Professional empathy: writing and anthropology

author and anthropologist

The incomparable Zora Neale Hurston

Earlier this week, Google celebrated the 125th birthday of Zora Neale Hurston. Best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching G-d (which has one of the most suspenseful and gut-wrenching scenes I’ve ever read), Hurston was also an trained anthropologist. Much of her non-fiction work consists of the retold folktales she uncovered during interviews in the deep south during the Great Depression.

Anthropologists as writers

This got me thinking about the whole issue of writers with training in anthropology. While I never actually “practiced anthropology” professionally, I have a Master’s in Applied Anthropology and feel that the reading, classwork, and fieldwork I did during my training has had a deep and lasting influence on my writing (and teaching and pretty much everything else I do, by the way).

Hurston and I are in good company. Kurt Vonnegut had a degree in anthropology, and Saul Bellow. The contemporary author Laura Resau is professor of anthropology (and attended St. Mary’s College of Maryland with me–we shared the departmental award the year we graduated). Ursula LeGuin’s father was an anthropologist, and many critics comment on the influence this has had on her writing.

Trained observation

What is the effect of anthropological training on a writer?

As an anthropologist, we look around at the behaviors and systems around us. The details will be recorded in context and filed. We may then organize them and analyze them later with tools established by earlier anthropologists (and sociologists, and economists, and social psychologists…) in order to answer questions like who, what, where, why, and how things are happening.

It’s no coincidence that many of the writers listed above (including myself) frequently write science fiction or fantasy. An understanding of culture, society, and human organization will greatly improve a writer’s ability to world-build. In the forward to The Speaker of the Dead, Orson Scott Card (a non-anthropologist) describes reading up on anthropology and its methods in order to convincingly create the world of the Piggies.

Trained empathy

Similarly, an anthropologist’s observations and interviews help them learn to see events through the eyes of their informants. It’s not enough to know what they are doing, but why…and why can only be provided by someone from within the system. With practice, anthropologist are better able to slip into the mindset not only of remote tribal people, but even our neighbors…and our characters. This means we can establish genuine motivations and reactions of characters from point of view.

Learning to be writers

The training of an anthropologist requires more writing than that of many other disciplines. Observations are recorded in notebook after notebook (or tablet after laptop, perhaps). Folklore will pepper many ethnographies, as well as case studies and personal histories. Large volumes of fieldnotes and interview transcriptions must be recorded, combined with journal and book research, then used to create long papers to turn into professors who expect you to meet deadlines. This provides a great training ground for the life of a writer.

Can you think of other professions that provide advantages to writers? Please share in the comments below.

3 thoughts on “Professional empathy: writing and anthropology

  1. What a thought-provoking post! I’ve always thought that if I left my job as a writer in a marketing & comm department to be a freelance fiction writer, I’d want to have a part-time food service job (barista or something): I worked at Burger King for years. Talk about a cast of characters! I still miss daily patrons Phil, Al, Diane, and those I knew only by their order (#1 with cheese, heavy ketchup, large onion rings (double-cooked), large diet coke no ice). I felt like every day was a writing prompt.


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