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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John, I live in Scotland. I tried to think of what to say about myself, such as that my mother's family line sprung out of the ground somewhere near Pendle Hill in Lancashire where they spoke a Norse-derived dialect well into the Twentieth Century; but it all started to sound a bit longwinded. I have co-authored a book about ethnography and various other things. 

Either I have missed something fundamental here, or there is something fundamentally vague at the core of this article. One of the areas of vagueness for me is that this paper fails to distinguish between ethnography as a process--it is quite good at describing that--as opposed to an ethnography as an analytical summation. I agree with Keith about the dependence on intuition or as Jonathan says on implicit knowledge; a fundamental difficulty in pinning down how I learnt those specific things. But an ethnography is an analytic summation--it is a statement both of how the learning went and of the principles derived -- for that reason it is open to other people saying 'no that doesn't make much sense based on what you have described'. 

Supposing I make an ethnographic claim -- e.g. that you can't understand how Afro-Caribbean kinship typically plays out without recognising the high priority placed on economic autonomy in male-female relationships-- then I am making an analytic claim that is a step change beyond describing the process of learning by which I came by that knowledge. To start with I am opening myself up to someone saying 'I don't know what you mean' or 'where's your evidence for that?' Ethnography and anthropology are both processes of learning and education for sure, but at some point or moment there is a shift, which involves turning intuitions into concepts by working on them imaginatively then using those concepts to make judgements. 

There are many physical constraints on the general principle that 2+2=4 (e.g. 2 decibels of sound added to 2 decibels of sound does not equal 4 decibels of sound) but there is also an important difference between learning the principle and applying it. Concepts can have a poetic or more techno-scientific flavour; I think ethnographies often have a mix of both kinds,--but there wouldn't be an educative process if we didn't periodically arrive at certain kinds of stable principles for and judgements about what is going on. 

Again, I agree that anthropology centred around ethnography is far more dependent on long-term learning than most other disciplines, this is where its real value comes from; and its results mostly tend towards being 'vaguely right' as Keith indicated (though maybe there is an epistemological question there about the status assigned to kinds of knowledge that don't fit into the standard package). I notice in an interview with David Graeber from the other day that the interviewer notes how anthropologists are very low down on the list of occupations that could easily be replaced by a computer programme. This could be good or bad news...

I’m a Norwegian nearly-finished anthro-PhD, living in Dresden, Germany with my wife and two kindergarten-age kids. My personal engagement with ethnographic methods stems from the experience of various participant observations fieldwork in European urban contexts (e.g. gentrified neighborhoods, primary schools). I also have quite a bit of (uneasy) experience from applying and defending participant observation within research programs designed and run by psychologists and epidemiologists.

To me, what Ingold seems to point to at the negative pole is the massive effective pressure of our day to technicalize definitions of ethnography so as to fit the speed-quan methods paradigms of the hard sciences. My experience says that he’s shooting the messenger.

To stand a chance nowadays, a research proposal must usually succumb stringently to a tight ‘research question’- ‘methods’ - ‘prospected results’-formula. Within this flash-template, there is meager space to justify the kind of radical explorativeness that anthropologists think of as the primordial spirit of Malinowskian style fieldwork. Wrought with heavily vague and idealist semantics, participant observation is much prone to be written off by the average funder, as an epidemiology-colleague once dubbed it during lunch, as ‘silly-research’.

Moreover, today's publics tend to see ‘the researcher’ as a kind of truth-wizard who, by virtue of his/her technical methodological skills, can simply churn out masses of hard, easy-digest facts about whatever reality in question. By extension of this, I was repeatedly dumbfounded by my informants’ recurrent questions about ‘what I was finding’. After all, ‘findings’ was what all other folks called ‘researchers’ they saw around had to talk about.

What I’m trying to get at is a pardon for all those who identify with anthropological methods, who are nevertheless forced to transform the discourse about ‘what ethnography is’ because they have to fish for research funds outside that narrow creek of pure anthropology-moneys. Propagating “long-term and open-ended commitment, generous attentiveness, relational depth, and sensitivity to context” (not to mention ‘hanging out’) in such waters is most likely to end your whole research-career (and, to cope, join the adversaries by starting to resent this wonderful discipline as somehow essentially elitist and esoteric).

Ingold’s positive vision no doubt stands out as an inspiring homage to what anthropological methodological engagements ought to be about. My concern is how to pragmatically sell ‘participant observation’ so as to (1) effectively tap research funds beyond our little academy, and (2) to stand out as a legitimate research path in a public reality where scientific knowledge is typically thought of as fast-food, without selling out the core ideals that Ingold so brilliantly pins down. Without regressing into self-pitiful, fatalistic rants about ‘the whatever-evil-forces out there’.

