Proficiency: Blindness

From the Series: Proficiency

Photo by Bruce Turner, licensed under CC BY.

We were invited to consider proficiency in its relationship to participant-observation. But is proficiency a goal, a precondition, or a method for fieldwork? Much of the conversation has focused on the metaphor of linguistic proficiency, keeping the polyglot (see Grinker and Herzfeld 2009) in mind as a model. As Nick Seaver has anticipated, I wish to complement this discussion by expanding on my own notion of skilled visions (Grasseni 2007).

This shift means interpreting proficiency not as a prerequisite but as a dynamic and ongoing process. Indeed, what changes if we consider expertise or skill rather than proficiency in relation to our ethnographic positionality? Alessandra Ciucci has described how she learned “to listen to the rural from a historical perspective,” through the lens—so to speak—of cultural history and the aesthetics of a vernacular Arabic associated with the rural. In my own work, I focused on how we learn to see through the tropes that we share with relevant communities of practice, which impose their own viewing grids and inform genealogies of “good looking” routines.

Skill is a contested notion: experience and muddling are necessary to learning. Obsessed as we are with competence as overview, skills are foregrounded in toolkits, portfolios, and paradigms of knowledge transfer, while generalized deskilling is increasingly accepted as a political condition, facilitating individualization and dependence. In this model (which is societal as well as epistemological) skills may be acquired, transferred, and paid for. They can be exhaustively enumerated in a rubric, described as learning goals, and objectively assessed. Even the public enrollment of citizens’ skills as forms of societal participation underscores neoliberal models of self-reliance (Urciuoli 2008; Gieser 2014). Ethnographic knowledge undergoes this momentous transformation, as does expert knowledge (Herzfeld 2007). Obsessed with the need for an overview, both are beset with the problem of blindness (Bleichmar 2007).

In my latest research, I study alternative food provisioning practices, especially in their collective, political, and relational dimensions (Grasseni 2013). In particular, systems of self- and peer certification such as participatory guarantee systems (PGS) are viewed by food activists as tools for connecting food producers and critical consumers so that each can benefit from the others’ expertise and networks. Key to these quality schemes are the field visits that consumers organize in collaboration with farmers to gather data for the evaluation by a peer committee. The idea is to self-certify that the standards required by a European organic agriculture certification can be upheld locally, without recourse to certifiers but rather through trustworthy stakeholders. The assumption here is that a close look by an interested party will deliver a more transparent result than a paid-for audit by a disinterested party. Not so tacitly, the farmers and consumers I worked with in northern Italy feel that third-party certification may be a question of “just paying” a rather high fee to get “a piece of paper.” While in audits (Strathern 2000), controlled representations of the food system tend to formalize skilled processes, peer certification is meant to be based upon a mutual learning relationship.

The point is that food activists may well lack skilled vision. For example, research on citizen-driven food certification schemes has shown that, while promising on paper, PGS can be impaired by the lack of agronomic and environmental knowledge on the part of the food activists who set them up (Contessi 2015). In the name of transparency, activists visit the farms, but growers find it difficult to be transparent to stakeholders who are blind to their trade.

When we visited a PGS farm in 2013, Silvia Contessi and I appreciated how forthcoming the farm operator was. He was candid about the fact that they had to do a lot of “cleaning up” because the landowner, a hunter, had not only interred animal carcasses and dispersed empty cartridges, but had used the abandoned lot as a dumping site for building materials. Yet with the iron rods dug up from the fields, the new growers had built supports for beans. Silvia, an experienced environmental technician, was aghast, imagining all of the possible kinds of soil pollution that could have ensued. She doubted the seriousness of peer certification when no soil testing was required. Nor was any attention paid by the visiting party (including myself) to the prominent chimney of a nearby factory or the closeness of a trafficked road. To Silvia, we were hopelessly blind to damning evidence. In our subsequent conversations, Silvia and I reflected on this incident and were both frustrated and inspired by how each of us had experienced that field visit. It takes lengthy mediation, interpretation, and relational work to even appreciate the skills of others.

Héctor Beltrán put his initial recommendation thus: “Instead of focusing on how proficient we can become, we can focus on how to study this social life of proficiency and use what we learn to become more proficient border-workers.” In the case described above, this means observing how activists (and ethnographers) learn over time, and how they negotiate ignorance. Aware of the lack of agronomic knowledge in their network, for example, activists discussed the creation of a skills bank. Timing ethnography, then, would mean dwelling with data and returning to the field over years and even decades—such a luxury, I believe, should not be considered radical or fringe. That “expert culture is obsessed with efficiency and renewal,” as Héctor put it, is unfortunately not only true of geek cultures but also of our own research policies: protocols and rubrics keep the horror of muddling at bay. Thus, instead of proposing criteria to define ethnographic proficiency, I prefer to remind ourselves of blindness as the necessary counterpart of insight—both imagined as ideal poles of the ethnographic dialectic.


Bleichmar, Daniela. 2007. “Training the Naturalist’s Eye in the Eighteenth Century: Perfect Global Visions and Local Blind Spots.” In Skilled Visions: Between Apprenticeship and Standards, edited by Cristina Grasseni, 166–90. New York: Berghahn.

Contessi, Silvia. 2015. “Il suolo: tra resilienza agroambientale e sociale.” PhD thesis, Universitá Degli Studi di Bergamo.

Grasseni, Cristina. 2013. Beyond Alternative Food Networks: Italy’s Solidarity Purchase Groups. New York: Bloomsbury.

Grasseni, Cristina, ed. 2007. Skilled Visions: Between Apprenticeship and Standards. New York: Berghahn.

Gieser, Thorsten. 2014. “Enskillment Inhibited: ‘Industrial Gardening’ in Britain.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20, no. 1: 131–49.

Grinker, Roy Richard, and Michael Herzfeld. 2009. “Introducing Polyglot Perspectives.” Anthropological Quarterly 82, no. 1: 5–6.

Herzfeld, Michael. 2007. “Deskilling, ‘Dumbing Down’ and the Auditing of Knowledge in the Practical Mastery of Artisans and Academics: An Ethnographer’s Response to a Global Problem.” In Ways of Knowing: Anthropological Approaches to Crafting Experience and Knowledge, edited by Mark Harris, 91–110. New York: Berghahn.

Strathern, Marilyn. 2000. Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics, and the Academy. New York: Routledge.

Urciuoli, Bonnie. 2008. “Skills and Selves in the New Workplace.” American Ethnologist 35, no. 2: 211–28.