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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The anthropology of religion will have come of age when some more subtle Malinowski writes a book called "Belief and Unbelief (or even "Faith and Hypocrisy") in a Savage Society.” 

—  Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System”


    When I first read Ingold’s article some months before this seminar began, it called to mind that remark by Geertz – a remark that stunned me years ago when I first read it and that stays with me today.  I have to say that my lasting impression of Ingold’s article is not a new appreciation for what “ethnography” is or is not – all that slicing and dicing of “ethnography,” “fieldwork,” “research,” “participant observation” – but a sense that it is way too . . . kumbaya.  The paean to education as the quintessential anthropological experience calls up now discredited images of the fieldworker as supplicant and student, dutifully attending the sage instructions of a master in full possession of cultural knowledge the fieldwork hopes to obtain.  That vision enshrines an equally discredited image, The Native, as somehow whole, immune to the troubling vicissitudes of life the fieldworker knows all too well from his own experience.  I think the truth is that the erstwhile Native is just another troubled, conflicted individual thrashing around in a social milieu that is often far more turbulent – and dangerous – than the fieldworker’s own home in a stable Western society.  And like the fieldworker’s acquaintances back home, former Natives are a wide assortment of humanity.  Some are thoughtful, intelligent individuals whose hard-won friendship the fieldworker values forever.  And some are deceitful, scheming people – Geertz’s hypocrite – the fieldworker learns to avoid.  If one is truly immersed in a social situation (and not just checking the boxes on a research protocol), one encounters all sorts.  In this sense life and fieldwork are a form of education – not Ingold’s idealized version, but the school of hard knocks.   

    I was encouraged to come forward with this critical response by two perceptive comments in the seminar:


Jonathan Mair:  I'm still in sporadic touch with my 'key informant' and we get on very well, but there are a couple of 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.


Keith Hart:  It seems to me that all this talk about fieldworker as friend bowdlerizes the field situation by projecting an image of free equality. In my experience fieldwork was a highly unequal social situation -- and this was normal at least until the end of empire and in many cases long after that. I was a rich white educated kid living with poor black adults -- in fact all my fieldwork has been as the sole white man living in a sea of black poverty. This led me to conceive of PO as the negotiation of inequality. How could unequal relations be made more equal through human exchange? This was vital, since if I did not establish a measure of equality, I could end up dead. I would go further, all relationships start out as being significantly unequal to some degree and what I think of as the ethnographer's charter -- to be seen as oneself and to see others as themselves, rather than through the cracked mirror of prejudiced categories -- is a project that we realise to a varying degree over time.

    I think Keith has provided a pretty good working definition of “ethnography.”  

There are moments, dear Lee, which make life worthwhile and you have given me one of them. But my joy is tempered by the need to confess who my master is in this. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul contrasts life as we know it with a purer version to come:

"For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity."  [Charity: the Christian virtue defined as love directed first toward God but also toward oneself and one's neighbours as objects of God's love. Love of humanity.]

The cracked mirror of race prevents us from seeing and being seen as we are, so that our knowledge of ourselves and others is inevitably partial. I find in this vision an ethnographer’s charter, the desire to encounter others as human beings.

Lee Drummond said:

    I think Keith has provided a pretty good working definition of “ethnography.”  

"This led me to conceive of PO as the negotiation of inequality."

I find that to be true too.  It is in the participation where the relationship between the anthropologist and his would-be informants is built and the inequality among them is negotiated.

The rich anthropologist, for example, eats the food of his poor informants  even though the food is not the kind he eats in the West.  The poor informants also invite the anthropologist into their households without shame due to their poverty.

I think negotiated inequality is compromising both ways for comfortableness and acceptance.    

A shout-out to Ryan Anderson for pointing us to Ingold's Radcliffe-Brown Lecture "Anthropology is not Ethnography," where the intellectual context that shapes "That's Enough About Ethnography" becomes much clearer. Also, to Jon and Ryan for their persistence in returning us to two central questions: What does Ingold mean by "Anthropology"? And what does Ingold mean by "Education" that makes it different from "Ethnography"?

