That’s Enough about Tim Ingold!: A Millennial’s Response

[This post is adapted and updated from a paper presented at the University of Colorado, Boulder graduate student conference, “The Ethnographic Turn” in 2016. I am indebted to Audra Simpson for her thoughtful feedback. The text is accompanied by embedded Instagram photographs from my ongoing dissertation research.]

In his 2014 article “That’s enough about ethnography!” Tim Ingold argues that “‘ethnographic’ is the most overused term in the discipline of anthropology,” and as such it is “doing great harm to anthropology” by “holding it back while other fields of study are surging forward” (383). Between his exclamatory title and this apocalyptic introductory paragraph, let it never be said that Ingold lacks flair for the dramatic. Overall, the aim of his polemic is to remind his audience of the “attention, care, and correspondence” (Shryock 2016) with which our work should be carried out – something I think we can all get behind. Unfortunately, Ingold’s argument rests on “a narrow, old-fashioned, and over-literal characterization of ethnography that bears little resemblance to what most scholars who would call themselves ethnographers actually do nowadays” (MacDougall 2016) – which are actually the words that Ingold uses to summarize the criticisms leveled against him. I wish to submit a Millennial response that both troubles Ingold’s cramped definition of “ethnographic,” and, to some extent, supposes that it is his definition that is harmful to anthropology.

Ingold’s entire argument is supported by the pedantic statement of eight words: “Quite literally, it means writing about the people” (2014:385), where “it” refers to “ethnography.” Implicitly, Ingold’s terse definition is a retrieval of etymology, which signals to me – in his unwillingness to allow language to change over time and between contexts – a cantankerous resistance to the generative power of ethnography in the hands of future generations – my generation. If it’s pedantic etymology that Ingold wants, it’s pedantic etymology that he’ll get. So, leaving aside the fact that not all ethnography is about people, the suffix concerns me here: –graphy comes from the Greek –graphia, meaning “a description of.” (Interestingly, as it related to Ingold, an earlier definition was “to represent by lines drawn.”) What I find valuable here are concepts like “description,” “representation,” and “record” (which I gloss from “to represent by lines drawn”) and these are all concepts that we find across other words that end in –graphy: bibliography, cardiography, cartography, discography, filmography, geography, photography, sonography, and videography, to name a few. It is by exploding his definition of “ethnography” that we are able to envision that which he refutes: ethnographic encounter, ethnographic fieldwork, ethnographic method, ethnographic knowledge, ethnographic theory, autoethnography, and museum ethnography. If ethnography requires, as Ingold wrote, “long-term and open-ended commitment, generous attentiveness, relational depth, and sensitivity to context” (384) – with which I agree – then it follows that anything contributing to or resulting from the endeavor of ethnography can be thought of as “ethnographic.”

Let’s take the ethnographic encounter. Description, representation, and record are all concepts that resonate with our discipline’s complicated history with the politics of ethnography – a history in which there exists no shortage of ethical dilemmas. Ingold reaches back over 30 years to remind us of one that concerns his argument: the “schizochronic tendencies of emerging anthropology,” he says, citing Fabian. Simply put, Ingold argues that the “ethnographic encounter” is problematic in that in forcing ethnography outside of its retrospective station and into the working-present requires the researcher to be two-faced, to at once face our interlocutors and keep our backs to them. We should not be collecting so-called “data,” rather we should be learning from our research experiences – the work should educate us. Ultimately, I’m not concerned with this distinction between data and experience here, but his point is that we should disavow ourselves of the role of participant-observer and focus on participation. Ethnography, for Ingold, comes later and comes to rest in the form of articles, manuscripts, and maybe even film. And why? Because, as he says in an interview with Susan MacDougall, that which we acquire during research – data or education – is “finely crafted [into the] peer-reviewed artifacts that we recognize.” I think by “crafting,” he implicitly refers to the crucial step that turns our data or experiences into a final product, a step that includes analysis, synthesis, theorizing, organizing, and narrative. For Ingold, if writing about the people comes after research, it is downright unethical, if not impossible to have an ethnographic encounter.

