Flawed Classics

‘No matter what you do, you should never stop reading. You must always read, read, and read…’ The words of an influential mentor still ring true years later. I have been afforded the opportunity to live up to his counsel as a Junior Research Fellow in Christ Church. With no administrative nor teaching duties, I spend most of my waking hours living as close as I can to a life of reading, reading, and reading, with the occasional writing – a privilege which even senior colleagues in Oxford envy, seeing as they remain mired in all-too-mundane faculty meetings, essay marks, and grant deadlines.

The distance between work and leisure slowly wanes under these circumstances, as I tend to read out of pleasure and academic interest all the time. Some books are still more enjoyable than others. I am personally fond of reading classical ethnographies, a genre with which I have long been acquainted as a social anthropologist. Students of anthropology are not interested in the tradition of ethnographic writing as much as they are in reading about the contemporary world and its peoples. There is no reason to believe that it was ever otherwise. ‘Ethnography’ is, after all, a form of ‘writing about people’ in an etymological sense, and it is the thrill of reading about the world’s customs and cultures that attracts readers, not the classics per se. Yet there are rich lessons to be learned from reading classical ethnographies, not to mention their peculiar entertainment value.

A personal favourite is Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946). This is an extremely controversial book, seeing as Benedict makes broad-brushed claims about the Japanese ‘cultural personality’ without ever having been to Japan. The book is based on materials she collected on imperial Japan while working in the United States Office of War Information during the Second World War. Benedict’s book was long received as an authentic account of Japanese culture in academic circles. Nowadays, it is known as an ideological document generalizing the views of specific Japanese groups at a specific historical juncture to the entire nation. Benedict’s purpose seems to have been more about presenting recommendations to the post-war US government about ways of pacifying the defeated empire than about creating an empirically accurate picture of Japanese society.

Why read this flawed classic? Benedict’s book is a reminder that all accounts of the world’s peoples and their cultures, no matter how well-written, are still partial and prone to the ideological vicissitudes of their author. This is how I read other classics like E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s inescapable The Nuer (1940) or Godfrey Lienhardt’s Divinity and Experience (1961), which would be entertaining reads were it not for their authors’ commitment to erase their involvement in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan’s colonial politics and the way in which their accounts overlooked – if not implicitly justified – British imperial policy. The entanglement of politics and scholarship comes again to the fore, but we can become sensitized to this ideological imbrication by trying to read, read, and read some more. 

This article was initially published in 2017 in the “Books without Ending” section of Christ Church Matters, vol. 40, p. 24