Ethnography: Deviation

From the Series: Ethnography

Photo by Harlan Ingersoll Smith.

To heed Tim Ingold’s (2014) request that we all rein in our use of the word ethnography, many anthropologists would have to break a long-running habit. I, for one, have abused the word in exactly the ways he describes, zealously tacking it on to any convenient noun: e.g., ethnographic facts or, as I once described my project, an ethnography of femininity. Still, I was in the group of initial enthusiasts about his much-debated HAU article. I can even locate the seed for this enthusiasm—it’s in the article’s second paragraph.

Ethnography, Ingold (2014, 383) says, is “preventing our discipline from having the kind of impact in the world that it deserves and that the world so desperately needs.” As a partisan of anthropology, I was thrilled to see such an impassioned defense of the discipline’s importance; as an anthropologist, I felt the acknowledgement extended, in some small way, to my own work. Ingold goes on to enumerate all of the basic elements of good character reflected in doing anthropology, with the inviting terms attention, care, and correspondence. How refreshing to hear such a full-throated defense of our field. If shedding ethnography could give anthropology the impact that it deserves, then I would gladly drop it from my vocabulary.

In Ingold’s (2014, 384) assessment, ethnography is dimming anthropology’s star. Ethnography—that “modish substitute for qualitative”—is too vague and too diluted to communicate the urgency and importance of the work that we do. I am not entirely convinced that anthropology is best served by casting off such a well-loved and well-known export. If ethnography is such a meaningless term that anthropology no longer has any use for it, then why has it become so modish to describe things as ethnographic?

I suspect that this has something to do with the willingness to be influenced by others that Ingold considers essential to participant-observation. Could it be that people like to invoke ethnography precisely because of the receptive attitude that it implies? In a research proposal describing “‘ethnographic interviews’ with a sample of randomly selected informants, the data from which will then be processed by means of a recommended software package in order to yield ‘results’” (Ingold 2014, 384), ethnographic gets tacked on as a modifier because it otherwise sounds quite sterile. When you add ethnography, it is possible to imagine the interviewer storing and reflecting on moments of cultural significance or loaded nonverbal cues even as she analyzes more concrete material. An interview involves asking preset questions and ticking boxes; an ethnographic interview implies a deeper, more subtle level of engagement. Even mundane encounters take on a quality of heartfelt intimacy when they are ethnographic. Or so we hope.

If ethnography is trending because it implies intimacy, then Ingold’s second complaint about ethnography—that the critical outside stance required of the ethnographer undermines the work of anthropology—needs to be unwound as well. To get rid of this problematic separation, he proposes we drop the false distinction between fieldwork and everyday life that ethnography implies. We ought to bring our attentive sensibilities with us everywhere, not trumpet them as fieldwork-specific and therefore the backbone of our methodology.

But, if these sensibilities are so portable, then shouldn’t it be a good thing that ethnography has become so modish? It is perfectly justified for a demographer to claim that he will conduct a census ethnographically if he, in fact, intends to gather responses with the spirit of openness that Ingold describes. If one would like to see more of this openness throughout the academy, then wouldn’t the use of the term ethnography be a good thing?

Like Ingold, I am skeptical of the one-hour ethnography. If that’s all it takes to do ethnography, then why are we working so hard? Our disciplinary archive is filled with stories of fraught encounters, where a frustrated fieldworker lashes out at his hosts or potential informants take advantage of the fieldworker’s ignorance. Each one of us has a story of forcing down a food that makes us sick, or making an embarrassing language error, or accidentally offending someone’s faith. In most cases, the project of assimilating into one’s fieldwork environment ultimately fails, even when home and the field are one.

Ingold (2014, 386) dislikes the “covert” aspect of the ethnographer’s critical gaze—a word choice that hints at spying. I would counter that anthropologists are rather poor spies; they ask too many unsubtle questions. Indeed, in some cases, academic curiosity spells the end of a key relationship. Elisabeth Hsu (1999) tells a story of mismatched encountering in her apprenticeship with a qigong master in China. With a background in botany, she was a quick study, and he expected her to excel. He was cautious about choosing a disciple and pleased at her aptitude. Eventually, their divergent agendas and her frequent travel showed her to be an unfit successor. “How can I teach you when I can constantly feel your critical mind?” he asked (Hsu 1999, 48). Often enough, our interlocutors know that our immersion is ambivalent, and they deal with us accordingly. If complete assimilation were a requirement, then online ethnographies or multispecies ethnographies or ethnographies of infrastructure would all be impossible. The qualities of attention, care, and correspondence are important, but they are simultaneously both sincere and instrumental. The moments in which they break down can be some of the most important for our work.

As vital as attention, care, and correspondence are, it seems to me that any moral high ground carved out for doing precisely what everyone is doing all the time will disappear rapidly. We needn’t reserve a special sort of humanity for anthropologists, earned just by paying attention, to acknowledge “our debt to the world for what we are and what we know.” As every arrival-in-the-field vignette illustrates, a lot happens between a first encounter and the anthropology that eventually follows. Rather than relinquishing our favorite term to the rest of social science, we ought to get better at describing the process. I imagine our debt to the world will be apparent in the description.


Hsu, Elisabeth. 1999. The Transmission of Chinese Medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ingold, Tim. 2014. “That's Enough about Ethnography!HAU 4, no. 1: 383–95.