Ethnography as Improv (How to Anthropology)

NOVEMBER 02, 2015

By Cheryl Deutsch

“Anthropology is not a social science tout court, but something else. What that something else is has been notoriously difficult to name, precisely because it involves less a subject matter … than a sensibility.”

— Liisa Malkki, Improvising Theory (2007: 63)


In this post, I take inspiration from the book Improvising Theory to articulate three aspects of ethnographic practice that often go unnamed in anthropology.  I also follow up with the book’s authors, Allaine Cerwoncka and Liisa Malkki, to share their thoughts on doing ethnography today.

Most of the book consists of email exchanges from the year Cerwoncka spent in fieldwork as a graduate student and Malkki was her faculty mentor.  The conceit is that Malkki, an anthropologist, must explain to Cerwoncka, a political scientist, what “goes without saying” in anthropology; the customs and quirks that make up the discipline’s sensibility.  But as Malkki writes, “the ‘common sense’ of anthropology is a complicated matter,” and she struggles to articulate its nuances (2007: 163).

Through this exchange and the authors’ reflections, the book offers an intimate view of what ethnographic fieldwork is, in practice, as well as what it amounts to in theory.  Cerwoncka and Malkki conclude that it is ethnography’s improvisational nature that makes it challenging to teach but also special in its theoretical power.

Here are three insights I drew from the book and my subsequent exchange with them:


1. Ethnography is Improvised

Improv comedy is a form of collaborative story-telling whose humor derives from the uncertainty of its own story line. Improv actors must say yes to whatever comes their way, trusting their training and adrenaline to make a story out of surprise.  The result is comedy.

Improvisational jazz is likewise a form of story-telling whose energy derives from its unrehearsed riffs on popular melodies and classic standards.  Jazz musicians construct improvised melodies out of notes that are spontaneous but not random: they have to make sense with the original song or melody.  Just playing fast, for example, is no guarantee that an improvised solo will succeed: the notes have to make emotional sense.

Both improv comedy and jazz employ skills that can be taught and practiced.  They benefit from excellent technique.  But in all forms of improvisation, training and expertise only go so far.  The rest requires a certain sensibility.

In their book, Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork, Allaine Cerwoncka and Liisa Malkki make the case for ethnography as a form of improvisation.

As Cerwoncka reflected in an email exchange with me: “choices made about a research project are shaped out of intellectual, practical and professional considerations… [They] are inevitably made without full information and require constant adjustment and courage to follow one’s rational and intuitive best judgment.”

Courage is a key word here.  All forms of improv involve risk.  But it’s the vulnerability of such creative acts that give them heart and soul.

As recounted in the book, Cerwoncka scheduled a formal interview with a sergeant in the police station where she was conducting her fieldwork.  Before the interview, he talked openly about the groups that they, as cops, hated having to deal with.  “I acted casual about all this information,” she wrote to Malkki, “not jotting any of it down in front of him…  When I went back for the ‘real’ interview, he was much more formal and immediately asked if I wanted to tape the conversation” (2007: 85).  The formal interview had a different tone; he talked about “safe” topics like his family background, and then he was called away.

Reflecting on this experience in her email to Malkki, Cerwoncka decided not to tape further conversations with the police officers.  “It strikes me that they are in the position of taping people (in the interrogation room),” she wrote, “and their context for that is to use the information people give them against the people they arrest.  So I think the recorder will color the interviews too much” (2007: 85).

Later in her fieldwork, however, she found that one sergeant was particularly eager to set up taped interviews for her, so she continued with them.  She began to see that they helped those in the station feel more comfortable with her. “They don’t even seem to mind when I drift and ask them questions about their taste in music or whether they garden,” she wrote (2007: 120).  Hers is a lesson in improvised field practice.

Formal recorded interviews are an important tool in the ethnographer’s toolbox.  But in this exchange, we see that the ethnographer often has to make decisions about when and where, as well as how, to employ such tools in the field.  Ethnographers are also engaged in a form of collaborative story-telling with the people they interact with.  It takes attention and care for ethnography – as improvisation – to make sense.



2. Ethnography Takes Time

Improvising Theory’s greatest strength is its portrayal – in real time – of the year-long process of ethnographic fieldwork.  It illustrates not only the tempo of fieldwork but its many temporalities.  As Malkki writes in her concluding chapter to the book, “ethnography as process demands a critical awareness of the invisible social fact that multiple, different temporalities might be at play simultaneously… [There are] quotidian routines, events that become Events (see Malkki 1997), the panic time of deadlines, the elongated time of boredom, the cyclical time of the return of the expected, the spiral time of returns to the recognizable or the remembered, and so on” (2007: 177).

In their email exchange, we read about Cerwoncka’s uncertainties, her successes, as well as her false starts and trails gone cold.  It’s a messy process through which Malkki’s advice offers perspective and rhythm: some situations require action and attention, others call for patience and meditation.

Before she began her interviews at the police station, for example, Cerwoncka was unsure exactly where she would locate her research exploring Australian national identity.  So she made inroads with a gardening club and with officers at the police station, as well as with the pastor of a church.

