Proficiency: Provocation

From the Series: Proficiency

Photo by Bruce Turner, licensed under CC BY.

I have been asked to reflect on the degree to which anthropologists need to become proficient in their own research and the extent to which they can possibly become proficient in studying any practice. As Franziska Weidle and Andrés García Molina note in their introduction, the question of proficiency in fieldwork has historically centered around questions of language: to be an active participant alongside research participants, an ethnographer must at least speak the local language. But anthropologists have long warned us against entering communities with how-to guides and instead have proposed methodologies for learning about different ways of learning before we ever even get to the asking part of ethnography (Briggs 1986).

As an ethnographer armed with this anthropological way of knowing, with a social-justice commitment to being useful to any group before they could be useful to me and with a computer science degree behind me, I structured my first ethnographic project around a computing class that I taught in Oakland, California to a group who identified as indigenous Maya. My underlying motivations were to study indigenous practices in relation to new technologies, but as Andrew Shryock notes, “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.” Having a long and fraught history with anthropologists, my research participants had a (perhaps better) sense of what I was trying to do and suggested that, with my technical skills, my research might be more productive if it was focused on the folks across the Bay: the technology producers in Silicon Valley.

Following the ethnographic imagination of those research participants, my current project explores the circulation of practices of techno-entrepreneurial development between the San Francisco Bay Area and Mexico. The heart of my fieldwork involves spending time at hackathons, the ritual event where self-identified hackers come to perform their aptitude for modifying, tweaking, and finding ways to exploit vulnerabilities in systems and structures.

Ethnographic encounters have allowed me to witness hackers performing enactments of expertise in order to accrue interactional prestige (Jones 2011). More importantly, these encounters allowed my research participants to test just where my hacker-anthropologist proficiencies lay. Although I was someone who could perform my technical proficiency by understanding computer code and by using APIs, or interfaces, to develop applications, many times I was made to assume my role as mere anthropologist: when I was unaware of the latest development toolkit or a useful library inside of the particular coding language. Perhaps I had spent too much time away from the code work while I was preoccupying myself with the anthropology.

More interesting things happened when the languages from these two different types of work converged. As a team presented an application intended to help taxi drivers, a mentor-judge asked, “Have you been a taxi driver before? Did you just go ask some questions to a few drivers? Before you start thinking about the technology, you need to spend time living with and learning from drivers before you attempt to resolve their problems.” In the dialogue that ensued, my proficiency as ethnographer was valued; I was asked to provide insight on ethnographic methodologies. Here, the expert roles shifted and ethnography became the effective trade language required to do crucial borderwork. These are the moments of entanglement with other cultures of expertise, in which the fieldworker is caught studying practices not too dissimilar from those of anthropology.

The hackathon furthermore becomes a space where one’s ability to quickly decide which proficiency to display is intensified. It functions as a microcosm of Silicon Valley’s techno-liberal participation ideologies and practices. During team recruitment, one must be adept at navigating mercurial allegiances, volatile sociality, and quickly revealing (or hiding) one’s proficiency (Jones, Semel, and Le 2015). For example, if a team already has the two software developers they need, potential team members are better off highlighting their capabilities in other domains: marketing, graphic design, business, etc. Here, pulling out the anthropologist card grants coder-observers the ability to differentiate themselves from other programmers and to join teams in which they are interested. Shuttling between different roles (or proficiencies) makes one a proficient hackathon participant.

Because many of my research participants embody an ethos that prompts them to align their practices with fast-paced, free-market, high-concept innovation cycles, one might argue that I could never be entirely up to speed, never truly proficient enough. But the fact that my research participants work in cycles, adopting iterative software methodologies into their professional and personal lives, is perhaps a benefit to an anthropology that wants to “change gears” (Farías 2017), that wants to inhabit different temporal configurations in order to carefully time our collaborative interventions. That is, in an expert culture obsessed with efficiency and renewal, every iteration becomes an opportunity for introspection, a moment for the possible surfacing of desires to better understand, to learn by practicing. To use the trending nature of ethnography to our advantage and to effectively use ethnography as a trade language, these moments can become encounters where proficiencies are negotiated, exchanged, and treated with corresponding attention and hesitation. 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 borderworkers.


Briggs, Charles L. 1986. Learning How to Ask: A Sociolinguistic Appraisal of the Role of the Interview in Social Science Research. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Farías, Ignacio. 2017. “An Idiotic Catalyst: Accelerating the Slowing Down of Thinking and Action.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 1: 35–41.

Jones, Graham. 2011. Trade of the Tricks: Inside the Magician’s Craft. Berkeley: University of California Press.

_____, Beth Semel, and Audrey Le. 2015. “‘There’s no rules. It’s a hackathon’: Negotiating Commitment in a Context of Volatile Sociality.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 25, no. 3: 322–45.