Tim Ingold's "That's Enough About Ethnography"--The Seminar is Underway

Officially, the seminar begins on Monday. But here, to get things started are our first assignments. 

(1) Several of us are already acquainted. Others may be meeting us for the first time. Please add a few words about yourself. For example,

I am, yes, an old white man, 70 years old, a U.S. citizen of Scots-Irish-German-Alsatian descent who has lived and worked in Japan since 1980. I have been married to the same woman, who is also my best friend and business partner, for 45 years. We have one highly accomplished daughter and two grandkids, a boy and a girl. I am an independent scholar who has neither a career nor a livelihood at stake in our debates. 
 
(2) Then, to get things started, the following exercise.

Early in this article, Ingold tells us that he "will not refrain from polemic." Then, as those writing polemics often do, he contrasts a nightmare with a vision of better things.

He describes the nightmare as follows,

How many research proposals have we read, coming from such fields as sociology, social policy, social psychology and education, in which the applicant explains that he or she will conduct “ethnographic interviews” with a sample of randomly selected informants, the data from which will then be processed by means of a recommended software package in order to yield “results”? 

He then describes his vision, 

Proper, rigorous anthropological inquiry—including long-term and open-ended commitment, generous attentiveness, relational depth, and sensitivity to context.

Please tell us what this nightmare and vision evoke for you. Describe any feelings, images, or thoughts that come to mind as you read these descriptions. Be as concrete as possible.

Remember, at this point, we are not evaluating these descriptions. We want to discover how they are interpreted by each of us here, and where what they evoke for each of us may overlap or conversely be very different.

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Jonathan: So basically putting theory and ethnography on the same playing field, as equal sources of learning (whatever "equal" might mean), under the name of anthropology?

Abraham, my reading of  "proper, rigorous anthropological inquiry—including long-term and open-ended commitment, generous attentiveness, relational depth, and sensitivity to context" is not to go to the field then bam bam gone.

How do anthropologists contextualize a certain information?  Is it through juxtaposing it to/with another information or situating it in a larger whole?  And how do  you perform this "generous attentiveness", long-term study, and open-ended commitment" if you do not intend to  be open, wide, and inclusive in your data gathering?

Anthropologists should not ignore the generalist nature of anthropology if they don't want to hasten the demise of anthropology.  If you are a forensic  anthropologist, it should be expected that you must have a good  background in myths and rituals and anthropology of death and funeral.  If you only focus on skeletal remains, how different are you compared to forensic pathologists or criminal forensic analysts? 

 


Hi Erin


Erin B. Taylor said:

Jonathan: So basically putting theory and ethnography on the same playing field, as equal sources of learning (whatever "equal" might mean), under the name of anthropology?

Yes, except he also wants to do away with the distinction between ethnography and theory in the context of anthropology -- that's why he rejects 'ethnographic theory'... anthropology is (or should be developed as) a third category, one based on intersubjective education about being. This avoids the problem of distinguishing between ethnography (stuff other people say, which we report on without judging), and theory (stuff we might actually agree or disagree with, comment on critically etc). 

That's my reading anyway -- I do think it could be a bit more clearly spelled out though, and it probably could support other readings too. 

Jon

Jon, this is very revealing:

"Questions remain, however, around the notion of method. Granted that participant observation and ethnography are entirely different, that one is a practice of correspondence and the other a practice of description, can either be regarded as a method at all?"

I can see the distinction even if it is expressed as a supposition.  I agree that participant-observation is not  ethnography.  Even a theory-based research design is another method, at least to me.

Thanks Jon. I think he should have kept writing a little longer!

Here's an interesting piece about ethnography from Sam Lander on the Epic People website: https://www.epicpeople.org/ethnographers-bearers-of-bad-news/?utm_c...
First, thank you to everyone who has participated so far. We are off to a good start. Second, a reminder to those who may be lurking that we value your voices, too. New perspectives are more than welcome. They are necessary to enliven a conversation already tending in familiar circles.

Thus, for example, I totally agree with what Jonathan Mair has said about Ingold's rhetoric. Keith is spot on when he writes "excellent commentary." That said, I'm a bit nervous that we are rushing the fences, leaping to judgments that belong at the end of a careful reading instead of the beginning.

A particular word of thanks to Abraham Heineman, who has (1) looked outside the article, using Google NGRAM and Google Trends to see how the world outside our tiny band might see the issues that Ingold raises, (2)drawn a connection to another OAC debate, and (3) said some intriguing things about his own fieldwor. I would like to here more about the assumption that "I am actually interested in my geographical field-site and participants."

