thin places: a pilgrimage home

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Colorado College]On: 08 October 2014, At: 15:31Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T3JH, UK

    Ethnos: Journal ofAnthropologyPublication details, including instructions forauthors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/retn20

    Thin Places: A PilgrimageHomeJeanne Kormina aa Department of Sociology , Higher School ofEconomics , St Petersburg , RussiaPublished online: 19 Mar 2012.

    To cite this article: Jeanne Kormina (2012) Thin Places: A Pilgrimage Home, Ethnos:Journal of Anthropology, 77:1, 142-144, DOI: 10.1080/00141844.2011.595812

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00141844.2011.595812

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    http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditions

  • technologies from textbooks and from themedical tourists who spend weeks ormonths working in Malawi. They knowabout them from enclaves of transnationalresearch or private clinics in South Africa.But in their everyday practice there is only ayawning gap between clinical reality andmedical possibility. Wendland argues thatfor some students at least, this disjuncturewas a major impetus forcing them to reima-gine the work, and renegotiate the moraleconomy of medicine. (p. 198). For others,of course, the impetus was to go wherethe technology was materially present.

    Wendland knows of what she writesabout the working conditions of QueenElizabeth Hospital. As an obstetriciangynecologist, she spent an exhaustingtwo days a week examining high-riskmothers and performing surgery. Butthis double role of doctor and ethnogra-pher was also an ethical problem. Toavoid clinical teaching contact with thestudents she was studying, she went outof her way not to spend time with themin the hospital. Nor did she seek themout beyond. Her material comes frominterviews with 31 medical students indifferent years, focus group discussions,as well as interviews with faculty and 11graduates. The book is thus heavilyreliant on what the medical studentstold her within the frame of a formalinterview. Following the principle ofinterpretive charity, she takes the stu-dents at their word. The words are infor-mative and thought-provoking. Eachchapter of the book ends with one ortwo personal narratives that bring the stu-dents and their situations alive. Yet, welearn little of their actual practice on thewards, their interactions with oneanother and the patients, or how theylived when they were not in the class-room or hospital. How are their asser-

    tions about heart or their intentions ofpolitical activism reflected in practice?

    The reader is left wondering whethertheir heart will hold after they leavemedical school, whether they willremain in public health facilities inMalawi, and how the combination oflow salaries and high status will shapethe family, community, and politicallives of these doctors. One can onlyhope that Wendland will some day giveus a follow-up on this excellent book.

    Susan WhyteUniversity of Copenhagen

    Denmark# Susan Whyte

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00141844.2011.586468

    Ann Ambrecht. 2009 Thin Places: APilgrimage Home New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press, 296 pps.

    Once, at a Quaker wedding I attended,the father of the groom talked aboutthin places, places where ones nerveendings are bare. People make pil-grimages to thin places . . . What thepilgrims encounter the blessingsthey perceive depends as much ontheir receptivity as on the sanctity ofthe land they pass through (p. 87).

    The book Thin Places: a PilgrimageHome written by Ann Ambrecht, anAmerican anthropologist specializingin Nepal, is a vivid example of autoethno-graphy, a form of experimental (andcontroversial) anthropological writingadvocated by some and criticized byothers. The main characteristics of auto-ethnography are present in this text: (1)it makes the authors own experience a

    ethnos, vol. 77:1, march 2012 (pp. 137 153)

    142 Book Reviews

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  • topic of investigation; (2) it tells emotion-al-laden personal stories intended toraise strong emotional responses in thereader; (3) it blurs the boundary betweenacademic writing and literature as a fineart. In other words, these kinds of textscan be criticized as egocentric, manipula-tive and unclear in terms of genre and thetarget audience. On the other hand, it canbe praised for its sincerity, lyricism andhumanism qualities not necessary foracademic texts but usually welcomed byeveryday readers.

    Those familiar with anthropologicaltexts would recognize the scenario ofrite de passage structuring the contentof the book: the period of departurefrom someones home and social status(Part 1: Departure), being in between(Part 2: Initiation), returning home (Part 3:Return), and celebrating a new socialstatus (Part 4: Birth) obtained as a resultof the journey. Ambrecht starts herjourney as a PhD student in Harvard,happily engaged to a boy who shares herinterest in Nepal, travel and nature andends up as a professional herbalist deeplydisappointed with academia, and as adivorced single mum. Suffering of differentsorts, physical as well as moral, accompa-nies the protagonist throughout the book,corresponding to the idea hidden in thecomposition of the book: every subject ofan initiation ritual is expected to experiencepain and humiliation as she does. Theheros physical tortures include bleedingfeet, hunger and cold. Evenmore importantare the moral tortures, such as loneliness,suffering from being separated from thebeloved (first from the boyfriend and later,in the American part of a journey, from atoddler-daughter, who is living three daysper week with her father, the formerboyfriend of the hero), lack of privacy(during fieldwork), the process of a dissol-

    ving marriage, and the experience of thedeath of a close friend.

    The book is well written and skillfullycomposed. This is a small wonder bearingin mind the fact that before having beenenrolled in a graduate program inanthropology, the author studied litera-ture and writing. If one tries to definewhich literary trends influenced theauthor, directly or indirectly, one wouldnote the bildungsroman, recognized asa novel of formation it deals with thematuration process of the protagonist ofa novel. Thin Places tells the story the female story of the young Americanintellectual going through this processand becoming an adult with an unshakenidentity and belief system.

    The painful rite de passage is ajourney replete with lost illusions. InNepal Ann is disappointed with theMakalu-Barun Conservation Project,which changed the everyday lives ofher Yamphu informants and the sacredlandscape of Himalayas. Likewise, inAmerica she reveals the hypocrisy of awell-known couple, back-to-the-landersHelen and Scott Nearing, and thingsthat the Nearings had chosen not tomention in their books (p. 227).However, the culmination of this disillu-sion in her narrative takes place duringthe pilgrimage with her informants tothe sacred Khembalung cave, whichturned out to be an ordinary placedespite the difficult and dangerous trip.Nothing special happened there, asAnn did not experience the sacrednessof the place, only pain in her bleedingfeet.

    This personal search for the sacredseems to be the most thought-provokingpart of the book, problematic and inter-esting at the same time. The protagonistof the book confesses, that during her

    ethnos, vol. 77:1, march 2012 (pp. 137 153)

    Book Reviews 143

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  • fieldwork she, cared less about theresearch and theory than about theopportunity it offered to experience lifefully (p. 159), that is, in particular, tounderstand her own views of sacred(p. 246). She came to the conclusion thatthe sacred not only is present in far-away places, but is a quality we experi-ence when we open to the world aroundus, to the sacred spring that flow