Lectures

Writing Life No. 2: An interview with Adia Benton

This article is part of the series:
Figure 1: Adia’s writing space

“A special thanks to all the elders who ever told me to learn to be still. Research need not be running around in an effort to apprehend information. It can sometimes be accomplished by being still and comprehending. By climbing into my chair and working, a lot of things came my way via the phone, the mail, drop-ins, and what some people would call intuition and others would call history.”

Excerpt from Toni Cade Bambara’s Those Bones are Not My Child (2000)

If modern ethnography has undergone an evolutionary transformation in the globalizing world, the use of social media as an authoritative ethnographic site would seem to be the zenith of this evolution. In 2018, I took a graduate course with Adia Benton called “The Field”, a bridging seminar that prepares graduate students in a four-field anthropology for the field work. I was piqued by how much debate this subject generated among the graduate students. My attention would later be drawn to Benton’s Twitter account during her talk at the Faculty-Student Dialogue Series organized by the Africa Seminar, a student organization at the Program of African Studies, at Northwestern University. Benton’s handle @ethnography911 and bio —”call an anthropologist quick”—has gained popularity as an online ethnographic space to respond to and engage in contemporary anthropological debates.

Patrick Mbullo: I have been intrigued by your writing on Twitter using the Twitter handle @ethnography911, which has really gained popularity. I am wondering how this kind of engagement is different from your conventional academic writing and research?

Adia Benton: I don’t think it is. For me, it seems it’s a part of it, right? I like to think aloud a lot and Twitter is a way to do that, to respond in the moment with the expectation that that kind of thinking aloud will not endure or persist. Sometimes people want analysis that’s quick and dirty and Twitter allows for that, you know?

PM: Quick and dirty…I like that.

AB: Yeah, it’s something like a back-of-the envelope calculation, but qualitatively. We don’t always have time to do that anymore in our own little forums. But it’s the same thing; you don’t spend too much time poring over it and working it through. It’s an unbaked or raw version of what you’re thinking about. So that’s why I use Twitter. Occasionally I do have deep thoughts that can be expressed in under 280 characters or in multiple tweets strung together into a thread, but I think, most of the time, that’s not possible, or even necessary in this space.

PM: Let us look at what you are doing with Twitter as an ethnographer, especially how actively you engage in social media debates and how your thoughts come around current political issues, some of which are quite sensitive. How do you define your audience, and how do you know the reaction that your tweet is going to bring?

AB: So, I mean one thing I can say about Twitter is, it’s also a sort of micro-culture, right? In the sense that there are rules, there are certain expectations around comportment, of handling yourself, that become routine; so, if a person violates those rules or expectations, it’s usually pretty obvious to people who have become accustomed to those rules or norms, but what you choose to do about it – mute, block, ignore, perhaps even call the person out – depends on the circumstances at hand. So, for example, like when I was tweeting about COVID-19 early on, I received responses from people who I don’t regularly interact with, or who cross certain boundaries that one expects when dealing with absolute strangers; and so, they come in and sort of like “I have an opinion and I have a strong one and I need you to respond to me” and I just have to be like “I’m sorry, you are out of line.” It isn’t to say that you can’t say these things to me, but you can’t demand engagement or force a meaningful interaction.

That said, you can’t expect the engagement on micro-blogging platforms like Twitter to be rich and respectful and all that stuff because you know you are also dealing with people’s insecurities, fears and desires, and need to be pithy and succinct, which are all heightened on the medium. One thing that I can say about the space, too, is that being in it is yet another way to learn and grow and understand what lies with people, what people actually are interested in reading and knowing about.