In an early email to Malkki, Cerwoncka worried that she was contacting people from too many organizations at once and that she’d be overwhelmed with all their necessary follow-up.  Malkki responded: “Anthropological fieldwork is what you are doing, and therefore regular contact with informants should not just be a goal, but should be built into your everyday schedule.  It’s taxing, embarrassing, etc., but you need the material… Strike while the iron is hot” (2007: 54).  She encouraged her to choose the organizations she wanted to work with thoughtfully and then to make a schedule that would allow her to follow up on interactions and opportunities when they arose.

Later, Cerwoncka dropped the church as a site.  Then, when she was deep in fieldwork with the gardening club and the police officers, one of her political science advisers recommended she add a third site.  So she spent time talking to landscape architects.

At this point, Malkki advised her: “It’s important not to let the third site become something that allows you to escape the pressures of the sites in which you have deep investments already… Another related issue (related to the question of what’s the best use of your time): sometimes downtime is best, taking a week away from the fieldwork.  Then you return to things fresh” (2007: 126).

In this case, the right temporal strategy was patience and perserverance.

When I asked Malkki for her thoughts on ethnography today, she reiterated the importance of time: “If I were to add something… One point would be a warning against the overprofessionalization of graduate students in Anthropology.  Easy for me to say since I’ve got a job!  But anthropology does take time, and I think one has to have the time to ‘grow into it’ somehow without having career milestones always hovering at the edges of one’s attention.  One grows into fieldwork according to one’s temperament and in deep relation with people.  That is transformative.  And then, after fieldwork, one grows into writing.  That too is transformative.  It takes time (and simple grit).  This is very much a mind game.  There are many brilliant people – everyone knows they’re brilliant and their work truly original – but they just can’t let it go, or, sometimes, can’t get over writing blocks.  More time.  One should always be humane toward oneself (and everyone, of course).”

It seems that ethnography not only takes time but many different times: striking while the iron is hot, having patience when fieldwork gets tedious, and time for transformation in the writing phase.

3. Improvisation + Time = Theoretical Insight

Cerwoncka started grad school with the goal of becoming a “theorist,” and this book reflects that ambition.  As helpful as it is in illustrating ethnographic practice, it is equally effective in articulating ethnography’s theoretical power.

In our email exchange, Cerwoncka wrote, “Social analysts need more than description of phenomena, and this thing we call theory helps us try to identify patterns and associations.  However, ethnographic fieldwork and life has reinforced for me the conviction that theory serves us intellectually best when it is in dialogue with activity, data, and a variety of possible material.”

The email exchange with Malkki that documents her fieldwork experience bears this out: theoretical concepts help guide her research questions and observations.  It was Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities that inspired her to look for national identity in the ordinary lives of Australian gardeners and police officers.  But these interlocutors – and Cerwoncka’s improvised engagements with them – also gave shape to the project.  Finally, time and distance add their own maturing effects. What results are the project’s theoretical insights.

Cerwoncka writes about this process of conceptual development in Native to the Nation, based on her dissertation research.  Writing about the police sergeant who eagerly arranged her formal interviews, she writes:  “These arrangements developed into a strange kind of ritual where each interview began with the sergeant ‘joking’ that the junior officer about to be interviewed ‘mustn’t give away the shop secrets’ before I was left alone with him or her” (cited in Cerwoncka and Malkki 2007: 90-1).  Such jests caused her quite a bit of anxiety: uncovering police brutality or corruption would put her and her research in a uncomfortable ethical position.  Only much later, in writing, did she conclude that the sergeant’s comments pointed to in-group boundary policing more so than any real “heart of darkness” within the station (2007: 91).  And it was much longer into writing that she came to believe “that there was another story one could write about the police besides a journalistic-type exposé or a romantic narrative about un-sung heroes” (2007: 92).

The theoretical insights of ethnographic fieldwork take time.  Improvisation in the field is what shakes up one’s orientation to theoretical concepts, but it can take time for that orientation to mature into new conceptualizations.

Postscript: Ethnography and Professionalization

In addition to producing theoretical insights, Cerwoncka also stressed to me the ways in which ethnography has served her as a faculty member and university administrator:

Cerwoncka: “Every time I move to a different institution, role and, or discipline, I find myself doing a version of ethnographic fieldwork!  Fieldwork taught me the techniques and instilled confidence in me to map and analyze patterns of community, be it a police station or a School of Social Sciences.  I think the professional skills I learned through ethnographic fieldwork … are as useful to me as a Dean of Social Sciences at University of East London as they were to my dissertation.”

These thoughts neatly illustrate the challenge and promise of ethnography: that one has to let go and accept in order to reap its creative potential.  Much of the advice embodied in the book revolves around the need for both confidence and acceptance.  One can’t seek out theory but can trust that it will result.  One can’t seek out professionalization but can trust that it will happen.  Just as in improv comedy there is no magic formula for making something funny, so the ethnographer that tells a compelling story can let the scene do its magic.

Thank you to Nikhil Anand for first suggesting Improvising Theory to me.  Thank you, as well, to Allaine Cerwoncka and Liisa Malkki for taking the time to share their thoughts.  And a final thanks to Ethan Hein for his explanation of improvisational jazz.