cover photo of Lissa

Anthropology: Portraying Culture Through Modern Graphic Ethnography and Fiction

Traditionally, ethnographic writing is the non-fictional end product of anthropological research. It is generally the most widely distributed result of research. Many individuals are introduced to anthropology through reading ethnographies. An ethnography is a book-length condensation of field notes and theory. However, ethnographic methods have become more experimental throughout the history of anthropology. These experiments include ethnographic fiction and graphic ethnography. For a broader coverage of the history of ethnographies, see my previous post.

ethnoGRAPHIC and Lissa

In this blog, I will highlight the adaption of ethnographic writing into fiction and the visual adaptation of research through the graphic format. The University of Toronto in Ontario has helped push graphic ethnographies through their ‘ethnoGRAPHIC’ line of graphic novels. Due to the format, these graphic novels condense the theories and impact of ethnographies into an accessible format. I have chosen to highlight this genre through the work Lissa, a fantastic example of such an ethnography.

ethnoGRAPHIC logo, black and white
Image Credit: American Anthropologist

An Introduction to Lissa

Lissa is a graphic novel adaption that combines elements of the ethnographic field research of Sherine Hamdy and Coleman Nye. It uses the visual format to tell a fictionalized account that addresses the themes of medicine in two very different sociocultural milieus. These locations are Egypt and the United States.  The story is told through the friendship of two young women, Anna and Layla.

Illness Shaping Life

Lissa focuses on themes like genetics and the effects of biological conditions on social life as it is viewed through different cultural paradigms. Anna is genetically predisposed to breast cancer, and Layla’s father is in danger of dying without a kidney transplant, but struggles with religious, familial, and social expectations while living through his illness. Thus, the work is an example of medical anthropology in which culture shapes medical outcomes.

an image from the graphic ethnography Lissa is shown to show the illustration style
Image Credit: Pen

Graphic Medicine and Its Advantages

The work is an example of ethnographic fiction that feels richly researched and detailed. It evokes the feelings of ethnographic writing through a fictional narrative that bridges accessibility to a genre mostly read by academics. The work also draws from genres like graphic medicine which attempt to bring accessibility to medical literature. It does so while adapting it to the field of medical anthropology. While doing so, it addresses the broader social relationships that inform, and are informed by reflexively, concerns within global health care (Hamdy & Nye 2019). Graphic novels make this research more approachable and allow levity when discussing emotional subjects of loss and death (Hamdy & Nye 2016.

an image from the graphic ethnography Lissa is shown to show the illustration style, this shows Layla with her father at the hospital
Image Credit: American Anthropologist

Emotion and Ethnography

The presentation of Lissa, however, is not light beyond its accessibility, and the thematic complexity and emotional significance of illness are powerfully presented in a way that could get bogged down and submerged beneath the academic writing of more traditional medical anthropology. I cried several times reading Lissa, a reaction that many readers would likely experience when faced with the pain and difficult choices that both families must make. Like many of the best ethnographies, Lissa successfully relays human loss and difficulties.

early rough sketches of the Lissa characters
Image Credit: Teaching Culture

Affordances of Fictional Accounts in Graphic Ethnography

While it is likely not possible to perfectly adapt all of the benefits and traditions of ethnographic writing into a fictional account that relies on brief dialogue over visual elements, it does maintain much of the same character. The produced transmedia experience that occurs should one research into publications by the authors humanizes and expands the understanding that could be gathered from a more traditional ethnographic account. The visual nature of the genre also provides other affordances, that I feel greatly enhance the reading experience as a new niche within ethnographic writing that warrants further exploration and a place in the pantheon of great ethnographic works, despite its lack of dense citations and theoretical musings that might be expected of the genre.