In all fairness, I should also say a few words about my own responses to Ingold's nightmare and vision. Re the nightmare, I ask myself, could any of the anthropological classics that still excite me have been written following research of the type that the nightmare describes. Would we have Malinowski's Argonauts, Coral Gardens, or the Sexual Life of Savages, Evans-Pritchard's Witchcraft, Oracle and Magic and the Nuer Trilogy, Ruth Benedict's Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Victor Turner's Forest of Symbols, Clifford Geertz' Understanding Culture, Levi-Strauss' Mythologies, or Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger if those were the rules that governed anthropological research? Would, for that matter, my own research have been possible? That confused younger me who wrote the grant applications for his fieldwork never imagined that he would start hanging around a small storefront temple in a market town in the center of Taiwan and been told by the Daoist healer whose business it was that the Jade Emperor had appeared to him in a vision and told him that I should be his disciple. Memories like my wife and I seeing "2001, A Space Odyssey" in the local movie theater, with bats in the eaves and betel juice sticky on the floor, our very first night in the field have no place in that sort of "conduct ethnographic interviews with a sample of respondents who have signed the proper paper work" research that Ingold's nightmare describes.

What, then, of the vision? my initial response is a feeling of shame. I did not establish long-term relationships with the people who so generously shared their lives with me. Thrashing around in the early stages of an unsuccessful academic career and starting a new family, I lost touch. By the time I returned to look for my Daoist master again, he was dead. But, putting that aside, when I look back at that list of works that have shaped my sense of what anthropology can be, I see that a case can be made for generous attentiveness,relational depth and sense of context. I also see, however, an anthropology that stretches far beyond the scope of the fieldwork that may have shaped or inspired it.

Am I wrong, I wonder, to also note what seems to me a strong flavor of "the lone anthropologist in the field with his or her people" in what Ingold has written? A schema in which the anthropological Ego confronts the local Other and what the Other thinks and feels is all-important? Is this not very strange in a world that, as Marcus and Fischer observed, is full of all sorts of people, including the natives themselves, who write about those whose lives we share and study? In which generalizations are supported, not just by intution or quantitative data, but also extensive and readily available evidence, some qualitative, some quantitative, collected by other scholars, many of whom are also anthropologists?
Huon, Kristian, M., welcome to the seminar. Great seeing you all here. Everyone, please note, as I wrote my previous message, I was responding to what I had read as of the time I went to bed nine hours ago. So much has happened since.

Starting with Ingold's nightmare and vision has generated a lot of interesting discussion. Suppose we move on now to Ingold's proposition that,

We should drop both the ethnographic and the field from ethnographic fieldwork, and refer instead to our tried and tested way of working, namely participant observation.


In the next section of the paper, titled "Observing from the inside," Ingold adds an explanation,

To observe means to watch what is going on around and about, and of course to listen and feel as well. To participate means to do so from within the current of activity in which you carry on a life alongside and together with the persons and things that capture your attention.

He notes that participation and observation are sometimes assumed to be in contradiction. He cites Michael Jackson, who writes that, "One can observe and participate successively but not simultaneously." Personally, I would side with Jackson here, while agreeing with Ingold that the equation of observation with objectivity and participation with subjectivity is a red herring. When Ingold writes that this analogy is grounded in

a certain understanding of immanence and transcendence, deeply rooted in the protocols of normal science, according to which human existence is constitutionally split between being in the world and knowing about it

I find myself nodding in agreement. What I do not see is any contradiction between this position and Jackson's observation that observation and participation can be conducted successively—to which I would add and over and over again, in a research process that involves both stepping into the Other's shoes and stepping back to reflect on how this affects the researcher's own thinking and feeling about what is going on. Which brings me to Assignment No. 2: Please tell us what the statements by Ingold cited above say to you.

The Cultural Space of Participant Observation

 

Ingold:  To observe means to watch what is going on around and about, and of course to listen and feel as well. To participate means to do so from within the current of activity in which you carry on a life alongside and together with the persons and things that capture your attention.

 

    Ingold’s statement seems straightforward enough, and I imagine most or all of us would accept it as a description of what we have done from time to time under the rubric of anthropology.  A problem I have here (perhaps more than other seminar participants) is that I’ve spent a lot of time puzzling over the anthropological significance of cultural productions that are not based on face-to-face interaction: popular movies, sporting events, festivals, mass movements.  My sense is that if a particular cultural production, the movie Avatar for example, attains phenomenal global popularity, it must indicate something quite basic about the tens of millions of people affected by it.  Moreover, I think a great deal of modern life has to do with media-ated experience.  How much of your day is spent in direct conversation and interaction with others, and how much is spent staring, not at another human face, but at a monitor, a video screen, a printed page?  Ingold’s notion of participant observation strikes me as a wistful longing for another (mythical?) era when life was simpler, when children played games together, not as video game personae, when adults communicated one on one.  Let’s make Ingold’s criterion of participant observation a question: Do “you carry on a life alongside and together with the persons and things that capture your attention?.  I suggest that “participant observation” is conducted within a cultural space that is not a physical location containing people who are “alongside and together.”  Particularly with the ascendancy of social media, the individual person and his or her relationships are part of a vast web of human associations.  If we’re to do anthropology that engages that fact we need to expand our notion of what it is to participate in and observe that disembodied world.  



M Izabel said:

Jon, this is very revealing:

"Questions remain, however, around the notion of method. Granted that participant observation and ethnography are entirely different, that one is a practice of correspondence and the other a practice of description, can either be regarded as a method at all?"

I can see the distinction even if it is expressed as a supposition.  I agree that participant-observation is not  ethnography.  Even a theory-based research design is another method, at least to me.

