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Storytelling, Rouch and the Anthropological Future

Le récit, Rouch, et l’avenir de l’anthropologie
Paul Stoller
p. 368-378


Je partirai ici de la valeur que Jean Rouch prêtait au passé de l’ethnographie pour élaborer une réflexion sur l’avenir de cette dernière. Dans les pages qui suivent, je cherche à savoir comment les nouvelles technologies numériques ont modifié le paysage des modes d’expression de l’anthropologie, et je tente de décrire brièvement l’impact épistémologique des médias sociaux et des technologies visuelles sur la description ethnographique. Pour conclure, je montre en quoi une application numérique, ou un mode de traitement technologique de l’information, est de peu de valeur s’il n’y a pas, d’abord, une histoire à raconter. De la qualité de cette histoire, et Jean Rouch aurait pu y insister, dépend la capacité d’un travail ethnographique à rester ouvert au monde.

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1In 1976, when I first arrived in Niamey, Niger to begin anthropological research among the Songhay people, I took up residence in a small monk-like room at the University of Niamey’s Social Sciences Research Institute. There, I met Nigerien colleagues and arranged for my credentials to be sent to the local administrators who governed the regions where I planned to do fieldwork. While I waited for my colleagues to make these arrangements, I spent time in the library reading hard-to-find historical texts on local societies.

2One morning I noticed a white man sitting alone on a ledge at the edge of the Institute grounds. He was wearing khakis and a light blue shirt, and blue socks which matched the color of his shirt. A blue ascot had been expertly tied around his neck. The man, who had a round face, little hair, and large penetrating blue eyes, smiled at me warmly.

– Hello, he said. Can I help you? Who was this guy who looked so out of place, I wondered.
– I’m a researcher here, I said. I’m waiting for final authorization to go to the bush.
– Are you an anthropologist? he asked.
– I am, I answered.
– Where are you headed?
– Mehanna.
He slapped his hand on his thigh.
– I know Mehanna, he said. I spent time there.
– You did?
– Several years ago. Curiosity finally got the better of me.
– My name is Paul Stoller, I stated. Can I ask your name, Monsieur?
– Of course, he said smiling radiantly. I’m Jean Rouch.
– Oh my God! I exclaimed. Please excuse my impertinence, Monsieur Rouch. I’ve read all your books and I’ve seen many of your films. I hope I haven’t insulted you.
– Not at all, my friend, he responded. From now on, just call me Jean.
– Okay, I said, somewhat flabbergasted.
He asked me to sit next to him. We talked at length about Songhay religion, history and society.

3As lunchtime arrived, Jean Rouch stood up, dusted off his trousers and extended his hand to me. “I enjoyed our conversation very much. I’d rather talk with you than meet an annoying minister for lunch.” He shrugged, and then winked at me: “Paul,” he said, channeling Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

4Over the course of a beautiful friendship spanning almost 30 years, I learned a great deal from Rouch. His very personal and committed model of fieldwork has long guided me as an anthropological scholar – both in Niger where, like Rouch, I learned about sorcery, witchcraft and spirit possession, and in New York City, where I studied how Nigeriens adapt to the cultural challenges of urban life in America. By following his model, I learned that the quality of an ethnographic text or film stems less from the sophistication of a particular research design, theoretical orientation or cinematic gaze, and more from the depth and texture of the ethnographer’s friendships in the field. Do ethnographers have a long history with the people they want to represent? Is there a deep sense of mutual respect between those who write or film and those who are depicted in texts or on the screen? For Rouch, and for me, these are the questions that shape the quality of textual and visual ethnographic representation.

5In this essay, I intend to use Rouch’s valorization of the ethnographic past in order to think about the ethnographic future. In our long-running conversations, Rouch often tapped into the wisdom of the Songhay and Dogon peoples, remembering the past in order to concentrate on the future. In all of these discussions we never lost sight of the story – the narrative thread that connects past, present and future. In his incomparable novel about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien wrote: “Stories are for those late hours of the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for an eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story” (1990: 36).

6In the following pages, I explore how new digital technologies have altered the landscape of anthropological expression. I will attempt to briefly describe the epistemological impact of social media and visual technologies on ethnographic description. Finally, I will suggest that the complexity of a digital application or a technological treatment is of limited value if there is no story to be told. It is the quality of the story, as Rouch might have argued, that determines whether an ethnographic work will remain open to the world.

