Academic and Literary writing
(leading on from Anthropology)

Much is written about writing in a neutral academic style and avoiding use of the first person. However, this is based on a philosophy of access to rational truth beyond human emotion, beyond literature, and through a cool weighing up of the arguments. Yet one essay and one dissertaion is different from the other, and not just because each covers a different aspect of a subject area. It is because they are always human constructions, and subjective choices are made all the time. The reader may prefer to look at the diagrammatic mind map first of some of these issues.


Parallels between academic writing, literature and narrative are perhaps realised the most in anthropology (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 236-245; 283-290; 294-303) but this discussion extends to academic writing (wherever essay forms are used) as a whole.

To what extent this extension is legitimate is left to the reader. I obviously think it is. But there are special cirmstances about anthropology which should be mentioned.

Anthropology is about fieldworkers who write notes on culture, meaning and behaviour of people, and their own interpretive stories of their lives, and then these notes are given to a writer or writers who may be one or some or none of the fieldworkers (the classic example - stereotype? - is the anthropologist who sits at the desk after the notes have been collected in! The writer then constructs these into an account which s/he intends to represent a picture of that microcosm of society and culture. This is different from the sociologist who is more concerned with:

...'social order': that is with pattern, structure, regularity in human affairs, and all kinds of devices that bring them about and protect - that make or would make various human beings behave alike and in a predictable manner. (Bauman, 2000, 71)

Furthermore anthropology is closer to the subjects of study than the classical sociologist, "looking beyond the realm of subjectively lived experience" (Bauman, 2000, 72). For the anthropologist:

Every observer should ruthlessly banish from his work conjecture, preconceived assumptions and hypothetical schemes but not theory.

Modern fieldwork thus regards a theory as purely empirical, never going beyond inductive evidence... (Malinowski, 1936, in Coser, Rosenberg, 1976, 511)

Generally description and interpretation has won the day, given that it is individuals who think, not abstractions (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 309) with essaying forms, still attempting to give an account of culture. So obviously anthropology leads itself to parallels with literary construction and narratives, and does this because it is the closest to the humanities and arts of social science and brings humanities and the arts closest to social science. It has had a "literary turn" (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 236, 300)

However, anthropology is still an academic discipline and shares what much academic work stresses (see Rapport, Overing, 2000, 283):

But equally, and opposite, all academic writing is still an attempt to make sense of narratives we live by, set into subjects, even if it turns them into forms of concepts and extractions.

The same issue has to be faced by all adademic writing: how much can it be a neutral space, in the way that anthropology has lost confidence in being a "transcontinental mediator or transcultural theoretician" (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 237) How much is academic writing a construction in itself?

So the assumption is that all academic writing is involved in dealing with the narrative of life, and all writing is itself a narrative - essays, dissertations and theses with beginnings, middles and ends according to preset rules not of the world but of the particular academic discipline. So there are two narrative layers, the world, and the construction of writing.

Narrative gives order via time, real or imaginary, representational or simply by reading from the beginning, and narrative counteracts (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 284):

Social narratives are delivered within groups which bind us and by collective language (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 285-288). We are all members of groups. Even the hermit defines his or her activity by prelaid experience of that group of people doing actions based in religious institutions! Groups can be the grouping of nations, nations, organisations, religions and denominations, the business company and the club. Group membership:

There are individuals engaged in narratives too (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 288-289). We are critical, creative and can stand at an interpretive distance from social narratives. But even then we maintain conscious lives through our own constructed narrative, creating selves out of understanding time as history and future, building identity through relations and possessions all of which mean something to us. How much distance we can create for ourselves depends, of course, on the power of social and cultural narratives.

So cultures, soceties and individuals engage in narrative. So does the academic in these two ways: by representing culture and society and in the act of writing an account of culture and society. Having a narrative (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 284):

It is the increasing self-awareness of the act of writing that has come to the fore most recently. Writing involves an attempt at consistency and is necessarily artificial regarding the account it gives. To give one account excludes another. And this further raises questions of exercising and transmitting (whose) power by the academic.

