Ethnography: Integration

From the Series: Ethnography

Photo by Harlan Ingersoll Smith.

Tim Ingold has chosen to polemicize ethnography in recent years in the name of a good cause—his own admirable and philosophically earnest practice of it as anthropology, in the not-so-minor humanist key that has always accompanied its placement within a dominant positivist ideology or identity as a social science.

It is time, apparently, to clarify once again the deeply philosophical character of this field science among the social sciences (think, for example, of the long, sustained influence of Clifford Geertz’s thinking about anthropology, through ethnography, as an interpretive science), but in terms that respond to the changing character of life, the renewed interest in how ontology shapes questions and perceptions, and the distancing from modernist styles of thinking. Others, before Ingold, have sought to do the same.

Here, I am thinking of Paul Rabinow’s major effort from the early 2000s—beginning with Anthropos Today (Rabinow 2003)—which did away with the term ethnography, refined a concept of the contemporary, and introduced an explicit German-derived term, Durcharbeiten, for the field research process. While Rabinow’s project has not proved broadly influential, it did make its mark. I participated in the discussions around setting up the online platform for the Anthropology Research Collaboratory, which were published as Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary (Rabinow et al. 2008). Rabinow and I, in our separate ways, agreed that anthropology going forward depended on rethinking and experimenting with the classic research process, which has changed little ideologically and still determines the culture of method shaping all entrants to an anthropological career. At the time and, to a certain degree still, the trend in alternative practice was to consult a broad range of disciplines for design insights and methods.

Since the mid-2000s this exchange between anthropologists and design, on one hand, or art of various kinds, on the other, has grown in many places. Within the last five years, for example, many University of California campuses have established extracurricular faculty-led and design-inspired experimental/collaborative ethnography initiatives. Note the endurance of ethnography over anthropology in these experimental thinking groups, all of them quite congenial to Ingold’s personal expression of practice. Clearly, there are visions of anthropology at stake in these initiatives, but ethnography remains the rich modality of exploration and experimentation. Ethnography is an effective trade language in collaborations that productively pursue Ingold’s philosophical vision of anthropology.

Ethnographic method was never mere positivism. It has always been, in variant registers, anthropology as Ingold expresses it. So it could be that the ethnography he dislikes comes from outside of anthropology and not from within. Though the old culture of method reigns when it comes to training models for PhDs, that model is generic enough to allow for great variations—including Ingold’s—in styles of personal mentoring, on which training most crucially depends. What seems to bother Ingold—and it certainly should—is the conception of ethnography as a positivist method. In this capacity, elites and experts in other disciplines have celebrated ethnography as evidence of what anthropology can do. Those elites and experts have a certain stock of social and economic power, and might desire to learn from and support anthropological research—financially and morally—as ethnography. Against polemic, I feel impelled to defend the positivist varieties and traditions of ethnography that sociologists have produced. Done well, they are as philosophically profound, observant, and attentive as anything that anthropologists of the natural, perceptual, and ontological produce as research. Think of Andreas Glaeser, Mitchell Duneier, and Bruno Latour. Latour, who would perhaps never call himself an ethnographer of science, has nevertheless devised and creatively produced the frames of ethnography in a manner true to Ingold’s anthropology.

The keenness of perception that the best contemporary practitioners of ethnography cultivate derives equally from the Writing Culture debates of the 1980s. The concern with polyphony and multiple authorship in producing ethnography—its Bakhtinian, dialogic edge—counts as much as the perceptual eye for experiencing persons and things in interaction. As ethnographers, we are equally anthropologists of the circulations of discourse, polyphony, internarrativity, and of the multiple authorship of any utterance. Rich philosophical anthropology is embedded in any project of mere ethnography. An enhancement of dialogism in ethnographic practice is as much a flowering of philosophical anthropology as the participant-observation Ingold locates at the discipline’s core, although he thinks it needs an identity separate from the complex and broad histories of ethnographic method.

Ingold condemns the bowdlerization of ethnography through the positivist expectations of its supporters, its interlocutors, and sometimes its subjects—those who are not anthropologists, but whose complex communications with anthropologists are essential for anthropological thinking. I hope he does not think anthropologists themselves are guilty of this, though he does seem to indicate so. Indeed, in the pursuit of research projects (that I continue to have no problem exploring as ethnography/fieldwork), I often see the kinds of relationships that Ingold idealizes as anthropological, depending on the ethnographic desire and curiosity of subjects, interlocutors, and sponsors. One sees this especially in working through other zones and levels of expertise, up to and including those booming, buzzing moments of the overwhelming surround of the attentive anthropologist observing. Such desire for ethnography as knowledge and relation—which Douglas Holmes and I (Holmes and Marcus 2005, 2006, 2008) developed as para-ethnography—as the condition under which the noticing, learning, and feeling among other persons and things, which Ingold characterizes as anthropological, can take place today. I see this deeply anthropological knowing occurring in an exemplary way through the stunning negotiations and ongoing relationships of curiosity that have produced spaces of ethnographic access and being in the truly strange environments of, say, financial operators of all sorts, including central bankers, who Holmes joined in their quest to imagine a public currency as their roles have become more political. An anthropology of such contemporary phenomena cannot be pursued except through negotiating ideologies of participation, collaboration, and mutual knowing and learning.

