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Reviewed by:
  • Writing in the San/d: Autoethnography among Indigenous Southern Africans
  • Megan Biesele (bio) and Robert K. Hitchcock (bio)
Keyan G. Tomaselli , ed. Writing in the San/d: Autoethnography among Indigenous Southern Africans. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007. 190 pp. Paper, $29.95.

The Writing in the San/d anthology is an intriguing experiment in collaborative methods and so is quite apt for inclusion in this first volume of Collaborative Anthropologies. It is important both as a device to raise consciousness about the human side of anthropological research and as a challenge to some of the more traditional modes of ethnographic writing. Editor Keyan Tomaselli has been for some years gathering his students in Culture, Communication, and Media Studies (CCMS) at the University of Kwazulu Natal (Durban, South Africa) and taking them, along with members of his own family, to research sites in South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia to interact with San people.

The interactions of this loosely defined research group with San communities and individuals have been more or less informal, but at the same time they have been concerned quite fixedly with the mediation, representation, and phenomenology of Ethnographic Encounter, writ large. Thus the activity of this group of researchers sits squarely [End Page 201] within postmodern anthropology. Many readers of this new journal will know that Kalahari research has been one of the major loci where the postmodern and earlier approaches to ethnography have gone head to head. The "Great Kalahari Debate" is still going on, and Tomaselli's group of collaborators is carrying some of the current salient strands of argument.

The offerings in the book stem from trips to two San areas in South Africa and one each in Namibia and Botswana. They range across journeys of personal discovery, methodological experiments and refinements, and the conundrums of cross-cultural representation. The writers vary from a student of sheltered background making her first trip out of town, through more experienced students, to Tomaselli himself, who has traveled the Kalahari roads for decades and has thought deeply about representations of, by, and with San people in media ranging from film to oral poetry. Fresh insights abound in the collection, touching on the role of anthropologists, development workers, and other outsiders as they may affect myth reinforcement about the San; exploring the role of market relations in the commodification of culture; and asking hard questions about ways in which grassroots critique may reach and influence the larger structures in which San communities, often feeling voiceless and powerless, are embedded today.

This said, we want to make a few suggestions for the anthology authors to consider. We assume the main purpose of Writing in the San/d is to improve communication among several stakeholders in the San's future, including, beyond the San themselves, relevant nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and government entities, academics, and a public wishing to get beyond romantic stereotypes. If so, it would seem that attention to the cultures of communication of the various parties to the desired amelioration would be the best avenue to progress. Yet it must be said that many of the articles in the anthology neglect scholarly conventions—even on the level of spelling and grammar—in a way that is bound to make scholars feel disregarded. Each author also seems to find it necessary to criticize the "hundreds of " previous researchers and NGO workers with indiscriminate assurance, many times in ignorance of the facts of various situations. Worst, the lively San themselves, and their often heroic efforts to make their communities sustainable, are too often given short shrift in this book and emerge as passive recipients of both aid and oppression. [End Page 202]

We do not for a moment think that it was the intention of this group of authors to thwart the purpose of furthering communication. Perhaps it was their very focus on their own encounter experiences that caused them to do so in many ways with this book. For one thing, the ethnographic term clan is quite loosely used, which does not seem a good decision for a book whose title claims to valorize autoethnography. For another, the awkward "San/d" in the title is only awkwardly...


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