Arquivo da tag: Etnografia

Design thinking was supposed to fix the world. Where did it go wrong? (MIT Technology Review)

An approach that promised to democratize design may have done the opposite.

Original article

By Rebecca Ackermann

February 9, 2023

a yellow graphite pencil with the tip broken and tilting sharply askew

Getty Images

When Kyle Cornforth first walked into IDEO’s San Francisco offices in 2011, she felt she had entered a whole new world. At the time, Cornforth was a director at the Edible Schoolyard Project, a nonprofit that uses gardening and cooking in schools to teach and to provide nutritious food. She was there to meet with, a new social-impact spinoff of the design consulting firm, which was exploring how to reimagine school lunch, a mission that the Edible Schoolyard Project has been working toward since 2004. But Cornforth was new to IDEO’s way of working: a six-step methodology for innovation called design thinking, which had emerged in the 1990s but had started reaching the height of its popularity in the tech, business, and social-impact sectors. 

Key to design thinking’s spread was its replicable aesthetic, represented by the Post-it note: a humble square that anyone can use in infinite ways. Not too precious, not too permanent, the ubiquitous Post-it promises a fast-moving, cooperative, egalitarian process for getting things done. When Cornforth arrived at IDEO for a workshop, “it was Post-its everywhere, prototypes everywhere,” she says. “What I really liked was that they offered a framework for collaboration and creation.” 

But when she looked at the ideas themselves, Cornforth had questions: “I was like, ‘You didn’t talk to anyone who works in a school, did you?’ They were not contextualized in the problem at all.” The deep expertise in the communities of educators and administrators she worked with, Cornforth saw, was in tension with the disruptive, startup-flavored creativity of the design thinking process at consultancies like “I felt like a stick in the mud to them,” she recalls. “And I felt they were out of touch with reality.” 

That tension would resurface a couple of years later, in 2013, when IDEO was hired by the San Francisco Unified School District to redesign the school cafeteria, with funding from Twitter cofounder Ev Williams’s family foundation. Ten years on, the SFUSD program has had a big impact—but that may have as much to do with the slow and integrated work inside the district as with that first push of design-focused energy from outside.

An old empty whiteboard with markers and eraser

Founded in the 1990s, IDEO was instrumental in evangelizing the design thinking process throughout the ’00s and ’10s, alongside Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design or “” (which IDEO’s founder David Kelley also cofounded). While the methodology’s focus on collaboration and research can be traced back to human-­factors engineering, a movement popular decades earlier, design thinking took hold of the collective imagination during the Obama years, a time when American culture was riding high on the potential of a bunch of smart people in a hope-filled room to bend history’s arc toward progress. Its influence stretched across health-care giants in the American heartland, government agencies in DC, big tech companies in Silicon Valley, and beyond. City governments brought in design thinking agencies to solve their economic woes and take on challenges ranging from transportation to housing. Institutions like MIT and Harvard and boot camps like General Assembly stood up courses and degree programs, suggesting that teaching design thinking could be as lucrative as selling it to corporations and foundations. 

Design thinking also broadened the very idea of “design,” elevating the designer to a kind of spiritual medium who didn’t just construct spaces, physical products, or experiences on screen but was uniquely able to reinvent systems to better meet the desires of the people within them. It gave designers permission to take on any big, knotty problem by applying their own empathy to users’ pain points—the first step in that six-step innovation process filled with Post-its.

We are all creatives, design thinking promised, and we can solve any problem if we empathize hard enough.

The next steps were to reframe the problem (“How might we …?”), brainstorm potential solutions, prototype options, test those options with end users, and—finally—implement. Design thinking agencies usually didn’t take on this last step themselves; consultants often delivered a set of “recommendations” to the organizations that hired them.  

At the same time, consultancies like IDEO, Frog, Smart Design, and others were also promoting the idea that anyone (including the executives paying their fees) could be a designer by just following the process. Perhaps design had become “too important to leave to designers,” as IDEO’s then CEO, Tim Brown, wrote in his 2009 book Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. Brown even touted as a selling point his firm’s utter absence of expertise in any particular industry: “We come with what we call a beginner’s mind,” he told the Yale School of Management

This was a savvy strategy for selling design thinking to the business world: instead of hiring their own team of design professionals, companies could bring on an agency temporarily to learn the methodology themselves. The approach also felt empowering to many who spent time with it. We are all creatives, design thinking promised, and we can solve any problem if we empathize hard enough.

But in recent years, for a number of reasons, the shine of design thinking has been wearing off. Critics have argued that its short-term focus on novel and naive ideas has resulted in unrealistic and ungrounded recommendations. And they have maintained that by centering designers—mainly practitioners of corporate design within agencies—it has reinforced existing inequities rather than challenging them. Years in, “innovation theater”— checking a series of boxes without implementing meaningful shifts—had become endemic in corporate settings, while a number of social-impact initiatives highlighted in case studies struggled to get beyond pilot projects. Meanwhile, the #MeToo and BLM movements, along with the political turmoil of the Trump administration, have demonstrated that many big problems are rooted in centuries of dark history, too deeply entrenched to be obliterated with a touch of design thinking’s magic wand. 