We understand our lives as economic entities, getting a job, building careers, being told what to do, describing ourselves as our job/s, being successes and failures, not scrounging, being legitimate workers and so on. TINA (there is no alternative) looms large, and gives ways of exercising power. The academic should be aware that consistent writing that gives this narrow line is a transmitter of agents of power and control.

It becomes important, then, to seek out other narratives. There are, of course, several narratives in societies and cultures at different levels, and we may make multiple personalities of these, according to whom we display ourselves at any one time. We relate our individuality to existing historical narratives, ethnic narratives, economic narratives, religions and their sacred rituals (narratives in themselves), gossip, biographies and novels. An academic almost has a duty to make space for difference. Writing has to become about anti-power, not simply continuing what is the given condition.

Academics become increasingly aware that their writing is Western in its bias, that there is no neutral disinterested standpoint, and that academic writing cannot be mediative or transcultural. A kind of Habermas argument that the academic stands above interests and the lifeworld so that pure unadulterated conversational rationality finds truth is simply impossible.

To lose its oppressive nature, writing has to consider access to interpretive pluralism, using the available sources of stories. Ricoeur (Kearney, 1996) has an ethical programme of "narrative hospitality" (also Rapport, Overing, 2000, 289-290) where different groups with different self-indentifying stories exchange them and may even take on parts of the others' for their own. This is an activity in itself for its reason of understanding and creating freedom in spaces.

To state that academic writing is simply based in argument and not narrative is to risk being lost inside Western cultural assumptions and ignoring the narrative of the status quo. This is (compare with Rapport, Overing, 2000, 238):

Argument as it is presented is then a form of Western narrative, and argument itself as a process needs to be deconstructed. Argument made down one path is a different process of becoming than argument made down another. It is construction and narrative.

Here is an example. When two historians disagree, what are they doing? Do they even recall the same historical events? What were these events and how does each become to be known as an event? Some events are ignored, others selected, and others made into significant events. Then how they are interpreted and seen to be causal, how the minds of actors may be summised, is how the historian does the writing. In the end the writing is a narrative, because it gives a most likely account of the series of events.

Sociologists have their own hypotheses, or ideal type extractions, or approaches from above (structure), or below (interaction), or a mixture. They create causal chains and see certain facts and happenings as social, into which the individual fits and operates. But an account of this, however argued, is still a form of narrative.

The economist assumes a rational person and creates models of behaviour. The model is a given, and predictions can be made. The predictions have to be related to real people. Some models because of their assumptions are useless in terms of predictors of the behaviour of real people, but others do take into account many variables. But in the end an account of the past and the present and the future is made, and it is meaningful by being time based and understanding cultural facts and extractions (eg market behaviour) that the economist makes as givens. The result is still a narrative, but one that is not admitted to be a story.

So academic writing comes close to being literary, because both literature and academia are involved in constructing narratives and stories of our lives.

The question revolves around the authenticity of academic writing. Based on argument, seeing that argument is selective, a game and its own form of literature, there seems to be a need to borrow from literary genres for added authenticity. This can come from first person experience, showing self-consciousness about the writing itself, playing with words and being rhetorical, and use of (referenced!) verbatim text. The important point is to give expression that there is no final word being expressed on the subject; that this is part of dialogue and collaboration with related texts. Academic text is an art too, and needs to relate to other genres and negotiate with other writings and writing styles for the means of expressing its message.

Of course many academics object to this both philosophically and as a kind of denial of their trade. It is an attackon their tradition, ideology, training and prestige. To focus on the act of writing is a deviation from the business at hand: it is navel gazing narcissm and time wasting decadence (239).

Furthermore there is a difference between literature which, whatever is the social research involved, is ultimately about what is not, and academic writing which, whatever literary is employed, is about what is. In literature the idea comes first and reality is subservient, whereas in academic writing reality must dominate over the subservient idea. Literature must be ultimately self-concerned whereas academic writing reaches out.

Nevertheless, writing is still an act in itself, and it is not what it represents. It is a skill and a construction to produce an essay, dissertation or thesis that is consistent in itself, and this demand naturally parts it from its subject. Academic writing is Western, is of academic traditions, does carry power consequences.

