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Ilana Gershon asked five anthropologists for their approaches to the many daunting tasks of publishing an article in a journal, based on questions generated by Sandhya Narayanan. This installment explores the following question:

Do you have any suggestions for how to approach writing and publishing pieces that are more theoretical rather than more ethnographic?

Deborah Gewertz: Know the theory well, apply it intelligently, convey it clearly. (Concerning the last recommendation, some might disagree and argue that the more obscure, the better. I am not one of these people.)

Jason Jackson: After having really studied a journal—its back issues, its editorial manifestos, and its submissions guidelines—it is okay to reach out to an editor before submission to explore remaining questions about goodness of fit. An editor will usually be eager to share their own take on a question like this and that response can be very helpful in terms of deciding to submit and, perhaps, in finalizing the work prior to submission. Some journals, of course, specialize in such pieces but others may welcome them as a change of pace, thus one can be surprised about openness or closedness to such work. This can be editor specific but it can also relate to the amount and nature of the work already in a journal’s pipeline.

That is an editor’s reply. As an author, I am probably late to doing such work myself, and I do not yet have suggestions for the writing.

Janelle Taylor: Not really, except to do some groundwork, look at what kinds of articles a journal has already published and how it describes its mission and aims.

Jessica Winegar: Expand what “counts” as theory to beyond the usual suspects. Use theory written in other languages. Engage Black women scholars as theorists. Embrace your own theorizing instead of relying solely on others to prove yourself.

Matthew Wolf-Meyer: I’ve found that theory-heavy article manuscripts are slow to publish. I don’t mean the kind of “here’s a new idea to think about” or “let’s take Foucault to the field” kind of theory pieces, but the “here’s what Deleuze and Guattari mean by ‘minor science’ and how it applies to anthropology” kind of pieces.

It seems to me that what readers usually actually want is a novel twist on a familiar idea, particularly with a good ethnographic case study. What they have a harder time with is an obtuse idea that challenges anthropological conventions, including familiar forms of empiricism and evidentiary claims. Which is all to say that theory in articles is usually a pretty limited tool, constrained both by the process of peer review and the word count of a typical article. The one caveat I would make about this is that the further one is into one’s publishing career, the easier it is to publish something explicitly theoretical. That’s a function of style and reputation more than the content of an article—anonymous peer review just becomes impossible over time, at least for careful and attentive readers. It also becomes more possible to make bigger claims when you can cite a lot of your other evidentiary work to support it.

Credit: Joanna Kosinska
Photograph of two pencils

Deborah Gewertz is the G. Henry Whitcomb Professor at Amherst College and has been an associate editor of American EthnologistEthnos and the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.  

Jason Jackson is the Ruth N. Halls Professor of Anthropology and Folklore at Indiana University, and the editor of Museum Anthropology Review

Janelle Taylor is a professor at University of Toronto.

Jessica Winegar is a professor at Northwestern and editor of PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review.

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an associate professor at SUNY-Binghamton.


Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon is the Ruth N. Halls Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University. Her most recent monograph is on corporate hiring in the United States—Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Cite as

Gershon, Ilana. 2021. “Crafting and Publishing Theory Articles.” Anthropology News website, September 3, 2021.