Today, innovation agencies and educational institutions still continue to sell design thinking to individuals, corporations, and organizations. In 2015, IDEO even created its own “online school,” IDEO U, with a bank of design thinking courses. But some groups—including the and IDEO itself—are working to reform both its principles and its methodologies. These new efforts seek a set of design tools capable of equitably serving diverse communities and solving diverse problems well into the future. It’s a much more daunting—and crucial—task than design thinking’s original remit. 

The magical promise of design thinking

When design thinking emerged in the ’90s and ’00s, workplaces were made up of cubicles and closed doors, and the term “user experience” had only just been coined at Apple. Despite convincing research on collaboration tracing back to the 1960s, work was still mainly a solo endeavor in many industries, including design. Design thinking injected new and collaborative energy into both design and the corporate world more broadly; it suggested that work could look and feel more hopeful and be more fun, and that design could take the lead in making it that way.

When author and startup advisor Jake Knapp was working as a designer at Microsoft in the 2000s, he visited IDEO’s offices in Palo Alto for a potential project. He was struck by how inspiring the space was: “Everything is white, and there’s sunlight coming in the windows. There’s an open floor plan. I had never seen [work] done like that.” When he started at Google a few years later, he learned how to run design thinking workshops from a colleague who had worked at IDEO, and then he began running his own workshops on the approach within Google. 

Knapp’s attraction was due in part to the “radical collaboration” that design thinking espoused. In what was a first for many, colleagues came together across disciplines at the very start of a project to discuss how to solve problems. “Facilitating the exchange of information, ideas, and research with product, engineering, and design teams more fluidly is really the unlock,” says Enrique Allen, cofounder of Designer Fund, which supports startups seeking to harness the unique business value of design in industries from health care to construction. Design thinking offered a structure for those cross-­disciplinary conversations and a way to articulate design’s value within them. “It gave [your ideas] so much more weight for people who didn’t have the language to understand creative work,” says Erica Eden, who worked as a designer at the innovation firm Smart Design.

It makes a good story to say there’s a foolproof process that will lead to results no matter who runs it.

For Angela McKee Brown, who was hired by SFUSD to help bring the work IDEO had done on improving the school cafeteria to reality, the design thinking process was a language that bureaucracy could understand. In a district that had suffered from an overall lack of infrastructure investment since the 1970s, she watched as IDEO’s recommendations ignited a new will to improvement that continues today. “The biggest role that process played for us was it told a story that showed people the value of the work,” McKee Brown says. “That allowed me to have a much easier job, because people believed.” 

The enthusiasm that surrounded design thinking did have much to offer the public sector, says Cyd Harrell, San Francisco’s chief digital services officer, who has worked as a design leader in civic technology for over a decade. Decades of budget cuts and a lack of civic investment have made it difficult for public servants to feel that change is possible. “For a lot of those often really wonderful people who’ve chosen service as a career, and who have had to go through times where things seem really bleak,” she says, “the infusion of optimism—whether it comes in the guise of some of these techniques that are a little bit shady or not—is really valuable.” And it makes a good story to say there’s a foolproof process that will lead to results no matter who runs it.

Ideas over implementation

Execution has always been the sticky wicket for design thinking. Some versions of the codified six-step process even omit that crucial final step of implementation. Its roots in the agency world, where a firm steps in on a set timeline with an established budget and leaves before or shortly after the pilot stage, dictated that the tools of design thinking would be aimed at the start of the product development process but not its conclusion—or, even more to the point, its aftermath. 

When Jake Knapp was running those design thinking workshops at Google, he saw that for all the excitement and Post-its they generated, the brainstorming sessions didn’t usually lead to built products or, really, solutions of any kind. When he followed up with teams to learn which workshop ideas had made it to production, he heard decisions happening “in the old way,” with a few lone geniuses working separately and then selling their almost fully realized ideas to top stakeholders.

Execution has always been the sticky wicket for design thinking.

In the government and social-impact sectors, though, design thinking’s focus on ideas over implementation had bigger ramifications than a lack of efficiency. 

The “biggest piece of the design problem” in civic tech, says Harrell, is not generating new ideas but figuring out how to implement and pay for them. What’s more, success sometimes can’t be evaluated until years later, so the time-­constrained workshops typical of the design thinking approach may not be appropriate. “There’s a mismatch between the short-cycle evaluations [in commercial design] and the long-cycle evaluations for policy,” she says. For longtime public servants, seeing a project through—past implementation and into iteration—is crucial for learning and improving how infrastructure functions. 

In a 2021 piece on the evolution of their practices, Brown, along with Shauna Carey and Jocelyn Wyatt of, cited the Diva Centres project in Lusaka, Zambia, where they worked to help teens access contraception and learn about reproductive health. Through the design thinking methodology, the team came up with the idea of creating nail salons where the teens could get guidance in a low-pressure environment. The team built three model sites, declaring the work a success; the Diva Centres project won a Core77 Service Design Award in 2016, and the case study is still posted on’s website. But while the process focused on generating the most exciting user experience within the nail salons, it neglected to consider the world outside their walls—a complex network of public health funding and service channels that made scaling the pilot “prohibitively expensive and complicated,” as the leaders later wrote. Though IDEO intended to build 10 centers by 2017, neither IDEO nor the partner organization ever reported reaching that milestone. The article does not say how much money or time went into realizing the Diva Centres pilot before it ended, so it’s not clear if the lessons learned were worth the failure. ( declined to be interviewed for this story.)

