requiem for ethnography

In the past I have called for a moratorium, but today wanted to list the things I thought were still useful, interesting or important in anthropology and ethnography now, even if contradictory:

– a refusal to simply sit alone and panic at the complexity of the world – often trinketising, but can be more (contextualisation, attention to commodification, critique)

– an anti-racist sentiment that has morphed at last into a recognition that rhetoric and reflexive angst is not enough (and the question of what would it would mean to win is on the agenda)

– a more or less well-intentioned tendency towards political and social intervention, or at least an ethic of this (often wrong, but in any case at least not dead)

– recognition of the co-constitution of self and other, near and far, metropole and colonial, empire and transition. Multi-site ethnography (transnational flows, North South, South South, Centre-Borders, In betweens.)

– project of going to have a look for yourself, to get involved as a means of understanding, constituent power of the knowledge industry may have its problems but not resigned to withdrawal and mere speculation (spectacle)

– critique of institutionalised context of knowledge production, of disciplinary formations, of the commercialization of knowledge, of the teaching factory

– ideology critique, suspicion of appearances, recognition that appearances are also all we have to go on. Representation issues niot just in the claim for visibility mode, but a politics of making visible, mainstraeaming, as step one of something that goes further, demands more.

– collaborative work – ahh, collaboration has its tainted history, but nevertheless, so degree of co-production

– attention to all possible aspects of human life, and a growing awareness that this quite possibly facilitates real subsumption

– widest possible interest, Open principle, even when habits of thought and contextual (political, historical, personal) constraints block this.

Of course there are limits and more failings than successes. The scandals of anthropology are legion. But the project for trying to think through our circumstances and find ways to name what is going on around us is still a worthwhile pursuit – a reason to be alive and productive, even in the most desperate of conditions (global chaos – it can be explained, and is – as Mao said, an opportunity – ‘Everything under heaven is chaos: the situation is excellent’).

Of course there is also no reason to take yourself too seriously all the time. Theory is hard, but not without fun. Gawd, save us from the dire and dull philosophers


3 thoughts on “requiem for ethnography

  1. The Anthropology of the International, a project by SOAS International Relations and Diplomacy Department is an interesting case in point on co-production/ collaboration as respective IR and Anthropology departments’s ‘study up’ specialists who shed light on complex political lives such as the workings of Amnesty International and the World Bank, respectively, yet haven’t the foggiest knowledge of each other’s work. The often neglected subject of IR within Anthropology(usually tales about anth’s bleak colonial or espionage past) yet with the exception of academics such Gusterson and Weldes, it has left much more space beaming onto international development and less on space for alternative research (that can ultimately impact the latter) for example a participatory research led approach to Defence and Security Reviews in Palestine, Colombia or Iraq or how does MI5 use anthropology when it recruits graduates with this academic experience? Perhaps it would be more counter-productive for the goals of the communities which antropologists seeks to represent and best to refrain from addressing the unbalance of knowledge power at the international negotiatiing tables. Or should it learn from it’s tumultous experience with ‘development’ and engage further…. Is anthropology’s current position- an unheard of research approach for Foreign Policy institutions, practitioners, drivers and Military Personnal or at best viewed as ‘soft research’. A grand mission for multi-displinarians to give voice to the somewhat imposing government foreign policy arenas and perhaps proof that UK anthropology departments are as insular as their IR counterparts…Mission Impossible?

    1. I think I strongly agree with the accusation of insularity – disciplinary boundaries are so secure there hardly seems need to send out troops to patrol them now. Its become nature to culture(al studies and anthro) to be ploughing the same old ruts. The ‘green zone’ of development studies is about as down and dirty as most are prepared to get. However, some of your post escapes me because of the phrasing – a slight re-edit would help maybe? – eg I do not get this: ‘Perhaps it would be more counter-productive…’??

  2. Pls edit as u wish. Really, I just was going off on one perhaps :). Very late when I wrote that…I meant this for those interested in multi-disciplinary fields. My experience of it that it is…

    I meant counter-productive in the sense that knowledge production in International Relations and Diplomatic circles whether you’ve been born, graduated or work in west or non west seems to be dominated by an established ‘realist’ vison of the world (IR specific) from the British Foreign Office, Obama’s National Security Board, Kissinger and allegedly Greek war chiefs, that their view that colloboration and participatory ways of solving the worlds problems particulary economics or security are unproductive and ‘soft’ that nation states are heavily guided by selfish interests ie. the pursuit of power- the other liberal (IR) vision fails to depart this vision. That maybe the case for the fear-driven vision of most western state leader so much so that the act of going against the grain and producing alternatives(?) such as a national/community-led partipatory research approaches in post-conflict communities or nations ready to go to War. That such research never disseminates at a alternative public space of action…or reaction. It’s relevant to anthropology, as a former student of both this and IR, I’ve only seen a handful of academics and organisations explore this yet so superficially that when it comes to decision making in the real world of international affairs ie. as a supplementary tool for international legal or political policy making, there is no alternative to draw on…

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