On a personal note, I would like to press Keith on his "timeless." Yes, we all enter families as babies. Gender and race are perennial issues. But when we dig a little deeper, time and place matter. To be born a girl in China or India today, where given pre-natal identification of sex using ultrasound, birth itself may be in question is not the same as to be born, well, my daughter,the child of affluent, cosmopolitan feminists who could not only say, "Girls should have the same opportunities as boys" but afford an international school, fill a home with books and computers, worry when she won an appointment to Annapolis and became a Navy helicopter pilot. Race remains a central isssue in politics worldwide; but, to use another parochial example, the USA is a very different place since Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. De facto segregation remains an issue; legal segregation is no more. Racists rant but yesterday's news celebrates a professional football player, a black man, who has just published a paper in an esoteric field of mathematics. The examples could be multiplied.

Which brings me back to why I posted excerpts from Huon, Keith and Kristian as a series to be considered in relation to our topic in this seminar. Yes, it is true that fieldwork always involves negotiating inequalities. But, as in the cases mentioned above, when we dig a bit deeper all sorts of specifics emerge. As I read what Keith writes I am sure that he was profoundly affected by being a rich white boy in a sea of African poverty in an end-of empire, urban slum setting. I know that my views have been profoundly affected by working in places where I have never been surrounded by people living in severe poverty and always been part of a couple with an apartment of our own. Yes, we have been privileged. To arrive in Taiwan in 1969 with a monthly stipend of US$300 and move to a market town where the apartment cost US$20 a month to rent and the rest of the first hundred made it possible to eat very well, yes, indeed, we were well off. But I vividly recall being in a place where I had less street smarts than the average two year old and local language competence that never got better than passable. And when my Daoist master took me on as his disciple, there was never any question that I was his subordinate and not vice-versa. Now that I live in Japan and "my people" are winners of a major advertising contest, I am constantly working with individuals who, as I have mentioned before, are wealthier, more powerful, and frequently smarter than I am.

Thus, I turn to accounts like those offered by Huon and Kristian and want to know more about the circumstances in which their participant observation occured. Yes, we are all negotiating inequalities—but they may not be the ones conjured up by the image of the anthropologist as white man in a pith helmet landing on a a beach in Melanesia or following his guides and a train of porters through the jungle.

Facilitator's note: Our conversations have been very interesting. There is more work to do to understand fully where Ingold is coming from and the implications of what he says for anthropology, ethnography, and education. We must not forget, however, three paths not yet followed, whose common feature is that they point us beyond the boundaries established by our focus on Ingold's paper.

  1. Erin Taylor's pointer to the world of applied/practicing anthropologists for whom how to conceive ethnography is less an issue of ontological commitment or education than it is a marketing issue, how to distinguish proper anthropological ethnography from the "ethnographic" research that has become a standard offering in the marketing research toolkit and establish a unique value that clients will be willing to pay for.
  2. Lee Drummond's work on blockbuster films and other major media events, illustrating an approach to anthropology from which participant observation is notable by its absence. Not so queer perhaps to the archeologists among us, but clearly a distinct alternative to ethnography conceived either as participant observation or writing up what we think we have learned from what others have told us.
  3. M. Izabel's pointer to a Wikipedia article on Fillipino psychology, which could lead to fruitful discussion of what this debate might look like as seen through [STEREOTYPE WARNING!] non-Western [Whose non-Western?] eyes, an issue that can no longer be confined to the role of the "native anthropologist" but must also consider how numerous "native" Others might see our discussion. Given my own academic background, I wonder what conclusions we would reach if approaching Ingold's article from a Chinese perspective in which inequalities are taken as given, a part of the human condition, but also as subject to modification in a constantly changing world, and, if Sinologist Francois Jullien is right, the poetic art of indirect insinuation is more highly valued than the Westerner's blundering charge toward what may be mistakenly taken to be the heart of the matter.

Plainly we still have a long way to go and lots of topics for continuing discussion.