IDEO’s 2013 work for SFUSD—the project that McKee Brown later worked on from the school system’s side—has a more complicated legacy. After five months, IDEO delivered 10 recommendations, including communal dining tables, vending machines with meals to grab on the go, community food partnerships for fresher produce, and an app and interactive web portal to give students and families more opportunities to participate in lunch choices. (The food itself was a different issue that the district was working on with its vendors.) On IDEO’s website today, the story concludes with SFUSD’s “unanimous enthusiasm” for the recommendations—a consultancy happy ending. Indeed, the project was met with a flurry of fawning press coverage. But with hindsight, it’s clear that only after IDEO left the project did the real work begin. 

At SFUSD, McKee Brown saw instances in which IDEO’s recommendations did not take into account the complexities of the district’s operations and the effort it could take to even drill a hole in a wall in accordance with asbestos abatement rules. The vending machines the team proposed, for instance, would need a stable internet connection, which many target locations didn’t have. And the app never came to fruition, McKee Brown says, as it would have required a whole new department to continually update the software and content. 

An analysis a few years after IDEO’s 2013 engagement showed that about the same number of kids or even fewer were choosing to eat school lunch, despite a continuous increase in enrollment. This may have had several reasons, including that the quality of the food itself did not significantly improve. The original goal of getting more kids to eat at school would eventually be met by an entirely different effort: California’s universal school meal program, implemented in 2022. 

Nevertheless, IDEO’s SFUSD project has had a lasting impact, thanks to the work the district itself put into transforming blue-sky ideas into real change. While few of the recommendations ended up being widely implemented in schools exactly as IDEO envisioned them, the district has been redesigning its cafeterias to make the spaces more welcoming and social for students—after sometimes decades of disrepair. Today more than 70 school cafeterias out of 114 sites in the city have been renovated. The design thinking process helped sell the value of improving school cafeterias to the decision makers. But the in-house team at SFUSD charted the way forward after many of IDEO’s initial ideas couldn’t make it past the drawing board.

Empathy over expertise

The first step of the design thinking process is for the designer to empathize with the end user through close observation of the problem. While this step involves asking questions of the individuals and communities affected, the designer’s eye frames any insights that emerge. This puts the designer’s honed sense of empathy at the center of both the problem and the solution. 

In 2018, researcher Lilly Irani, an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, wrote a piece titled “Design Thinking: Defending Silicon Valley at the Apex of Global Labor Hierarchies” for the peer-reviewed journal Catalyst. She criticized the new framing of the designer as an empathetic “divining rod leading to new markets or domains of life ripe for intervention,” maintaining that it reinforced traditional hierarchies of labor. 

Irani argued that as an outgrowth of Silicon Valley business interests and culture, design thinking situated Western—and often white—designers at a higher level of labor, treating them as mystics who could translate the efforts and experiences of lower-level workers into capitalistic opportunity. 

Former IDEO designer George Aye has seen Irani’s concerns play out firsthand, particularly in settings with entrenched systemic problems. He and his colleagues would use the language of a “beginner’s mindset” with the clients, he says, but what he saw in practice was more an attitude that “we’re going to fumble our way through and by the time we’re done, we’re on to the next project.” In Aye’s view, these consulting engagements made tourists of commercial designers, who—however sincerely they wanted to help—made sure to “get some good pictures standing next to typically dark-skinned people with brightly colored clothes” so they could produce evidence for the consultancy. 

Today in his own studio, which works only with nonprofit organizations, Aye tries to elevate what’s already being created by a local community, advocate for its members to get the resources they need, and then “get out of the way.” If designers are not centering the people on the ground, then “it’s profit-centered design,” he says. “There’s no other way of putting it.”

McKee Brown considers one of the greatest successes of the San Francisco cafeteria redesign project to be the School Food Advisory (SFA), a district-wide program in which high schoolers continually inform and direct changes to meal programs and cafeteria updates. But the group wasn’t a result of IDEO’s recommendations; the SFA was formed to ensure that SFUSD students would continue to have a voice in the district and a chance to collaborate often on how to redesign their spaces. Nearly a decade after IDEO completed its work, the best results have been due to the expertise of the district’s own team and its generations of students, not the empathy that went into the initial short-term consulting project.

As she’s continued to work on food and education, McKee Brown has adapted the process of design thinking to her experiences and team leadership needs. At SFUSD and later at Edible Schoolyard, where she became executive director, she developed three questions she and her team should always make sure to ask: “Who have you talked to? Have you tried it out before we spend all this money? And then how are you telling the story of the work?” 

What’s next for design thinking?

Almost two decades after design thinking rose to prominence, the world still has no shortage of problems that need addressing. Design leadership and design processes themselves need to evolve beyond design thinking, and that’s an arena where designers may actually be uniquely skilled. Stanford’s, which was instrumental in the growth of design thinking in the first place, is one institution pushing the conversation forward by reshaping its influential design programs. Within the physical walls of the school, the design thinking aesthetic—whiteboards, cardboard furniture, Post-its—is still evident on most surfaces, but the ideas stirring inside sound new.  

smahes lightbulb pieces arranged on a blue background

In fact, the phrase “design thinking” does not appear in any materials for the’s revamped undergraduate or graduate programs—although it still shows up in electives in which any Stanford student can enroll (and a representative from the claims the terms “design” and “design thinking” are used interchangeably). Instead of “empathy,” “make” and “care” are the concepts that program leaders hope will shape the design education across all offerings. 

