Ethnography in Late Industrialism

Abstract

This essay situates contemporary ethnography within late industrialism, a historical period characterized by degraded infrastructure, exhausted paradigms, and the incessant chatter of new media. In the spirit of Writing Culture, it calls for ethnography attuned to its times. It also calls for ethnography that “loops,” using ethnographic techniques to discern the discursive risks and gaps of a particular problem domain so that further ethnographic engagement in that domain is responsive and creative, provoking new articulations, attending to emergent realities. Ethnographic findings are thus fed back into ethnographic engagement. This mode of ethnography stages collaboration with interlocutors to activate new idioms and ways of engaging the world. It is activist, in a manner open to futures that cannot yet be imagined.

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Kim Fortun, "Tank 610, abandoned Union Carbide plant, Bhopal, India." November 12, 2012 .

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays that reflect on the uses and futures of ethnographic knowledge, including George Marcus' "The End(s) of Ethnography: Social/Cultural Anthropology's Signature Form of Producing Knowledge in Transition" (2008), Michael M. J. Fischer's "Culture and Cultural Analysis as Experimental Systems" (2007), Charles Hale's "Activist Research v. Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Anthropology" (2006), and Allen Chun's "From Text to Context: How Anthropology Makes Its Subject" (2000).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of essays on science and technology studies approaches in anthropology, including S. Eben Kirksey's and Stefan Helmreich's "The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography" (2010), Michael M. J. Fischer's "Four Genealogies for a Recombinant Anthropology of Science and Technology" (2007), and Michael J. Montoya's "Bioethnic Conscription: Genes, Race, and Mexicana/o Ethnicity in Diabetes Research" (2007).

About the Author

(adapted from Fortun's website)

Kim Fortun is Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Fortun co-edited (with Mike Fortun) Cultural Anthropology from 2006 to 2010, and is the author of Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders (Chicago 2001), winner (with Adriana Petryna’s book Life Exposed) of the 2003 biannual Sharon Stephens Prize awarded by the American Ethnological Society.

Fortun’s research and teaching focus on environmental health problems, and on ways ethnography can be used to understand and engage the complexities of the contemporary world. Her research has examined how people in different geographic and organizational contexts understand environmental problems, uneven distributions of environmental health risks, developments in the environmental health sciences, and factors that contribute to, and reduce, vulnerability to environmental risk and disaster.

Media from Article

Representing Bopal

“There has been a continuing outpouring of work representing Bhopal, in films and novels and scholarly work, and I think that is a testament to both the significance of it but also the difficulty of representing the disaster,” Fortun remarked. “The representational challenge of Bhopal was hugely formative in my research career.”

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Kim Fortun, "Abandoned Union Carbide plant, Bhopal, India." November 12, 2012.

On the twentieth anniversary of the disaster in 2004, political performance art troupe the Yes Men impersonated a spokesperson for Dow Chemical, which had purchased Union Carbide, claiming that Dow would compensate and care for victims:

Dow swiftly denied that they would be taking any responsibility for Bhopali victims.

Fortun characterized the Yes Men's intervention in the ongoing activist struggle for Bhopali victims as performing a "looping that is akin to the kind of looping I call for in the piece...they read the discursive terrain and poked at it and made it do something different.”

The Asthma Files (TAF)

TAF is Fortun's ongoing experiment in producing interdisciplinary ethnographic knowledge about asthma. It creates an experimental space for collaboration by bringing researchers working on individual projects together to engage with shared materials. In explaining the origins of the project, Fortun commented that, "the substantive motivation [was the] concern that dominant ways of thinking and dominant ways of regulating and governing ourselves made it very difficult to deal with environmental health problems, and asthma was a poster child, partly because the rates of asthma both in this country and internationally are just skyrocketing...But we were also committed to the idea that these kinds of problems deserve our attention and are hard to be done well by the lone researcher."

The TAF team plans to release an open source version of their online platform so that other communities can use it for collaborative research projects.

Michael Powell on Food

As mentioned in the article, anthropologist Michael Powell investigates the sociocultural aspects of food and shopping through analyzing and designing consumer environments. Powell gives background on his work in this post about snack foods he recently wrote for anthropologist Deepa Reddy's website. In 2010, he wrote a four part series on consumers/shoppers for anthropology blog Savage Minds.

Powell has worked with the concept of "food deserts," which he explains here as "geographic areas with limited access to the full range of food options typically found at the traditional grocery store—including fruits and vegetables, as well as dairy and even frozen or canned foods." Currently, a controversial corporate food event is unfolding in Los Angeles, as Walmart attempts to open a new store in the historic Chinatown business district. Walmart has been representing this planned store and others as a response to food deserts.

