Photo by Bruce Turner, licensed under CC BY.

When it comes to the study of practice, one of the main challenges for ethnographers is often the question of their own proficiency. If it is widely regarded a necessity to speak the local language in order to successfully conduct ethnographic research, do we also have to be capable of playing a certain instrument, cloning a protein, or writing an algorithm? What is the relationship between proficiency and the standard methodology of participant-observation?

For a long time, ethnomusicologists have interrogated and practiced what they call bi-musicality (Hood 1960; Baily 2001; Witzleben 2010), referring to the notion that learning to perform within the parameters of a specific musical tradition constitutes one central aim of ethnomusicological research. In this context, acquiring proficiency becomes an objective of ethnographic fieldwork.

Ethnographic work in science and technology studies or medical anthropology that investigates socio-technological constellations in the making often requires a significant degree of proficiency as their objects of study become more heterogeneous (Mol 2002; Coleman 2013). Hence, Michi Knecht (2013, 92–93) has argued that ethnographers need to further their knowledge and competences in order to understand the languages and forms of expertise in their respective fields. If we follow Lev Manovich’s (2013) call for all scholars who investigate contemporary culture and society to engage with and account for software as an all-permeating layer, will we need to start speaking code?

Although the role of the ethnographer has been the subject of extensive scholarly reflection, the relationship between proficiency and participant-observation has not been explored systematically. Following research on skills and enskillment (Ingold 2000; Cox 2003; Herzfeld 2004; Grasseni 2007; Jones 2011), we have invited a group of scholars to reflect on the importance of their own learning processes and acquisition of technical expertise during the course of their fieldwork.

Our contributors were asked to consider the following questions and to add their own: To what extent did your research require you to become proficient (enough) with local practices, to understand the logics behind the materialities used and how they, in turn, informed people’s (inter)actions? What degree of proficiency is required and how proficient can we possibly become in order to study different domains of practice? We hope that this session of Correspondences will contribute to the refinement of a shared set of criteria on how to deal with the question of proficiency in a more differentiated way.


Baily, John. 2001. “Learning to Perform as Research Technique in Ethnomusicology.” British Journal of Ethnomusicology 10, no. 2: 85–98.

Coleman, E. Gabriella. 2013. Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Cox, Rupert. 2003. The Zen Arts: An Anthropological Study of the Culture of Aesthetic Form in Japan. New York: Routledge.

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

Herzfeld, Michael. 2004. The Body Impolitic: Artisans and Artifice in the Global Hierarchy of Value. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hood, Mantle. 1960. “The Challenges of ‘Bi-musicality.’Ethnomusicology 4, no. 2: 55–59.

Ingold, Tim. 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. New York: Routledge.

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

Knecht, Michi. 2013. “Nach Writing Culture, mit Actor-Network: Ethnografie/Praxeologie in der Wissenschafts-, Medizin- und Technikforschung.” In Europäisch-ethnologisches Forschen: Neue Methoden und Konzepte, edited by Sabine Hess, Johannes Moser, and Maria Schwertl, 79–106. Berlin: Reimer.

Manovich, Lev. 2013. Software Takes Command. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Mol, Annemarie. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Witzleben, J. Lawrence. 2010. “Performing in the Shadows: Learning and Making Music as Ethnomusicological Practice and Theory.Yearbook for Traditional Music 42: 135–66.

Posts in This Series

Proficiency: Provocation

Proficiency: Provocation

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 be... More

Proficiency: Listening

Proficiency: Listening

Héctor Beltrán points out how the question of proficiency in fieldwork has centered around questions of language and, in particular, on the need to speak the “l... More

Proficiency: Arrival

Proficiency: Arrival

I apologize, because I am going to spoil the ending of the movie Arrival (2016) for you. (The movie is based on a 1998 short story by Ted Chiang entitled “Story... More

Proficiency: Blindness

Proficiency: Blindness

We were invited to consider proficiency in its relationship to participant-observation. But is proficiency a goal, a precondition, or a method for fieldwork? Mu... More