnect which often exists between pedagogical structures and social dimensions of learning. As a professor and teacher yourself, do you go about doing things differently than what is ‘normally’ expected in a university classroom? Do you think that a teacher can address the concerns you have with college pedagogy through a particular style of teaching, or are we faced with a larger, structural problem?

[SB]: The problems are large and structural, and my deepest wish is that we completely overthrow the conventional types of schooling that have been naturalized over the last hundred and fifty years. Meanwhile—and there are many profound experiments being done at all levels of schooling from preschool to medical school, and at all different scales from a single exercise to entirely new movements such as unschooling or new colleges being created (I highly recommend Cathy N Davidson’s new The New Education)—in addition to writing about all this, I’ve experimented hugely in my own classes. I’ve revolutionized the ways I think of students, of “the material,” of what I want them to get out of it, how we do it, how it is assessed, and the student-teacher relationship. Doing this in the context of a conventional college where students arrive with standard expectations means I’ve had to become very explicit about what I’m doing and why.

One substantive shift for me has been to completely get rid of the idea that my job is to sort and rank and evaluate, and to focus on really creating conditions for every student to learn. For many, that requires some effort at identifying goals beyond just “it fulfills a requirement” or “it fits my schedule.” I also ask students to assess their own work, and I provide feedback. I just don’t do any grading of any assignment. I try to meet students where they are as best I can, and have lots of conversations with them. At the end of the semester we meet for a portfolio conference.

It is not as good as having the learning motivated by need, use, or passion—as we find IRL, outside schools—but it has helped me avoid a focus on what I call “the game of school”—something I thought I’d invented, but as is so often the case, something that must be in the air, because I’ve subsequently encountered others using the same phrase. Plagiarism? It’s what our early anthropological ancestors called “independent invention.”

[NET]: In your website you have a photo of Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society teaching while standing on his desk. Did you try something like that?

[SB]: I haven’t stood on the desk (yet), but I’ve sat on the floor and I’ve talked to my students facing away from them and we’ve turned off the lights and spoken in the dark and we’ve gone to a farm. Does that count?

But actually the thing about Robin Williams’s model is that he is still the charismatic center of the class. I prefer having my students’ learning occupy the central space. (I don’t say that only because I’m less charismatic than Williams, of blessed memory; the whole point of school is for the students to learn, not the teacher to teach.) The anthropology of learning does not only show teaching. Pedagogy is a particular invention. You can read Basil Bernstein on the “totally pedagogised society” (TPS) [1] that he critiques.

[NET]: Your book Lies that bind provides a nuances explana9780742554054tion of the importance of lying and deception in Chinese culture. With the rise of ‘fake news’, the need for people to develop a sixth sense of sorts, of whether something they read or hear is true seems more important than ever! Do you think the way ‘fake news’ circulate amid the global media zeitgeist and everyday conversations reconfigures our anthropological understanding of lying and deception? Should we, as anthropologists, or ordinary citizens, do anything about it??

[SB]: In both our roles we should do a lot!

This current era, beyond the “truthiness” of the 2000s and into the era of Trump lying 5.5 times a day, on average, according to The Washington Post, where people shout “fake news!” whenever they don’t like what the media report, where we have PolitiFact and and Snopes, and evaluations by numbers of Pinocchios, “pants on fire”—citing, quoting, invoking the English child’s rhyme “Liar, liar, pants on fire” of which most origin stories are lies—in this climate it is almost impossible to analyze quickly enough, when we are pulled in amazement each hour, it seems, to absorb yet another blow to honor, decency, truth….Yes, there is much to do as anthropologists and as citizens—and, I’ll add, as teachers.

We need to keep a record of what is happening and what the reactions are, in order to capture the motivations and gains and risks of bald-faced lying. There are quite a number of anthropologists working on this, such as here and here and here and here. I think we all realize that we are living in an unprecedented moment where really significant history is happening, and a lot of people are paying attention to what is “not normal.”

I am puzzled by the utterly brazen way people like our current resident can say “there were record crowds” and the evidence is there that there were not record crowds and yet nothing terrible happens, except a kind of cheer by supporters. I believe we are seeing people recognizing the constraints of social interaction and rejecting them—almost as if the id threw off the shackles of the superego and celebrated some kind of pre-cultural desire for boorish impulsive behavior.

I’ve been amused that for many drawn to social construction and post-objectivity approaches, the current anti-fact and anti-science administration is moving a lot of them into the arms of science and fact.

