This article puts forward a methodological pathway for work between anthropology and art that is premised on the relation between social and aesthetic form. It draws on the authors’ work with cartonera publishers in Latin America, small community-based collectives whose members make low-cost books from recycled cardboard in an explicit attempt to make both the consumption and production of literature accessible to wider society. We begin by describing Dulcinéia Catadora, a cartonera publisher based in São Paulo that is the ethnographic focus of this article. We then present three theoretical propositions, which enable us to analyse not in isolation from, but rather in relation to, social and political processes, asking how ethnographic practice can intersect with aesthetics in a mode which goes beyond the illustrative. We conclude by proposing what we term a ‘trans-formal’ methodological approach based on a method of ‘emulation’, opening up new possibilities for research that is multi-disciplinary, transnational, horizontal and participatory.