I was seeking to generalise, not to document cases. In view of the paper and our discussion of it, it seemed worthwhile to raise the issue of social inequality in fieldwork. From that point of view, the question was whether this had resonance for seminar participants. Some of them said it did. Now you say that inequality is always different. I never said that it is always the same, just that the issue, in whatever local form, is widely prevalent in fieldwork. I was driven to this conclusion when reflecting on an extreme experience. This is the method of the humanities, isn't it -- literature, history, ethnography, case law -- where general truths are extrapolated from particular instances? If I claim to have discovered something interesting from a Dostoevsky novel, I would not expect a critic to say, Ah yes, but it isn't Shakespeare. Rather s/he would contest either the generalisation or the case itself. In the present example, there was no space to go into detail, especially if we want the discussion to move along.

On anthropology as education:

I find this very interesting:

"Surely when we seek an education from great scholars, it is not in order that we can spend the rest of our lives describing or representing their ideas, worldviews, or philosophies. It is rather to hone our perceptual, moral, and intellectual faculties for the critical tasks that lie ahead. But if that is so, and if—as I have argued—to practice anthropology is to undergo an education, as much within as beyond the academy, then the same must be true of correspondences with our “non-academic” interlocutors. Knowledge is knowledge, wherever it is grown, and just as our purpose in acquiring it within the academy is (or should be) educational rather than ethnographic, so it should be beyond the academy as well."

Ingold's concept of education, as far as anthropology is concerned, is basically knowledge. It can be replaced with field-based knowledge or solution-focused fieldwork, to  be exact.

Anthropologists go to the field to gain knowledge.  What they do with the gained knowledge is something tough to ascertain.  Is that knowledge for description or prescription?

I hope Ingold will write another paper on field-based knowledge or solution-focused fieldwork in anthropology.  Anthropology should start solving culture-related problems to remain relevant.  Anthropologists have the training and the tools to solve such problems whose solutions are in the field.

A good example of Ingold's education is the issue of rape in India.  The famous latest victim is a 70-year-old nun.  This problem has been going on for years.  Anti-rape laws have been made and tight policing policies put in place, yet the problem is getting worse.  Maybe those who make laws and policies need trained professionals to go to the field and be educated about rape in India.  They should go to the field not so they can describe the problem but actually help solve it.  Those trained professionals should be anthropologists.

That's my reading of Ingold's education.  Anthropologists should move on from "knowing so they can describe (problems)" to "knowing so then can prescribe (solutions to problems)".  To me, that is a good use of education/knowledge.

Another interesting issue to me is the application of participant-observation in schools.  Do students learn more by participating and observing than by listening to lectures and taking tests?  If it works for anthropologists who go to the field to know, will it work also for students who go to school to learn?  I know it's a different topic, but I hope those anthropologists whose interest is in education will try that out--even just for marketing anthropology. 


Couldn't a critic raise an eyebrow if what you discovered in Dostoevsky were assumed to appear in Jane Austen or Thomas Pynchon?

I wholly agree that there is a conversation between consenting adults assumption lurking in Ingold's model and that, in practice, participant observation always involves negotiating inequalities. I add the observation that young Keith finding his way around an African slum and Kristian doing research in a European elementary school are negotiating different types of inequalities.

I may suspect that the inequalities encountered by Huon in Jamaica were similar to those that Keith encountered in Africa but would very much like to hear what Huon has to say about that.

I know for a fact that the inequalities I encounter when interviewing Japanese ad creatives at the top of their game are different from those that Malinowski encountered when he stepped ashore on the Trobriands.  I know, for example, that I will have at most two hours for an interview and will not be allowed to set up a tent in the offices of the individual who is giving me two hours of his highly billable time. On the other hand, the individual being interviewed can assume that since this anthropologist has spend over a decade working for a large Japanese agency, he already knows a bit about the business. In practice this is invaluable, since it opens the way for ethnographic vignettes filled with intimate, behind-the-scenes detail instead of the bland generalities about "Japanese advertising" that  are trotted out for interviews with scholars or reporters who are not recognized as industry insiders. 

And surely it would be more interesting to hear what each of us has to say about their particular fieldwork experience than to stop with the abstract proposition that inequalities must be attended to. Who here will deny that?

In my fieldwork in a Santo Domingo squatter settlement I definitely had to put quite a lot of work into attending inequalities. I was considered rich: fair enough, but I wasn't rich in the way they imagined. They thought I grew up with black servants and never had to clean or cook or work in my life, and that my parents paid for my university education and my research in the DR.