The ease with which a corporation like Walmart can appropriate the language of food justice shows how variable the actual terrains described as food deserts can be. "As my project evolves," Powell reflected, "I'm finding that 'food desert' is becoming increasingly problematic simply because, well, take Chinatown. Is it really a food desert? There might be too much food in Chinatown. Some might call it a food swamp. Regardless of the application of the label in this case, there really are large swaths of rural areas in this country that can accurately be called food deserts."

Powell's current work is informed by his academic research on corruption as a policy problem and the emergent anthropology of public policy. On his blog, Cultural Analysis, Powell reflects on the circulation of cultural forms in everyday life.

Discussion Questions

1. What are some other examples of productive interventions in representing a multifaceted and ongoing disaster like Bhopal?

2. In his online writing, Powell compares situations that differ in scale but not in action, for example juxtaposing a snack and a meal (eating) or a convenience store and a farmer's market (shopping). How does this shift the terrain of an ethnographic project on food?

3. Do you participate in collaborative ethnographic research? What are some of the challenges you face? If not, what would collaboration look like in your field site?

4. When you've found yourself in an ethnographic situation where existing language was not sufficient to describe what you witnessed, how did you respond?

5. In this article, Fortun gives a precise description of a method. Do you think anthropology needs to be more explicit in outlining its methods? Why or why not?

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Kim Fortun, "Abandoned Union Carbide plant, Bhopal, India." November 12, 2012.

Interview

Adonia Lugo: Can you talk about the process through which you and others developed these steps for ethnography as an experimental system? Was it a collaborative effort?

Kim Fortun: It came out of my collaborative work , but also it came out of a long, long effort to work in the Writing Culture tradition, which I learned at a very basic level as,  the form of articulation and work is productive of its effects. One way to answer this question is to say that I started thinking about experimentation being in the text. You needed to design a text, a literal, written text, that embodied and carried your argument; the form of the text was not just this neutral carrier. And so that's really where I was when I was doing my dissertation and writing the Bhopal book.

I think it was as I was becoming a teacher that I realized that that kind of attentiveness and craftedness of the text needed to be pulled back into the research design process. And this was kind of a reappropriation of methods. Methods...was a kind of unspoken, if not bad word, in the late 80s and 90s, and for good reason, there was a real effort to not be producing cookie cutter kinds of analyses, overdetermined analyses. So I still respect the antipathy to method; on the other hand, the idea that you're going to come up with an analysis that speaks to people because you're so smart or lucky isn't very persuasive either (laughs).

So I was trying to figure out, how do you design a research process without overdetermining it? Because that would really undercut a key, key value of an ethnographic approach, and as a teacher, I was trying to help prepare students to do independent work, but also trying not to nail down too firmly what they were going to do. I started teaching a research design class, and it became my goal to help students have a big research imagination. One product was a proposal not for a funding agency, but for their committee, which was a different beast, so to speak. Even bigger than the proposal was how do you watch your research evolve as you stay attuned to the situations you're working in, and part of being attuned is being attuned to the political dynamics and historical dynamics; what kind of research must be done now? I've encouraged my students to keep this question at the top of their list. And it was from that question, what kind of research now, that we began working on TAF.

The other way of answering this question that came to mind, that sort of duplicates what I just said, is that people recognized that you needed to design a text, not just assume it was a neutral carrier of an argument: you put critical theory to work at the front end of the process, not just in your analysis and argument. You had to figure out how to design your text. So, front end theory has been really, really critical in TAF, because we're trying to design a digital platform that actually carries many of the insights of the so-called “language turn” in the human sciences that Writing Culture was part of. And that has also been fun and challenging, to try to render into digital space some of the concepts that have undergirded the work of this tradition for many years.

AL: It's long been fashionable in the discipline to talk about the end of anthropology, but your article proposes ways of using ethnography to extend the reach of anthropology. As a grad student who blogs about my activist research, I wonder how we can make room for endeavors that do not fit into our current professionalization process. What do you think anthropology will look like in the future?

