David A. Westbrook

Louis A. Del Cotto Professor; Director for Global Strategic Initiatives

Research Focus: Corporations and Finance, International Law and Globalization, Political Economy and Social Theory

Links: Curriculum Vitae (PDF), SSRN, Personal Website

Contact Information

521 O'Brian Hall, North Campus
Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
Phone: 716-645-2073

Faculty Assistant: Reigelman, Jessica

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 present has likewise diminished. How can anthropology help us to tackle the concerns of contemporary global society? David A. Westbrook argues that the traditional tool of the cultural anthropologist– ethnography–still works 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 insights into arenas of contemporary life such as corporations, science, the military, and religion. Westbrook's witty, absorbing book is a friendly challenge to anthropologists to shed light on the present, and for those outside the discipline, his inspiring vision of ethnography opens up the prospect of understanding our own world in much greater depth.

The transition from admiration of the ethnographic method per se to an exploration of multisited fieldwork and the paraethnographic is fluent and often enough brilliant. [Westbrook] understands "the ethnography of present situations as an effort to map contemporary situations (not cultures) through the (always ready ethnographic) imaginations of interlocutors, and as refracted and synthesized by the anthropologist". His version of a "refunctioned ethnography" focuses on situations instead of biographies; his ethnographers are "sailors not settlers" who weave webs of relationships in the form of liaisons. "The point is to understand the situation, not the perspective of this or that individual".
Werner Krauss, American Ethnologist, Vol. 38, No. 1 2011

"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 (Anthropology)

"At face value Navigators of the Contemporary makes a spirited defense of the central ground of cultural anthropology – namely, ethnography. But Westbrook's compelling book covers a much wider intellectual landscape. Ethnography of the present situation – a refunctioned 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 contemporary conditions. It is at once provocative, disarming, witty, and infuriating. It is a bit of a feast and a fireside 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 (Geography)


See also:

Rees, T., "To open up new spaces of thought: anthropology BSC (beyond society and culture)", Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 16: 158–163 (2010).

Dutton, E., Towards a scientific anthropology. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 16: 893–895 (2010).

Rees, T., On the challenge – and the beauty – of (contemporary) anthropological inquiry: a response to Edward Dutton. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 16: 895–900 (2010).

Magnus Fiskesjö, Navigators of the Contemporary: Why Ethnography Matters. By David A. Westbrook. Journal of World History, Volume 21, Number 1, March 2010