In reality, I'm from a working class family and my wealth was mostly derived from my citizenship (access to social security) and the wealth of my country's institutions (university scholarship), not from my family ties.

Communicating my own view of this reality wasn't just useful to break down distances, it also felt like not doing so would be dishonest. But it is mostly impossible to achieve such a common understanding. It was only really my closest friends who managed to grasp something reasonably close to this. It was from those same people, unsurprisingly, that I got my best sense of what life in a Santo Domingo barrio was like.

Interestingly, they didn't see my presence as a surprise - as far as they were concerned I was some kind of teacher or nun "studying the barrio." For the most part they weren't at all interested in what exactly I was studying. They also considered that it was my job to decide what was important and what was not, and to write everything up. Their job was to answer my questions, show me around, protect me, and make sure I wasn't lonely. Their interest was in getting their individual and collective stories out there.

I got the sense that they considered this to be a reasonably equal division of labour. I think they certainly were of the mind that I was there to learn from them and that what I learned should be determined, at least to some extent, by what was appropriate to be written down.

In other words, I would have very much let my research participants down if I had just bonded with them socially and not written up what I learned afterwards.

I may suspect that the inequalities encountered by Huon in Jamaica were similar to those that Keith encountered in Africa but would very much like to hear what Huon has to say about that.

Yes, most likely with Lee too in Guyana and Erin in Santo Domingo. These are important but also in a way generic features of ethnographic experience, since, as Keith said, equality is fleeting, all human relations trend toward having a hierarchical dimension; subordination/superiority—and ethnographers don't study at one level of hierarchy as Kristian’s case shows. What is really important is that, in putting our own worldview and sense of propriety at risk, we ethnographers learn something about the world we all inhabit from the specific point of view of the people we are working with. Ethnography should be equally a challenge to glibly universalising imaginings of what it means to be human as well as to anyone who is claiming that certain people aren’t fully human in the first place  (for example this important recent ethnogaphy by Carolina Borda on sexual violence in Bolivia -- https://www.academia.edu/11646654/Las_condenadas._An_ethnography_of_sexuality_and_violence_against_women_in_Bolivia)

Ryan’s summary of the article was excellent. From my perspective it shows the tremendous amount of word-jugglery, concept-splitting and dubious dichotomising going on-- 

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

We need ethnography (the practice) because it exposes the ethnographer to a challenge to their worldview which initiates a process of learning (hence the overplayed truth of fieldwork as a rite of passage). We need the ethnography (the synchronic, holistic statement) as the summation of that. Agreed, it is a fundamentally partial and, in a cautious sense, fictional presentation of how people in a certain situation view their world, but it is only an ‘exotic' item if we forget that those people actually live in the same world we do. True there is a proliferation of ethnographies, but there is a proliferation of all kinds of information and knowledge in contemporary life.

Plaudits to John for his heroic success in cutting through the knot that is an OAC seminar...

Just a quick tangental side note on the use of 'ethnographic' willy-nilly. This short commentary succinctly points out why one-dimensional studies are mis-leading. I think one target of Ingolds ire is the belief that applying 'ethnographic' in front of something implies that the author thinks that they are being multidimensional as they see quality anthropology achieving that. Unfortunately simply applying 'ethnographic' in front of something doesnt make it multidimensional. in this light Ingold should perhaps not tar the word ethnographic but its use. anyway was just a side-note i wanted to throw in before engaging with everyone a bit later today hopefully.

In Excessive Ambitions (Capitalism and Society 4(2), 2009), political/social theorist Jon Elster starts out with the following statement:

Amos Tversky once told me about a meeting he had attended with the foremost psychological scholars in the U.S., including Leon Festinger. At one point they were all asked to identify what they saw as the most important current problem in psychology. Festinger’s answer was: “Excessive ambitions”. In this paper I argue that this is not just the case for psychology, but for the social sciences across the board. I exclude only anthropology, in which the level of ambition often seems too low, after it embraced postmodern theory, postcolonial theory, subaltern theory, deconstructionism and the other usual culprits.