Oh, and a final concern related to my own work; I’d like to discuss how the attitudes that Ingold pin down under ‘participant observation’ can be emulated in comparative historical anthropology, that is, can we somehow instill ourselves to participate-observe in the qualitative content of archival records?

Hi. I'm M. Izabel, a former robotic slave in the academe who hates career politics and obscurantist scholarship, and now a banquet chef in California who writes literature and thinks about culture once in a while. 

Ingold's nightmare and  vision are incomplete.  Maybe he likes them that way, so other anthropologists can join in the conversation and complete them.  That's actually one of my hopes for anthropologists.  I  hope they will help Ingold make this ethnography problem/dilemma a huge issue in social sciences.

Ethnography is not whole Anthropology.  There are other methods such as cultural historiography (for culture change, for example), comparative literature/bibliography (cultural intertextuality and comparative cultural analysis), kinship studies, resources mapping, and some quantitative methods.

Among the quantitative methods, I like anthropometry the most.  One can measure height, weight, body fat, etc. when studying seasonal change, food scarcity, nutrition/malnutrition, children's growth and  development, etc.  Are those ethnographic?  I don't think so.

My vision for anthropological methods is that anthropologists need to come up with new anthropological methods.  They should make experiments.  The social experiments the media conduct are too shallow and one-sided. Anthropologists should handle them for legitimacy, wholeness, and depth.  I often see social  experiments on TV that only show one side of the story, and they make me laugh.  They look like comic skits. 

The story of a  guy who plays the role of a homeless man, who is almost naked in New York City during winter, only demonizes those busy New  Yorkers who walk by and ignore him.  If an anthropologist does that experiment and he intends to study the whole, he might see the entire picture.  Maybe those busy New Yorkers have reasons not to mind the homeless man.  Maybe they have different concepts of help or compassion.  Maybe instead of demonizing and focusing on those busy, indifferent people, the economic climate of the city and the sense of individualism brought forth by it that make those New Yorkers emotionally empty and individualistic should also be covered.  We will never know  those maybe's because anthropologists are not doing the social experiments.

Making ethnography exclusive (for anthropologists only) is a dilemma.  Who will patronize the ethnographic products (software) and books produced and sold by anthropologists without those ethnographers from other fields and disciplines?  Other anthropologists have their own anthropological methods.  Why should they patronize the methods of their fellow anthropologists? Some anthropologists are  into participating and observing.  Others who advocate for cultural/social/political issues are into seeing, listening, feeling, and advocating.  Many are fine with their open-ended, unstructured method.  Few go to the field with ethnographic plans and designs maybe due to time and budget constraints. Objectivity in those ethnographic methods is a different story that should be discussed too.

My solution to that dilemma is division of labor.  Ethnographers from other disciplines and fields should be called specialist ethnographers.  If their  ethnography is about marketing or HIV or domestic violence, they should be allowed to do it, but only after the wide, deep ethnographic date are collected and produced by generalist anthropologists.  The specialists  should still base their narrowed down and particularized ethnography on the (w)holistic ethnography of the  generalists.  Domestic violence, after all, is not only a household issue. HIV is not only a disease but more.   And marketing is not all about literal consumption.  

I know a business anthropologist who has been complaining about management people who conduct ethnography and  usurp his function.  Let's accept that  fact that in the corporate world,  they will  rather hire someone who has an MBA in marketing analysis or operation research  than an anthropologist with a PhD concentration in Business Anthropology. If he accepts that fact, he will know how to position  himself.  Collaboration is the key.  He will do the generalist ethnography concerning business, and the one with the MBA can do ethnography as a marketing specialist.  The academe should make this collaboration a norm.  Although there is division of labor, but through collaboration everyone will be employed, and sound research outputs will come out of it.                  .           

I once  participated in an "ethnographic marketing research" using focus group discussion.  I  did wonder why it was called "ethnographic".  We were inside their air-conditioned room for business  conferences.  It was  sort of ethnographic because they asked questions related to our preference for jucies--their tastes, package designs, prices,etc.  I say sort of ethnographic because I believe one's personal preference is shaped by his culture. We, who participated, also came from different geographical regions, social classes, and economic statuses, which are the ethnographic  features and classification ethnographers find in the field.  We raised our hands and  they counted them.  We filled up their papers full of direct question and answerable  with yes or no.  We discussed about their brand and our perceptions.  It  took almost three hours.