In contrast with empathy, care demands a shift in who is centered in these processes—sometimes meaning people in generations other than our own. “How are we thinking about our ancestors? What is the legacy that this is going to leave? What are all the intended and unintended consequences?” says academic director Carissa Carter. “There are implications no matter where you work—­second-, third-order consequences of what we put out. This is where we are pulling in elements of equity and inclusion. Not just in a single course, but how we approach the design of this curriculum.” 

The’s creative director, Scott Doorley, who has been with the school for over 15 years, has begun to hear the students themselves ask for fundamental shifts like these. They’re entering the programs saying, “I want to make something that not only changes things, but changes things without screwing everything else up,” Doorley says: “It’s this really great combination of excitement and humility at the same time.” The has also made specific changes in curriculum and tools; an ethics course that was previously required at the end of the undergraduate degree program now appears toward the beginning, and the school is providing new frameworks to help students plan for the next-generation effects of their work beyond a project’s completion. 

For the Design Justice Network, a collective of design practitioners and educators that emerged out of the 2014 Allied Media Conference in Detroit, slowing down and embracing complexity are the keys to moving practices like design thinking toward justice. “If we truly want to think about stakeholders, if we want to have more levels of affordances when we design things, then we can’t work at the speed of industry,” says Wes Taylor, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and a DJN leader. 

IDEO’s practices have been evolving to better address that complexity. Tim Brown says that toward the beginning of the company’s life, its unique power was in bringing together different design disciplines to deliver new ideas. “We weren’t looking particularly to help our clients build their own capabilities back then. We were simply looking to do certain kinds of design projects,” he says. 

Now, when the questions being asked of designers are deeper and more complicated—how to make Ford a more human-centered company rather than how to build a better digital dashboard, he gives as an example—IDEO leaders have recognized that “it’s the combination of doing design and building the capabilities [of IDEO’s clients and their communities] to design at the same time where the real impact can happen.” What this means in practice is much more time on the ground, more partnerships, and sometimes more money. “It’s about recognizing that the expertise is much more in the hands of the user of the system than the designer of the system. And being a little bit less arrogant about knowing everything,” says Brown. 

IDEO has also been building new design capabilities within its own team, hiring writers and filmmakers to tell stories for their clients, which Brown has come to see as “the key activity, not a key activity” for influencing change in societal systems. “If you had asked me 10 to 15 years ago,” he says, “I would never have guessed that we would have as many folks who come from a storytelling background within a design firm as we do today.” 

Indeed, design thinking’s greatest positive impact may always have been in the stories it’s helped tell: spreading the word about the value of collaboration in business, elevating the public profile of design as a discipline, and coaxing funding from private and public channels for expensive long-term projects. But its legacy must also account for years of letting down many of the people and places the methodology claimed it would benefit. And as long as it remains in the halls of consultancies and ivory-tower institutions, its practitioners may continue to struggle to decenter the already powerful and privileged.

As Taylor sees it, design thinking’s core problems can be traced back to its origins in the corporate world, which inextricably intertwined the methodology with capitalistic values. He believes that a justice lens can help foster collaboration and creativity in a much broader way that goes beyond our current power structures. “Let’s try to imagine and acknowledge that capitalism is not inevitable, not necessarily a foundational principle of nature,” he urges. 

That kind of radical innovation goes far beyond the original methodology of design thinking. But it may contain the seeds for the lasting change that the design industry—and the world—need now.

Rebecca Ackermann is a writer, designer, and artist based in San Francisco.

Pandemic Hardship/Pandemic Change (Psychology Today)

How the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic can change how we live

Paul Stoller

Posted Mar 16, 2020

Most of us face multiple hardships in life—financial stress, job loss, divorce, the premature death of a spouse or parent.  Painful and unsettling life events divert our lives into unimaginable paths filled with stress and pain. Like most people, I have experienced a number of painful events: religious discrimination, the suicide of a loved one, divorce, and the death of parents.  I have also been diagnosed with and treated for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL), a series of blood cancers most of which are classified as incurable. These life-altering experiences have shaped the course of my personal and professional life—in unexpected ways. 

My life as an anthropologist has afforded me a particular perspective on existentially troubling life events.  During early fieldwork in the Republic of Niger, one of the poorest nations in the world, I had to confront the psychological and existential ramifications of yearly meningitis outbreaks.  These always occurred during the hot dry season—from March until the first rains of June.  In hot and dry conditions that were perfect for transmission, a few of my students, some of my friends and many children got sick. 

Many of the children died. 

One year during a particularly bad outbreak I witnessed daily processions of men and women carrying the newly dead to their final resting place. Men walked silently their gazes downcast.  Women wailed as they accompanied their loved ones to the cemetery.  During that outbreak, a pall settled over the rural village where I lived. Conversations lapsed into stressful silences.  We all wondered if we would be next.  Was the tightness in my neck muscular, or was it the onset of meningitis? Invisible and silent, the scourge of meningitis put my life at risk, a visceral threat that forced me to consider what was important in my life.

