I is for…Interpretive Anthropology!

I got back from Japan on Saturday! Woohoo! This is the worst jet lag I’ve ever experienced but I’d like to note that it is still technically Monday in Arizona (where I now am) so this post is totally on time.

While this will be a short post, today’s topic is related to cultural relativism and a few other posts coming up later in the month.

Without further ado…I is for Interpretive Anthropology!

Interpretative anthropology is a perspective developed by Clifford Geertz as a response to the existing methodology behind ethnographic writing at the time. This new perspective seeks to understand a culture through the actors within it (the people of that culture) as opposed to an outsider looking in–the prevailing method before Geertz came on the scene.

One of the key points of interpretative anthropology is deep participation in the culture, a concept first proposed by Franz Boas, the father of anthropology. Participant-observation puts the anthropologist in the culture with the people they are writing about and allows for understanding both from the people of the culture itself and from experiencing that culture.

When I went to Japan, I was intent on being a participant-observer where appropriate (we visited a lot of shrines so I did refrain from participating in some things).

Mostly I tried new foods and walked everywhere

^ That plate is way bigger than it looks, by the way. I shared that sushi with 4 other people!

How does this relate to writing? Isn’t it obvious? Worldbuilding! Writers need to understand the culture they are creating through the lens of the characters experiencing it! A key element in SAAFire’s world is a religious system that is heavily integrated into my characters’ daily lives (with varying degrees of devotion). If I don’t understand how my characters experience this crucial but subtle aspect of their lives from their perspective, I can’t accurately relay it to the reader.

So develop some interpretive anthropology for your own work and get to know your culture through your characters’ eyes. You may find your world, your people, and your writing enriched.


Author: V. Kane

I write YA fantasy, blog about it, and then take my dog out for therapy. My current manuscript is ANATHEMA, a story of two sisters caught up in a war between the gods. Find me on Twitter at @ValkyrieWriting or Instagram at books_and_dogs

3 thoughts

  1. I always wonder whether ‘understanding’ a culture from within is ever possible… unless that’s yoru culture. Sure, you can experience, you can even intellectually understand and some aspcet you can go as far as sharing. But I think there will always be a cultural barrier somewhere. And I think that’s right, because we are all cultural animals. We need to be open and understanding, but we also need to be aware of our own culture.

    I had one such experience with my current WIP. The story is set in Chicago in 1926 (so there is all that part of worldbuilding and cultural understanding), but my two main characters are Lakota.
    I did extencive research on books about Indian cultures in general and Lakota culture in particular. Then one day, I had the incredible luck to meet a fellow writer on an online workshop who is Mohawk. She agreed to help me with my research and in developing my two characters as Indians.
    I can tell that some things you only understand if you experience. There are things I assimilated, without even being aware of it, by simply talking to my friend. My two characters would be very different if I hadn’t met her. But still I know that I can only hope to achieve any kind of realistic portrayal because I can rely on her. Because I take my own culture for granted, there are always things I don’t even think about questioning.

    Ah, can I tell you something that has nothing to do with the Indian culture, but still it was one of those things that belong to culture and you never think about?
    I’m Italian, I live in Italy. My Mohawk friend lives in Boston. She read my entire first novel when I finished it.
    My main characters live in an appartment on street level. Here in Europe we call that ‘ground floor’. Never occured to me someone else would call it a different way. That’s simply how you call that level of the house for me. But when my friend read the book she told me, “Sarah, the ground floor dosn’t exist in America. That’s the ‘first’ floor.”
    This is the kind of details you don’t learn on books. It certainly is the kind of things you learn if you experience the culture for a long time, but I think there is always something like this you simply don’t get to experience. Or you don’t get to notice. If my family had lived on the second floor, my friend wouldn’t have commented on that, and still I and she would have thought to two different things.

    Culture is the most odd of things… but so fascinating 🙂

    The Old Shelter – Jazz Age Jazz

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! That’s why I prefer to travel to or know someone from the settings that I’m using–even though my stories are set far in the future. The devil’s in the details, right? It’s even more confusing when you find out that, sometimes, the ground floor does exist in America. 😉


  2. That sashimi looks AMAZING. I am ashamed to admit I could probably polish most of it off myself! Yum.

    Now I want sushi. One of the craziest things about the A to Z challenge is how many different foods it makes me crave!

    A Bit to Read


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