Blogs and Transmedia Stories: Adapting of Anthropology

I feel in many ways that my blog posts here tend to offer similar advantages compared to traditional anthropological writing. Also, other similar transmedia additions like documentaries and photography can enrich the reader’s perception of a narrative and of the key thematic elements of a body of work. Anthropologists like Jason De Leon and Philippe Bourgois have used photography to improve anthropology. The artfully arranged graphic novel component of Lissa does not detract from but enriches the ethnographic genre. The act of storytelling is historically a complex topic of anthropological study (see

a photo of Philippe Bourgois, who used photos along with ethnographic writing
Photo of Philippe Bourgois, Image Credit: Historia Comprometida

An Important Niche

In the same way that graphic novels serve a different but still useful niche within fiction, graphic ethnographies could hold a similar position in non-fiction to increase the accessibility of academia. Arguably, a story like Watchmen might not translate as strikingly to the written word, and a story like Lissa bridges the gap and draws new theoretical conclusions from the reader. These would not emerge with most readers if they even managed to read two traditional ethnographies from both researchers’ fieldwork.

Graphic Ethnography and Immediacy

In the creation of Lissa, Hamdy and Nye adopted an innovative and accessible approach to the genre of ethnographic writing, which is becoming increasingly popular, yet still, a niche within ethnography. This form is the genre of graphic ethnography. Other advantages of the form and its immediacy, with scenes that may take walls of text being apparent through single-page spreads (Hamdy and Nye 2016). The human core of anthropology risks being bogged down by jargon in some works.

an image from graphic ethnography Gringo Love, shows two characters on the street
Image Credit: Teaching Culture

Challenges in Adapting Visuals to Anthropological Research

The process of creating an ethnographic novel is taxing, highly thought out, and planned, with challenges in the presentation of theoretical stances through the visual form. The best ethnographic graphic novels might end up functioning as an accompaniment to deeper, more theoretically fleshed-out works. Students taking a course for graphic ethnographies expressed that it functions best only for certain narratives, and has its own disadvantages. In general, graphic ethnographies serve as a useful complement, but not a replacement, to standard ones (Boudreault-Fournier 2016, 8).

Photo of Ursula K. Le Guin, Graphic Ethnography
Photo of Ursula K. Le Guin. Image Credit: The Guardian

Graphic Ethnography and Ethnographic Fiction

This adoption of ethnographic research for accessible distribution could also be applied to the broader genre of ethnographic fiction. Generally, the goal of ethnographic fiction is to craft a compelling narrative out of the traditional techniques of ethnography, field notes, photographs, interviewing, cultural immersion through participant observation and the ethnographic text (Jacobson and Larsen 2014). Structures in society, like institutions, class, and power, can often be shown better through these crafted examples, as long as they are based on genuine patterns. Influential anthropologist Clifford Geertz considered all ethnographies to be in some way fictional as they involve re-telling lived experiences (Geertz 1988, 1973).

a book by Ursula K Le Guin, ethnographic fiction author who's work inspired future graphic ethnography writing
Image Credit: Pinterest

Advantages of Ethnographic Fiction

Falcone describes the blend of science fiction and anthropological literature created by authors like Ursula K. Le Guin and Karen McCarthy Brown as offering unique possibilities. These works allow the author to craft stories and interactions, rather than just interpreting them differently. After all, all things that are created are cultural, making ethnographic fiction still insightful as a cultural text. However, this argument does not aim to replace the conventions of anthropological research but to expand upon them and allow conversations on possibilities when handled properly and honestly. Falcone also acknowledges that post-1980s anthropology has embraced partial fiction for the sake of anonymity and protection while addressing that not only how we write a graphic ethnography is shaped by our cultural predispositions, but also how we craft fiction.