 Paul Stoller
In Niger, hot and dry conditions create a perfect storm for meningitis outbreaks. Source: Paul Stoller

During another year of fieldwork in Niger, I lived through a cholera epidemic. While the transmission of meningitis bacteria and/or virus comes from close contact with infected others—cholera makes its way to human beings through contaminated water or food. 

That year, many people in the region of Tillaberi became cholera victims.  In response to a flood of new cholera patients, the local government, which had no funds to meet the challenges of the outbreak, set up a makeshift lean-to village—a horrible place to put the sick and dying.  The lean-to village had been built close to the dunetop compound where I was living.  From our compound we observed the arrival of hundreds of emaciated victims, wrapped in soiled rags, being transported on donkey-pulled carts to the cholera village.  The stench of that lean-to village saturated my senses and haunts me to this day. During that time of contagion, conversations focused on the onset of cholera, treatment regimens, and death rates, which soared in an exceedingly poor region of rural Niger.  The long shadow of cholera cast its shade on us all. Despite my relative privilege among the poor and destitute, I nonetheless wondered about the safety of my water and food.  Would I succumb to cholera?  Again, the threat of an epidemic compelled me to think about what mattered in my life:  love, family and my contributions, however small they might be, to my community and my profession.

We are now living through the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.  The deadly virus is spreading exponentially, and there is no apparent end is in sight.  An unsettling eeriness extends itself over our lives and our communities.  Are we unwitting carriers of the virus who have exposed our loved ones and our friends to the COVID-19 coronavirus?  It is a hard reality to bear.  Even so, we don’t know if we’ll be infected or not.  And if we are infected, we don’t know if our illness will be serious—or even deadly. We are, in fact, living in a moment of a devastating uncertainty in which we have been told to practice social distancing—a good way to slow the rate of contagion. Concerts have been cancelled. Sporting events have been postponed. Theaters have gone dark. In grocery stores, it is difficult to find bread, water, eggs, milk and TP.

Paul Stoller
Coronavirus shopping on March 14, 2020 Source: Paul Stoller

Travel has been curtailed.  Gyms and restaurants are closed. Universities have emptied their dormitories and have transitioned to remote education. K-12 public and private schools have shut their doors. The entire populations of Italy, Spain, France have been placed on lockdown.  Where I live, people have been told to stay at home—all to contain the silent and invisible virus.  If this surreal scenario is not the end of the world, it may well be the end of social life as we have known it.

The great French surrealist thinker Antonin Artaud thought that most of us make our way through life in a half-conscious state.  “You look but you don’t see,” as a wise elder among the Songhay people of Niger and Mali once told me. “You listen but you don’t hear. You touch but you don’t feel.”  Indeed, the routine of everyday life can numb our sensibilities. Each day, most of us wake up, go to school, or to work. At midday we eat lunch. At day’s end we return home, enjoy some sort of dinner, enjoy a night watching television, or steaming a film.  Sometimes we break the routine.  We hang out with our friends. We go out for dinner, have a drink at our favorite bar, or attend a sporting event or a concert.

This routine is, for all intents and purposes, social life as we expect it to unfold.  When those expectations are subverted—by an outbreak of meningitis, a cholera epidemic or the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic—we are forced to change our routines and reconfigure our personal and social expectations.  Facing potential illness or possible death, many of us are provoked to think about what is important, about what we might do for our family, our neighbors, our communities.

We are about to experience the full turbulence of a pandemic.  There will be isolation, confusion, pain, suffering and loss, but such a state can also provoke penetratingly honest self-reflection, deep listening, existential change, and social transformation. Pandemic hardship can bring on pandemic change.  Trapped in this unsettled moment between our past and future, perhaps we can take time to reconnect and, to paraphrase T.S. Elliot, know ourselves for the first time.  

Paul Stoller, Ph.D., is a professor at the Department of Anthropology-Sociology, West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

Summer Field School in Ethnographic Methods in New York City

10th CIFAS Field School in Ethnographic Research Methods, June 12 to 22, 2017


The Comitas Institute for Anthropological Study (CIFAS) is pleased to announce the 10th CIFAS Field School in Ethnographic Research Methods, in New York City.

The goal of the Field School is to offer training in the foundations and practice of ethnographic methods. The faculty works closely with participants to identify the required field methods needed to address their academic or professional needs. The Field School is suitable for graduate and undergraduate students in social sciences and other fields of study that use qualitative approaches (such as education, communication, cultural studies, health, social work, human ecology, development studies, consumer behavior, among others), applied social scientists, professionals, and researchers who have an interest in learning more about ethnographic methods and their applications.

The total work load of the course is 30 hours. Students interested in earning credits for the course may have additional assignments in order to totalize 45 hours of activities (what is equivalent to 3 credits).

Course venue: Classes will take place at the Institute for Latin American Studies at Columbia University.


Renzo Taddei (Assistant Professor, Federal University of São Paulo/Affiliated Researcher, Columbia University).

Lambros Comitas (Gardner Cowles Professor of Anthropology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University).