I suspect that Ingold would consider this contemporary work impervious to the kind of direct experience of ontological, natural, and material environments and life that have characterized his own research experience and his sensibility as an anthropologist—according to which the concept of ethnography seems so denuded. I would only say that the ethnography of built-up worlds of expertise, governing, and infrastructures feels just as anthropological as the less mediated studies, and there is more than one way for this anthropology to be experienced as primarily ethnography.

This is precisely what the Writing Culture debates of the 1980s accomplished without question. They made anthropology (in Ingold’s ethos) out of the traditions of doing ethnography as a variant of positivist social science. A different practice of philosophical anthropology might have been generated during that period than where fashions and thinking have now led, but the construct and practice of ethnography (primarily more than anthropology) was certainly not left vulnerable to the kind of polemic that Ingold, in recent times, has wanted to make of it. The result has been that ethnography as written genre—reflecting and reporting research activity and experiences from field to books—has become more anthropological than ever, according the sensibility that Ingold establishes for it.

Finally, I hear Ingold’s inspiring reidealization of practice for anthropology—separate from ethnography—as a discourse of what one might routinely hear in the theory-minded experimental studio courses in design school. Parsons School of Design at the New School is a leader in this, with a Mellon-funded program and new recruits Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, authors of Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming(2013). Ingold’s writing fits richly into Dunne and Raby’s project of discerning what design can be in the real world, based on a range of speculative imaginaries. Ingold’s writing and teachings would also easily fit into performance or art school classes. Compare him, for example, with any of the texts of Augusto Boal or with Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment (Paper Monument 2012). I think there is a hunger for anthropology in Ingold’s spirit in making places like studios and similar sites, but it is the idea of ethnography—as trade language or operative—that most powerfully communicates this hunger and that serves as a medium for doing, making, and contesting. Significantly, it is ethnography rather than anthropology that gestures beyond the studio or confined space of experiment in today’s productive encounters between anthropologists, designers, and artists.

I think that the rationale for Ingold’s polemic is a question of whom he is addressing: the kind of anthropologist who thrives on sharing methods of knowing with others today, and who must redeem an internal personal identity for so doing within a disciplinary tradition. I think ethnography works more effectively than anthropology for this, though both are essential. If anthropology were to revitalize itself in a Levi-Straussian moment, I might agree with Ingold’s polemic. But I see it the other way around. Ethnography works most effectively as the cosmopolitan designation and traveler. It creates opportunities for anthropology to be renewed on the borders of the classic discipline and makes new partners for it. Ethnography, not anthropology, does this crucial borderwork.

Ingold’s anthropological sensibility meets my ethnographic one in the imaginings, grounded speculations, and creations necessary to explain the complexities of borders of projects, concepts of research, and attunement. It is in relation to “the inner public,” as the public space that the artist Krzysztof Wodiczko (2015) calls what emerges in the sites of his artworks and makes them possible. The same could be said for Ingold and for me, perhaps in different registers. And here there is no conflict worth adjudicating between anthropology and ethnography. They are the same in relation to what we seek, see, experience, and hope to represent from the forms of life, natural or human, with which we work and hope for those who will work with us.


Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. 2013. Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Holmes, Douglas and George E. Marcus. 2005. "Cultures of Expertise and the Management of Globalization: Toward the Re-functioning of Ethnography." In Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems, edited by Aihwa Ong and Stephen J. Collier, 235-52. Oxford: Blackwell.

_____. 2006. “Fast Capitalism: Para-Ethnography and the Rise of the Symbolic Analyst.” In Frontiers of Capital, edited by Melissa S. Fisher and Greg Downey, 33–56. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

_____. 2008. “Collaboration Today and the Re-Imagination of the Classic Scene of Fieldwork Encounter.” Collaborative Anthropologies 1, no. 1: 136–70.

Paper Monument, eds. 2012. Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment. New York: Project Projects.

Rabinow, Paul. 2003. Anthropos Today: A Reflection on Modern Equipment. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.