Reviewing Ethnographic Texts: A Rubric

12 May

Book reviews are an art form, and the best reviewers make it look easy. As the Editor of Student Anthropologist, I want to provide some guidelines – or a rubric – that I think new reviewers will find helpful. First, here are the barebones requirements, per our Call for Book Reviews.

  • Book review manuscripts must be 800-1,000 words long. (A multiple-book review can be slightly longer, about 1,200-1,400 words.) Book reviews falling far short of or far exceeding this length will be returned to their authors without being examined.
  • Manuscripts must be in 12-point font, double- spaced, with one-inch margin on all sides. Please save the manuscript as a Word document (.doc file), with your last name as the document name.
  • The submission should include the manuscript and a cover sheet containing the author’s name, contact information, student status and affiliation.
  • Please include publication data for the book at the top of the first page, using punctuation as follows: Title of the Book. Author’s Name. Place of publication: Publisher, date of publication. Number of pages. ISBN.
  • When reviewing an edited volume, do not feel that you must write about or mention every chapter. Instead describe the overall focus of the volume, pick a few significant contributions and discuss those in detail. Review previous publications for examples.
  • Be specific. Avoid vague affirmations or general statements. Instead of saying that the reviewed book is, for example, innovative, explain why it is so.
  • Reviews should not require footnotes. Avoid lengthy quotations and limit references to 4-6. In-text references are cited in parentheses, with last name(s), year of publication, and where necessary, page numbers.
  • Manuscripts should follow the 2009 AAA Style Guide (http://www.aaanet.org/publications/guidelines.cfm).

But those are requirements, not guidelines. They will not help you write the review. If you’re struggling to write a review for a journal or a class, as I have so many times, I suggest that you take the following into consideration. These are the questions that I ask myself when I read an ethnographic text or a review of one.

Ethnographic texts are arguments, and as such they are both destructive and constructive. They intervene into a conversation already underway, and they bring something new to the table. They challenge our assumptions by examining the nuance of something that someone else – another author or the audience – may think of in sweeping generalizations. The author is making a case. This, I believe, is the key to writing a good, critical book review for Student Anthropologist.

If we take seriously the premise that ethnographic texts are arguments, then it follows that the author must provide evidence, and thus Pandora’s Box opens. The following questions emerge: What kind of evidence do they provide? Are the data and methodology appropriate, i.e. is it the right kind of evidence to support the author’s claims, and is there enough of it? What kind of ethnographic authority and sincerity is established that enables us, the audience, to buy these claims and the evidence?

There are stylistic questions as well. Is the text accessible? Does it flow from macro- to micro-perspectives or bounce around? Is the narrative temporally or thematically organized (or neither) and how does this strengthen or weaken the author’s illustration? Does the author clearly link evidence and claims back to the overarching argument? How does the author position themselves with respect to their research population, and how is the population represented, e.g. who speaks for them? Is the text more heavily weighted toward social theory (or philosophy) or ethnographic vignettes from which the theory might emerge organically? Does the author take a very positivist position or is the style very experimental or does it fall somewhere in the middle? How might the author’s style be influenced by their career trajectory? Is this text building on previous work or is it the result of dissertation research?

When writing the review, be clear and concise, be honest and frank, and please don’t gush. While there are a number of ways to structure a review, the best and easiest way is to just summarize the book and then analyze it using the questions above. Each chapter is making a smaller-argument; what is it, how is it supported, and what does it have to do with the previous chapter? Finish by telling us who the best audience is (e.g. undergraduates with an interest in astrobioanthropology?) and what is most useful about the book (e.g. the innovative methodology, the powerful ethnographic vignettes, the theoretical contribution).

Student Anthropologist is committed to the publication of excellent student-authored manuscripts, and as such we want our book reviews to be critically engaged with the texts in question. On the other hand, whether you’re writing a review for a journal or a course assignment, I think you’ll find this rubric useful.

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2 Responses to “Reviewing Ethnographic Texts: A Rubric”

  1. Lorence Morell-Vega May 12, 2016 at 11:23 am #

    Thank you for those usefull tips. I will take it in consideration.

  2. Ashley Chen March 2, 2017 at 11:32 am #

    Hi, is the deadline and details out for the 2017 volume yet?
    Thanks!

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