Ethnography, Making, and Tim Ingold


The following piece by Tim Ingold and his book Making: Anthropology, archaeology, art and, architecture engage the “overuse” of ethnography and how it becomes a scapegoat for rigidity in and outside the field as well as for why anthropological work lacks a public presence. It also becomes a fixed anthropological practice for the sake of its definition, delineation, and uniqueness: “A discipline confined to the theatre of its own operations has nowhere to go.”

As an anthropologist, of course practicing ethnography, I agree with Ingold’s sentiment and critique. However, I’m sure by the title of my website that you can tell I have not given up on ethnography. For me, the critique should not just be about ethnography itself, but how it has been formalized when in reality there is a plurality of ethnographic practices. The first part of that critique is what Ingold is digging into, which is why he goes on to propose opening up our methods and methodologies, not just how these are practiced but also how we think about them. Specifically, he posits the practice of correspondence.

Correspondence, as succinctly as I can be, is a constant practice of being attuned and responding to people and things in the world around you: “It is rather about answering to these happenings [going on around us] with interventions, questions and responses of our own—or in other words, about living attentionally with others…..Correspondence is neither given nor achieved but always in the making. ” This is what everyone does, not just anthropologists. Ingold discusses how ethnographic practices (i.e. participant observation, interviews, etc.) are forms of correspondence.

Ethnography should be rigorous; it should be a relationship, not just a practice; it should be a correspondence as Ingold suggest. This is what I learned in my training as an anthropologist. My work–anthropologic, ethnographic, personal, and professional–is part of a connected world, just as I am.

  • Public, practical/applied, participatory action research.

In fact, there is major pushback on (and even just a flat out refusal against) these specific types of anthropological practices within the discipline because of (1) how applied anthro has been, and still is, used by governments, military forces, corporations; and (2) the idea that if one sets out with a particular goal in mind then the research and following conclusions are not as rigourous as those going in without any preconceived idea of what they want out of a project. (An example here is Paul Farmer). I definitely hear and know the history, and current realities, that do support these arguments, but that does not mean either of these paths should be completely foreclosed upon. Don’t either of them just push anthropologist, ethnographers, social scientists, etc. to be more attuned, careful, and rigorous?

On the first point…

  • Didier Fassin, (public) anthropology, black box, conversation with Nancy Scheper-Hughes

On the second point…

  • Angana Chatterji

“That’s enough about ethnography!”
 — Tim Ingold

Ethnography has become a term so overused, both in anthropology and in contingent disciplines, that it has lost much of its meaning. I argue that to attribute “ethnographicness” to encounters with those among whom we carry on our research, or more generally to fieldwork, is to undermine both the ontological commitment and the educational purpose of anthropology as a discipline, and of its principal way of working—namely participant observation. It is also to reproduce a pernicious distinction between those with whom we study and learn, respectively within and beyond the academy. Anthropology’s obsession with ethnography, more than anything else, is curtailing its public voice. The way to regain it is through reasserting the value of anthropology as a forward-moving discipline dedicated to healing the rupture between imagination and real life.


Climate Change Means We Need to Change


Recently, I started reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (which like her other books is a terrifying, information rich investigation into how systems functions and the practices they inform). Her new book focuses on climate change–how it is being tackled, how and why people deny it, and what happens if people, organizations, institutions, companies, and governments en masse don’t drastically commit to making changes. Her recent book and my interest in how urban residents and community groups use data and technology to leverage change in their neighborhoods were harmoniously brought together when watching episode 6.03 of Futurama (1)(2), “Attack of the Killer App.” In this episode, the Planet Express delivery crew is confronted with what happens to disposable technologies that are constantly tossed aside for the next best thing, and how people are persuaded into buying and using such technology.

Technology has been hailed as the problem-solver of the world’s woes. It helped do some amazing things: create renewable energy sources, aid people in their movements against oppression, and even crowdsource for ideas and resources to respond to major catastrophes. But I wonder how much further technological innovation can deal with such issues, and particularly within a world that severely needs to address man-made disasters (those causing and perpetuating systemic inequity, particularly profiting from it), and man-influenced destruction (which is causing the deterioration of the environment en masse and in turn people’s own ability to live). Here, I am referring to what Klein discusses not only in This Changes Everything but also in Shock Doctrine, and what the writers of Futurama intentionally, or not, reveal. I am talking about how people are influenced by and actively participate in popular trends as part of the economic system that people live within, which has seeped into every part of the world.

In This Changes Everything, Klein lays out how human facilitated climate change is leading to the devastation of everything, while continuing to affect those who are already bear the brunt of declining resources. This is how the “Attack of the Killer App” begins.

The Planet Express crew as part of a massive New New York recycling festival of old electronics. Hermes and Professor Farnsworth dump a box of old devices claiming “these old doomsday devices are dangerously unstable. I’ll rest easier not knowing where they are.”  These items are then transported by the crew to the Third Worlds of the Antares System. The planet is encircled by a ring system made of trash. The atmosphere is full of noxious gas, which is made apparent when a flying bird disintegrates as it flies this a cloud. This is how the audience and the Planet Express crew are introduced to the planet’s landscape. The process of recycling that the Antareans participate it is highly toxic to people and the earth. This is punctuated by a scene where Antarean children are playing (but really working) in the recycled electronic debris all the while dry coughing.

Recycling processes have changed over the years, but they are still outsourced and can be harmful to the people and places where the process is happening.

“Attack of the Killer App” storyline consist of three significant sections. There is the opening examining recycling and a push to reuse technology, the push to buy new technology (the eyePhone by MomCorp) and its usage (Twitcher), and finally Mom’s mind control of people through the Twitcher. These parts show how ideology and function (or structure) work hand in hand. Although New New York was massively involved a recycling effort, and Leela, a member of the Planet Express crew, pushed to her friends to reuse so as to not even recycle, all was forgotten the moment the new, shiny EyePhone came out. Everyone threw away their old phones hopping into a citywide long line to get the new tech. We’ve seen this before right? Not just with Apple products but other specialty phones, computers, gaming systems, TVs, and even coffee makers to name a few. To make more money, new options must be offered. Making electronics easily fixable or reusable will not yield an increased profit the way the latest version of a new piece of technology will. Innovation and creativity can be seen as a push for some many new iterations of electronics, but as capitalism (and even socialist forms of capitalism) prevail around the world (through its presence and practice in influential countries).

Capitalism is a system based on growth and profit, and so people supporting it don’t necessarily take into account the consequences of what that mean in the long term.

  • Klein argues that climate change cannot be fully responded without a major shift in the world’s leading countries economic practices and the ideologies that accompany those practices.
  • “A system training us to buy more and more products of increasingly lower quality.”

Structure & Ideology

  1. Inability to recycle/reuse — commit to cause, care about cause, benefit from it, effect of it
  2. The Lure of Technology / Progress — making money from technologies
    1. Klein’s discusses why multi-million (and billion) dollar companies and rich countries can continue to pollute.  Make money off of poor ones by providing clean-up efforts.

Lack of privacy with growing technology, which as shown in the episode is exploited to sell various products and services. A lack of privacy or selective forms of privacy allow companies to not only access but target and shape people’s desires, wants, and even what they think of as needs. This seems extreme, but Klein discusses…

  • Fry asks “since when is the internet about robbing people of their privacy?” Bender then replies simply with “August 6, 1991.” This is the date when Tim Berners-Lee announced the World Wide Web project.
  • Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, E.F. Schumacher

(1) Summary of Futurama.

(2) Here, I am excluding the movies as part of the regular seasons. If those were to be included, then “Attack of the Killer App” would be season 7.