7So much has changed. We now live in digital times, in which electronic connectedness increasingly defines the shape and texture of human relationships. Forty years ago, when I wrote and defended my dissertation, most graduate students used IBM electric typewriters to compose their theses. Furthermore, the end product had to conform to a standard template. Indeed, one of the most feared people at the University of Texas at Austin, where I pursued graduate studies in social anthropology, was the guardian of that template, a woman who worked in the graduate school office. Having laboriously produced a putatively error-free, fully edited 300-page document, I presented it to her with great trepidation. She took hold of my dissertation, gave me a steely-eyed stare and vowed to look at all the pages to see if they conformed to the strictly enforced representational criteria. If a sentence was one or two characters too long, she informed me, the offending page or pages would have to be re-typed. If there were glaring misspellings or word omissions then they, too, would have to be corrected – sometimes with a mysterious fluid called whiteout. If whiteout proved to be too messy, as was often the case, then the page or pages, depending on the location of the error, would also have to be retyped. Given the privations of these representational conditions, it is a wonder that scholars and graduate students somehow managed to produce doctoral theses, journal articles and books.

8Scholars have long assumed a direct relationship between technological innovation and social change. The invention of the printing press helped to propel the vulgarization of national languages (English, French, German), a development that eventually challenged Latin as the language of scholarship. The inventions of the telescope and the microscope refined the scientific method and thus deepened our knowledge of the outer workings of the cosmos and the inner workings of the human body. These innovations contributed to the Copernican Revolution, as well as the germ theory of disease. The introduction of the steam engine, the telegraph, the telephone, the automobile, and of course the airplane, each added new dimensions to our social relations and re-shaped our social institutions – the family, the community, the state, the international order.

9The same might be said of the impact of digital technologies on our social lives. Scholars have written a number of works about how digital technologies have shaped our evolutionary development, our brain wiring, our capacity to remember, our ability to think and learn, and our personal and social behavior. This new literature is vast and it is not my intention to review it in this essay. In much of this literature, though, scholars have attempted to predict how digital technologies might shape our future (see Carr 2011, Gladwell 2008, Griffiths 1998, Castells 2009, Keen 2012 and Rettberg 2014).

10In the conclusion of his highly readable book, The Digital Turn: How the Internet Transforms our Existence, Wim Westera wrote:

We have to accept that digital media irreversibly change our habitat. They create new extensions of reality, along with new representations, altered identities, and new forms of being. How should we deal with this? Negation is not an option since it requires us to exclude ourselves from the core of society’s processes.
Unconcerned adoption is likewise hazardous because of misconceptions, improper expectations, and unclear risks. We may easily lose ourselves in the illusions of the virtual realm.
The only option is to become media literate. We should involve our unique cognitive abilities to remain in control of it, just as we successfully defeated our predators and survived disasters and other adversities. We should all possess true and deep understanding of the risks associated with the media that confront us (Westera 2013: 251).

Westera goes on to suggest that...

Essentially, media literacy is not so much about media. It is about the ways we interact with media and derive meaning from it. The ultimate consequences of the mirror metaphor of media is that the complexity of media reflects of the complexity of our selves. By understanding media, we will get to know ourselves (Ibid: 253).

11As I’ve attempted to show through my blogs for The Huffington Post, blogging is central to the evolution and future of social media, but it is not the only medium of future anthropological expression. In the twenty-first century, anthropologists will have a wide choice of media to communicate culture in the public sphere. In addition to blogging, these include narrative ethnography, fiction, ethnographic film, drama, poetry, and multi-media art and museum installations.

Narrative Ethnography

12Although many anthropologists continue to communicate culture through the increasingly anachronistic academic essay, anthropology’s gift to the world continues to be published ethnography. In truth, many of these bloodless texts are esoteric works of limited appeal. When an ethnographic text works, however, it can be magical, for it can sensuously connect readers to a place and its people. In these relatively rare ethnographic works, the writer crafts a work in which the world of other peoples explodes from pages that feature laboriously crafted dialogue, as well as the sensuous evocation of place and character. These texts, which foreground narrative, are works that are attractive to readers – not to mention publishers who are eager to bring to life books that have legs, books that will powerfully communicate culture well into the twenty-first century (see Vitebsky 2004; Narayan 1989; Behar 2011; Stoller 2002, 2014b; Jackson 2004; and Allen 2012, among many others).


13Fiction and narrative ethnography share many features. In both fiction and narrative ethnography, writers strive to evoke place and space, and thus to create a feel for a location. In both fiction and narrative ethnography, authors attempt to develop a sense of character. What is distinctive about particular characters? Is it the way they walk, a particular facial expression, the way they comport themselves? Is it the way they talk to others? These features contribute to a work’s appeal, compelling readers to turn the page.

