Steven Caton in Yemen, summer of 2002
(Photo by Carolyn Han)
Steve Caton, Professor
William James Hall 318 | (617) 495-1886 | e-mail


My earliest work was in anthropological linguistics and poetics and culminated in my first book "Peaks of Yemen I Summon" (1990), an ethnography of language, oral poetry and political culture conducted in a highland tribe of Yemen. I argued that politics was about moral persuasion more than the coercive use of force and that poetry (or rather, a system of poetic genres) was crucial to that cultural end. During the course of fieldwork for that research, a dispute broke out in the village in which I was living in 1980 that was finally resolved through a complex, dialectical interplay of persuasive mediation and various forms of political violence. It was that "event" as well as its impact on my work and life that I have analyzed in a memoir of fieldwork/ethnography tentatively called Yemen Chronicle (forthcoming by Hill & Wang). I had more trouble writing that book than any other, in part because remembering such events in which friends suffered was emotionally difficult but also because I could not successfully weave together a reflexive narrative of the field with a theoretical discussion of events, time and memory, and so I decided to separate the one from the other and publish them separately. Accordingly, I am now working on a theoretical text that will bring together, hopefully, more than ten years of thinking on the anthropology of the event.

For several years now, I have also had the pleasure of teaching the second semester of the pro-seminar for entering graduate students which I design around the works and careers of three contemporary anthropologists, preferably representing different training, theoretical formation and areal focus who come to class to be interrogated by the students. The aim is to learn how to contextualize one's reading of contemporary works by understanding the research questions they pose, the types of dialogue they engage in with other anthropologists, and the complex ways in which these questions relate to the history of theory in the discipline. It is the most challenging course I teach.

While teaching in California, I fell under the spell of Hollywood cinema, which may seem something like a magnificent digression but I think not. In a course on the Middle East, I tried to bring home the Saidean critique of orientalist knowledge about the area produced in disciplines like anthropology by showing David Lean's epic film "Lawrence of Arabia." Of course, students were able to take the film's orientalist representations apart and roundly criticize them, but they also taught me much that was problematical in the critique itself, not to mention other representational complexities in the film that I had missed. I decided that this film, in both its production and a self-reflexive history of its reception, deserved a full-fledged analysis -- an undertaking that took me into the fascinating labyrinths of film theory and cultural studies -- and I asked the question of how anthropology might take feature-length film as an object of its analysis. I attempt an answer to these and other questions in my book Lawrence of Arabia: a film's anthropology (1999). What are some of these other questions? Not surprisingly, perhaps because I was writing the book while thinking about the anthropology of the event, it is also about time and memory. But the process of film reception induces these questions as well, and the book is an effort to remember how I saw a film as a child in 1963 -- a year after its original release -- and how time has changed that reception with its re-release in 1989 when the world and audiences had changed considerably in the interim. And then again, as I finished the book I realized that what I was trying to bring into focus as an object of anthropological investigation was not so much a film as a "film industry," captured at a particular moment in its history. Accordingly, with the help of some students, I am now grappling with the question "What is a film industry?" and how might it be described anthropologically . . . but I leave it up to my students to do the hard work of ethnography on this one.

For what concerns me now is an issue that is, once again, quite different from anything I have tackled before, the problem of water. In many regions of the earth the relative scarcity of water as well as the degradation of its quality are posing extreme environmental and health risks for local populations and arguably nowhere more so than in the Middle East and particularly Yemen. I am now hoping to embark on new field research in 2004-05 to be based in the Sana'a Basin of Yemen that will examine the differential impact of this problem on the local population of the capital and how it struggles to survive. I am now reading in fields like hydro-geology, civil engineering, environmental history, global economics, public health and so forth -- a far cry from film theory. I hope to develop a collaborative research project with Yemeni scholars, one that might become a model for the study of other areas of the country as well as the Middle East. And if the problems of water might not be solved exactly, perhaps we will find a way to alleviate some of the worst suffering caused by it, not the least being political conflicts. In my trip to Yemen in 2001 I learned that tribal poets were composing poetry on the need to conserve water resources and with that discovery, I realized that I had come around full circle in my interests.


I try to offer at least one, if not two courses each year in the main areas of my research, excluding water (though this too will be added in the near future). Thus, Anthropology 104 "Language and Culture" is an introduction to the field of anthropological linguistics, with an emphasis on structuralism and the ethnography of communication. For graduate students, there is a special teaching section that I lead on concepts that are necessary for understanding much contemporary theoretical discourse. Anthropology 210 "The Anthropology of Events" which has attracted students equally in anthropology and history asks how events can become the objects of analysis in both disciplines as well broader issues such as time and memory. Anthropology 120 "Anthropology, Cultural Studies, and Film" grapples with the formulation of "film industries" (for the most part under the theoretical sign of Horkheimer and Adorno), paying particular attention to Hollywood in contrast to others in the world, but particularly in the Middle East, such as the Egyptian and Iranian ones. The graduate section allows students to go into more depth on such topics as the Frankfurt School, post-colonial theory and feminist film studies.