So is academic writing in the end a form of faction? Faction is the use of factual material but put into a fictional construction with embellishments - imaginative writing but real time and real events (Geertz, 1987).

Is this too extreme? Certainly postmodernism brings even further to the fore the parallels between lives lived as narratives and fictions and writing that is its own consistency. The writing process is artificial because lives and ideas are piecemeal, fragmentary and multivarious, with no common underlying thread of meaning (Lyotard, 1986), which the essay construction does have. There are knowledges (plural) without a metanarrative, and we live eclectically (Lyotard, 1986, 76).

Meaning is found in images (based in consumerism) that lacks any depth; these are rapid and shifting. Reality seems lost, and all we have are literary styles. In fact the literary styles and narratives become the reality (Foucault). We do not control them, they come before us, but we move between them. There is no outside them either, we canonly move about as they move about. It is one discourse or others, but never none or some other reality. We exist in speech-cultures (Wittgenstein).

A scientist may well react against this denial of objective knowledge, because of the potency of falisfiabilty (what works as far as we have seen it), but there are other forms of knowledge represented in writing, and in these social sciecnes, anthropology and the arts lies the relevance of the postmodern criticism. If postmodernism is no more than an extreme pluralism (the argument is that in its extremity of pluralism it becomes something else, cuts the cord with even a hope of objectivity), it still has its effect on writing. Writing is a construction, and should be self-critical, and should become more self-consciously plural, more a dialogue between communities, a user of different genres and self-critically open towards the alternatives.

All academic writing is a narrative and should be approached as such. Below there is a mind map which lays out some of these issues diagrammatically. The mind map is given as no more than a prompter of ideas, and comes from extending Rapport and Overing, 2000, as has been done within this text.



Bauman, Z (2000), 'Sociological Enlightenment - For Whom, About What' in Theory, Culture and Society: Explorationsin Critical Social Science, Vol. 17, No.2, April 2000.

Coser, L. A., Rosenberg, B. (1976), Sociological Theory: A Book of Readings, London: Collier Macmillan.

Kearney, R. (ed.) (1996), Paul Ricoeur: the Hermeneutics of Action, London: Sage

Kerby, A. (1991), Narrative and the Self, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Rapport, N., Overing, J. (2000), Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts, London: Routledge.

Malinowski, B. (1936), 'Anthropology', Encyclopedia Britannica, first supplementary volume, 132-139, in Coser, Rosenberg (1976), 511.

