Introduction: Collaborative Analytics

From the Series: Collaborative Analytics

Photo by snowsoulmate, licensed under CC BY NC ND.

“Collaborative analytics” became a key motivating phrase of our Center for Ethnography workshop in June 2017 and a thematic for this collection of short essays deriving from it. The idea of thinking together within the classic anthropological research process, which is based on fieldwork and produces systematic conceptual thought, is a powerfully attractive restatement of the rationale for ethnography for our times. In this, it is similar to the virtues of polyphony and dialogics as representational ideals of ethnographic writing that motivated the critiques of the 1980s and 1990s.

Who thinks together and on what terms is an interesting question for the emergence of a methodological concept of collaboration in contemporary ethnography. In our workshop, the phrase “collaborative analytics” was most resonant when it referred to one of two situations. In the first, anthropologists were doing productive concept work together based on research they had individually pursued earlier and were now thinking collaboratively and comparatively about—as in the case of Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak’s (2010) exploration of a contemporary parodic style in media. In the second, collaborative analytics became a descriptor for second or later projects in research careers that had been launched by classical solo fieldwork but then departed from that emblematic model in a variety of creative and necessary directions, all of which were marked by a collaborative motivating set of concepts at their core.

In this era of anthropological research explicitly conceived in terms of collaboration, the phrase “collaborative analytics” becomes interestingly problematic when it is pushed back to the scene of fieldwork itself. While anthropologists have always worked collaboratively with subjects who agree to work with them, the term analytics has generally been used to mark the production of knowledge by a scholarly guild with a second-order and authoritative interest in the development of analytic concepts. The game is perhaps up if a space of analytics is not preserved free of the collaborations that make fieldwork inquiry possible. Yet it is precisely that space that is being put productively at risk by the posing of a concept such as collaborative analytics.

In our workshop, the stakes of demarcating analytics as innovatively collaborative were posed by the presentation of a long-term research project undertaken by Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako. This project joins Rofel’s experience in China and Yanagisako’s in Italy to produce a truly monumental and acutely ethnographic study of international trading relations. Though rich in innovative dimensions of ethnographic writing and analysis enabled by a collaboration lasting more than a decade, their joint work is full of productive confusions and layered commentaries on closely observed situations that would not have been possible without both enduring collaboration and separate expertise. Moreover, the use of collaborative analytics between the two of them did not extend to their subjects. During an afternoon session of the workshop devoted to small-group work, Craig Campbell, Sylvia Yanagisako, and I discussed this limit of collaborative analytics between Rofel and Yanagisako’s subjects and between their subjects and them.

For the sake of exploration, I made as strong a case as possible for collaborative analytics extending to subjects of research, especially when these were experts and analysts of their own conditions. What kind of experiments in the field, or in relation to it, could be conducted to elicit this dimension of collaborative analytics or concept work that connects or aligns anthropologist and subject, affecting both the forms and nature of claims to anthropological knowledge explored ethnographically? The case I made was based on conversations that Douglas Holmes and I have been having for more than twenty years about the stakes of collaborative forms of ethnographic inquiry as precisely about the form of anthropological analytics or knowledge itself. Our view has been that collaborative analytics redefine the scope of ethnographic reporting and what anthropologists can say about it on their own. Entanglements with the explicitly anthropological concerns of contemporary subjects—like the styles of thinking related to the conjuring of the Anthropocene or, more darkly, the neofascist and nationalist views of culture and religion that have appeared in many domains of both expert and everyday concern—transform the terms and frameworks by which anthropologists themselves can articulate a distinctive form of knowledge. In this sense, collaborative analytics have radical implications for ethnographic reporting going forward, posing anew the ideals of polyphony and dialogics in ethnographic representation. Yet, this time around, these ideals are posed not so much as a problem of representation or ethics but as a problem of analysis itself. What form, in this light, can anthropological questions give knowledge once the concept of collaboration as ethnographic method becomes powerful, explicit, and diverse enough? Here, we move from illicit discourse through complicity, paraethnography, internarrativity, and epistemic partnerships and alignments to collaborative analytics.

Having written up these comments after the workshop, I shared them with Campbell and Yanagisako via email. Let me close with this excerpt from Campbell’s response:

Not all collaborations produce a collaborative analytic. As with children’s parallel play, many collaborations turn out to be built on a division of labor . . . which is fine but there is no point calling that a collaborative analytic. There is something of a dialectic in a collaborative analytic, as seen through probes and reconnaissance missions that search for anecdotes, elaborations, and clarifications from other collaborators. As I think Keith [Murphy] said, a lot of it is built on hunchwork, groping toward the figure of something. The interdependence of participants in a collaboration produces specific and ephemeral ecologies where meaning, work, and identity are negotiated. Earlier, I was thinking about cultivating a collaborative scene, but I now see a logic to the notion of cultivating a collaborative analytics: where the opportunity to probe is fostered. I suspect that if we had have pushed through (as we are now), we might have moved toward a collaborative meta-critique or analytic of [Rofel and Yanagisako’s] collaboration. The object of fascination for me, then, is the very probing that you were doing, George.


Boyer, Dominic, and Alexei Yurchak. 2010. “American Stiob: Or, What Late-Socialist Aesthetics of Parody Reveal about Contemporary Political Culture in the West.” Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 2: 179–221.