Herein lies the problem: If it were true that “ethnography” did “quite literally” mean “writing about the people,” I might only want to argue with his ethical concerns, but I have already shown that it does not. More importantly, there is nothing intrinsic to ethnography (his or mine!) that forces it to be solely retrospective. In his response to Ingold, Shryock argued forcefully that “Anthropology, ethnography, and fieldwork are not separate in way Ingold suggests. They are all happening at the same time . . . Ethnography is not done after the fact. It begins before fieldwork, is renegotiated during, and continues to evolve beyond periods of face-to-face interaction” (2016).

I wonder why Ingold insists on preserving this model that keeps these designations delineated, and what he must think occurs at the interstices. I think it has to do with publishing. The widely accepted, and often unquestioned, model of knowledge production – from curiosity to monograph – is almost completely linear. Well, maybe at the macro-level that is true, but it certainly doesn’t need to be, because it’s not at the micro-level. Anyone who has done ethnographic research knows well that our work is iterative – research proposals are commented upon by reviewers or wholly declined, they get refashioned, resubmitted; during research, we ask questions, we find them to be badly phrased or uninteresting or reveal dead-ends, and so we adjust accordingly; methods may or may not work; gatekeepers change their minds about the extent of our access; doors close all the time. The process of research moves in loops, stops and starts, so why should the entire scheme be so linear? Because articles and monographs are the currency of the tenure-track, that’s why, and Ingold’s statements, both in his article and in subsequent interviews, do not challenge that.

What would happen if, in keeping with Ingold’s stated desire – to revive the public image of anthropology – we foregrounded our engagement with the public ahead of articles and books? What if we meet the public where they are, instead of demanding that they to come to us, just after they scale an educational paywall of subdiscipline-specific jargon, and the $35 paywall as well. I, like Ingold, want anthropology in the consciousness of the lay public. I want it to such a degree that, like academic versus pop psychologists, we have to feel embarrassed by pop-anthropologists – and I’m not talking about ornithologist-geographers masquerading as pop-anthropologists. What I mean is: Tim Ingold and I want the same thing, but by completely different means. Rather than trying to revive some sort of romantic historical moment in which Margaret Mead was writing regular columns for Redbook, I ask: What would Margaret Mead have done had she been able to disseminate data or experiences in real-time during her research?

Before we think about social media as just one method of engaging the public, allow me to summarize the three points that I’ve tried to make here. First, ethnography is not about writing, but description, representation, and record. Second, because the methods of relaying our research experiences are more diffuse than just writing, ethnography need not follow the research. Finally, it is possible to privilege engagement with the public over engagement with our colleagues (though I don’t recommend disregarding either of them).

Ethnography is multi-media – or multimodal. The standard is articles and monographs, but we also have films and photos (which carry less weight on the tenure track), and blogs (which carry some weight at some universities) and social media. I want to focus on social media (and photography to some extent) as just one of the many modes by which we can explore both the nebulous representative qualities and the temporally tangled possibilities of making ethnography in the 21st century. We already have a lexicon for this. Samuel Collins and Matt Durington call the digital world into which our trade is irrefutably situated a “networked anthropology” (2015). Networked anthropology has folded the timeline of research and dissemination onto itself in a way that allows us to share our experiences in real-time, what Tricia Wang calls “live field-notes” (2012). Live field-notes, according to Wang, include singular photos, brief videos, and short vignettes of ethnographic experiences; photos can even be of actual hand-written notes. Add a lengthy caption, throw in some hashtags to link your entries together and with other related media, and share across multiple social media platforms – Twitter and Facebook, for instance – to reach as many people as possible. Personally, I use my Twitter account to engage with professional colleagues, Facebook for family and friends, and Instagram for everyone; my Senegalese interlocutors follow me across all three of them. Some apps, like Instagram, have GPS or location services that allow users to identify where they are in the world with each publication. So as many of my colleagues in graduate school are taking up GIS as a research method, these apps can complement GIS data with a different kind of contextual or episodic data. Just as a practical benefit, Wang wrote that location services gave her peace of mind knowing that she could leave a sort of paper trail were something to happen to her during her research.