KF: It may be partly because I live outside of anthropology, in an interdisciplinary department, but I am really just a huge fan of the field. In part, I see it generate a richness of work that really, really is unmatched in other fields. And, of course I'm biased, it's the field I work in, but in terms of just generating nuanced understanding of phenomena; you know, it's a tradition of work worth cultivating and taking care of. And some of my perspective comes from now working in the anthropology of science: I work alongside historians of science, so I'm really mindful that different fields do different things well, and they have certain tendencies. Some fields, you can look at them historically and understand why they got kind of tired and reproductive. I think anthropology's got a lot of history that positions us well to be really open to the new demands that the world places on our desk. I feel very positive about the field, at the same time as feeling really, really frustrated by the organization of our profession, whether it be in the American Anthropological Association, or in even many departments...I've heard about the conservative disciplining in many departments.  Fortunately, I’m not subject to this as my niche in STS tolerates and even encourages a very expansive and creative sense of ethnography.  I attribute to this the continual need for inventiveness in figuring out how to do the anthropology of science and technology.

The other thing I would say is that the project of critical anthropology for the last two or three decades of document and critique, that's far from over. The world is full of plenty of dynamics and processes that we need to document and critique. I think that what I call for in this  CA  piece certainly isn't the only kind of anthropology or ethnography that needs to be done, but it's one that actively uses the insights of ethnography to intervene in the production of meaning and idioms so that problems can be addressed, disavowals and marginalizations can be attended to, and so in that sense it is an activist anthropology. Different than activist anthropology is sometimes conceived, where what the anthropologist does is advocate on behalf of a certain solution.

[In] my early years working on Bhopal, I often used to get asked, are you an activist instead of a scholar? Part of what our activism is is recognizing that there's an insufficiency of articulation. It's hard to say, it's hard to connect. Anthropologists serving in that role, which is really, really working the language turn that has so characterized the last couple of decades, using our language theory in a very practical way; I think it's going to characterize an important stream of work in the field.

One of the ways we're going to have something to contribute to the communities we work in is if we continually refine our skills as cultural analysts by subjecting ourselves to the evaluation of others in our community. That is the function that the dissertation and journal publications have served: it's where we look at each other's work and try to make it smarter and better. And that kind of old peer review, I think that's what we've really got to cultivate and hang onto. It's collectivization of the knowledge-making process to have some kind of peer review, and so part of the question of new forms of form, is new forms of collectivity that will take care of those forms and can maintain the functions that the peer review process was intended to serve, I think.

I think it's a real open question, what the object of that collective analysis will be. Will it be a monograph? In cutting edge anthropology in a decade, will your product be a blog space? I think that it will be one of your spaces, and that the reified monograph, I hope will be less of an obligation, particularly if it's not perceived as advancing your and others' understanding of what's going on. I hope it won't be journals owned and controlled by corporate presses. We're going to have to dig ourselves out from that one anyway. The book presses now are asking for much shorter monographs. Just the way that academic life, including the life of our students, is organized, books are hard to accommodate. I think that's an interesting question to ponder and take care of, because I certainly think that intellectual work is done in sustaining an argument to make a book. We need to cultivate that. On the other hand, books are different creatures in cultural life than they used to be. What all this foregrounds is that  form  is a question for our field and needs to stay a question that we return to and deal with kind of on its own terms.

AL: Do you have any advice for anthropologists looking to create space for ethnography in areas that lean heavily toward quantitative research methods?

KF: I think as a community we need to do better at explaining what anthropology can do. In TAF we have a need for that, in our collaboration with natural scientists and engineers. It's a fair question when they ask us what we do, and we should be able to tell them, because they're not being antagonistic, they just don't know. Developing ways to describe anthropology in the terms people recognize, you know, what kind of knowledge do we advance, having ways to describe that is important. It's hard to find a language that doesn't sound reductive or authoritarian, but we gotta figure that out.

Looking at this question I was thinking about how for the first time we'll be teaching a methods class to undergrads in the fall, and they've always done senior theses, but often not as well as they could have because we really didn't give them enough on what qualitative research was or is or could be, so we've been thinking a lot about how to convey that. A lot of our students are dual majors in engineering or the sciences, and they come to us because they recognize that there's something they want to understand that isn't captured in their other modes of expertise.

And so, one way I thought of answering this question, how do you explain to people what you “get” from ethnography, is it doesn't work too well if you say “start with a problem;” that's a big way of talking about interdisciplinary research. If you really address a problem, you would attend to the sociocultural, but often you get tech fixes. But if you think of it in terms of a situation, like trying to understand why something is happening and what the dynamics are, I think people easily realize that a deeply qualitative understanding is important.

I'll give you an example: the Chesapeake Bay is a mess. And it's a mess because of farmer practices, and nutrient loading, and all these biophysical, industrial processes, right? But I think most people would concede that if you really want to understand why the Chesapeake Bay is a mess, it's not just a matter of monitoring the water quality. There's where people want to live, what people want to do; there's needing to understand that how people conceive of their worlds and their practices is constitutive of the situation. One of the things I'm planning to do with these undergrads is every week put one of these situations before them and say, what would a humanities or social sciences researcher ask or add to our understanding of this situation? To try and cultivate this sense that it's the  world  that calls for qualitative insight, it's not just because it happens to be what we do. So, we'll see if I can get it to work.

