Ethnography: Translation

From the Series: Ethnography

Photo by Harlan Ingersoll Smith.

Should anthropology dump ethnography? It’s been a long and fruitful relationship but, for Tim Ingold, something’s missing. Maybe the two were always different, maybe they’ve grown apart, but what’s clear in Ingold’s mind is that anthropology and ethnography want and do very different things. Furthermore, the decision to stay together is holding the discipline back. Anthropology would be out there making new friends, its public voice no longer silenced, if only it wasn’t shackled by misplaced loyalty to a relationship that stopped working a while ago.

Ingold’s argument unfolds from the distinction he draws between anthropology and ethnography: the former characterized as a practice of correspondence, and the latter as a practice of description. Anthropology is a process of existential exposure: a form of attentional living, coupling “the forward movement of one’s own perception and action with the movements of others” (Ingold 2014, 389). This is neither given nor achieved, but is always in the making. People and things, for Ingold, are neither subjects nor objects but verbs: they are "becomings" (389); humans are "humaning" (389). To do anthropology is to undergo an education, to yield oneself up to “an ongoing series of transformations each of which alters the predicates of being” (388).

Ethnography is a different category of thing, and rather less sexy. It is narrowly defined as description and documentation after the fact, distinct from the temporal and sensual immediacy of participant-observation. It is a retrospective conversion of learning, remembering, and note-taking. Thus, “to cast encounters as ethnographic is to consign the incipient—the about-to-happen in unfolding relationships—to the temporal past of the already over” (Ingold 2014, 386). It imposes finalities on trajectories of learning, cauterizing loose ends into data—a category of fact, separate from our “direct, practical and sensuous engagements with our surroundings” (387). Bo-oring! Obviously, Ingold concludes, the relationship isn’t working and it’s holding us back. The covert documentary intent of ethnography reproduces the separation between the academy and those with whom we work because the practice of describing people’s lives removes the anthropologist from the flow of becoming. As long as the discipline remains “confined to the theatre of its own representations” (383) its public voice will be silenced; anthropology cannot have wider “transformative effects” (392) if it is fettered by the ethnographic ball and chain.

The question, then, apart from tightening the language of our research proposals, is what divorcing ethnography from the discipline of anthropology enables us to do and what, on the other hand, it inhibits. To my mind, this is less a clarion call for the advancement of the discipline (irrespective of the language in which it is couched) and more a healthy thought experiment. The advantage of this gambit is the chance to examine issues of method, epistemology, and theory internal to the discipline that may not be best answered by recourse to descriptive particularism. Nevertheless, the irony is that were ethnography-free anthropology to be taken up as a mission statement, it would limit rather than enhance the discipline’s relevance beyond the academic carapace that it seeks to escape. In spite of itself, this call will be heard in anthropology, to the extent that it is, and by very few beyond.

Contra Ingold, my position is that the relationship between ethnography and anthropology is foundational and enriching. Ethnography as a practice of argumentation is an impressive intellectual feat. It is one of the best tools we have for thinking critically about assertions of what is in ways that cross institutional and academic boundaries. It is also one of the primary reasons that anthropology has a voice beyond the discipline. To take an early example, in the 1960s, Elliot Liebow managed to persuade a graduate committee that participant-observation was a viable research method in a complex society. He spent twenty months in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Washington, DC: idling in pool halls, drinking in Sylvia’s apartment, listening to music, playing the numbers, being transformed by his experiences, and, importantly, writing. The trustworthiness, fidelity, and curiosity of correspondence extended inseparably into description. The resulting monograph, Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men (Liebow 1967), became an overnight classic. It exploded prevailing middle-class stereotypes that dismissed economically marginalized African-American men as work-shy and undeserving of welfare, and it did this through an intimate portrayal of the ways in which men responded to conditions of deprivation, structural inequality, and long-term unemployment. Not only did Liebow’s work provide an unprecedented account of the lives of African-American men, it shocked America, contributing to social policy reform and a reassessment of the nature of social welfare itself. It is a sobering reminder of the enduring racial dynamic of American social and economic inequality; its attack on the generalizations and ill-informed biases that inflect discussion around race, welfare, and urban poverty still rings true. It went on to influence the thinking of generations of policymakers and social activists. In a review for the New York Times, Robert Coles (1967) praised Liebow for being “an honest and talented anthropologist who can see clearly, feel unashamedly, and write a straightforward sentence.” Liebow’s influence and continuing relevance is testimony to the value of ethnographic integrity.

For Ingold, what is given to us in participant-observation is “an offering” that carries with it a “responsibility of care,” a sentiment with which I agree wholeheartedly. As anthropologists, we are privileged to work with people and to share in their lives. But this does not necessitate, in my experience, what Ingold identifies as either “covert” practices of documentation or the “grudging admission” that fieldwork can be personally transformative. For example, I share practices and experiences with the people with whom I work that could not but leave us changed. It matters to them that I write, and that I go to some pains to be precise and careful in my representation of our correspondences. In Ingold’s argument ethnography is given the narrow definition of documentation after the fact, which is contrasted to the education of participant-observation and anthropology. It is then possible for him to argue that ethnography offends what he identifies as the principles of anthropological inquiry: “individual long-term and open-ended commitment, generous attentiveness, relational depth, and sensitivity to context” (Ingold 2014, 384)—hallmarks, I had always thought, of ethnography. Part of the privilege of anthropology is that people are generous enough to share their lives with us in ways that Ingold would approve of as educational, but this imposes a responsibility upon us to do justice to those lives. Trustworthy description, theoretical argument, and education (in Ingold’s sense of the word) are integral to a healthy and coconstitutive relationship between anthropology and ethnography. “Becoming” or “humaning” on the part of the anthropologist might be a worthy and unavoidable existential endeavor, but it doesn’t add up to anthropology.


Coles, Robert. 1967. “In a Reluctant World.” New York Times, September 17.

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

Liebow, Edward. 1967. Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men. Boston: Little, Brown.