Navigators of the Contemporary Why Ethnography Matters
by David A. Westbrook
University of Chicago Press, 2008
Cloth: 978-0-226-88751-7 | Paper: 978-0-226-88752-4 | Electronic: 978-0-226-88753-1


As the image of anthropologists exploring exotic locales and filling in blanks on the map has faded, the idea that cultural anthropology has much to say about the contemporary world has likewise diminished. In an increasingly smaller world, how can anthropology help us to tackle the concerns of a global society? David A. Westbrook argues that the traditional tool of the cultural anthropologist—ethnography—can still function as an intellectually exciting way to understand our interconnected, yet mysterious worlds.

Navigators of the Contemporary describes the changing nature of ethnography as anthropologists use it to analyze places closer to home. Westbrook maintains that a conversational style of ethnography can help us look beyond our assumptions and gain new insight into arenas of contemporary life such as corporations, financial institutions, science, the military, and religion. Westbrook’s witty, absorbing book is a friendly challenge to anthropologists to shed light on the present and join broader streams of intellectual life. And for those outside the discipline, his inspiring vision of ethnography opens up the prospect of understanding our own world in much greater depth.


David A. Westbrook is the Floyd H. & Hilda L. Hurst Faculty Scholar and professor of law at the University at Buffalo Law School. He is the author of City of Gold: An Apology for Globalization in a Time of Discontent and Between Citizen and State: An Introduction to the Corporation.


“At face value Navigators of the Contemporary makes a spirited defense of the central ground of cultural anthropology—namely ethnography. But David Westbrook’s compelling book covers a much wider intellectual landscape. Ethnography of the present situation—a re-functioned ethnography as he calls it—proposes for intellectual work generally a series of staged encounters that, when properly navigated, negotiated, evoked, and analyzed, can challenge us to rethink what it means to be critical, political, and imaginative. An ethnographic sensibility allows us to remap, to provide a rather different cartography of modernity, the university, and the intellectual life appropriate to what he calls the contemporary conditions. It is at once provocative, disarming, witty, and infuriating. It is a bit of a feast and a fire-side chat. Above all the book demands a reasoned response—a discussion—and conversation, says Westbrook, stands at the heart of ethnography. Go read it.”

— Michael Watts, University of California, Berkeley

“This book is the most convincing rendering of how to be a good anthropologist that I know of. It links the anthropological clearly to the broader intellectual enterprise. It offers up—after a long drought—a vision of anthropology very much of the sort that, in the heyday of Lévi-Strauss, Edmund Leach, and Mary Douglas, attracted me to it as a student. The extraordinary clarity and accessibility of Westbrook’s prose and reasoning are testaments in their very performance to the virtues of his ambitiously broad vision of ethnography. Both stylistically and intellectually, this is a fresh and lovely breeze.”--James D. Faubion, Rice University

— James Faubion

“This is a smart, dense, elegant, thoughtful little book.”
— Choice



I. Into the Present

Chapter 1. The Venture

Chapter 2. Culture Everywhere and Nowhere

Chapter 3. Conversation as Another Kind of Solution

Chapter 4. This Book and Other Books

II. An Ethnography for Present Situations

Chapter 5. What?

Chapter 6. Where?

Chapter 7. Who?

Chapter 8. When?

Chapter 9. How?

Chapter 10. Why?

III. In the University

Chapter 11. Rupture and Continuity

Chapter 12. Theory

Chapter 13. Fieldwork

Chapter 14. Writing

Chapter 15. One Discipline among Others

IV. In the World

Chapter 16. The Intellectual’s Situation

Chapter 17. The Imaginary and the Political

Chapter 18. Ethnography and the Bureaucratic University

Chapter 19. From Science to Romance

Chapter 20. Reprise