Since the beginning of his career, Caton has been a specialist of Arabic and the Middle East, with an emphasis on Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula. His earliest work was in anthropological linguistics and poetics which culminated in his first book, Peaks of Yemen I Summon (University of California Press, 1990), an ethnography of Arabic, oral poetry and political culture of a Yemeni highland tribe. Anthropological linguistics continues to be one of Caton’s main disciplinary interests, and is the focus of a combined graduate and undergraduate course on the subject every other year.
During the course of fieldwork for that research, a dispute broke out in the village in which he was living–that became the subject of Caton’s third book, Yemen Chronicle (Hill & Wang, 2005). It explores issues of event, time, and memory in his field research and ethnographic writing, which he now addresses in more theoretical work that engages anthropologists, historians and philosophers. From time to time, Caton has also taught a graduate course, The Anthropology of the Event, that goes over much of the same material.
In between these two books on Yemen Caton fell under the spell of Hollywood cinema and wrote Lawrence of Arabia: a Film’s Anthropology (University of California, 1999), a negative dialectical analysis of a film in the mode of the Frankfurt School. He teaches a combined graduate and undergraduate course on the subject of film, popular culture, and Frankfurt School theory on a regular basis. Questions of film and visual images more generally are an enduring concern of Caton, most recently evinced in a series of articles on the events of prisoner abuse by U.S. Occupying Forces that occurred in the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib. Caton contemplates working on turning his thoughts on this difficult subject into a book.
When Caton returned to Yemen in 2001 for the first time in twenty years after his fieldwork on oral poetry, he was shocked to see how dire the water situation had become and wondered what he, a social anthropologist, could do about it. This represented a significant departure from his earlier interests and has required a good deal of re-education in the fields of environmentalism, political ecology, hydrology and science studies. In 2005-2006, with a grant from the Wenner Gren Foundation, Harvard University’s Center for the Environment, and the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Caton and a Yemeni colleague, Abdou Ali Othman, trained four Yemeni researchers in anthropological field methods to join them in ethnographic research on water problems in the Sana’a Basin. Some of the results of that research are being edited for publication. Caton’s ethnographic contribution had to do with international experts and their agencies, as these affect the circulation of knowledge about water use and policies stemming from them in countries like Yemen. He is currently collaborating with a colleague, anthropologist Ben Orlov (University of California, Davis), on an article reviewing anthropological work on problems of water use and sustainability and is beginning new fieldwork in the Gulf with another colleague, architect Nader Ardalan, on burgeoning cities and their impacts on the environment (including water sustainability). Caton foresees research on water sustainability to take up most of his future research and writing in anthropology, and is planning to teach a course on the anthropology of water sustainability in the near future.