Librarians, journalists, and others are doing heroic work trying to teach people how to sort out legitimate (not to say, “objective”) from “fake news,” news that is sponsored by corporations. The Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) has done groundbreaking work. Here are some other sites: here and here and here and here. Here’s an infographic on “How to spot fake news” based on a longer version put out by

The ubiquity of information and the ability to select sources that already express our own position mean that we have to have mechanisms for assessing their makers and intended audience. Anthropology should provide tools for that, as we try to make sense of things people tell us—and why. Don’t forget Charles Briggs’s classic book, Learning How to Ask. It’s about interviewing, but it’s also about being critical of asking and hearing answers and focusing on the relationships, contexts, rules for speaking, and the usual nuanced details of human society.

[NET]: Anthropologists tend to specialize in regions and ideas. You possess a particular skill set of linguistic, cultural and cognitive anthropology and, despite focusing on particular topics, you often mention that your work is about larger, universal behavioural aspects and patterns of human sociality. How do you go about addressing and grounding these ‘broad’ topics and projects – a task which most anthropologists find quite daunting?

[SB]: I have become impatient with small, possibly trivial answers to questions. (No offense intended here. I’m not naming names.) I haven’t written a general Humans book, but in most of my work I try to introduce the tension between universals and particulars, between our nature as parts of a species and an order that contrasts with others, and as very specific individuals quite unlike any others, though with some shared characteristics. Some people talk about macro, meso, and micro perspectives. I like the kitchen sink approach—all of the above. But I’ve been profoundly influenced by my colleagues who are biological anthropologists and am deeply committed to the idea that we are biological—biocultural—biosociocultural—psychobiosociocultural. Et cetera. There is never a generic human being. But we are never biological first and cultural second, or psychological first and biological second. If anthropologists have anything to contribute to the world—and I’ve devoted my life to this pursuit in the conviction that we do—it is that we are extremely complex and that everything matters. We can’t take an individual as a unit of analysis. I’m currently obsessing over the notion that while humans are nearly infinitely malleable, as our colleagues have delighted in demonstrating for a century or more—to show that we are not genetically or racially determined—there may be limits. We see the limits in human suffering, such as what happens when people are given conflicting goals that they as individuals must champion but which hurt them—as Lauren Berlant shows in Cruel Optimism, or when solitude is taken to the extreme of solitary confinement. We can also look to older work such as Robert Edgerton’s Sick Societies (whatever its flaws) to see that we do not all live in the best of all possible worlds.

There are development organizations trying to improve the lives of people around the globe, and the Human Development Index tries to get at the nature of life according to many measures. For an anthropologist this may be problematic, but it does acknowledge that it is better to live in some social formations than in others.

I’ve also been influenced by ideas of permaculture and ecological perspectives. We need to look at humans this way too. For me the posthuman perspective includes not only other animals but also the very planetary context within which all is constrained.

[NET]: As you mention in your blog you are also an avid reader of fiction! Do you see any benefits  for your thinking, writing and/or teaching in engaging with non-academic literature in your everyday life? Do you have any other particular habits or hobbies in which you find inspiration for your work?

[SB]: Don’t you think academic writing is sometimes boring and sometimes way too impenetrable? Come on, be honest! I’ve studied lying and deception, after all!

Given my teaching, and my aim to communicate outside academia, it is really important to me that I be able to write and speak to people who are not experts. Having at least one ear on beautiful writing, I try hard to explain myself, so that my audience—live or on the page—is not insulted by an implied value that says some of them aren’t worthy or respected.

I’ve grown to love blogging, and very short messages. Twitter. But of course like all good academics I can go on and on, in an academic vein, when given the proper audience.

And in my spare time (hah!) I do dabble in creative pursuits….

I have a few habits that help me, when I remember them. (I tend to re-learn them a few times each semester) I make my most important project my first priority of every morning; I keep a log; I use the Pomodoro technique to help me focus. I try to exercise and go outside and when I’m really good I stay off the Internet and keep my phone in another room….

[NET]: Thank you very much for your time Susan – is there anything else on your mind? Any other projects you are working on, or plans for the future?

[SB]: First, thank you so much for the tea! It was lovely, fragrant, and just warmed the soul. We should meet again soon. Conviviality is a topic that not only food theorists have addressed; it also has to do with warm social interactions, and we could all use more of that.