Whilst certainly provocative, I think the observation holds much merit. To add to it, I think what stoked anthropology’s disciplinary self-confidence is how these theoretical currents so radically transformed the anthropologists’ methods consensus. In brief, it turned our ‘being in the world’ into a commitment to our research subjects that, far beyond any other scientific discipline, was framed as a moral relationship. Hence, goodbye to classic scientific knowledge accumulation, which is utterly dependent on a willingness to play the game of thinking about ones research with an apolitical mindset.

As all accounts of informant-relations in this discussion indicates, ‘difference’ is intrinsic to fieldwork activity. But as interesting as it is, it is also old news; it was tediously discussed during the 80s/90s ethnographic ‘self-other’-debates. The nuance now, reflecting the ‘crisis’-paradigm of the day, is the foregrounding of socio-economic as opposed to cultural dimensions. For the purpose of developing a more down to earth methodology however, the recognition of the basic importance of difference-relations to doing fieldwork must not compel us to yet another grand disciplinary psychoanalysis of ‘the fieldwork experience’; we can simply add to the standard methods-protocol: “pay attention to the particularities of how you bond with your informants” .

In my case, difference was more one of cultural role than of socio-economic resources (researcher-teacher-pupil role division). What allowed me and my informants to settle with that difference in daily life was an implicit mutual expectation, similar to that mentioned by Eirin, that in return for being there I’d produce some kind of sympathetic research account. Phrased in more inequalist terms, it had to do with the authority over knowledge production culturally connoted to my role. Being a ‘researcher’, I embodied the power to produce a more true knowledge than them; doing so from an experience-near point of view held potential political value (i.e. I could add proof to their disliking of the various top-down pedagogic directives politically imposed on them). My perceived truth-making power was, at its most practical and fundamental level, tied to the notion that I as a researcher possessed specialist science-methodological competences that most don’t.

I often hear anthropologists confess backstage after returning from the field that they actually didn’t have much clue about what they were doing out there; that the meaning dawned through retrospective reflections. I suppose though it’s rather uncommon to reveal this to ones informants. I’d sign to both. In the academy, such fieldwork confessions ignite collegial laughs and fraternity-like social bonding, and makes ‘doing fieldwork’ seem like something that turns you into a some kind of wise sage. To me, it is peculiar how conspicuous the use of religious and/or poetic modes of expression is in fieldwork-talk, it’s almost impossible to be taken seriously if you try to add more technical and pragmatic modes. Sadly though, I’ve come to perceive the prevalence of such rhetoric in anthro-method-talk as a clear symptom of what Elster pointed to; namely the loss of scientific ambition (did Malinowski, Evans-P, Radcliffe-B, Boas, Douglas and their likes describe fieldwork methods thus?).

My wife is an epidemiologist/psychologist who, among other topics, does research on relationships between maternal mental health and child-bearing/rearing. She’s (in my view :-)) brilliant at the use of standardized psychometric surveys, high-tech statistical methods, longitudinal research designs etc. etc., i.e. all the staple inventories of the techno-instrumental, positivist science leviathan. But she’s also a mother to two young children, intensely concerned and resonant with the ‘being-in-the-world’ of that destiny, and intuitively curious to engage with/develop ‘correspondence’ with all the other mothers she meets around in her everyday life. In short, her scientific and hermeneutical takes on the theme are not contradictory, but rather merge and mix into each other continously.

What I’m trying to bring across is that thinking about fieldwork as strategically targeted data collection does not exclude the possibility of also doing it in Ingold’s way. Alternating, or ‘code-switching’ between ‘corresponding with’ and ‘collecting from’ your informants whilst in the field is no big problem. For example Barth’s suggestion (coincidentally produced at the brink between the functionalist and post-modern epochs of anthropology) to actively and deliberately switch between open and more targeted/theory-driven empirical explorations in everyday fieldwork life. Over the last 30 years, the discipline has made great strides in how to ‘correspond’. The great anthropologists of the functionalist era were, however, primarily masters of ‘collection’; though they had many shortcomings. I’d rather have it that anthropology now pick up these threads and try to improve on them.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one good place to start would be to talk in more technical terms about how to best PREPARE for fieldwork. What would Ingold recommend here?



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