Categorizing the Genre

The barrier between ethnographic fiction created by anthropologists and authors of similar inclinations can also be difficult to access as the ethnographic medium continues to evolve and branch apart into subfields. Falcone provides a basic framework for ethnographic fiction, arguing that it should be inspired by lived experiences but that it need not be exclusively based on them. However, the full framework for the genre is still a niche within the broader context of ethnographic literature (Falcone 2015). Despite this minor position within anthropological literature, ethnographic fiction has been produced since 1890, and will likely continue forward as a niche within the field (Jacobson and Larsen 2014).

a camera lens in front of a landscape scene, Graphic Ethnography
Image Credit: Drishtikone

Objectivity and Fiction in Graphic Ethnography

Another question that can be addressed when challenging our assumptions and beliefs on the ethnographic format is the question of objectivity in graphic ethnography research. In more recent decades, anthropological research has shifted to include the subjective inclusion of the narrator to address the biases of the author. Due to the nature of documenting incredibly complex realities in which one cannot fully know the truth, fictionalizing ethnographies may actually prevent sensationalization and inaccuracies.

A Niche Within Ethnographic Writing

While it cannot fully replace ethnographies in many cases, ethnographic fiction and graphic ethnography are valuable sub-genres. With research that involves incriminating aspects, fictionalizing and changing of names and details is done with little exception already in ethnographic research, and altering the narrative takes a further step into this realm. This could in some cases damage the intended objectivity or impact of the research, while in others it could be beneficial.

a frame from Lissa that reads 'there is no list here', referring to a medical waitlist
Image Credit: American Anthropologist

Changes in Anthropological Writing

I think that open-mindedness and the embrace of change is a healthy mindset for graphic ethnography practice and should be sought after in the field. The discipline of anthropology has been changing for decades and increasing accessibility should be encouraged to broaden the field. If public audiences can read and appreciate anthropology, the written pleas for change that make up the conclusions of many ethnographic works could finally be heard by broader audiences with more potential impact. It could also help bring in more money to fund ethnographic research and the production of more rigorous, traditional work in tandem.

a colour illustration from Gringo Love, Graphic Ethnography
Image Credit: Universo HQ

Gringo Love

Another graphic ethnography called Gringo Love: Stories of Sex Tourism in Brazil by Carrier-Moisan attempts to bridge the gap between Lissa and traditional ethnography, situating the anthropologist within the story and including the process of fieldwork amongst a fictionalized version of real subjects. This involved the rearranging of events and the combination of separate narratives in the sense that Lissa constructs its narrative. However, it is not based on separate fieldwork projects and is the result of a single period of ethnographic research. (Carrier-Moisan 2018, pt. 1).

a silhouette of a women, Graphic Ethnography
RD World Online

Anonymity and Fiction

In writing about the process, the anthropologist acknowledged that it can be hard to remove the quotations and scientific aspects of anthropological writing. Frankly, I feel the same way when trying to simplify the prose in my posts. However, they argue that it is not a simpler form of ethnography due to the difficulty of learning new skills. The genre also provides new means of visualizing characters while attempting to maintain the anonymity needed for research on sex work (Carroer-Moisan 2018, pt. 2). This can be compared with the traditional ethnography by Don Kulick on sex work, Travesti (Kulick, 1998).

Complex Subjects

This same benefit is felt strongly in the context of Lissa, which tells an emotional tale that involves revolution and illness, both topics that require a fragile ethnographic touch to document appropriately. However, there are some areas that will falter slightly. In a traditional ethnography, the anthropologist can more deeply address theoretical analyses of the stories, rather than leaving them up for interpretation. Graphic ethnographies provide a different experience that is beneficial in a different way, but still calls for the inclusion of supplementary material to truly access the full benefits of a visually enhanced anthropology.

A cartoon man in a crowd holds a sign saying 'Mubarak Must Go', taken from Lissa
Image Credit: Daily News Egypt

Revolution and Visualization in Graphic Ethnography

Lissa also addresses anthropological themes like revolutions. The visual medium format of Lissa contributes greatly to its ability to tell the tale of the revolution as an influence in Egypt, with the fiction narrative adding a better way to link this broader sociopolitical climate with the niche area of kidney transplants within the region. The visual form also allows the authors to show and give voices to the revolutionaries, through their graffiti art. Within the latter half of Lissa, this art is reproduced on many of the walls in the background. The authors portray important thematic messages about time, forgiveness, and change that are addressed and challenged through this art.