The purpose of research in literature is not to transmit the resultant material but to build credibility of characters and situations. For first hand experience and empathy, for historical detail from the old. The more the better grounded is the writing. This means looking and assessing what is going on and being seen to do this. Like academic research it has dangers of affecting the outcome. Usually participant observation, because of the recording afterwards, can be covert or overt. Much covert research does not carry the same moral dilemma as academic work because the result is fictional even if academic source is made anonymous. Books, reports, tapes, videos, Internet... Generate feelings of being alongside the characters. Recognisable situations and environments. The purpose of gaining cultural material is to use it towards another end, to create a separated story. The justification for engaging in research It is legitimate in literature to knowingly deviate from the reality found in research. The writing is more of a narrative than an argument. Argument is secondary if not at all. The flow of meaning derives from the novel not the research There is no moral obligation to accept what does not fit the narrative. The novel and its genre is the most important entity, not the outside world. For the novelist and the reader. In the end, whatever the research and planning, literature is about what is not the case in its quest for fiction. Bases and criticism of authentic writing. Into postmodernism. Authenticity is improved by using the writer's professional experience. Imaginative writing of real people, real time (Geertz, 1987) To declare openly that writing is factional undermines the well entrenched academic genre Whilst the content is claiming to be representational this admittance frees the writer to be creative. Rhetorical artiface takes over Discussions not about anthropology but writing concepts Basis of judging work becomes aesthetic judgements The readbility and reach of academic writing improves when it is a good read like a novel especially as it involves characters, situations, questions and outcomes. Particularly anthropology, sociology, geography (parts) and business (parts) can borrow from travel writing. Memoirs are personal records, and contains a style of writing that can move to the academic for richness and authenticity. Good journalism heavily overlaps with academic writing, and journalists have a punchy style of getting the message across. Academic writing from being a window on the world became aware, through to postmodernism, of itself as a construction and forces writer into dialogue. Attempt to overcome oppressive nature of academic commentary to produce instead a space for many voices. Rather than be oppressive, the writing challenges dominant ideologies through alternative genres. Academic writing becomes a dialogue. Traditional view of academic enterprise Nothing of reality should be excluded for the purpose of the narrative. There is at best a directness between the causalities in the field and the writing in the text. The aim of the writing is to represent what goes on as well as to comment upon it. The writing and its analysis should seek to reflect on a real situation. Unlike the novel, whatever is said about the construction process of writing, the purpose of academic writing is in the end to show what is. The argument must determine the structure of the writing rather than a narrative form. An extraction Momentary - important for subjective analysis Comes from a stock of collective social and cultural symbols Fixed and internally dynamic. The purpose is to represent in words etc. what happens in the world. The method is sought which most clearly brings to the fore an accurate picture of culture and society and causality. For first hand experience and empathy, for historical detail from the old. This means looking and assessing what is going on and being seen to do this. Usually participant observation, because of the recording afterwards, can be covert or overt. Books, reports, tapes, videos, Internet... Shared between academic writing and literture Means of cultural self identification which the writer must use. Classifications are how we list and rank social and cultural facts. Not library classifications but the store of knowledge. Llaws that define who we are and what we do. Ways of story telling/ narrative expression in cultures, also available to writers. institutional make up, the structure gives rise to groups of understanding. Norms are regulators of behaviour and to transgress carries negative consequences. This is how meaning and understadning through narratives regulates itself. Society decides what is and is not pubishable. The market economy has sanctions for failure and rewards for success. Families base morality around fidelity and reproduction, and ties into the political process. Groups of nations, nations, relligions, denominations, social groups, voluntary bodies all exert expectations and limits. Each individual is their own entity part of self-defintion is a conscious remembering and reinventing our autobiographies. We are made up of a complex of borrowed and recreated stories that define us and express who we are. We express our self-definitions outwardly through performance in social spheres. We attempt to create space (particularly need for distance) and use opportunities from oppressive role expectations Deviance is defined as being in a sub-group of meaning at considerable distance and conflict with dominant meaning, but stress on being self for purposes of freedom. Interpretational pluralism, the new stress on many voices. From Ricoeur, 1996 - exchanging narratives in contact. Ethical basis of accepting others' inalienable rights of self-definition. Own stories for self-definition put into public field. Many voices within and without groups, avoiding oppression. Awareness that one narrative created excludes another and therefore attempt must be to overcome this. Doing the writing and representing. Realist novel became a more self-aware modernist text with the narrator entering into dialogue. The academic starts to realise own input into representation. Academic writing and novel seen as both creative processes of self-aware writing, neither of which can claim to represent reality, both of whom contain it in the text. Person in the field, and then the writer. Person who is observant of social reality in creating literature. Person who researches a social situation but finds a narrative to give form to the writing. Awareness of the combination of drawing on social events but the representation involves "telling" a story. Distinct styles of writing developed that seem to suit the nature of the subject area. Good journalism heavily overlaps with academic writing, and journalists have a punchy style of getting the message across. Memoirs are personal records, and contains a style of writing that can move to the academic for richness and authenticity. Particularly anthropology, sociology, geography (parts) and business (parts) can borrow from travel writing. The readbility and reach of academic writing improves when it is a good read like a novel especially as it involves characters, situations, questions and outcomes. Anthropology involves personality give to language in the reconstruction of almost an imagined social world, requiring indivudal creative and linguistic effort. Both the novelist of social situations and the academic produce a writing style as individuals. Academic is visibly creating a piece of work within time and space constraints to be a whole in itself, and the novelist does this. Deadlines involved with publisher and academic institution. All writing is constrained by space - minimum and maximum into which the construction of realities must fit.

Mind Map is a copyright concept of Tony Buzan and the Buzan Organisation