So, thinking with other people, seeing what interests’ people, learning how folks condense complex ideas into images, text, sound – a kind of shorthand – is really crucial. It takes a bit of practice to be able to do this, to assimilate that kind of information, because it is a lot of information and so you have to spend time kind of picking and choosing which people, which ideas, which topics to engage with. During a public health emergency like the one we’re in, for example, I have a crew of science folks whose feeds I rely on, right? Like a modeler, a microbiologist, a virologist, an immunologist, historians, archaeologists… all these people whose insights I can piece together if I’m talking about a disease or illness or medical technology. They are ready and willing and have lots of things to say. And then there are people with different niches within popular culture, who keep you informed about the latest song or dance craze or whatever or can offer analysis that you could never have the bandwidth or depth to do on your own.

PM: Is it spontaneous when you tweet something, maybe being intrigued by something that is happening, or do you have to put down a text, revise it, either send it to someone to look at it before you post it?

AB: Often, I write what comes to my head. Though it’s usually a reaction to something that I’m seeing in real life, or reading about, or an online trend I’m seeing that I disagree with. But here’s the thing: there are different modes of writing and this is one mode. And this one actually privileges the snappy, pithy, insight, right? Like if you have like a short thing that you want to say in response to something that is going on, Twitter is your place to do that. You go “oh I have a thought” and people respond. Either they choose to engage because they love it or hate it or also have an opinion, so they retweet it, respond to it, whatever. Or it goes unnoticed and no one engages. And now that I am thinking about it, it’s only “spontaneous.” Keep in mind that I have “practiced and read” for several years in the genre. You know, it started with 140 characters. Now it’s 280. At first, I was just reading to learn, engaging to work out ideas. Or I would retweet important links or others’ ideas that I wanted to share, but then after some time, you get a feel for composition: “the best tweets do this or the tweets that I like do this thing.” In that respect it’s like any writing, right? Like, you read the people whose writing you like or you come to understand or learn a genre, a style of writing, and you emulate or produce your own and find and develop your own voice in the process.

PM: Wow, great!

AB: And yeah, I mean, I would say, you also have to read. You read thousands of them, and that’s possible to do because they are so short. So, at some point, you begin to figure out which tweets are the ones that you like to read…and which ones to put a side. You figure out whose voices are interesting and helpful to you for whatever reason—for information, for inspiration, for a laugh, for clarity—and you build your list, build your ‘community’ around those guiding principles.

PM: So, in other words for you to be influential on social media, you have to have time to read tweets in addition to send them?

AB: I think so. I mean it’s a community. You don’t just shout into the ether and cultivate a following, or even figure out which people you trust or want to engage with without reading others’ insights. You know, I was looking at how many followers I have now. There’s no way I got that many followers just from shouting into the arena. The only people who can do that are famous in real life, or have other platforms (like entertainment or politics, or other media). Or they have brands they’re building. I have no other forum except, say, within the classroom, or via my writing or in professional organizations. So, you have to actually engage with people online, just as you would do offline, and it’s in that engagement that you start to develop a style, a sense of belonging, a community.

PM: So how would you define your style?

AB: I would say subtle shade, nerdy humor; that’s my style. Because often I’m just like “what craziness I am I hearing? Why are people talking about this thing this way?”. It is disturbing to me. I would also add, I think I’m a “yes-and” person. So, I’ll see some statement that I somewhat agree with, but I think there’s some element missing or not being considered, and I’ll occasionally “yes-and” – but I tend to only do that for areas that I feel I know something about, like public health.

PM: Quite interesting! And that actually leads me to my next question and I will tie this to your forthcoming book “The Fever Archive” where you offer a glimpse of the racial, economic and political dynamics of public health responses to infectious disease outbreaks. And now in the current COVID-19 outbreak, you have been tweeting about the WHO report on China’s response and interestingly you bring into focus techniques of report writing as a management technology to disease outbreaks. So, I was wondering whether you can talk briefly about your ideas. Do you think in your book you try to engage with this kind of report analysis? 