I  did have a feeling that what they did was  specialized, focused, particularized,  structured, designed, or centered ethnography  because they ignored the margins, the peripherals, the nuances, and  the diversions that were important in my view.  Forgive me for  my verbosity.  I want all of them to be there.

If a generalist anthropologist does that research, he might spend days doing it and until he had  no more questions to ask or data to gather or information to jot down. Anthropologists reach that level in the field when informants begin repeating themselves and revising their previous stories and shared accounts just so they have  something to say or share.  When I  got home I  wondered why  we were not ask about colors, and our color  preferences and perceptions.  They only showed as their packaging designs that used hot colors like yellow, orange, and bold red.  I was not able  to tell them that I usually didn't go for hot colors during dry season, and that  they should consider it when  they talked about advertisement and sales. If they were anthropologists, they might have  gathered that information from me since that was also my preference when it came to clothing during hot season.   Who wears hot orange during summer?  

That "ethnographic marketing research" was my first encounter with the shallow particularity of the ethnography done by specialist professionals who are not generalist  anthropologists  and  who  do not do (w)holistic ethnography the generalist anthropologists should do.           


Keith Hart said:

I live and work in four countries, with homes in Paris, Durban and Geneva and jobs in London and Pretoria. For 25 years my main participant observation has been online, including the OAC. Mostly I read books and write about them.

Ingold's dystopia and utopia seem to me to be a sales pitch for anthropology's intrinsic superiority over disciplines that have appropriated the idea of ethnography. His negative description is written in bad faith. Ethnographic interviews presume "immersive observation" and mechanical analysis is rare in that context. In my experience, "ethnography" in those disciplines means qualitative observation for several months. Because they are positivist, the practitioners believe that whatever they write up must be based exclusively on these observations. Anthropologists stay longer and build up an intuitive knowledge of where they live. Their field notes (qualitative observations) are not the sole resource for writing up. Rather we excavate the deep intuitive knowledge we acquired to make guesses about society and culture which have no positivist basis. Thus anthropologists are less rigorous, but, as Keynes said, we would rather be vaguely right than precisely wrong. And we are more often right because we have lived somewhere long enough to internalise local society.

So Ingold's positive vision is misleading also. What a terrible start! It makes him out to be a partisan ideologue rather than a purveyor of truth.

Keith, the quote is not Keynes’, but philosopher Carveth Read’s (Logic: Deductive and Inductive, 1898). He used it in a discussion between the semantic properties of natural vs. specialist language use to simply point to how the virtue of the former is a more elastic referential extension range, which comes at the expense of the referential precision of the latter. In reality, as you also indicate, all talk talk surely wallows back and forth on a continuum between the two. But the trope is useful for this discussion, where the question is how we define or methods through language internally and externally. As you and others here state, I think there is not really that much confusion among anthropologists themselves about what is good ethnography or participant observation or hanging out or whatever you call it. That’s why we all can resonate so intuitively with Ingold’s homage (which also seems to be mainly coined at an internal audience). The real problem is to get its virtues across to the scientific mainland in words that seem legitimately scientific. To get there, I think we have to specify more transparently what these methods can do than none others can. Broadly I feel it has is something to do with its capacity to stare as straight as it gets at human social life in its truest forms. So I’m wondering how anthropologists’ methods talk can move beyond the current idealist, mysticist, romantic, poetic, satori-ish rethoric in which it has been embroiled at least since the ontological turn to a place towards a more naturalist methodology-discourse. To seem convincing in today’s knowledge cosmos, you have to talk methods through a specialist filter (i.e. we might have to do a strategic shift some notches from advocating the becoming of ‘generally right’ towards becoming ‘specifically precise’ as the purpose of our fieldwork-doings). One rearview mirror to scry for inspiration could be British anthropology of the 60’s and 70’s, as reflected for instance in Fredrik Barth’s early writings.

Thanks Abraham, that does sound like it's along the lines of (at least some of) what Tim is talking about.

Come to think of it, I've never described my own research as "ethnography", always as "research" or "fieldwork." While I'd describe the product of my work in Santo Domingo as ethnography (a book, papers, etc), I wouldn't describe my work in Haiti as ethnography - I just wasn't grounded enough for it to count. Yes, we hung out with people and things that could be called "ethnographic vignettes" are in my papers but they're vignettes, nothing more. It doesn't mean that we didn't find out a whole lot of stuff by hanging around and talking to people, though. I'd definitely count it as "anthropological."