Second, my mind is always way too full. But the thing I’m working most directly on right now is a book, the third in my College Trilogy, called Wellbeing, Suffering, and Schooling, in which I address more directly the non-cognitive effects of schooling. I’m looking especially at notions of meaning and alienation, and emotion and affect. I’m maybe halfway through the first and messiest draft, which I’ve been comforted to read about in John McPhee’s new book, Draft No. 4. This prolific writer, who has been teaching writing at Princeton for decades, writes: “You are working on a first draft and small wonder you’re unhappy. If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you ‘just love to write,’ you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?” [2] So maybe I’m not a writer—or maybe thinking I’m not a writer is proof that I am a writer. You’ll have to figure out the truth of that confusing statement.

Third, my responses are far from a blog post! I’ve rambled on, invited by your hospitality and perhaps the hygge nature of this ethnographic nook. I look forward to learning what other guests have to say about our collective obsession, filtered through their own particularities.

Finally, you are a great conversationalist! Thanks for asking such great questions and for listening so carefully. Let’s do it again soon!


[1] Bernstein, Basil. 2001. From Pedagogies to Knowledges. In Ana M Morais, Isabel Neves, Brian Davies, & Harry Daniels (Eds). Towards a Sociology of Pedagogy. The Contribution of Basil Bernstein to Research (pp. 363-368). New York: Peter Lang.

[2] McPhee, John. 2017. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 158.


Workshop report and ethnographic volume digest vol. 8

Dear NET members and ethnographic theory aficionados,

We are happy to report that the NET-organised workshop “Fakery, Insincerity and the Anthropology of Humbuggery” has successfully taken place in Capri, Italy, on 7-10 September. The workshop comprised of sixteen thought-provoking papers focusing on themes such as fakery, deception, lying, conspiracy theory, deceit and bullshit. Over the next few weeks we will be posting interviews with participants of the workshop, talking about the workshop themes as well as their work. We would once again like to thank The Wenner-Gren Foundation, the European Association of Social Anthropologists, the University of Manchester, and the Society for Ethnographic Theory for funding and hence making possible this workshop.

We are also happy to provide you with another version of our digest, which rounds up the best ethnographic-theory related material from the anthro-internets.

  1. HAU has had a busy couple of months, full of activities and releases. On Friday, October 13th it organised the Inaugural Levi-Strauss Lecture in collaboration with Revue l’Homme. The first speaker of this series was Aparecida Vilaça and her lecture was entitled “The devil and the secret life of numbers. Transformations and translations in the Amazon.” A video of the lecture can be found on HAU’s Facebook page. HAU Books has also released two more volumes of its Malinowski Monographs Series: Andrew Irving’s The Art of Life and Death, and Matthew Carrey’s Mistrust.
  2. History and Anthropology Newsletter (HAN) continues its resurrection with an open-access special section entitled “Fields, Furrows and Landmarks in the History of Anthropology,” which includes contributions by the likes of Marilyn Strathern and James Clifford.
  3. Moreover, the latest issue of History and Anthropology has an important debate on Jonathan Parry’s seminal article “The Indian Gift.” The debate is free to access and includes Andrew Sanchez, James Carrier, Chris Gregory, James Laidlaw, Marilyn Strathern, Yunxiang Yan and Jonathan Parry.
  4. Anthropology of This Century has released another quality issue full of interesting book reviews and a featured article.
  5. DID YOU KNOW: The University of Helsinki department of anthropology makes recording of its visiting seminar series available online. Here’s Birgit Meyer’s lecture from last May, entitled “Image Wars in Past and Present.”



Workshop announcement

The Network of Ethnographic Theory, with the kind support of The Wenner-Gren Foundation, the European Association of Social Anthropologists, the University of Manchester and the Society of Ethnographic Theory, is pleased to announce a workshop on Fakery, Insincerity, and the Anthropology of Humbuggery.

The workshop will take place in Capri, on Sept. 7-10 2017. Attendance is restricted to participants.



Ethnographic theory digest vol. 7 (also, some workshop news)

Dear NET members and ethnographic theory aficionados,

We are happy to provide you with another version of another volume of our digest, as well as some news of  a workshop NET is co-organising in September 2017.

1. New, open-access issue of Anthropology of This Century, which also includes an interview with Janet Carsten.

2. “Why was Clifford Geertz such a popular anthropologist?” The start of an interesting post on the legacy of Geertz by Savage Mind’s Rex.

3. New, open-access issue of Suomen-Anthropologi, which also includes a lecture and interview with Anna Tsing.

4. New, open-access issue of HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. As always it contains an abundance of first-rate scholarship, including a much discussed debate on the place of ethnography in anthropology.

5. Cultures of Energy podcast with Alexei Yurchak who among other topics talks about his current research on Russian scientists trying to preserve Lenin’s body.


