Enough about Ethnography: An Interview with Tim Ingold

The Summer 2014 issue of HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory included the article “That’s Enough about Ethnography!”, by Tim Ingold, who is Chair in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Susan MacDougall conducted with Ingold about the article and reactions to it.

Susan MacDougall: In your HAU article, you identify the need for anthropology to “heal the rupture between imagination and everyday life.” When you talk about this rupture, you link it to a divorce of fact from theory. Can you expand on this notion and why it is important for the future of anthropology? 

Timothy Ingold: The problem here lies in the degree to which anthropology, as an academic discipline, remains compliant with the protocols of normal science. These protocols enforce a division between the real world, from which we are expected to gather “data,” and the world of theory, in which these data are to be interpreted and fashioned into authorized knowledge. This division is only reinforced by continual appeals to the idea of anthropological knowledge production. It is as though we go to the world for our material, but then turn our backs on it in working this material into the finely crafted, peer-reviewed artifacts that we recognize as books and articles. To my mind, this procedure fatally compromises the core mission of anthropology, which is to demonstrate—by precept and example—how to do our thinking in and with the world we inhabit: in response to its summons, rather than after the fact. This means giving due recognition to what we know full well from our inquiries, namely that what is given to us is not just there for the taking as data for collection, but is an offering, the acceptance of which carries a responsibility of care. Anthropology shows that curiosity and care, pried apart in mainstream science policy by a spurious and ethically indefensible division between research and impact, are inseparable aspects of our relations with those to whom we owe our education in the ways of the world.

SM: Timothy Jenkins (1994) referred to fieldwork as a series of apprenticeships, and pointed out that learning how to get along in the field involves quite a bit of un-learning one’s own assumptions. You also mention Kenelm Burridge’s metanoia: an ongoing series of transformations that alter the predicates of being. These are possible results of encounters, ethnographic or otherwise, and if those results lead to fruitful analysis, all the better. If this is such a commonplace thing to do, though, how can the aspiring anthropologist prepare to do it and do it well?

TI: Certainly, there is an element of unlearning in all fieldwork. What would be the point of it otherwise? Such unlearning, moreover, can be unsettling and does involve an element of existential risk. My point, however, is that unlearning is intrinsic to education, understood in its original sense as a leading out into the world that frees us from the limitations of standpoints or perspectives and causes us continually to question what previously we would have taken for granted. This is what we expect from our students in the classroom, as much as what we expect from ourselves in the field.

Two things follow from this. First, although only a tiny proportion of the students we teach—at least at introductory levels—will go on to become practicing anthropologists, our task is nevertheless to foster an anthropological attitude that all of them may take into whatever walks of life they subsequently follow. Preparation for anthropology is preparation for life, and it lies in the cultivation of a readiness to both listen to others and question ourselves. Second, whether this preparation and the results that flow therefrom yield to “fruitful analysis,” as you put it, depends on what we mean by analysis. If we mean the processing and interpretation of empirical data in the normal scientific sense, then the answer is no. But if analysis means a critical interrogation that opens simultaneously to the self and to the world, then the answer is a definite yes!

SM: Conversely, is it possible to do the encounter badly or incorrectly? Or do weaknesses and mistakes emerge later, in the note-taking and what follows? If anthropologists would like to maintain some claim to ethnography or to participant-observation, then is there a need to distinguish between the high- and low-quality conduct of both?

TI: The opposite of opening is, of course, closure. That is when we refuse to attend to the presence of others or to what they have to offer. I suppose a “bad” encounter would be one in which we see but do not observe, hear but do not listen, touch but do not feel. In such an encounter, we would pick up signals as data, but remain impervious to them. Our curiosity would be divorced from care. This, of course, is what is generally recommended by science in the name of objectivity. But as I have stressed, objectivity is one thing, observation quite another. Observers are bound to make mistakes, and our field notes are doubtless full of them. We can misunderstand what people say, jump to the wrong conclusions, or confuse one thing for another. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that: as in any situation of apprenticeship, we learn from our mistakes. But no amount of correction can make up for a failure to attend. Even if, objectively speaking, there were to be not a single error in our data, we could still fail to draw any lessons from them. We learn much from mistakes of observation grounded in attention, and nothing whatsoever from an objectively “correct” record that is nevertheless grounded in inattention.

SM: You point out in the article that anthropologists’ obsession with ethnography has a navel-gazing quality, turning “the project of anthropology into the study of its own ways of working.” Certainly anthropologists can be sentimental about their fieldwork experience and consider it formative for their characters as well as their scholarship. But, as you point out, this willingness to be changed by the fieldwork experience is what makes it an education as opposed to straightforward data collection. Do you see a way for this admission—that is, that participant observation can be personally transformative—to enhance anthropology’s impact in the world, rather than undermining it? 

