Book of the year

I spend so much time picking apart books and articles that it is a release to look back and think about what I had enjoyed reading this year, not necessarily something published in 2019 but just something I happened to read.

In respect to big ideas I went back again to Michael Polanyi’s ‘Personal knowledge’ [1]. Above all I like to read commentators who are trying to balance the idea of social research as something personal (i.e. we need to bring our own ideas to the research and as Polanyi would have it our passion) with something ‘objective’ (i.e. you cannot make it up, you can only say what the evidence let’s you say) and for me Polanyi (at least his earlier work) occupies this middle ground.

In the field of technology research I did not find anything quite so engaging but I did appreciate one article on city life that, in the words of the authors, provided,

‘a case study of informal learning and lifewide literacies amongst Glaswegian adults using three distinct approaches to data collection: a household survey capturing rich data on learning attitudes, behaviours, and literacies; GPS trails that track mobility around the city; and the capture of naturally occurring social media’ [2].

It was the work using GPS trails that I found interesting – volunteers used trackers as well as life-logging cameras and in this way researchers could see how their volunteers moved around the city. Thus they were able not just to understand attitudes to learning but they could access and to some extent observe what individuals were actually doing. In particular researchers saw an association between deprivation with reduced learning engagement (this was not surprising), but physical movement played a part too and could arguably assist in learning engagement as well as be an outcome of such engagement.  There is much hype about the use of digital devices in social research but in this case their use worked and I expect there will be much more on the study of movement in the years ahead.

But in looking for a book that I really enjoyed reading it would have to be something more literary. One contender was Gavron’s ‘A Woman on the Edge of Time’ [3] in which the author tries to understand why his mother committed suicide, aged 29, when she had just had her first book published and had a career as a social scientist stretching out in front of her. Gavron looks for answers by tracking down the people in his mother’s life (not easy after so many years) and considers both internal make-up (e.g. his mother’s volatility) and external environment (e.g. the difficulties of forging an academic career in 1960s male-dominated academia). Gavron is not able to reach any definitive conclusions but at least he is able to make sense of his mother’s action. Thus the book is not only about a social scientist (his mother) but it is also a piece of social research (though I doubt if Gavron would accept the label) as it is asking questions about agency, gender stereotyping and how society both provides and limits opportunities.

I liked Gavron but my book of the year is Lily King’s fictional account of Margaret Mead doing fieldwork in New Guinea [4]. Mead was steely and consistent in challenging what US society took for granted and looking again at her book Coming of Age in Samoa [5] I saw more clearly that this was a comparative study of adolescence in USA and Samoa rather than a study of Samoa itself [6]. During her career Mead drew the ire of the Right for, as they saw it, undermining social conventions but she, or perhaps the tradition of anthropology she helped develop, became critiqued by the Left (and now by decolonising methodology[7] ) for doing research on people, rather than for people or with people and indeed some of her work feels very uncomfortable today (see an earlier blog on photography). We all need to find our own stance on this but I think Mead’s argument would be that she had come in good faith to describe what she saw and to talk about how her own society could learn from cultures which were much less known and so much less accessible than they are today.

Anyway to get back to the book, Lily King’s Euphoria, is about doing field work in New Guinea in 1933. Mead is working with her second husband, Reo Fortune – names have been changed (Mead becomes Nell and Fortune, Fen). Things are not going well when they meet fellow ethnographer Gregory Bateson (Bankson) at a Christmas party during a break from their work. Fen and Nell have been unable to complete their field work and Bankson, a lone researcher in another village, is lonely and out of his depth, so much so that he had already attempted suicide. Their encounter somehow spurs them, Mead and Fen find a more congenial village to research and Bankson sparks into life when he realises he is in love with Nell.

I really liked the book as it was about the doing of research. To be clear it is about privileged people, not the indigenous people, but it turns the tables by treating the researchers themselves as objects for analysis. In this way you can see Nell, Fen and Bankson’s strengths and weaknesses very clearly. For example, Mead comes over as an obsessive documenter of data and as someone who struggled with local languages so that she may have missed realising when the wool was pulled over her eyes. I particularly liked the figure of Bankson (I have presented the book as one about Mead but Bankson/ Bateson is a really important part of the story) with his buttoned up Englishness and moral seriousness.

I had some reservations not least as ethically it straddles a difficult space; it is clearly about Mead, Bateson and Fortune but names and settings have been changes and Lily King provides a very different ending for Nell (which I won’t reveal) than there was for Mead. This fictionalisation presents a particular problem in respect to Reo Fortune whose character Fen comes over as abusive in his relationship with Mead and an egoist or worse when carrying out a disastrous raid on another village in search of an artefact which would, if he could get his hands on it, make his reputation.  I don’t know what Fortune was really like but this seems to be having it both ways, i.e. you can say things like this might well have happened but hide behind the fiction if challenged.