Registration and other costs: Places are limited. The tuition fee is US$ 900. The tuition fee does not cover accommodation, meals or transportation.

For more information or to register, see link attached, or please write to Renzo Taddei at


Participants and instructors of the 9th CIFAS field school (July 2016). 

1952: Uma Odisséia no Sertão (Folha de S.Paulo)

1 Jun 2016



Francisco Guimarães Moreira Filho, 81, que viajou com Guimarães Rosa em 1952

Último vaqueiro relembra expedição que inspirou ‘Grande Sertão: Veredas’

Na viagem que fez pelo sertão de Minas Gerais em 1952, João Guimarães Rosa era conhecido pelos vaqueiros apenas como Joãozito. Hoje, ainda é assim que o último remanescente da expedição se refere ao diplomata e escritor.

“Joãozito era meio caladão, mas engraçado. Contava casos e gostava também de ouvir a gente contar para ele. Sempre [estava] com uma cadernetinha pendurada no pescoço. E nela, escrevia as coisas de qualquer jeito”, relembra Francisco Guimarães Moreira Filho, 81, mais conhecido como Criolo.

A viagem é histórica porque serviu de subsídio para parte da obra de Guimarães Rosa: o conjunto de sete novelas “Corpo de Baile” e para o romance e obra-prima “Grande Sertão: Veredas” –que seria inicialmente uma das histórias de “Corpo de Baile”. Ambos os livros foram lançados em 1956, há 60 anos.

Alexandre Rezende – 24.mai.2016/Folhapress
SETE LAGOAS, MG, BRASIL, 24-05-2016, 12:30h. Francisco Guimarães Moreira Filho, o "Criolo", na empresa de sua familia em Sete Lagoas. No mês em que "Grande Sertão: Veredas" completa 60 anos, apenas um remanescente da expedição que levou Guimarães Rosa ao sertão de Minas Gerais ainda vive. Francisco Guimarães Moreira Filho, o "Criolo" (apelido irônico por ele ser branco demais), acompanhou Guimarães Rosa na viagem feita em 1952 que inspirou o autor a escrever o romance e ainda guarda imagens e lembranças da época, aos 81 anos.(Alexandre Rezende/Folhapress ILUSTRADA) *** EXCLUSIVO FOLHA *** ORG XMIT: Alexandre Rezende
Francisco Guimarães Moreira Filho, o “Criolo”, na empresa de sua familia em Sete Lagoas

Criolo tinha 17 anos quando participou da travessia de dez dias do escritor pelo interior de Minas Gerais. A comitiva foi organizada pelo pai de Criolo, Chico Moreira, e saiu da fazenda Sirga, onde hoje é o município de Três Marias, para levar 180 cabeças de gado até a fazenda São Francisco, em Araçaí, a 240 km de distância.

Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967) era primo de Chico e foi junto para conhecer o dia a dia do sertanejo. Aprendeu a andar de cavalo, a tocar boiada e, quando voltou para casa, no Rio de Janeiro, levou um papagaio.

Quatro anos depois, publicou os dois livros. Em “Corpo de Baile” (1956), um personagem inspirado no capataz Manuelzão (Manuel Nardi, morto em 1997) está no título de uma das novelas.

“O sucesso dele como escritor foi ‘Grande Sertão’, e saiu dessa viagem da boiada”, diz à Folha Criolo, que ganhou o apelido ainda na infância –uma ironia por ser branco demais.

Numa sala de sua pequena empresa em Sete Lagoas (MG), onde aluga guinchos, Criolo espalhou fotos da expedição nas paredes, que foram registradas pela revista “O Cruzeiro”. Uma placa diz: “A origem do Grande Sertão: Veredas”.

Mas, do livro mesmo, Criolo conhece apenas o título. “Não consegui ler, nem papai. Apesar de ser pessoa estudada, ele não conseguiu entender o palavreado.”

Em 2007, para iniciar a comemoração do centenário do nascimento do escritor, Criolo refez a viagem, que também durou dez dias, acompanhado de mais 40 pessoas.


“Chico, saudades daí tenho sempre”, diz a carta de Guimarães Rosa emoldurada na parede onde fica o acervo de Criolo. Assinada em 6 de outubro de 1952, ela foi enviada para seu pai.

“O papagaio está gordo e alegre, magnífico. Aprendeu muita conversa carioca, mas não se esqueceu do repertório sertanejo: (…) sabe chamar as vacas, com notável entusiasmo”, escreveu Guimarães Rosa.

Da comitiva de nove vaqueiros que acompanhou o escritor, Manuelzão se tornou o mais conhecido e morreu como uma figura mítica do sertão de Minas Gerais.

Já Chico Moreira, que era o dono da fazenda e foi quem viabilizou a expedição, é pouco lembrado. De acordo com o filho, ele tentou ajudar ao máximo Guimarães Rosa a se adaptar à viagem.

Mandou, inclusive, um funcionário ir antecipadamente de uma fazenda a outra com uma mula mansa para o diplomata cavalgar. Mas foi Manuelzão quem ensinou Guimarães Rosa a montar.

Criolo reclama que as fotos da expedição foram retiradas de exposição no museu Casa de Guimarães Rosa, que fica em Cordisburgo (MG), onde o escritor nasceu. Para ele, só querem que o escritor apareça em fotos usando smoking.

