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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I'm an Australian anthropologist with a British passport. I have been living in Portugal since June 2011, where I'm a Research Fellow at the University of Lisbon. My husband, Gawain Lynch, and I started PopAnth to provide a space for anthropologists to experiment and learn with popular writing.

My first impressions of the polemic are that the nightmare sounds like what happens to ethnography when it gains popularity among time-poor researchers, such as in commercial work. The vision sounds to me like what most anthropologists actually do.
Thanks, Erin. Who's next?


My first assignment (haven’t had one of those in quite a while).

    First my bio: 

  My present and past:  I’m a retired professor of anthropology (McGill University) and for the past twenty years the director of the Center for Peripheral Studies ( www.peripheralstudies.org ).  My work consists in developing the theory and practice of cultural analysis, particularly as applied to modern American society.  My principal work in that vein is American Dreamtime: A Cultural Analysis of Popular Movies, and Their Implications for a Science of Humanity.  Two topical pieces you might look at as specimens of my writing and thinking are: “Lance Armstrong: The Reality Show (A Cultural Analysis)” and “News Flash!  Cultural Anthropology Solves Abortion Issue!  Story at Eleven! (Being a Cultural Analysis of Sigourney Weaver’s Aliens Quartet).”  Before straying from the mainstream, I published major articles in the canonical journals (Amer.Anth., Amer.Ethnol., Man, Semiotica).  All these works are available at www.peripheralstudies.org.


    Regarding my take on Ingold’s nightmare:

    In present company, unless I miss my guess, nobody is much interested in embracing the positivist bogeyman Ingold describes.  Unless we have to confront zombies from Murdock’s Human Relations Area Files coterie, the rest of us realize that our descriptions of social life have become impossibly thick.  The problem that besets us now is what to do about that. 

    Regarding Ingold’s vision:

    Obligingly, Ingold provides the antidote to his nightmare version of anthropology:

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


    I would characterize this vision of the one true anthropology as empathic ethnography

The fieldworker realizes that he / she is a human subject interacting with other human subjects.  And since they (They) are in full possession of the culture we (We) wish to learn and understand, we find ourselves students in the project Ingold describes as “education.”  Again, unless I miss my guess, I imagine most thoughtful anthropologists today (inquiring minds want to know!) espouse some version of Ingold’s vision. 

    As our seminar progresses, let’s see how that vision holds up.  


Thanks, Lee. Erin suggests that Ingold's definition of "proper, rigorous anthropological inquiry" describes what most anthropologists do. You suggest that most anthropologists espouse some version of Ingold's vision. Let me put down a marker.  I wonder about the validity of both these propositions. I will have more to say. First, though, I'd like to see what others have to say.

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.

Hi -- I'm an anthropologist of religion, as of last year lecturer in Buddhism at Manchester University's Religions & Theology Department. I did my doctoral fieldwork in northern China with Mongolian Buddhists and more recently I've been interested in Buddhist movements in Taiwan and their international outposts. Many years ago I attended Keith's lectures as an undergraduate :-) 

I think this bogey/ideal contrast at the beginning has an important rhetorical function in the structure of the piece and it doesn't make much sense if it's taken on its own. It seems to me that Ingold is trying to establish that he and his (anthropological) audience are all on the same side. This is important for two reasons, on my reading:

First, he's softening us up for an attack on some aspects of the way we speak about ethnography -- we know now he's for all the good things about it so when he criticises ethnographic *knowledge* or ethnographic *fieldwork* we know he's on our side in this argument, so we won't react over defensively, to the provocatively iconoclastic title.

Second, his argument is that the standard defence of ethnography and fieldwork (which he thinks are separate things, often conflated) is wrong headed (because of the conflation of those two things with each other and with anthropology). Disentangling anthropology, ethnography and fieldwork, which is the concern of the rest of the paper, will help to make the defence of fieldwork more coherent, he hopes. Thus, this first section establishes the importance of the article, as he sees it. 