TI: This is precisely why anthropology can potentially make such a difference in the world. But we should not have grudgingly to “admit” that fieldwork can personally transform the observer, as though we were offering an apology for anthropology’s inability to come up with accounts that more positivist disciplines would regard (in their terms) as suitably robust or evidence-based. Nor should our addiction to fieldwork be used to justify disciplinary introversion, affording an excuse to retreat into our own shells and to talk only to ourselves about the conditions and possibilities of anthropological knowledge production. On the contrary, we should be leading a campaign against the very idea that the world presents itself to human science as a standing reserve of data for collection. And to do this, we must stop pretending to believe in this idea ourselves.

For this reason I insist that participant-observation is not a research method but, more fundamentally, an ontological commitment: an acknowledgement of our debt to the world for what we are and what we know. This is a commitment, I believe, that should underwrite not just anthropology but every branch of scientific inquiry. Whatever our field of specialization, we should have the humility to recognize that understanding can only grow from within the world we seek to know, the world of which we are a part. This recognition, however, strikes at the core of the constitution of the academy. It is why anthropology’s campaign must also be a campaign for the heart and soul of the academy. The stakes could scarcely be higher.

SM: In a related vein, I’d like to bring up Amy Pollard’s (2009) piece “Field of Screams,” which took anthropology to task for sending vulnerable students off into the field to meet with traumatic and isolating experiences. It seems that a direct, convincing definition of ethnography will remain elusive if postfield graduate students are afraid to talk about what they actually did in the field. Do you see a way for anthropology to address the sometimes painful realities of fieldwork, without undue reliance on procedures that look like they were written by university risk management offices and not anthropologists? 

TI: Traumatic and isolating experiences are not exclusive to anthropological fieldwork. They are a part of life. In life in general, as in fieldwork in particular, painful realities are always hard to talk about. The absurdity of bureaucratic risk management, on which so many of our universities nowadays insist, is that they fail to understand this. Were we to follow their logic to the letter, then we would have a society in which no baby could be born without a divinely ordained risk management schedule that would anticipate every contingency of its future life. That institutions should have usurped such godlike powers for themselves—in the interests, it must be said, not of protecting their researchers but of protecting themselves against litigation should things go wrong—is an indication of the corporate dishonesty that now pervades the higher education sector. Anthropology should not participate in this dishonesty. I do not think, however, that this issue of risk management has any immediate bearing on the definition of ethnography, unless of course we were to include within our catalog of risks the isolations and traumas of writing up. As I have endeavored to show, ethnography and participant-observation are not the same, and their common identification has brought nothing but confusion.

SM: One of the reasons I was interested in discussing this article with you is that it clearly sparked a conversation. Rarely do journal articles show up in my Twitter feed or inspire threads on the Open Anthropology Cooperative, and this one certainly did. Have you had any particularly thought-provoking responses to this article? Have any of them prompted you to reevaluate your views?

TI: There is no doubt that my article touched a raw nerve in the discipline. It seems to have brought into the open a number of issues that have long been simmering beneath the surface, and that many would have preferred to have kept there. The responses I have received are roughly of two kinds. The first are supportive. They come principally from younger scholars who thank me for stating explicitly what they have long felt, but have been afraid to express for fear of rocking the boat. The second come from critics who accuse me of tilting against windmills. They complain that, in distinguishing ethnography from anthropology, I have resorted to a narrow, old-fashioned, and overly literal characterization of ethnography that bears little resemblance to what most scholars who would call themselves ethnographers actually do nowadays. Looking at the content of most mainstream anthropological journals, I am a little skeptical of this complaint.

Be that as it may, my response is that even if so-called ethnographers are already doing everything that I am calling for under the banner of anthropology, ethnography is nevertheless a singularly inappropriate term by which to describe it. Maybe among ourselves, with our common experience of having undertaken fieldwork of one kind or another, we can share an in-house understanding of what ethnography means without having to spell it out too precisely. This understanding, however, does not extend to realms beyond the bounds of the discipline, where fundamental misapprehensions remain about what anthropologists do and why it is important. Overuse of the term ethnography, I believe, only feeds these misapprehensions and makes it more difficult, not less, to explain what we do and what its value might be to others: whether they are students, academics in other disciplines, or the public at large. Anthropology is a noble calling and not one to be ashamed of. Why should we hide it under another term, ethnography, as if pretending to do something completely different?

References

Jenkins, Timothy. 1994. “Fieldwork and the Perception of Everyday Life.” Man 29, no. 2: 433–55.

Pollard, Amy. 2009. “Field of Screams: Difficulty and Ethnographic Fieldwork.” Anthropology Matters 11, no. 2.