Ethnography

Working alone, among others, has been the essence of ethnography as method. Today, in order to ensure ethnography’s relevance, anthropologists are learning to work more profoundly with others in the very precinct that they have defined so productively—the ethnographic project, for which a certain genre of text, based on a signature research practice, is still the professional coin of the realm.

Design-based working styles challenge authoritative rules for ethnographic research and encourage different presentations of ethnographic expertise. In its studio/workshop moments, design practice drives the “graphy” out of “ethno” and encourages anthropologists, relying on their intimate relations to fieldnotes, toward different forms of representation. Design practice also reinstills the performative ideals of dialogism and polyphony that drove the genre’s more experimental period (from the 1980s onward) in the exploration of new forms of writing drawn from the accumulated texts of fieldwork.

I have found writing with designer partners about our collaborative, ethnographically conceived research to be both productive and difficult. A difference in style was captured elegantly in a remark by the stage designer Luke Cantarella, commenting on our shared book project:

We were realizing more and more how the writing styles of design and anthropology tend to be quite different. Design language is so often, terse, slogan-y, and prescriptive (often what I perceive to be tongue-in-cheek). Whereas legitimacy in anthropology seems to want to make more modest, inductive, descriptive, and nuanced language.

The art of stage design has suited certain contemporary problems in anthropological research very well—especially in making the mise-en-scène of research in the odd spaces in which fieldwork arises. By way of example, assemblage, a conceptual aid for describing the multisited, relational spaces/places of ethnographic research trajectories, is more effectively produced by a design imagination and its forms than described by a literal cartography of fieldwork. In the materiality of its methods and in its immersion in spectacle, stage design is better than ethnography at performatively addressing the nature of inner publics and granular receptions that count in producing claims to anthropological knowledge of others. This received performativity is what various calls for public anthropology mean for the future practice of its emblematic research protocol. It allows for what I once called “circumstantial activism,” rather than requiring a public anthropology to merge with the programs of actual social movements.

The changes of the 1980s made ethnography more decidedly theoretical, at the level of conceptual innovation, in its largely descriptive rationale (it actually made anthropology ethnography, to contest Tim Ingold’s [2017] provocative call for the reverse). The descriptive and the analytic, keyed to the invention of attractive concepts, became mutually grounded in the creation of distinctive narrative (which Clifford Geertz intensified and politicized!). This language of the ethnographic distinguishes it from design, which needs a working concept, a way of thinking that allows one to perform or to make. Ethnography is more inert in this regard, and more patient with the slow coming to clarity of grounded ideas. Stage design immerses these ideas in makings that anticipate spectacle. Anthropology is more cautious, more nuanced. When it comes to writing together, this contrast is collaboration’s productive, ragged edge.

Anthropologists continue to write and publish wonderful ethnographies in a vibrant research tradition, but ethnography as a naming of that tradition is no longer viable as a disciplinary research program without some blending with other research methods and programs. Meshing with design practices is one congenial partnership that has been developing since the early 2000s. Career-making ethnographic research projects begin with the anticipatory imaginary of the written ethnography, but are increasingly realized by collaborations with and through other research traditions, design disciplines being among the most congenial, valuable, and available. Certainly, they are not the only imaginable partners. It is better to think of my argument as proposing a hybrid atmosphere in which to expand the ethnographic research tradition in ways that bypass written accounts and the reinforcement of an ethos of lone(ly) fieldwork.  

Although others seem attracted to the apparent stability of ethnography—dependent as it is on the authority of practice and grounded in disciplinary self-conception—for me, it is an unstable term at present. This instability promotes not the kind of authority that confers disciplinary legitimacy and self-respect, but an authority that secures stabilized reception through movement and circulation. It also promotes a knowledge form that emerges in relation to inner publics, or what in participatory art would be the illusive secondary audience for its site-specific scenarios, before or as it reaches the judgment of disciplinary peer reception.

Ethnography needs and breeds intermediate forms of expressive production that can circulate, beyond ethnographic texts in the classic genre. The vibrant tradition of ethnographic filmmaking leads in this regard.

This is what design disciplines promise—a lean toward traditions of performance rather than text. This performance capacity is a potential to which designers themselves are perhaps indifferent because they are always already immersed in collaborative relationships.

Ethnography has the virtue of never having successfully imposed an orthodoxy. Yet, the relationship of fieldwork to a subject or a place is not enough to sustain it as a form for producing disciplinary knowledge. With this change in the form of ethnography by design, anthropology’s interest in theory and the articulation of its content knowledge become displaced. Bringing ethnography close to design incidentally raises problems for other allied discourses central to anthropological expression (for example, the ontological turn) that have become ever more embedded in the ethnographic genre. Ethnography, then, leans toward design as an evolution of anthropology itself—one that, for various historical reasons, anthropology is not yet ready to recognize.

Reference

Ingold, Tim. 2017. “Anthropology Contra Ethnography.” HAU 7, no. 1: 21–26.