14Of course, there are differences between ethnography and fiction. In contrast to ethnography, fiction writers can manipulate both the dialogue and the story to build plot. They can also write inner dialogue, expressions of a character’s silent thoughts and desires. Fiction writers use these techniques to grab the reader, holding their attention in a grip that, if well done, is not released until the end of the work. Fiction writers who use ethnographic knowledge to recount a story can use this highly attractive and well-read genre to communicate culture to a wide audience of readers. Although scholars have long predicted the end of the novel, it is still with us and is likely to remain a force for cultural storytelling well into the future (see Jackson 1986; Narayan 1994; and Stoller 1999, 2005, 2016, among many others).

Ethnographic Film/Video

15The late, great Rouch liked to extol the virtues of ethnographic film. During a trip from Niamey in Niger to Accra in Ghana, he hung a copy of his book on the Songhay-Zarma migrations to Ghana – part of his doctoral dissertation – from the rear-view mirror of his car.

16How many of the subjects of that study would read this book, he wondered. Not many, but if those same subjects saw his classic work, Les Maîtres fous (1955), they would immediate understand the language of film. In this way, he would often argue, anthropological insights on colonialism, racism, migration, nationalism and the construction of identity could reach a large and varied audience. Film would thus describe difference that would make a difference in the world of policy and politics. Film, then, was a strong and important element in the twentieth-century practice of public anthropology (see Rouch 1955, Stoller 1992).

17In the digital age, film and video form an integral part of social media. Given the small size and reasonable costs of video cameras and the accessibility of high-quality editing software, it has never been easier and more cost-effective to make visual works. Furthermore, contemporary filmmakers can easily upload their trailers and finished works onto Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo, three platforms that enable the wide circulation of filmic material that represents anthropologically important subjects.


18Drama is an effective way to present ethnographic research to the public. It is exceedingly difficult to write dialogue, let alone produce a work in which dialogue is the only vehicle of plot and drama. One recent example of anthropologically contoured drama is The Man Who Almost Killed Himself, a play directed by Josh Azouz and based upon Andrew Irving’s anthropological research in Uganda and New York City (see Irving 2007, 2011).

19These, of course, are serious anthropological themes. All of us experience a cultural confrontation with mortality and all of us engage in interior dialogue through which we think our private thoughts. Such existential elements are ripe for transformation into a dramatic narrative with wide appeal.

20The titular character of The Man Who Almost Killed Himself is a Ugandan who repeatedly tries to kill himself, but never succeeds. Each time the protagonist attempts suicide, he is undermined by a 5000-year-old god, who cheerfully finds ways for The Man Who Almost Kills Himself to remain among the living. “The Man Who Almost Killed Himself,” writes theater critic Andy Currams, “is a fascinating and funny journey through the cultural and political recent history of Uganda and Africa – a history that still sends ripples through to the modern day” (Review of The Man Who Couldn’t Kill Himself,, 9 August 2014).

21The play premiered at the Edinburgh Festival, 7-11 August 2014; it was broadcast on BBC Arts on 10 August 2014, and it featured at Odeon Cinemas on 11 August 2014. It demonstrates the drama of ethnographic realities and the potential of theater to bring anthropological insights on race, diversity, health and illness and religion to much larger and more diverse audiences.


22Many anthropologists have written poetry. Some of great anthropological pioneers, like Ruth Benedict and Edward Sapir, published poetry. The tradition continues into the present with exemplary works by Ruth Behar, Dennis Tedlock, Melissa Cahnman-Taylor, Lila Abu-Lughod, Jerome Rothenberg, Valentine Daniel, Adrie Kusserow, Michael Jackson, Renato Rosaldo and Noni Stone. What is it about poetry that captures the ethnographic imagination?

23On several occasions, I have had the privilege of hearing anthropologist-poet Renato Rosaldo read his poetry aloud. Speaking softly and reading with quiet emotion, Rosaldo’s dignified presence gave powerful substance to his words, creating a palpable connection with his audience. Consider this short poem and how powerfully it speaks to the sensuous ethnographic realities of the Philippines in 1981, the place and time where Rosaldo and his late wife Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo conducted fieldwork.