September workshop

We are happy to announce that NET is co-organising a workshop with HAU/The Society of Ethnographic Theory to take place 7-10 September, 2017 in Capri Island, Italy. We are thankful to the Wenner-Gren Foundation, EASA and the University of Manchester for their funding in facilitating the workshop.

The workshop will be convened by Giovanni da Col (SOAS) and Theodoros Kyriakides (Manchester), and includes the participation of Susan D. Blum (Notre Dame), Harri Englund (Cambridge), Niloofar Haeri (Johns Hopkins), Michael Herzfeld (Harvard), Angelique Haugerud (Rutgers), David Henig (Kent), John L. Jackson (Upenn), Michael Lambek (Toronto),  Rena Lederman (Princeton), Sasha Newell (Université Libre de Bruxelles), Sherry Ortner (UCLA), Andrew Shryock (Michigan), Carlos Londoño Sulkin (U of Regina), Madeleine Reeves (Manchester), Angela Reyes (Hunter College, CUNY) and Alexei Yurchak (UC Berkeley).

We will be making available more information in the coming months.

We hope this finds you well and enjoying the end of the academic year.


Ethnographic theory digest vol. 6

Dear NET members and ethnographic theory enthusiasts,

We are happy to provide you with our sixth version of our ethnographic theory digest, bringing you a collection of interesting links, publications and resources from the anthro-internets.

  1. The Distributed Text: An Annotated Digital Edition of Franz Boas’s Pioneering Ethnography. An interactive prototype of Franz Boas’ seminal The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians. The original 1895 text is also available on
  2. Fields, Furrows, and Landmarks in History of Anthropology. History and Anthropology has resurrected its newsletter and has invited a series of notable scholars to reflect on the journal’s rich past and future.
  3. New open access issue on the theme of “ritual intimacy” by Suomen Anthropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society. The issue also include an interview with Maurice Bloch.
  4. 70 (or so) Essential Books in Anthropology. AllegraLab asked its readers what they consider to be the most important books in the history of anthropology, and here are the results.
  5. [VIDEO]: A November 2016 lecture by Philippe Descola: “Écologie et anthropologie : Pour une science systémique de l’homme.”

Ethnographic theory digest Vol. 5

Dear NET members,

We are happy to present you with another version of the ethnographic theory digest from around the anthro-internets.

  1. The latest issue of History and Anthropology includes “Marshalling Sahlins” – Michael Lambek’s review of Golub, Rosenblatt and Kelly’s (eds.) The Thought and Influence of Marshall Sahlins.
  2. The Times Literary Supplement has a review by Max Hayward entitled “Philosophy vs. Ethics,” which also addresses Webb Keane’s Ethical Life.
  3. An article by Roberte Hamayon in The Conversation, exploring the relevance of shamanism in today’s world (in French).
  4. Via Jonathan Goodwin, an astounding co-citation network graph of American AnthropologistCultural AnthropologyAmerican Ethnologist and The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.
  5. “Notes on a Balinese Cockfight” and Donald Trump – part of Somatosphere’s Aftermath series of posts.
  6. EVENT: The State We’re In: Anthropological Perspectives on Brexit and Trump – Debate at UCL Anthropology on March 15th.

On another note, we are busy at work organising a NET event for this summer/early fall – details are yet to be finalised but we will hopefully be able to provide information next month.

In the meantime, we hope this finds you well and hard at thought!

Ethnographic theory digest vol. 4

We are happy to provide you with our 4th curated edition of the ethnographic theory digest, containing journal releases from the anthro-internets.

  1. The Journal for the Study of Religious Experienceis a relatively new endeavour, and has released its second issue. The journal is open access and provides interesting articles at the intersection of anthropology and religious studies.
  2. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theoryhas released a new issue and, as always, it is a treat! This issue marks HAU’s 5th year anniversary since it situated itself as the foremost journal of ethnographic theory, and we wish it 100+ years more.
  3. In case you missed it, Philippe Descola’s replyto Tim Ingold’s review of his Beyond Nature and Culture, published in Anthropological Forum.
  4. Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Societylikewise has a new open-access issue out.
  5. In case you missed it, Somatosphere has a call for submissions on its new series called Aftermath – “a new series examining the consequences of recent nationalist political turns throughout the world, including the US election.”

Last but not least, we would like to inform you that NET convenor Susana de Matos Viegas is running in the next EASA executive election! Information about the upcoming election can be be found at

A belated Happy New Year to all of you! As convenors of NET we aim for 2017 to be a year through which our network grows and further clarifies its mission of providing a platform to enrich ethnographic theory.

Best wishes,
Theo and Susana

(NET convenors)