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Navigators of the Contemporary

Why Ethnography Matters

As the image of anthropologists exploring exotic locales and filling in blanks on the map has faded, the idea that cultural anthropology has much to say about the contemporary world has likewise diminished. In an increasingly smaller world, how can anthropology help us to tackle the concerns of a global society? David A. Westbrook argues that the traditional tool of the cultural anthropologist—ethnography—can still function as an intellectually exciting way to understand our interconnected, yet mysterious worlds.

Navigators of the Contemporary describes the changing nature of ethnography as anthropologists use it to analyze places closer to home. Westbrook maintains that a conversational style of ethnography can help us look beyond our assumptions and gain new insight into arenas of contemporary life such as corporations, financial institutions, science, the military, and religion. Westbrook’s witty, absorbing book is a friendly challenge to anthropologists to shed light on the present and join broader streams of intellectual life. And for those outside the discipline, his inspiring vision of ethnography opens up the prospect of understanding our own world in much greater depth.

160 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2008

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

History: General History

Political Science: Political and Social Theory

Sociology: General Sociology


“At face value Navigators of the Contemporary makes a spirited defense of the central ground of cultural anthropology—namely ethnography. But David Westbrook’s compelling book covers a much wider intellectual landscape. Ethnography of the present situation—a re-functioned ethnography as he calls it—proposes for intellectual work generally a series of staged encounters that, when properly navigated, negotiated, evoked, and analyzed, can challenge us to rethink what it means to be critical, political, and imaginative. An ethnographic sensibility allows us to remap, to provide a rather different cartography of modernity, the university, and the intellectual life appropriate to what he calls the contemporary conditions. It is at once provocative, disarming, witty, and infuriating. It is a bit of a feast and a fire-side chat. Above all the book demands a reasoned response—a discussion—and conversation, says Westbrook, stands at the heart of ethnography. Go read it.”

Michael Watts, University of California, Berkeley

“This book is the most convincing rendering of how to be a good anthropologist that I know of. It links the anthropological clearly to the broader intellectual enterprise. It offers up—after a long drought—a vision of anthropology very much of the sort that, in the heyday of Lévi-Strauss, Edmund Leach, and Mary Douglas, attracted me to it as a student. The extraordinary clarity and accessibility of Westbrook’s prose and reasoning are testaments in their very performance to the virtues of his ambitiously broad vision of ethnography. Both stylistically and intellectually, this is a fresh and lovely breeze.”--James D. Faubion, Rice University

James Faubion

“This is a smart, dense, elegant, thoughtful little book.”


Table of Contents


I. Into the Present

     CHAPTER 1. The Venture
     CHAPTER 2. Culture Everywhere and Nowhere
     CHAPTER 3. Conversation as Another Kind of Solution
     CHAPTER 4. This Book and Other Books

II. An Ethnography for Present Situations

     CHAPTER 5. What?
     CHAPTER 6. Where?
     CHAPTER 7. Who?
     CHAPTER 8. When?
     CHAPTER 9. How?
     CHAPTER 10. Why?

III. In the University

     CHAPTER 11. Rupture and Continuity
     CHAPTER 12. Theory
     CHAPTER 13. Fieldwork
     CHAPTER 14. Writing
     CHAPTER 15. One Discipline among Others

IV. In the World

     CHAPTER 16. The Intellectual’s Situation
     CHAPTER 17. The Imaginary and the Political
     CHAPTER 18. Ethnography and the Bureaucratic University
     CHAPTER 19. From Science to Romance
     CHAPTER 20. Reprise

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