“Não querem que fale que ele foi peão, que andou a cavalo, que tocou boiada. Querem que ele só seja alta sociedade”, queixa-se.

Procurada, a coordenação do museu informou que as exposições são temporárias e trocadas constantemente. Também informa que as fotos da expedição continuam, sim, a fazer parte do acervo do museu.

As veredas de Guimarães já são escassas, e antenas se impõem

Paulo Peixoto, 01/06/2016

É difícil lidar com a obra de João Guimarães Rosa e não se sentir provocado a ir esmiuçar o “sertão roseano”, conhecer a gente daquele lugar, o bioma de buritis e veredas, as cidades, as roças, as mínimas coisas tão caprichosamente eternizadas nas histórias e contos desse clássico escritor parido naquele cerrado brasileiro.

Nada melhor do que um período sabático para ler e reler toda a obra de Rosa e pôr os pés naquele pedaço de Minas Gerais que ele muito bem nos apresentou. Foi isso o que eu pude fazer durante cinco meses em 2011.

As duas únicas imposições que fiz a mim mesmo foram: não deixar nunca faltar gasolina no carro e agir sempre de acordo com o tempo do sertão, que passa sem pressa e com prosa. Isso não é lenda!

ORG XMIT: 390901_0.tif O escritor João Guimarães Rosa (de óculos) e sertanejos em maio de 1952. Guimarães Rosa viaja entre Cordisburgo e Três Marias, no sertão mineiro, colhendo material para o livro "Grande Sertão: Veredas", acompanhado por Álvares da Silva e Eugênio Silva, repórter e fotógrafo, respectivamente, da revista "O Cruzeiro" que publicou, na edição de 21 de junho de 1952, a reportagem sobre a viagem. (Minas Gerais, maio de 1952. Foto de Eugênio Silva/O Cruzeiro) O escritor João Guimarães Rosa (de óculos) e sertanejos em maio de 1952. Eugênio Silva – 1º.mai.1952/O Cruzeiro. 

O silêncio é uma marca no sertão. Viajar por ele deu sentido a uma frase de Rosa em “Grande Sertão: Veredas”. “O senhor sabe o que o silêncio é? É a gente mesmo, demais”. Era preciso, então, ouvir esse silêncio.

Velhos vaqueiros e tropeiros cruzaram o meu caminho, caso do vivaz, lúcido e já quase cego homem de Beltrão, um lugarejo de Corinto, Feliciano Tavares de Souza, então com 94 anos. Personagem marcante.

Já velho, ele virou benzedor, um homem da “fé curativa”. Ao longo da vida, teve 15 filhos com duas mulheres e uma companhia inseparável: uma arma calibre 38. ”

“[Naquele tempo] Se não estivesse armado, eu não tinha vida [hoje]. Respeitava[-se] era a arma, não a pessoa. O governo deveria ter uma lei de desarmar todo mundo”, dizia ele.

Novos personagens se apresentaram. Foram benzedeiros e benzedeiras vocacionados “”é, eles dizem que é preciso ter vocação para herdar os ensinamentos, a religiosidade e a bondade dos seus parentes mais velhos.

As doceiras do sertão e seus inseparáveis tachos de cobre, os produtores e vendedores de minhocuçu foram outros que conheci.

E não poderiam ter faltado os companheiros de botequim que contavam causos do vaqueiro Manuel Nardi (1904-1997), o Manuelzão, em Andrequicé.


Muita coisa mudou no sertão. A paisagem mudou bastante. As veredas já são escassas.

Para ver de perto o “porto” do rio de Janeiro, onde Riobaldo e Diadorim se encontraram, foi preciso atravessar quilômetros de estrada de terra batida em meio a plantações de eucalipto, que viram carvão para siderúrgicas. Uma tragédia ambiental.

Muito da vida rural se tornou urbana no sertão mineiro. O desenvolvimento a partir da segunda metade do século passado levou a isso.

O “brega” anima as festas nas cidades. O marketing americanizado no comércio urbano chamou bastante minha atenção: “Lan House New Emotions”, “Look da Moda”, “Marly Free Modas”.

Outros nomes também me pareceram um tanto estranhos: “Moda Nua Confecções” e “Zeus – A Arte de Vestir Bem”. Haja criatividade!

Mas nas pequenas cidades do sertão prevalece a tranquilidade, a vida pacata. Chegar em Morro da Garça (2.630 habitantes) e ver de perto a colina solitária em forma de pirâmide que inspirou Rosa no conto “O Recado do Morro” foi mais um mergulho no universo do escritor.

Uma antena de telefonia na crista do local agora se impõe. Mas eu a saudei quando precisei usar o celular para enviar um S.O.S. para a retirada do carro atolado.

Nessa viagem dos livros para a realidade do sertão de hoje, foram muitas descobertas. Somos apresentados a um mundo em que as pessoas, embora simples, nos contam histórias cheias de valor, vindas de um tempo em extinção.

Retornar a Cordisburgo e rever o Museu Casa de Guimarães Rosa, conhecer o Memorial Manuelzão, em Andrequicé, descobrir o Memorial Carlos Chagas, em Lassance, me proporcionaram experiências memoráveis. Revi grutas e os tantos rios que demarcam o “sertão roseano”. Nadei em vários deles.