AL: The technique of "looping in" makes beginnings and ends less clearly defined. How does the methodology you propose challenge the usual timeline of ethnography and training in anthropology?

KF: At the 2012 Society for Cultural Anthropology meetings in Providence, Michelle Stewart and I, working with other people, ran a workshop on credentialing new modes of work in anthropology, really because these new modes of work are going to require different time frames, different ways of assessing value and productivity and all of that. [Their materials are online here]. Our sense was that SCA as a society was formed to support experimental work, and so it needs to be proactive putting out white papers, or something that people can point to in saying that a digital archive  is scholarly work, it's not nothing. It was amazing to me to find out the extent to which people who work in film still feel like they don't have a good way to have their work counted.

There's some pretty basic work to be done. Even with publishing in open access journals, you still get these really foolish comments that if something's open access it's not peer reviewed, which is just wrong. All this is part of the same process.

That said, a more specific answer: the TAF collaboration hopes to be something of a model for some ethnographic work will look like in coming years, and the younger researchers involved in the project are going to have results earlier, in the sense that we're publishing together in a way that's not the habit in anthropology...We coauthor papers, and in so many departments you still have these silly discussions of, does a coauthored paper count? Should it count as half? ...We're going to have to figure out how to deal with collaborative work, but I think that in many ways, involvement in collaborations will deeply shift the timeline and how training happens. In some ways, it might lessen some of the pressure that has come to be felt by people coming through the system, like expectations of having published a couple of things by the time you finish your degree.

In TAF we're all working on different things but we interview together and share the material. If I use someone else's work, then I cite that interview and give credit to the person who did the interview. If we did the interview together, you cite it as such. We're trying to develop new modes of recognition, because people do need to get credit for their work. You know, we thought about this with the editorial intern program for  CA  that you're involved in. You're part of a collective effort to make the website a community resource. There needs to be a way for that to become cv material for you all. Some of it's just inventing ways of recognizing work. At the workshop in Providence, another thing we talked about was that SCA could do something like give a prize for a public blog that did a nice job trafficking between anthropology and the public sphere. Or have a prize for digital projects; create other ways of actively producing the valuation of experimental work. I really do think we need to be proactive.

I think that writing experimentally, whether it's digital or not, even just in a written text, adds a layer to what we do that makes us go slower. If you think about it, we do primary data collection and analysis, we write it up, and to add a layer that's really literary form is really time-consuming. And then, people are surprised that it takes so long. There's a lot tangled in there! We need to be patient with ourselves, but also the machine out there that hires us needs to be patient as well. Just since I've been out of school there's been an escalation of expectation in publication for junior scholars, which so works against this kind of experimental work.

Ethnographic Experiments

Fortun advocates for “being expansive about what is considered experimental” in ethnographic work. Rather than attacking older established methods, she argues that experimental methodologies and projects extend the reach of ethnography while keeping researchers grounded in the practice and theory of anthropology as a discipline.

Based on the method of "looping in" that Fortun described in this article, she came up with three categories of projects that "play" with what ethnography can do.

1. Projects that animate new collectivity among ethnographers and related scholars:

-Open Folklore

-Savage Minds: Commenting on the anthropology group blog, Fortun remarked, “it's trying to animate a new kind of conversation and collective deliberation among ethnographers. So it's not an ethnographic project, but it's trying to do something different with ethnography”

2. Projects that animate new kinds of collectivity in the communities people study and work with, within the community between communities and researchers:

-Anthropologist Michael Montoya's Community Knowledge Project, an environmental justice-inspired initiative to bring collaborative, community-based voices to health programming.

-Anthropologist Sharon Traweek's work on Japanese physicists.

-Anthropologist Kimberly Christen's work on Mukurtu, a CMS (content management system) that she developed through collaboration with the Warumungu people of Central Australia and then made available for other communities to build digital archives of cultural media.

3. Projects that animate new kinds of work across disciplines in the academy:

-A recent TAF workshop at the UC Irvine Center for Persian Studies and Culture: This workshop, Fortun explained, was "part of their effort to move Persian Studies from the play between anthropologists and lit people, to draw in people from the sciences, really deepen the interdisciplinarity as a way to make Persian Studies something new and different and more engaged...asthma was a way into that new kind of collectivity that the center was after.”

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