No Swimmer
The river turns brown,
swells, churns, rises, slants.
No raft rides its surface
no swimmer dares its current.
On high ground men and women teeter
as if on a precipice.
Persistent rumors,
Soldiers at checkpoints torture suspects
bodies mutilated bullet riddled
(Rosaldo 2014: 43)

24Consider what Rosaldo writes about the work of poetry:

The work of poetry, as I practice it, is to bring its subject – whether pain, sorrow, shock, or joy – home to the readers. It is not an ornament; it does not make things pretty. Nor does it shy away from agony and distress. Instead it brings things closer, or into focus, or makes them palpable. It slows the action, the course of events, to reveal depth of feeling and to explore its character. It is a place to dwell and savor more than a space for quick assessment (ibid. 105).

25Poetry, then, is a powerfully heart-felt practice that leads us toward a bright anthropological future.

Multi-Media Art Installations

26The advent of ethnographically-inspired multi-media art installations is an important new development in human sciences. Multi-disciplinary collaborative teams are creating works that fuse art and social science to create multi-sensorial and multi-disciplinary installations. Such work has contributed profoundly to a more public anthropology, in which scholarly insights about the human condition are powerfully and intelligently communicated to the general public. In these troubled times, there is no more important mission for scholars in the social sciences and humanities. The Ethnographic Terminalia (ET) (2009-2015) is a case in point. It has changed anthropological priorities and deepened our ethnographic sensitivities.

27In the academy, we stand at a threshold. How and why will scholars adapt their practices in light of the expanding digital realities of the twenty-first century? That which was separate in the past (arts and humanities; social and natural science) can now be productively and imaginatively integrated. Artistic works can be linked electronically to textual passages in electronic platforms, creating spaces of sensory integration, design creativity and evocative power. In the twenty-first century, can we say that it is sufficient to limit social science practice to protocols of standard observation, data collection, and induction, all leading to objective and dispassionate theorization in academic texts? The academic monograph remains an important measure of scholarly evaluation.

28Even so, in a digitally integrated world, as I have attempted to show in this essay, other forms of representation (memoir, blogs, fiction, poetry, film/video, soundscapes and multi-media installations) that fuse the power of the arts and the social sciences are becoming increasingly important in the twenty-first century academy. For seven years ET has playfully explored “reflexivity and postionality...” asking “what lies beyond disciplinary territories. No longer content to subordinate the sensorium to theoretical and expository monographs, ET is a curatorial collective motivated by possibilities of new media, locations, and methods” (Ethnographic Terminalia Collective 2009). In all ET installations, the curatorial collective suggests that “the terminus” is the end, the boundary, and the border. It is also a beginning, its own place, a site of experience and encounter. Ethnographic Terminalia exhibits new forms of anthropology engaged with contemporary art practice” (ibid.).

29To glimpse the power and importance of ET’s work, consider the 2014 installation entitled The Bureau of Memories: Archives and Ephemera, which focused on an important anthropological and historical subject of study: the nature of memory. How do we remember the past? Is there a tactile dimension to historical experience? Indeed, for many peoples in the world, history has a powerful tactile dimension. In my review of that exhibit, I wrote: “With its inclusively tactile and multi-sensorial dimensions, the exhibition demonstrates the central importance of a new wave of anthropological expression, an articulation that fuses past and present, and here and there. In short, The Bureau of Memories invites us to glimpse into the future and provides a much-appreciated tonic for our discipline” (Stoller 2014a).

30Amid all the discussions about world-making, anthropologies of the unknown, and the impact of digital technologies on the future representation of social worlds, there is one central theme that should not be overlooked or underestimated: the profound importance of stories and storytelling. In the 1980s, I had the rare privilege of attending film screenings in Rouch’s makeshift projection room above his office in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. Rouch would routinely gather an eclectic group of people to chime in on a film’s strengths and weaknesses. During those sessions, Rouch would invariably ask about the narrative character of the film:

– Is the story a good one? Does it work?
– Will the story connect with the audience?
– If the story doesn’t work, can it better be imagined?

31For me, our capacity to imagine, create, anticipate and speculate about the social world emerges from one central source: the story. Does the narrative inspire? Does it make us think new thoughts and feel new feelings? Does it connect with the public and compel people to imagine the future?

32Rouch’s questions are vitally important in an emerging post-textual world of representation. Can we find stories in sensuously contoured photographs, soundscapes, films, poetry, and blogs? Can we find them embedded in installations like ET? Do those stories establish links between the artist-anthropologist and her or his audience?

33These are exciting times in the academy, with new electronic platforms, digital innovations, and evolving forms of scholarly and artistic representation. In the passion of the representational moment, however, it is easy to forget Rouch’s central question.

Where is the story?

34No matter what the representational format, no matter what the platform, no matter what the multi-sensorial sophistication of the representational design – if there is no story, what is there?

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Paul Stoller

West Chester university

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