Series Overview


Robert Borofsky (Hawaii Pacific University) & Naomi Schneider (University of California Press)

Contributing Editors

Philippe Bourgois (University of Pennslyvania), Paul Farmer (Partners in Health), Alex Hinton (Rutgers University), Carolyn Nordstrom (University of Notre Dame), & Nancy Scheper-Hughes (UC Berkeley)

The California Series in Public Anthropology draws professional scholars from a wide range of disciplines to address major public issues in ways that help non-academic audiences to understand and address them. Many scholars write on narrow subjects in self-contained styles that only coteries of colleagues appreciate. The Series strives, instead, to analyze important public concerns in ways that help non-academic audiences to understand and address them.

To date, the series has enjoyed significant success. It has garnered considerable prestige within anthropology. Many prominent scholars—from Paul Farmer, Margaret Lock, and Aiwa Ong to Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Philippe Bourgois, and Carolyn Nordstrom have or, will soon, be publishing in the Series. And some of the authors, such as Paul Farmer, have not only sold well beyond the academy but their writings have helped shape how particular public problems are addressed.

Still, the series remains a work in progress. Books in the Series tend to sell better than the standard 1,000–3,000 norm of most university presses. But many have not escaped the gravitational pull of the academy. The Series is still struggling to move beyond traditional academic audiences and styles.

Prospective authors should understand the Series’ editors remain committed to moving toward a more public anthropology. In that spirit, the editors encourage prospective authors to keep five important points in mind.

First, in developing their manuscripts authors should focus on questions readers beyond the academic pale find compelling. This means forsaking the questions that absorb anthropologists and addressing the questions that absorb others.

Second, authors should consciously write for audiences beyond the academy. They should avoid theoretical jargon and put obscuring details, theoretical elaborations, and citations in footnotes. Authors will know they have succeeded in this regard when they can show chapters to non-academic friends and these friends will not only understand the chapters but find them absorbing. They express interest in reading more material.

Third, authors’ manuscripts should tell stories. The whole manuscript could be framed as a story or, if the author prefers, stories might be used to develop concrete points. Humans, by their nature, are story tellers. We understand the world around us not only through our experiences but, also, through stories others tell about the world. The manuscript, by the way it is structured, by the way it develops its “plot,” should keep readers’ attention as good stories keep our attention while drawing us toward new insights.

Fourth, a manuscript’s theoretical underpinnings should not be loudly broadcast to readers. Instead, they should be subtly embedded in the manuscript’s framing. Theoretical discussions should widen a reader’s appreciation of a problem or story. They should gently place a problem in perspective as a good poem places our experiences in perspective and gives them meaning. Theoretical discussions should not be a vehicle for credentializing an author or an author’s ideas. These need stand on their own merits.

Fifth, a manuscript’s importance should not be equated with its length. The Series rarely accepts manuscripts of more than 100,000 words (including footnotes and references). It does so only in exceptional circumstances.

One of the present ironies of the field is that the most appreciated and best selling anthropologically-oriented books today are written by authors with little or no formal anthropological training. Prospective authors should use these works as models in developing their manuscripts.

Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down deals with miscommunications between a Laotian refugee Hmong family and the medical staff of a Merced California hospital treating the family’s epileptic daughter. It offers a nuanced, account of the problems well-intentioned people face when they talk past one another. It has received numerous honors, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest. The New Yorker observed “Fadiman describes with extraordinary skill the colliding worlds of Western medicine and Hmong culture.”

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed deals with how low wage workers struggle to get by in America. It tells Ehrenreich’s story, as an undercover journalist, trying to make a living in such jobs as a waitress, cleaning lady, and a Wal-Mart salesperson. The book spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was deemed a “Long-Running Best-Seller” by BusinessWeek. Gallagher, in a New York Times Book Review, described Ehrenreich as “our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism.”

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies uses an environmental/cultural/evolutionary perspective to explain how the West achieved its present global position. The book won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize and has remained on the New York Times bestseller list for almost four years. PBS has produced a documentary on it. Crosby wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Diamond “is broadly erudite, writes in a style that pleasantly expresses scientific concepts in vernacular American English, and deals almost exclusively in questions that should interest everyone concerned about how humanity has developed. . . . [He] has done us all a great favor by supplying a rock-solid alternative to the racist answer. . . . A wonderfully interesting book.”

The reason the Series does not accept dissertations is because they were written for a narrow anthropological audience—one’s dissertation committee. Even revised dissertations are often problematic if the author sticks with the dissertation problem and the dissertation audience.

Prospective authors should ask themselves: Are they writing for the same audience as Fadiman, Ehrenreich or Diamond? Are they dealing with problems of broad import that others, beyond the academy, find compelling? Will their relatives and friends find the manuscript absorbing?

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