So I guess I've been subconsciously making two assumptions: one, that if you don't get to know people well, you can't make ethnography, and two, I have actually been treating the ethnography as the written part.

But when it comes to discussing other people's work I tend to use the word ethnography more often. I accept Sam Ladner's explanation, in her book Practical Ethnography, that ethnography is not a method but it is an approach to doing research. Which means that it's something that comes prior to research, not just afterwards in the writing-up phase.

Is this true? When we plan research, do our ethnographic assumptions come into the picture? Is this what Tim's talking about, always thinking of the final product rather than just "being" in the field? Is his advice even realistic? Can we really suspend all of our training and forget that we're actually doing research? Should we?

Clarificatory questions:

How can  one do a disciplined reading of Ingold's paper without sounding patronizingly repetitive and without coming off as a "yes, sir,  you are correct" kind of reader?

Can a reader complete Ingold's ideas instead in cases where he limits himself?


Erin's question:

"I would like to know what people think of Tim's suggestion that "anthropology" is what you do when on fieldwork; whereas "ethnography" is what you do after fieldwork when you try to put it into writing."

I'm a fearless oppositionist  when I see something that needs to be opposed.  Ingold is correct in his classification of in the field= anthropology and after the field = ethnography.  I don't find that problematic, although it seems incomplete to me.

What anthropologists do in the field is,indeed, anthropology, which teaches them to be generalists and trains them to study most of a certain culture if not its entirety.  After the field, a set of ethnographic data or a cultural monograph that describes the field and graphs the people in the field is processed, structured, and produced.  I think the last process should be the application of the processed, structured, and produced ethnographic data.  

Should a marketing analyst who  does specialized ethnography be required to use the data collected by anthropologists if such data, for  example, are about an urban geography useful in his marketing research that target  urban demographics?  Who should require them to use the general ethnographic data produced by anthropologists?  

I ask those questions because Ingold does not talk about them in his differentiations of "in the field" and "after the field" and anthropology and ethnography.     

As I understand it Izabel (or want to understand it) Ingold is arguing against "study most of a certain culture if not its entirety... [produce] cultural monograph".

I do not think we should confuse the quote about rigour with Malinowskian fieldwork. having read ingolds 'being alive' i am aware he is against this as well as the picture painting of Kroeber. Instead he is talking of rigour of learning and of ones questions and thus ability to make good generalisations - rigour of ones anthropology basically NOT 'ethnographic data recording' or ethnographic whatever.

Which runs into your point Kristian on conversing with other disciplines. After meditating on Ingolds paper, the rigour of a good anthropological question or better yet set of them, allows one to approach knowledge not as something to collect and find out about a 'thing' but to be able to cut through multiple layers and dimensions to able to work out what you learn and thus say about the biggest possible questions with the best cutting questions. The rigour comes finding and knowing how to find these questions.

The disciplinary issues you confront Kristian with psychology for example,as do I, are usually a situation where a causal correlation is identified and then out of this much is assumed. This is a highly unrigorous approach on two levels Ingold is pointing to (a) first it makes the obvious mistake of making claims its data cannot support, and (b) it did not aspire to a rigorous question of worth that would have let it attempt to answer the claims it wishes too. Which leads inevitably back to team work and funding for it as numerous people have spotted.

Erin: " I've never described my own research as "ethnography", always as "research" or "fieldwork."

Haha, same, I got brought up the other day on why I didn't swap some of my uses of the term research for ethnography and cited this article for the very reasons I think your getting at. I don't know Sam Ladner's work unfortunately.

Fieldwork is another funny term that I have reinterpreted for myself to not mean a geographic place or literal field (which I assume is where it derives from?) and instead understand field in a more Bourdieu way e.g. I study hunting so my field-site happens to be our salient scales which stretch across Cyprus but also dip into the UK, US and thousands of years ago in Sumeria.

Sometimes I wonder perhaps field should instead be applied more along ingolds lines where he says it is simply work, which implies the field refers to the 'academic field' of anthropology.

