Tobias Rees. After Ethnos. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018. 192 pp., 3 illus., notes, bibl., index.

In “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” Clifford Geertz wrote that to understand a discipline you should look at what its practitioners do, rather than accepting what they say they do. And anthropologists, he claimed, do ethnography: they write. “The ethnographer ‘inscribes’ social discourse; he writes it down,” Geertz argued. Ethnographers thus turn passing events into accounts.[1] Since the years of Malinowski, this method-driven definition of the discipline—at least in its “cultural” branch—implied the existence of more or less static “societies,” “cultures,” a well-defined ethnos constructed as an object to be studied and described with a long-term fieldwork approach. The answer thus emerged before the question: cultural anthropologists knew that human lifeworlds took place in societies or cultures, and their science should describe them. But as the world changed—decolonization, the emergence of new states and what Geertz later called “complicated places,”[2] the end of the Cold War, deeper globalization (from above and from below)—it became harder to disentangle the ethnographic project from the practice of delimiting, defining, or better yet, inventing “peoples,” “societies,” and “cultures” in order to write them down.

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