Center Themes

While the interests of the Center for Ethnography are widely cast wherever ethnography has been a significant mode of research, they are currently anchored by three interrelated projects--critique, collaboration, and design--as a conceptual framework for developing activities from year to year. These areas will be sustained and evolve as an overarching framework for Center activities. It has made sense so far to blend emerging topical interests in this framework. However, it may prove useful to formally define additional thematic arenas in future iterations of Center activities.


Critique is Out There: The Ethnography of Reflexive Knowledge

These events explore the problems and opportunities for ethnographic inquiry of reflexively thinking about the contemporary knowledge predicaments of the disciplines that have promoted ethnography (anthropology, sociology, various interdisciplines) alongside those of the subjects of ethnographic inquiry itself. Such work emphasizes the affinities, identities, and common grounds from which 'data-producing' relationships are forged in the classic encounters across boundaries of difference and 'otherness' by which the doing of classic ethnography has been primarily imagined. Our concern is with current ideologies of research in which much more is desired by way of intellectual and conceptual labor in the process of fieldwork; the analytic account or results of inquiry are embedded in its doing. Far from leading to even more focused accounts of reflexivity and subjectivity in classic fieldwork encounters, this recognition and engagement with the reflexive subject and parallel problems of knowledge across topics and in various settings are as likely to lead to renewed concerns with the objects of ethnography, with objectification, and the difficult creation of the space/time of bounded inquiry.

In anthropology, these concerns have been most explicitly articulated in the effort to develop ethnography in the realms of science, technology, policy and expertise of various sorts, such as finance, law, medicine, and banking. But seen conceptually as the remaking of classic scenes of encounter that have defined ethnographic fieldwork, they have more general implications for most projects of ethnography that define themselves in the contemporary dominated by emergent conditions of some sort. That is, they are as relevant to the study of the politics of survival and negotiation of refugee communities in relation to sovereignties of international humanitarian efforts, for instance, as they are to the study of labs, boardrooms, and conferences.

What sorts of relationships generate data now? What are the forms of data now? What are the bounds of ethnography and fieldwork in such projects located at sites of reflexive knowledge making? What becomes of critique? What distinctive forms of writing, reporting, and concepts might such projects generate?

We invite you to think with us about the range of events that we could organize around this theme.


Ethnography of/as Collaboration

Collaboration has long been valorized as a presumed virtue or good in a liberal culture of achievement amply rewarding the individual. Here we do not have in mind merely the reinforcement of this longstanding collateral virtue or good. Rather, collaboration here stands for the various forms and norms of collective effort, new and old, that are reshaping ways of knowing, and getting things done across a diverse array of activities and sites, the university being only one, but a self-referential one for us. New communication and information technologies are a driving force in this, but there are interesting ideological shifts going on at the heart of work arrangements, political alliances, social movements in many settings for which something as virtuous as collaboration stands. We suggest that looking inside the contemporary forms of this liberal good, through ethnographic inquiry, will show us one of the most important current 'structural' aspects of neoliberalism, globalization, emergence, etc. Ethnography has been particularly good at analyzing the ligaments of relationships of collectivity in the past, and is a good instrument for doing so now.

At the same time, ethnography itself, most often associated with the lone wolf investigator entering communities of others, is challenged by this culture of collaboration. It is often no longer enough to arrive in a scene of fieldwork and improvise collaboration in the traditional, subnormative way. The scenes of fieldwork today only become defined by already being embedded in networks of relations that are easily glossed as 'collaborative.'  As such, ethnography does not have the explicit norms of method and practice to express its own present conditions. Under this theme, we want to also track efforts at redefining the basic practices of ethnography in the direction of organizing it in relation to norms of collective and collaborative research, as well as either resisting or conforming to the ideological contemporary senses of collaboration that represent the forms by which activities of various sorts become integrated into the operations of bureaucracies.

The authority of the ethnographer is thus the authority of some collaborative. How does the latter take shape? Collaboratories or established collaborative relationships are cocoons after all for highly particularistic materials from ethnography, still associated with individual insight and effort. Collaborative norms give such ethnography purchase, confidence, and legitimate identity in a world for which collaboration is not just an eternal good but an evolving modality covering diverse emerging schemes and collective efforts of unclear boundaries.

Under such conditions, what of the traditional ethos, aesthetics, and distinctiveness of ethnography will remain? Here we propose that we look both at ethnographic efforts to understand new arrangements in the ideological name of collaboration and at the changing conditions of ethnographic authority, identity and possibility moving in the same direction, apparently.


Rethinking Ethnography as a Design Process 

Design practices, thinking, and education as a topic brings together many different fields today and stimulates interdisciplinary exchange. Ethnography is increasingly popular as a mode of inquiry, and its classic practices are being reshaped in the many environments of its contemporary application. The Center's primary interest in taking up the relationship between the two is to try to map dimensions of design practice and education upon the current forms and norms of ethnographic inquiry as a way of addressing certain issues and problems in the latter. Mostly, we are interested in trying to think of ethnographic inquiry as a kind of process of design, and we have mainly pedagogical goals in mind--that is, how design processes might inform the way that students in a number of disciplines are trained to conduct ethnographic inquiry. How is ethnographic inquiry like design processes? And not? How might design practices inform contemporary problems of ethnographic research that involve different kinds of partnerships, collaborations, outcomes, and politics than in its established formulations? At the same time, this specific interest of ethnography in design will better prepare ethnographers to participate in discussions and projects for which design processes themselves are the primary emphasis.



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