Yes, that quotation seems to get to the heart of his distinction. I missed that one, perhaps because, as you note, it's disguised in a hypothetical! I agree with you about theory-based research design. 

Yes, I agree! It seems it's all leading up to that last paragraph, which is pretty gnomic really, then he suddenly stops!

Thanks for the link...I love this: "I do not sit in the Ivory Tower. I move boulders for a living. They usually roll back down the hill."

Erin B. Taylor said:

Thanks Jon. I think he should have kept writing a little longer!

Here's an interesting piece about ethnography from Sam Lander on the Epic People website: https://www.epicpeople.org/ethnographers-bearers-of-bad-news/?utm_c...

John - first of all many thanks for this initiative, it's fun, and it made me read the paper attentively!

Your comment about failing to stay in touch with informants made me squirm a bit. I'm still in sporadic touch with my 'key informant' and we get on very well, but there are a couple of others other people who were important in my fieldwork who I used to dutifully visit each time I went back, but we were not friends, and in some cases there were tensions and I finally and deliberately gave up being in touch with them. This is the kind of thing that anthropologists (I should say participant observers) talk about freely, in my experience, but rarely include in their ethnographic writing.

Ingold's vision does seem to be of the engagement = friendship variety. But engagement can be hostile just as easily as it can be amicable -- if we abolish the distinction between theory and ethnography, are we likely to end up disagreeing with those we meet through participant observation as much as we do with our academic peers and forebears? That seems to be the implication of Ingold's piece. 

I don't see the distinction you draw between anthropological Ego and ethnographic Other in Ingold's paper. On the contrary, I think he's precisely criticising that distinction, though not in exactly those terms. It seems to me he's arguing that all our thinking is 'in correspondence' with others and we shouldn't distinguish on the basis of whether those others are in the field and therefore 'exotic' and 'ethnographic' or whether they are in the academy and therefore 'us' and 'theoretical'. The ego is definitely still there and important, but always learning in intersubjective 'correspondence' with others, but the exotic Other of the field seems to be what he's trying to get rid of. 

Jon


John McCreery said:

First, thank you to everyone who has participated so far. We are off to a good start. Second, a reminder to those who may be lurking that we value your voices, too. New perspectives are more than welcome. They are necessary to enliven a conversation already tending in familiar circles.

Thus, for example, I totally agree with what Jonathan Mair has said about Ingold's rhetoric. Keith is spot on when he writes "excellent commentary." That said, I'm a bit nervous that we are rushing the fences, leaping to judgments that belong at the end of a careful reading instead of the beginning.

A particular word of thanks to Abraham Heineman, who has (1) looked outside the article, using Google NGRAM and Google Trends to see how the world outside our tiny band might see the issues that Ingold raises, (2)drawn a connection to another OAC debate, and (3) said some intriguing things about his own fieldwor. I would like to here more about the assumption that "I am actually interested in my geographical field-site and participants."

In all fairness, I should also say a few words about my own responses to Ingold's nightmare and vision. Re the nightmare, I ask myself, could any of the anthropological classics that still excite me have been written following research of the type that the nightmare describes. Would we have Malinowski's Argonauts, Coral Gardens, or the Sexual Life of Savages, Evans-Pritchard's Witchcraft, Oracle and Magic and the Nuer Trilogy, Ruth Benedict's Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Victor Turner's Forest of Symbols, Clifford Geertz' Understanding Culture, Levi-Strauss' Mythologies, or Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger if those were the rules that governed anthropological research? Would, for that matter, my own research have been possible? That confused younger me who wrote the grant applications for his fieldwork never imagined that he would start hanging around a small storefront temple in a market town in the center of Taiwan and been told by the Daoist healer whose business it was that the Jade Emperor had appeared to him in a vision and told him that I should be his disciple. Memories like my wife and I seeing "2001, A Space Odyssey" in the local movie theater, with bats in the eaves and betel juice sticky on the floor, our very first night in the field have no place in that sort of "conduct ethnographic interviews with a sample of respondents who have signed the proper paper work" research that Ingold's nightmare describes.

What, then, of the vision? my initial response is a feeling of shame. I did not establish long-term relationships with the people who so generously shared their lives with me. Thrashing around in the early stages of an unsuccessful academic career and starting a new family, I lost touch. By the time I returned to look for my Daoist master again, he was dead. But, putting that aside, when I look back at that list of works that have shaped my sense of what anthropology can be, I see that a case can be made for generous attentiveness,relational depth and sense of context. I also see, however, an anthropology that stretches far beyond the scope of the fieldwork that may have shaped or inspired it.

Am I wrong, I wonder, to also note what seems to me a strong flavor of "the lone anthropologist in the field with his or her people" in what Ingold has written? A schema in which the anthropological Ego confronts the local Other and what the Other thinks and feels is all-important? Is this not very strange in a world that, as Marcus and Fischer observed, is full of all sorts of people, including the natives themselves, who write about those whose lives we share and study? In which generalizations are supported, not just by intution or quantitative data, but also extensive and readily available evidence, some qualitative, some quantitative, collected by other scholars, many of whom are also anthropologists?

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