What is it to be taken by surprise? It is to be startled and maybe shaken, to be enchanted and even made breathless. To be taken by surprise is to be accosted by the unexpected or to become enlocked in a scenario that might not be of our choosing. But it is also the revelation of the mundane turned strange and, at its best, thrilling. To be taken by surprise is to be captured in astonishment.

Surprise is the centripetal force of serendipity, reminding us that we are unable to predict all of the outputs and that we should sometimes expect to relinquish control.

Surprise might be actively created or it might boil up through no particular intention. In thinking through surprise together, as a collaborative project, we have been struck by the fact that many of the most magnificent moments of collaborative work are those that start—or end—in surprise. In this way, surprise can be an achievement all its own.

But perhaps this is not surprising. Because it turns out that much of the project of anthropology itself has been bent on surprise.

In her 2013 Munro Lecture at the University of Edinburgh, Jane Guyer (2013) tells us that anthropologists have been trying to surprise themselves, and to evoke surprise in others, since the beginning of the craft. She calls this an “epistemology of surprise”: the condition or proclivity to be taken with, and by, surprise. Bronislaw Malinowski’s (1984, 20) formulation of the “imponderabilia of actual life” is a path toward maintaining the condition of surprise, one that functions as both method and form of exposition—the ability to be surprised as well as the aptitude to create surprise in others. This is hewing toward the minor in search of wonder in the mundane. Before Malinowski, Lewis Henry Morgan noticed the possibilities for reflexive contemplation that came with surprise. “Virtues rise before us,” he wrote, “they create surprise, rather than answer expectation” (Morgan 1851, 180). Coming to us like David Hume’s “impressions,” surprise became integral to the empirical project, pointillizing moments of dissonance and the un-usual.

Yet perhaps surprise is not good enough. Tim Ingold (2011, 63–64) reminds us that “surprise is the currency of experts who trade in plans and predictions. . . . What is not surprising is considered of no interest or historical significance.” Surprise here becomes rote, and history, Ingold (2011, 64) writes, “a record of predictive failures.” If technocratic success is measured by its quotient of surprise, then anthropology might do better to aim for amazement, for marveling, for astonishment. The ethnographer may roam the world hoping to be surprised, but maybe we ought to be after something more—to have our sensibilities toppled and reassembled newly. Locating the elastic architecture that connects astonishment to argument is an enduring aim of the anthropological project.

In collaborative ethnographic work we get taken by another’s ideas, the circuits of their thoughts, the analytic of their outlook. Collaboration can operate as a multiplication or an exponentializing of Marilyn Strathern’s concept of wonder in the eye of the anthropological beholder who is learning to see newly. Surprise can unfold in exercises of juxtaposition, contrasting entities and recognizing both the affinities and distinctions at the core of their compositions. Being taken by surprise can become a form-making project, a node of coordination and cooperation where a vacant center begins to populate with ideas and materials, experiences and responses. Surplus starts to show, ablation happens, the pregiven loses its prefix.

In the craft of collaboration, our own musings can also take us by surprise, tipping over the expected and tripping across the usual routes and passages of our analytic forms. Surprise comes in finding our own readings prodded and pushed. The surprise is a gift of epiphany. And the gift ought to be reciprocal; it goes both ways, all-ways. Apertures found in particular moments of cooperative engagement might exercise their fleeting magic in a process, but surprise can also be the objective of the process itself.

Creations made in collaboration will, ideally, be themselves full of surprise. They will take on a life that emanates the unexpected with a measure of effervescence—a collective effervescence. We can hope our audience, our viewers, our listeners, and our readers will find surprise in the novel eruptions produced in the work we cooperatively make.

When collaborative surprises stop coming, when collaboration ceases to be new, we might recognize that the end is near. Everything has a lifespan. Knowing when to stop or intuiting how to quit while we are ahead demands its own kind of dexterity. Sometimes a mercy killing is in in order. This is where surprise and failure coincide, hanging in the balance between continuance and dissolve. For surprise, like failure, reveals boundaries that are central to notions of progress. To predict is to foretell, to pre-say. But surprise-making is un-predicted, not yet spoken, an unwritten code.

Anthropology may be the practice of being taken by surprise, but more than that, it is the art of being taken with surprise.


Guyer, Jane I. 2013. “‘The Quickening of the Unknown’: Epistemologies of Surprise in Anthropology.” HAU 3, no. 3: 283–307.

Ingold, Tim. 2011. “The Meshwork.” In Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, 63–65. New York: Routledge.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1984. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press. Originally published in 1922.

Morgan, Lewis Henry. 1851. The League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois. Rochester, N.Y.: Sage.