Beyond Sontag as a reader of Lévi-Strauss: 'anthropologist as hero'


  • Tod Hartman University of Cambridge



This article traces mutations in the generalised image of the 'heroic' anthropologist since Susan Sontag's interpretation of the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques in her 1963 essay, 'The anthropologist as hero'. Firstly, it is argued that a considerable shift has occurred from the Lévi-Straussian 'hard-won impassivity' to 'activist' anthropology in which the anthropologist's emotions are acknowledged and legitimised as part of the ethnographic process. With heroic activist anthropology comes the tendency to assume a single Euro-American vision of rights and responsibilities as universal, although it is suggested that in some contexts this may be in direct conflict with informants' sovereignty and desires. Secondly, as anthropologists increasingly study groups that are located 'at home', the analogy between fieldwork and a heroic journey into the unknown that Sontag posits becomes tenuous. Fieldwork is now carried out in places-the hospital, the airport, the office-that would have been unthinkable several decades ago. In these explicitly de-exoticised contexts in which they are often held accountable to their informants, anthropologists are able to demonstrate a heroic honesty with regards to their subjects of study. Finally, it is suggested that the generalised perception of anthropologists from outside the discipline has not taken these new sorts of heroisms into account, and that this omission has worked to the detriment of anthropology's external image.

Author Biography

Tod Hartman, University of Cambridge

Tod Hartman is finishing a PhD in social anthropology at Cambridge. His thesis, entitled The Gift of Cheap Labour, considers Romanian workers in the social space of the illegal labour market in an agricultural region in the south of Spain. This research is based on fieldwork in Transylvania and the greenhouse construction industry in Andalusia. He has also carried out research on consumption and aesthetics (France), consumption and interior design amongst the 'new rich' (Romania), and expressions of utopia in the post-socialist context (Romania). He can be contacted at tgh24(AT)