Ethnography: Provocation

From the Series: Ethnography

Photo by Harlan Ingersoll Smith.

Imagine that you shouted “That’s enough about ethnography!” at the top of your lungs, and took thirteen pages to do it in a very popular journal, and then everyone who heard you started talking compulsively about ethnography all over again. Would you feel good about it? Probably not, unless you were up to some very serious mischief. Tim Ingold tells us that his anti-ethnography manifesto is appealing to young scholars and unconvincing to older ones. I can see why. His essay has a beguiling, almost Pied Piper-ish quality, with strong elements of the bait and switch. His bad ethnography is not the kind most of us did, or will do, and his good anthropology is not one he’s prepared to show us how to do. Methods are of minimal interest to Ingold, even as craft. Instead, he offers us a glistening array of attitudes, doctrinal stances, and metaphoric imagery. Boats are launched into the unknown. Melodies are coupled. Subjects and objects become verbs. Hyperbolic arcs are reversed to form an ellipse. It’s heady stuff. One wonders what a budding anthropologist who has not yet done fieldwork could rightly make of it.

Ingold says anthropology is about education, so it’s fitting that he reproduces in his essay a pedagogical trend deeply ingrained in our disciplinary culture: he tells us almost nothing about doing fieldwork, doing ethnography, or doing anthropology. It’s a mystery, the doing part. With mystery comes Ingold’s awesome display of mastery—and the need for it, really. Some of us are adept at making sense of ethnography and fieldwork, but few of us are any good at teaching others to do it. There’s a common belief that the experience is individual, life-changing, and that no method or form of engagement will work the same way everywhere. You learn by doing, and good advisors will leave you alone to do it. This sensibility is evident in Susan MacDougall’s exchange with Ingold. Whenever she invites him to comment on practicalities—how to prepare for fieldwork; how to avoid doing bad ethnography; how to deal with trauma—he heads to higher ground or he implies that anthropology is just like the rest of life, which it’s clearly not.

Tonally, there is something “off,” something misdirected about Ingold’s complaint. Its productive tension depends on its many sharp and flat notes, and the one that most troubles my ear is the relentlessly negative portrayal of data-gathering. Equating this activity with normal science, or empiricism, or analytical distance, and setting it apart from participant-observation, seems to miss an essential point about our ways of working. We tend to do our best ethnography when the people we work with have developed their own sense of what we are doing and why it is important. Data-gathering (both as representation and description) is often what they expect us to do, and to do well. Closing the gap between the imagination and everyday life might be our existential homework, as professional anthropologists, but when we do our fieldwork, people want us to get things right, and to focus on the right things. Indeed, data-gathering is an activity that forces us to do what Ingold wants us to do: pay attention, care, and create correspondences between how we work—and how people work on and with us.

I say all this because, in writing this Provocation, I broke one of Ingold’s cardinal rules. I turned my colleagues into subjects of study. I asked eight talented young ethnographers, all of whom I’ve worked with, for reactions to Ingold’s essay, and for their thoughts on fieldwork, its challenges, and how to prepare for it. Their answers were heartfelt and honest. Most of my ethnographers were surprised by the emotional toll they paid in the field, but were glad that they paid it. They were lonely, or they socialized to the point of exhaustion. Some had to fight the urge to hide in their rooms. Others had to deal with the sense of betrayal that came when the people they wrote about disagreed with what was written. Some felt advantaged because they were shy, or outgoing, or well-organized, or floppy and open to suggestion. A few emphasized the importance of being vulnerable, of not imagining themselves as inordinately powerful people with special abilities to harm or, just as important, to help. Condescension lies down either road, apparently. Most had a feeling of being co-opted or put to use by their hosts, and being rejected by others because this was happening. It was hard to leave. It was hard to come home.

What I found most intriguing about these responses is the extent to which personal travails were directly linked to data-gathering. My respondents often doubted that they would have enough material to work with; they feared the material they were gathering was not very good, or that no one would appreciate the effort that went into collecting it. They often felt they were wasting their time, and other people’s time. The turning point, for most, came when they found interlocutors who understood what they were after, or had similar interests. These co-conspirators helped them and held them to high standards. Time and again, it was specific forms of data-gathering that gave these ethnographers a license to be there, to participate in social worlds that were not conventionally their own or, in a few cases of so-called “native anthropology,” to recreate themselves as observers of a legitimate, locally-valued type. Putting up museum exhibits, attending weddings, archiving old Yiddish books, dancing with Turkish and Greek tourists late at night, learning how to box up shrimp, exploring the nuances of academic gossip, recording conversion narratives; this is what people expected, even wanted, these ethnographers to do as part of a writing and representing project.

In each case, data-collection and problem-oriented research led to the kind of anthropology that Ingold desires. Ethnography is not something done after the fact. It begins before fieldwork, is renegotiated during, and continues to evolve beyond periods of intense, face-to-face interaction. It resembles kinship in that way, and ethnographers often acquire new relatives while doing fieldwork. As a way of living and working with others, good ethnography depends on asking questions, coming up with convincing answers, and doing so collaboratively. Anthropology, ethnography, and fieldwork are not separate in the way Ingold suggests. They are all happening at the same time, across the discipline and into the world. An intellectual tradition unfolds as a result. Ethnography is crucial to that tradition. When Ingold implies that there is something base, something ill-conceived and inadequate about ethnography’s empirical dimension, he steps into a standard role. He is the high priest who conceals and celebrates the mysteries of fieldwork. Or, less flattering, he is the parent who can’t talk honestly to her kids about sex.

“Well, honey, it’s about attention, and care, and correspondence.”

“I guess,” the cringing youth thinks, “But how do I . . . do it?”

Ingold’s essay is part and parcel of why we routinely underprepare anthropologists for fieldwork. It encourages the sniffy attitude toward methods training we see all around us; it misdiagnoses how important collecting, pursuing, and searching are to the "figuring out of things" that lies at the heart of all good fieldwork and all good anthropology. Yet Ingold is right, and profoundly so, when he invites us to eliminate the perfidious distinction between those we study with (our colleagues) and those we study (our subjects). When I asked my small set of ethnographers how they would prepare students for fieldwork, they emphasized themes very similar to the ones that define good Ingoldian anthropology. They want to be interested in the work of their students and use their own experiences to connect and teach (“attention”). They want to be alert to the conditions—political, personal, and intellectual—in which their students work so as to help them engage those conditions effectively (“care”). They want to think alongside their students, sharing ideas and building links between their own findings and those that, through comparison, constitute larger fields of anthropological knowledge (“correspondence”). These are desires animated by fieldwork itself, and by the moral lessons learned while doing ethnography. We need more ethnography, not less. We can’t have Ingold’s anthropology without it.