I also had a problem with the key passage in the book when the three ethnographers were actually doing some theorising about the cultures they were studying. The original section is too long to include here but one reviewer summarises it as follows:

‘In one frenzied night the trio put it all down on paper: an exhilarating scene of creative and intellectual gestation that captures all the excitement of discovery, and the promise that we might find a way to better understand humankind. Here is the euphoria of the title; that breakthrough in understanding – a moment of sudden and exhilarating clarity in the life of the artist or scientist. Nell, with her lyrical, near-poetic field notes, is as much artist as scientist, with an infectious capacity for liberating passion in those near her’ [8].

I have asked a lot of people about theorising and yes this captures the sense of release when it all comes together but Lily King makes it look much more like the kind of brainstorming that comes in at the start of a project, not at the end. But who knows perhaps she is being faithful to Mead’s own descriptions.

However this is to quibble. The book is well written and that rare thing edited with discipline so that you end up wanting more. The sections in which the characters express their thoughts in diary format work really well as it is natural that as researchers they would do this. The problems with classical ethnography or anthropology are there to see (the danger of exploitation, the privileged standpoint, the capacity to be hoodwinked, the loneliness and destabilisation) but this is not a simple put down, there is something admirable, at least in the case of Nell and Bankson, in their commitment to understanding other cultures and the critical distance they try to put between themselves and the societies in which they have been brought up. They come over as serious and humanist in their intentions. The point is that researchers are rooted in time and place as much as the people they research.


[1] Polanyi, M. (1958) Personal knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Chicago, USA, University of Chicago Press.

[2] Lido, C., Reid, K. and Osborne, M. (2019) ‘Lifewide learning in the city: novel big data approaches to exploring learning with large-scale surveys, GPS, and social media’, Oxford Review of Education, 45, 2: 279-295.

[3] Gavron, J. (2015) A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for his Mother. Scribe Publications, London.

[4] King, L. (2014) Euphoria, London: Picador.

[5] Although I have cited Mead a lot during research methods course and had read ‘Growing up in Samoa’, I had not followed all the discussion around her work and the novel filled some gaps and pushed me to read further. There is quite a lot of video footage of Mead for example this BBC programme comes from 1976.

[6] Mead, M. (1928) Coming of Age in Samoa, New York: William Morrow. (This is accessible in the Internet Archive as well as via other web sites:

[7] e.g. Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, London: Zed Books.

[8] Gibb, C. (2014) Euphoria by Lily King – the colourful love life of Margaret Mead, Guardian, 24 December, 2014 [online]


Summer Reading

This being the summer period in UK, there is much in the review sections of the newspapers about what to take as holiday reading. My own suggestion is a short story by Julio Cortázar. Cortázar (1914 – 1984) was an Argentinian writer, who was born in Europe and spent a lot of time in France. In UK he was best known, if at all, for a short story (Las Babas del Diablo) that was a rather loose inspiration for the film ‘Blow up’. [1]. Like his other work Las Babas showed Cortázar’s interest in technology and, interestingly, he explored the idea of what we would today call hypertext in Rayuela (‘HopScotch’) thus providing a never ending narrative. Cortázar was part of the wave of Latin American writers, Garcia Marquez being the most celebrated, that became influential for their mixing of myth with real life events (so called magical realism) and their political leftism. My holiday read is the short story Cortázar’s Autopista del Sur [2].

The story is simply told. It is summer and we are on the motorway going back to Paris. Predictably the sheer volume of traffic means there is a giant traffic jam, the cars slow and eventually grind to a halt. Drivers and occupants are exasperated and try to understand what has happened:

And so all afternoon they heard about the crash of a Floride and a 2CV near Corbeil – three dead and one child injured; the double collision of a Fiat 1500 and a Renault station wagon, which in turn smashed into an Austin full of English tourists; the overturning of an Orly airport bus teeming with passengers from the Copenhagen flight. The engineer was sure that almost everything was false, although something awful must have happened near Corbeil or even near Paris itself to have paralyzed traffic to such an extent.