AB: Right. That’s a good question. I don’t think I do that in this book. Given that the book [was] due on May 1st, the epidemic has shifted the deadline. I probably should clear that up. I happen to know a lot about this genre of report writing.  But I began to take seriously the idea of report writing as a particular genre to study from Keguro Macharia, a literature scholar who is based in Kenya. So, first of all there’s the terms of reference; who dictates the scope of work to be performed, the methodology and the format of the document, often based upon a narrow sense of the report’s use and use-value; then there’s the composition of the team which I think tells you something about the level of involvement; who performs the task of gathering information and from whom, which dictates the engagements and the ability to reach certain groups of people; all of those elements determine what can be said, and how it can be said.So, you don’t simply read the report, but try to understand how reports like that get written, the circumstances under which they get written, and the potential for ideas in any given report circulate as successful and by extension, are perceived to be replicable.

PM: You have recently shown interest in visual anthropology. Given the immense growth in digital imagery today, I wondered what informs this interest and how this is actually likely to change your writing style, and of course ethnographic engagements?

AB: Yeah, so I like pictures. I also like videos and movies and films. I spend a lot of time analyzing them. I teach with films, photographs, and memes. With students, we work to piece together not plot or plot points, which is often how anthropologists approach film, but I also think about the composition side: lighting, cuts, camera movement, sequencing, sound. I think it’s really useful for us to think about the production side of what we see, hear, reproduce, and circulate, because these are images, texts, sounds that we interact with daily.

PM: Bringing us to the end of this interview, but if I could also one last question: what are some of the books that you are currently reading that informs your writing and the style that you are using?

AB: I was just complaining that I’m not reading enough!

PM: Oh really?

AB: I checked out a few books from the public library, popular books that I can get digitally. A lot of these are fiction. Severance by Ling Ma. The Old Drift by Namwali Serpeli. What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan.  I’m trying to read Andrea Ballesteros’s book A Future History of Water because I think it actually has some really interesting ways to consider organizing a book-length ethnographic manuscript. I picked up a few older books. I’m actually trying to turn Rosalind Shaw’s book, Memories of the Slave Trade, into a fictional feature length film. There’s the book Evidence, Ethos and Experiment which is an edited volume that looks at science and scientific practice in Africa from the past to the present. So, I am reading a bunch of different books. But most of what I’m reading honestly are primary sources and for me primary sources are reports, newspaper articles and um, first person accounts, things like that, as they relate to the West African Ebola epidemic.

PM: Quite interesting and basically also you know we can’t forget about “witchcraft,” right?

AB: It’s witchcraft all over again, right?

Figure 2: Patrick at his writing desk in Kisumu, Kenya

Patrick Mbullo is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University. His dissertation topic focuses on the biosocial impacts of hydro dam construction amongst women and children in East Africa. Patrick is a Director and Co-founder of the Pamoja Community Based Organization in Kenya where he is involved in community health programing and advocacy. Twitter: @mbulloowuor.

Adia Benton is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and African Studies at Northwestern University, where she is affiliated with the Science in Human Culture Program. Her first book, HIV Exceptionalism: Development Through Disease in Sierra Leone, won the 2017 Rachel Carson Prize, which is awarded by the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) to the best book in the field of Science and Technology Studies with strong social or political relevance. She is currently writing a book about the 2014-2016 West African Ebola outbreak. Twitter: @ethnography911.


About the series

Writing Life focuses on the craft of writing in the social studies of medicine. Amidst the current challenges to making texts, this series invites scholars in our field to take time to reflect, in conversation with each other, on how to navigate and nurture their craft.

Each post in Writing Life delves into the black boxes of writing life, exploring the specificities of producing texts about the lives of those entangled in illness, care, pain, diagnosis, experiment, research, suffering, and recovery.  The spirit of the contributions is collaborative — an exploration through dialogue. In crafting the posts, authors also explore a research practice central to our fields – interviewing – and the work and art of transcribing and editing other people’s words.

The first installment of this series is composed of 8 interviews, published weekly. We openly invite further contributions to the series to appear in 2021. Please contact series editors Anna Harris (a.harris@maastrichtuniversity.nl) or Denielle Elliott (dae@yorku.ca) to express interest. You may already have someone in mind to interview or be interviewed by, but we can also make recommendations.


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