Narrative advantages

This backdrop of the revolution allows the authors to fuse their narratives well despite being separate research. The fusion of the works being set during a revolutionary crisis creates an extremely moving and compelling narrative about loss, change, fate, and the social ties that shape our decisions. This also connects to themes of globalization and cultural differences that are portrayed through the differences in the characters’ lives between America (the West) and Egypt (the Rest) (Hamdy and Nye 2017).

A comic bubble reads Graphic Ethnography
Image Credit: Anthropology News

The Significance of Graphic Ethnography to Anthropology

Graphic ethnography is an exciting new way forward for ethnographic fiction and ethnographies in general. The most essential parts of the story are accessible and not obscured by anthropological jargon and theoretical analysis. Instead, the authors fictionalize lived experiences while portraying the embodied nature of medical prognoses and illnesses. Therefore, the medical decisions at the core of the story do not need to be deeply addressed in a theoretical sense. Instead, the visual nature shows the pain and growth of the characters.  Without explicit acknowledgement, these choices are framed as being shaped by social, environmental, and political forces. Thus, it differs substantially from a traditional ethnography in medium, scope, and genre without losing the impact.

a person writes in a library, Graphic Ethnography
Image Credit: Your Story

Comparing Graphic Ethnography With External Publications

When compared to the previous researchers by these authors, it contains none of the citations and markers of academic, peer-reviewed writing. However, Lissa still carries across the most substantial information. Hamdy and Nye’s previous published works are still worth exploration for deeper enhancements of the topic for those more invested in medical anthropology. These include the political etiologies of kidney failure and the imagined futures and chronicity of breast cancer research. Reading these can add to the transmedia storytelling that has developed from their fieldwork (Hamdy 2008) (Nye 2013).

a page from Lissa, Graphic Ethnography
Image Credit: Pen

Conclusion: Lissa as a Successful Example of Writing Graphic Ethnography

No person in real life ever made the decision to forgive Anna like Layla did towards the end of the story. This conclusion was inspired by the research despite it never having occurred. However, it still teaches an important conclusion about friendship and the social influences on medical decisions that wouldn’t be otherwise possible. Traditionally, hundreds of incidents and individuals inform anthropological research. Telling collective stories functions best as a written body of text generally. However, to tell an individual and lived experience, this method works fantastically. Graphic ethnographies help condense these diverse experiences and incidents across their fieldwork into a presentable narrative that loses little of the impact.

Works Cited

  • Boudreault-Fournier, Alexandrine. 2016. ‘Making’ Graphic Novels as a Creative Practice in Anthropology: Learning Outcomes From the Classroom. Centre for Imaginative Ethnography/ Accessed 03/04/2021 from here
  • Carrier-Moisan, Marie-Eve. 2018. Anthropology Otherwise: Thoughts on a Graphic Novel Experiment Parts 1 and 2. Teaching Culture. University of Toronto Press. Accessed 03/04/2021 from here
  • Coleman Nye. 2013. Untimely Economies of Survival. Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 23(2): 268-290.
  • Falcone, Jessica. 2015. Genre-bending, or the Love of Ethnographic Fiction. Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology. Savage Minds. Accessed 03/03/2021 from here
  • Geertz. Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. Basic Books: New York.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1988. Works and lives: the anthropologist as author. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Hamdy, Sherine. F. 2008. When the state and your kidneys fail: Political etiologies in an Egyptian dialysis ward. American Ethnologist 35(4): 553-569.
  • Hamdy, Sherine, and Coleman Nye. 2017. Lissa: a Story about Medical Promise, Friendship and Revolution. University of Toronto Press: Toronto.
  • Hamdy, Sherine, and Coleman Nye. 2019. Comics and revolution as global public health intervention: The Case of Lissa. Global Public Health.
  • Jacobson, Matt, and Soren. C. Larsen. 2014. Ethnographic fiction for writing and research in cultural geography. Journal of Cultural Geography 31(2): 179-193.
  • Kulick, Don. 1998. Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture Among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes. University of Chicago Press.

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