They fruitlessly look at their watches make renewed calculations but nothing is moving. Time passes, a lot of time, slowly they lose track of their destinations and accept that they are going nowhere. They adjust to the new situation. They start to help each other, they share food and drink:

When the little girl complained of thirst again, the engineer decided to talk to the couple in the Ariane, convinced that there were many provisions in that car. To his surprise, the farmers were very friendly; they realised, that in a situation like this it was necessary to help one another and they thought if someone took charge of the group (the woman made a circular gesture with her hand encompassing the dozen cars surrounding them) they would have enough to get them to Paris. The idea of appointing himself organiser bothered him, and he chose to call the men from the Taunus for a meeting with the couple in the Ariane. A while later the rest of the group was consulted one by one.

They organise themselves into parties to search for more supplies, they play games, they share jokes, they feel love, they deal with death. But just as they are settled into this new life together the traffic starts to move again. They forget the time they spent together and they resume their individual journeys:

And on the car’s antenna the red cross flag waved madly and you moved at fifty-five miles an hour towards the lights that kept growing, not knowing why all this hurry, why this mad race in the night among unknown cars, where no one knew anything about the others, where everyone looked straight ahead, only ahead.

I would re-read the story for several reasons. First, although in my description this story sounds a rather heavy handed parable, it is in fact a playful piece of writing. It mixes fantasy and realism and has an intriguing take on time reflecting the state of the drivers’ moods. For example the story gallops through the period in which the community is working together (seasons pass come and go within a short number of paragraphs) but dwells on the experience of sitting in a car waiting for something to happen.

Cortázar is also very good on cars. The characters are identified by their cars  – though as this is the 1960’s you will need to do a bit of Internet research if you wanted to know what some of the models looked like. He is very good on the experience of being stuck in traffic and the way being in a car affects our outlook on life. Cortázar was writing at a time in which oppressive aspects of technology were being emphasised, at least by ‘progressive’ voices. However I am not sure Cortázar is writing an anti-technology story or even one that is anti-car; as seen earlier he did appear to be genuinely interested in technology. However the context is well chosen. After all, the car, at least the advertising of cars, conjures up images of adventure and a breaking free from physical and social constraint. Yet we find, at least in major cities, and especially in holiday periods, driving mostly offers the sensation of being stuck. The solution to overcoming this problem of immobility is often seen as more technology, for example ‘Smart’ monitoring of traffic movements, interactive Sat Navs, entertainment systems to keep children occupied or mobile devices so that you can turn your car into an office. I think from Cortázar we can learn there is something in this promotion of technology that simply does not add up.

Cortázar’s story is surprisingly topical. Not just because this is the holiday season and many of us will spend a lot of time sitting in slow moving traffic but, in England a major news story concerned lorry drivers who were stuck for days with the closure of the Channel Tunnel [3]. There is an altogether more permanent and desperate kind of being stuck, the experience of migrants to Europe with, in our papers at least, attention focused on Calais. [4]

It would be silly to imagine that left in a state of nature we would discover an unselfconscious social solidarity as in Autopista del Sur, any more than a novel such as Lord of the Flies [5] proves the opposite. Rather Cortázar reminds us there is an alternative view of modernity and, for that matter, shows that we can imagine being social beings if we want to. If nothing else, it should forewarn us that sitting in a car fretting about lost time is not the way to spend your holiday.

[1] The film explored the befuddlement of a fashion photographer who thinks he has, by chance, captured a murder on film, but cannot tell for sure in spite of repeated ‘blow ups’ of the photo in his studio. Wikipedia offers a synopsis at

[2] Autopista del Sur was first published in 1966 in a collection ‘Todos los Fuegos el Fuego’ and in (American) English ‘All fires the fire, and other stories’, translated by S J Levine. I was taken through Autopista by a patient Spanish teacher first time around and would struggle with the language today. However I would try to re-read it some of it in Spanish to get the rhythm, something which gets lost in translation. Indeed the surreal elements of the story poses a problem for translators (see for example Callaghan, M. (2102) Cross-sections, The Bruce Hall Academic Journal Julio Cortázar’s ‘La Autopista del Sur’: a Critical Comparison of Suzanne Jill Levine’s English Translation with the Original 97 at ), certainly the translation of Autopista del Sur as ‘The Southern Thruway’ is odd. The translated version is downloadable over the Internet without much difficulty (try cutting and pasting the quotes into a search engine from the text in this post).

[3] for example ‘Lorries queuing on M20 Kent in Operation Stack’ on the BBC web site

[4] For example ‘Fortress Calais: fleeting fixtures and precarious lives in the migrant camp’ on the Guardian web site at

[5] Lord of the Flies is William Golding’s book about schoolboys who find themselves washed up on an uninhabited island, and their descent into bullying and worse. The film by director Peter Brook (1963) is a classic. It was a very popular book for UK schools in the 1960s and 1970s.