As to whether the descriptions are accurate, I would say that I do recognise the bogey side. I had a grant application turned down after being told that I had failed to provide a coding protocol for the data produced from my planned interviews and observations. On the other hand, the ideal of anthropology as open-ended is always in tension with time constraints (as Erin notes), and the need to answer particular questions. There are always compromises to be made, and there's nothing wrong with that. What seems to me to be wrong is nixing the aspiration to an inductive approach by insisting that the terms of analysis are built in from the beginning.

But whether his characterisation is accurate or not is, I think, of little importance to his main argument here. 

Btw, Keith's observation about intuitive knowledge is to the point, and reminds me of what Maurice Bloch says somewhere about anthropologists desperately searching for quotations in interview transcripts to corroborate what they know from introspection on the basis of implicit knowledge learned through apprenticeship.

I wonder, though, if Ingold would agree that relying on this implicit, intuitive knowledge makes anthropology less rigorous. Perhaps he would argue that the rigour comes in with the following: 

long-term and open-ended commitment, generous attentiveness, relational depth, and sensitivity to context.

Hi Jon, excellent commentary. I should have put rigorous in quotes. I meant that the scientific status of some of our best knowledge is undemonstrable, which is a problem for scientific ethnography (the Malinowskian paradigm) and is the reason non-anthropologists worry about straying beyond their actual fieldnotes. Maurice's point confirms the tension, let us say. It took me a year to figure out why I didn't like "urban unemployment" -- they were working, stupid. I got the formal/informal pair from an American sociology of prisons which I didn't cite. But in writing up the 1973 paper, I made sure that the first half established my credentials as an ethnographer (I have been there and you haven't).

(1) I am a postgraduate anthropology student at University of Kent in the UK. Some people think me to be Cypriot, some English, some Jewish, amongst many other names.

(2) i felt like looking at this for fun at first: https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=ethnography%2Canthrop... and this https://www.google.co.uk/trends/explore#q=ethnographic%2C%20%2Fm%2F...

by those very 'unscientific' glimpses it seems use of ethnographic has partially become less popular since early 2000s, anyway just a thought

But I also think Ingold's article is primarily about addressing (1) why people feel like this and what to do about it, at least it has made me feel that I can address Ryan's issue below somewhat:

" I always felt very strongly about the power and potential of anthropology, but in practice I felt it often fell far, far too short." (Ryan Anderson: http://openanthcoop.ning.com/forum/topics/the-oac-then-and-now-towa...)

and (2) how people react differently to in-situ fieldwork (anthropology and particularly otherwise) i.e. you can either reduce your data collection to the framework of recording you have prepared, go off on a poetic journey, or treat fieldwork like learning exercise where you learn about big questions, where what questions and what answers is somewhat dependent on what emerges from your research - instead of thinking you cant make any generalisations and so go all poetic or you cant say anything unless you stick all your notes in a grid and treat it like an objective record.

this is how i feel about what this article is saying and i agree

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.

On the one hand, this makes sense given the literal meaning of the word, and I appreciate his explanation that thinking about research as ethnography causes a temporal glitch a la Fabian.

On the other hand, I would see ethnography as an approach, not as a method, and surely we always do research with an idea in mind of what we'll do with the research after. Of course we are collecting data, even though we're simultaneously hanging out.

I have just been reminded of a particular situation that this article answers for me:

This is the situation in which someone asks you what your research is on and when, in my case they find out my fieldwork is on hunting and Northern Cyprus, then it is often assumed I am actually interested in my geographical field-site and participants in the form of hunters,  hunting, Cyprus and environmental anthropology, and that I will either be painting some picture of these in the form of an ethnography, or understanding some exotic urge to hunt or I am trying to better understand hunting so I can assist conservation.

Now while some of this may be true and in some sense I may be doing a few of those things, what resonates with me in Ingold's piece is that that is not the aim or point. In a general sense one's field-site and 'ethnographic data' should not be approached as a record or an end in themselves, or that it is incapable of telling you something beyond its idealised boundaries. No. So to address your question Erin, for me ethnography is precisely the editing and organised of notes and numbers from which generalisations can be elucidated based on well crafted questions that are not 'stuck' in the 'ethnographically local'.

(I have since adapted how I explain my research)



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