And the content can be as little or as much as a user wants, it can be themed or not, it can tell a story or not. I post two major forms of live field-note to Instagram. First, there are photos and captions that are purely descriptive – the ambulatory coffee vendor, the iftar meal during Ramadan, or marketplace etiquette, for example. Second, there are those that might fall into what Ingold thinks of as autoethnographic and what the AAA annual photography contest calls “process”: these are the photos that better describe what I do as an anthropologist – get stranded on the side of the road when my scooter stalls and the battery dies, spend two hours haggling with a shop clerk to get him to sell me a new recorder at just slightly higher than a fair price, get arrested for accidentally filming a military base (which was not marked as such). Somewhere between the two lies my ongoing experience of fasting for Ramadan, both a description of how my peers do it and how I experience it.

The best part, I think, is the speed with which we can move our research notes from experience or epiphany to the public for consumption. Asking “What’s Wrong with Anthropology?” in his 2011 piece for Anthropologies Project, John Hawks laments the years-long process of converting ideas and results into publications as well as a refusal on the part of many anthropologists to engage with new forms of dissemination – namely social media. “Imagine an alternative,” he writes, “in which fieldwork is reported as it happens.” The technology is there, and I think we ignore it at our own peril.

La rupture. Medina, Dakar, #Senegal. 2017. Nikon D700. #ramadan #gestukat

A post shared by Dick Powis (@dickpowis) on

To the suggestion that we release ethnographic tidbits in real-time, I’ve been asked how it’s ethical to say something about our interlocutors without taking the time to “digest” our experiences. I would point out that our opinions about our work are always changing, whether it’s published in 280 characters on Twitter or 100,000 words by Duke University Press. Honestly, who has sent off a dissertation or book manuscript completely satisfied with their work? Even more so, as a component of trying to show my audience what I do as an anthropologist, I think it can be valuable to leave my thought process and immediate impressions bare; it adds another layer of texture to the record of how we engage with the world.

These notes – raw, emotive, published in the moment – contribute a richness to the record of research that intersects with traditional research notes and other collected data. In his book, “Ethnographic Film,” Karl Heider wrote that film – and we might say live field-notes, here – “can present much at which the words of written ethnography can only hint” (2006:116). He goes on to clarify that ethnographic film should almost always be supplemented by written material and a skilled educator – and I agree; no one is trying to publish an ethnography made solely of Instagram photos – but I would argue that written material should always be complemented by non-written ethnographic media in order to fill out the description, representation, or record that we’re trying to communicate. I want to see an anthropology where such multimodal dissemination of research are commonplace.

Do live field-notes not require some amount of attention, care, and correspondence to communicate to the public what it is we both see and do during our work? Is it not our responsibility – to our interlocutors, to the taxpaying public, and to future anthropologists – to be as clear as possible by whatever medium necessary when we describe, represent, or record our work? In an interview on Allegra about the future of academic publishing, Ingold said, “We need to be much clearer about the purpose and mission of anthropology and we need to articulate these in a way that ‘outside audiences’ will understand” (De Lauri 2016). With this, I absolutely agree, but limiting the scope of ethnography to do so only puts constraints on how we are permitted to innovate moving forward. If we accept those constraints, then anthropology will not “surge forward” in the way that Ingold wants. As Hawks wrote, “We can bring back the inventiveness of our predecessors, but to succeed we must abandon their forms.”

Works Cited.

Collins, Samuel Gerald, and Matthew Slover Durington. 2015. Networked Anthropology: A Primer for Ethnographers. London: Routledge.

De Lauri, Antonio. “REDUX: Tim Ingold on the Future of #AcademicPublishing.” Allegra Lab website, February 11, 2016.

Hawks, John. 2011. “What’s wrong with anthropology?” anthropologies: A Collaborative Online Project website. October 1.

Heider, Karl G. 2006. Ethnographic Film. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Ingold, Tim. 2014. “That’s enough about ethnography!” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. 4 (1): 383.

MacDougall, Susan. “Enough about Ethnography: An Interview with Tim Ingold.” Dialogues, Cultural Anthropology website, April 5, 2016.

Shryock, Andrew. “Ethnography: Provocation.” Correspondences, Cultural Anthropology website, May 3, 2016.

Wang, Tricia. 2012. “Writing Live Fieldnotes: Toward a More Open Ethnography.” Ethnography Matters website. August 2.

Photo Credit: Dick Powis. 2018. “Sixty-eight and fifty: la grève”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *