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Improvisation is often associated with comedy, but it’s not always funny. Broadly speaking, improvisation can be characterized as performative, collaborative, and spontaneously responsive. Disentangled from the performing arts, improvisation need not entail performance at all; one can improvise a dinner of scrambled eggs in response to a lack of other ingredients. Improvisation is not even necessarily collaborative (that could be a solo dinner of scrambled eggs), in which case the spontaneous response is to a set of material conditions (nothing but eggs) and not as part of communication. But collaboration, when it is there, fundamentally transforms improvisation into something dialogical. It is the dialogic-collaboration aspect of improvisation that suggests interesting possibilities for social inquiry. How might anthropologists collaboratively improvise, and how might this enrich social analysis?

There are at least three ways in which anthropology engages improvisation as a collaborative phenomenon: a) as an element of the idea of habitus; b) as a set of practices studied as social text or process; and c) as an aspect of experimental research modalities. As to the first, Pierre Bourdieu, in his critique of structuralism, suggested that social life is ordered improvisation. Our unintentional, everyday actions play out in the context of structured dispositions (the habitus) and “this durably installed generative principle of regulated improvisations is a practical sense which reactivates the sense objectified in institutions” (Bourdieu 1990, 57). According to Bourdieu, we are all expert improvisers of the quotidian.

In the second instance, we find anthropologists inquiring into tradition, politics, and identity through the lens of intentional, performative improvisation. Steve Caton’s (1990) study of Yemeni poetics is a classic example. More recently, ethnographies of improv comedy classes and improvisational music examine not only the results of improvisation (performance) but the cultivation of particular sensibilities, offering insights into processes of self-formation and social connection. Because improvisation is a deeply subjective, embodied, and creative social practice, ethnographic research on these performance modalities has enriched phenomenological theorizing in particular.

Third, improvisation in anthropology has taken the form of performative and collaborative research. One recent example is Dara Culhane’s (2011) research on the changing Downtown Eastside neighborhood of Vancouver, in which researchers and interlocutors developed and performed stories and plays together. Culhane (2011, 264) notes that improvisation was “the organizing and animating principle” of the project. Participants were explicitly taught the central dynamic of improvisational performance: always accepting offers from one’s collaborator with “yes, and” to keep communication and action flowing. Although one could envision various uses of facilitated improvisation in research, Culhane deployed it to deepen participants’ sense of agency.

The idea of “yes, and,” or agreement, is addressed in classic work on performance improvisation (e.g., Spolin 1963), alongside other principles like listening, active response, and having a point of view. Culhane’s use of the “yes, and” rule leads me to consider whether the agreement principle is already operating in ethnographic inquiry. I think of Bronislaw Malinowski in the Trobriands circa 1917. As the first participant-observer, he was certainly improvising by relying on instinct rather than prior experience. But let’s push on the idea of fieldwork as improvisation. Imagine Malinowski perched on a log conversing with locals in Kiriwina. As he inscribes answers and prompts his interlocutors to tell him more, he may very well have asked: “Yes, and?” In his commitment to understanding Trobriand society as a total system, Malinowski would have taken what he observed on its own terms. It’s not a stretch to imagine that he would have accepted rather than refuted the responses he received—a “yes” rather than a “no, that can’t be true.” More than that, he might have tacked on “and” in his willingness to think in tandem with his interlocutors. Although the conditions of fieldwork are certainly different now, I posit that, like Malinowski, contemporary ethnographers often operate in the spirit of “yes, and.”

So ethnographers and their interlocutors might well do something not dissimilar from what improv comedy troupes, musicians, and Yemeni tribesmen do: participate in responsive, extemporaneous sense-making. Which begs the question: could anthropologists improvise with one another and not only with their interlocutors? Historically, we do fieldwork alone rather than in teams, and although we are in conversation through publications and peer review, these forms of engagement are, temporally speaking, not improvisational. When we gather at campus talks and annual conferences and listen to one another’s papers, we often participate in Q&A sessions following the presentations. The Q&A is spontaneous and responsive—is this a kind of peer-to-peer, collaborative improvisation? According to the “yes, and” principle, no. We use the Q&A to constitute our own authority (for instance, in the too-common monologic style of questioning). We don’t typically agree (“yes!”) and jump aboard the analytic train of our colleagues (“and”), spontaneously entering into dialogue in a spirit of collaborative analysis.

Although it’s not our disciplinary habit, I think it’s worth pondering the possible gains of collaborative improvisation with our peers. A model of collaborative work in which we listen and respond in real time and think through one another’s data in unfinished states, whether in the field or in lab/studio environments (as opposed to symposia or workshops, where we share mostly finished work), could enrich how we produce knowledge and make our concepts portable. Agreeing to agree in collaborative analysis could mirror what we do in the field, with the aim not of supplanting debate and critique but rather advancing a lateral analytic process.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The Logic of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Caton, Steven C. 1990. “Peaks of Yemen I Summon”: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Culhane, Dara. 2011. “Stories and Plays: Ethnography, Performance and Ethical Engagements.” Anthropologica 53, no. 2: 257–74.

Spolin, Viola. 1963. Improvisation for the Theater: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.