Hi All

I hope it's in the spirit of things (rowdy anthropology) for me to gently suggest that we're largely missing the point of Ingold's paper here. He's not saying anything of substance that attacks the kind of research carried out in other disciplines -- surveys and experiments surely have their place. He doesn't like the blanket application of the term 'ethnographic', which he thinks conflates several things that should be kept separate. Although he starts off by getting us on side by complaining about those nasty positivists, it seems to me that his main criticism is aimed squarely at anthropologists, and it's not really about terminology, though he does define a number of things and his definitions are very helpful in unearthing his argument (I agree with Huon that it's a bit buried in this paper):

1. Ethnography = writing about the people, it may have methods, but it is *not* a method, it's valuable in it's own right

2. Fieldwork = activity that assumes interactions will result in ethnography, he doesn't like that, and prefers...

3. Participant observation = a practice of attending, leading to...

4. Education = learning about being in the world...

5. Theory = thought abstracted from the world

6. Ethnography (distinguished from theory) = accounts of the world treated as exotica and divorced from our understanding of being in the world

7. Anthropology = the interstitial space that would be the union of (5) and (6) if they were not defined by their mutual exclusion

So anthropology and ethnography (applying his definitions) are quite distinct products, both of which *may* be, and in practice often are, based on knowledge acquired through an education based on participant observation. Ethnography, in the sense of 'writing about the people' is valuable in its own right and not a preliminary to a more general comparative anthropology (391). 

His key point, it seems to me, is the call for the abolition of the distinction between knowledge we get from academic books and teachers (theory) and the knowledge we get through participant observation (ethnographic knowledge) -- that's why he's calling for the abolition of the term 'ethnographic' as applied to knowledge and fieldwork.

That's quite a radical proposal. 


Huon Wardle said:

this paper fails to distinguish between ethnography as a process--it is quite good at describing that--as opposed to an ethnography as an analytical summation. 

If by process you mean the process of carrying out research, I think he is clear about that, e.g. here:

Ethnography and participant observation, as Jenny Hockey and martin Forsey (2012) have pointed out, are absolutely not the same. (387)

Eirin, to your last questions, I beg we make care to not conflate attention with awareness. If not read right, Ingold's view (as much other phenomenology-inspired anthro-methods-stuff) in the end makes the ideal fieldwork-practice seem like doing zazen. But it shouldn't be THAT open-minded.

A crucial topic, which neither Ingold nor anyone in this discussion have really confronted, is how to PREPARE for fieldwork. Looking at other disciplines, it is astounding how neglected the pre-fieldwork-phase is in anthropology. In my mind, to hold any scientific credibility however, aside from the mindfulness-stuff, fieldwork also needs to firmly include some explicit, pre-formulated elements of thematically focused empirical search. A repeated regret of mine has been entering fieldwork with too much of a deliberated 'apprentice-mind', investing my hopes in the disciplinary learned notion that no matter what I did, it would not really influence how my unique ethnographic eureka would eventually come about.

Rather than spending the pre-fieldwork phase to boil up such (in my view rather naive) 'apprentice-minds', trying to rid oneself of all conceivable subjective biases that might narrow ones hang-out-gaze, I think it would be much more fruitful to be engage with creative colleagues in imaginative projections of what all minutiae to expect and look for in the particular field one is preparing to enter. For instance, if I'm preparing for fieldwork among hunters in Cyprus, I'd rather have speculated wildly with other anthropologists about how my daily life there would look; e.g. who will I meet, how will they act/react to me, what will be our main activities, what all other things will I find them doing except hunting, what do we eat, what are their daily concerns, how do we sleep, how do I find an informal tone with them, can I bring something to bond, what stupid things should I watch out not doing or saying, what will annoy me, whom among the people there am I more likely to hook up with than others, what implications will this informant bias have on my impressions, what will the weather be like, etc. etc. etc. - the imaginative horizon is endless to any projected field-site.

The alternative, which I think many anthropologists actually go through, sitting in my office reading up on old and not-so-old tomes of hunter-gatherer-anthro, simultaneously secretly fearing that doing so would actually mess up my eventual field attention, seems rather malproductive.  By now, we are all phenomenologically mature enough to know that at the end of the day, all pre-expectations turn out skewed in the one or the other way. During fieldwork we simply keep in mind to adhere to our actively elaborated pre-expectations only inso far as they feel to harmonize with our contaminant correspondence-endeavors.

I think Barth used to give the simple advise to his students of splitting each fieldwork-day in two; during the first part you adopt the more 'very-open'- attention-style, then, at halfway, you sit down and try to think analytically about the resulting experiences, then go on spending the afternoon pursuing these 'ethnographic' reflections with the mind of confirming or falsifying them. Many other practical models are conceivable.

Erin B. Taylor said:

I would like to know what people think of Tim's suggestion that "anthropology" is what you do when on fieldwork; whereas "ethnography" is what you do after fieldwork when you try to put it into writing.

I don't think he does make that distinction, though I agree it is not as clearly put as it might be -- I think he's distinguishing anthropology and ethnography as products from each other and from methods, including the method of participant observation. I guess the key part is on page 391. 




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