É uma viagem que vale a pena. “Aprender a viver é que é o viver mesmo”, ensinou Rosa.

Anthropology’s Storyteller-Shaman-Sorcerer Strikes Again With ‘The Corn Wolf’ (Pop Matters)


27 January 2016



DEC 2015

“So who is telling stories nowadays? And who is telling the story about stories?”

Michael Taussig was once dubbed “anthropology’s alternative radical” (by the New York Times, no less). It’s tempting to call him iconoclastic, but his latest collection, The Corn Wolf, problematizes the term ‘iconoclasm’ (it even features an ‘Iconoclasm Dictionary’) so thoroughly that a writer would deploy it at his peril.

Nevertheless, the dilemma sets the mood: Taussig’s work remains as genre-bending today as when he published the book that first raised eyebrows—and ire, among many colleagues in the field—back in 1987.

That book, Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man(University of Chicago Press, 1991), launched a multi-pronged attack on some of the discipline’s most sacred conventions, and remains a controversial (and widely used) text in graduate and upper-level undergraduate anthropology courses today. While undergrads found Taussig’s unapologetic accounts of partaking in drug binges with Amazonian shamans titillating, it was the reflexive critique of anthropologists’ obsession with violence and terror, coupled with the experimental and often poetic style of composition, that put other scholars on edge.

Over a quarter century later, his ability to confound cultural critics and confront convention hasn’t waned. His latest collection of essays written over the past decade, The Corn Wolf, squarely tackles many of the key controversies of our time—the academic industrial complex, Occupy Wall Street, the intensification and precarity of neoliberal capitalist culture, the plight of Occupied Palestine, and more—in Taussig’s characteristically poetic, storyteller style.

Finding Magic in the Corporate Academy

Taussig’s work is the sort of bewilderingly beautiful prose (one is often tempted to call it poetry) that’s able to operate on multiple intellectual levels. The first essay in the collection, “The Corn Wolf: Writing Apotropaic Texts”, immerses the reader fully and mercilessly in the style. It opens with a poor graduate student realizing that writing up their fieldwork is the most difficult and important task of graduate school, and also the one thing graduate school teaches you nothing about. Fieldwork and writing; “they are both rich, ripe, secret-society-type shenanigans. Could it be that both are based on impossible-to-define talents, intuitions, tricks, and fears?”

No wonder many careerist academics dislike him.

Of course the essay isn’t so much about graduate writing as about his own writing, and about the act of writing—the magical act of writing—itself.

For example, Taussig considers anthropology’s treatment of magic and shamanic sorcery: “Pulling the wool over one’s eyes is a simpler way of putting it… What we have generally done in anthropology is really pretty amazing in this regard, piggybacking on their magic and on their conjuring—their tricks—so as to come up with explanations that seem nonmagical and free of trickery.”

This seemingly nonmagical academic form of writing—or mode of production, as he calls it—is what he refers to as ‘agribusiness writing’: “Agribusiness writing is what we find throughout the university and everyone knows it when they don’t see it.” Against it he pitches the idea of ‘apotropaic writing’, a magic that connives with the prosaic to produce a counter-magic of its own.

When anthropologists demystify shamanic sorcery, for instance, the ‘wolfing’ moves of apotropaic magic would reveal the sorcery implicit in the act of the ‘scientific’ anthropologist’s recasting of shamanism. Indeed, the fact that the wonder and magic of the everyday world has been demystified by science is a sort of magical transformation itself. Is this how we re-enchant the world? By the use of story-telling and writing to re-position what seems like the boring, unmagical workaday world of everyday capitalist drudgery and expose it as the magical sleight-of-hand and tricksterism that it is? “I have long felt that agribusiness writing is more magical than magic ever could be and that what is required is to counter the purported realism of agribusiness writing with apotropaic writing as countermagic, apotropaic from the ancient Greek meaning the use of magic to protect one from harmful magic.”

The point emerges again, perhaps unintentionally, in Taussig’s essay “The Stories Things Tell and Why They Tell Them”, as he discusses our collective yearning for “the old days”.

“‘The old days’ is actually a talismanic phrase and phase that ushers in prehistory and hence the enchanted world when things spoke to man… it goes along with what is felt to be a certain lack or loss of poetry—of poetry and ritual—in workaday life. But, you ask, has that really disappeared? Does enchantment not resurface under certain conditions, maybe extreme conditions, as in our contemporary world of machines, corporate control, and heady consumerism?”

Our world seems devoid of magic, comprised of boring realities that brook no alternatives: from the academic industrial complex to neoliberal capitalism. The hegemonic mode of thinking which makes us think that way, is perhaps the most magical and insidious form of sorcery there is.

Winnie-the-Pooh, and Wittgenstein, Too

The essays cover a broad range. Taussig discusses the literary work of B. Traven, that enigmatic, socio-political novelist who wrote under a pseudonym in early 20th century Mexico but is believed to have been an exiled German anarchist. Walter Benjamin appears repeatedly; Adorno and Wittgenstein, too. But to follow the startling trajectory of Taussig’s thought requires more than intellectual reference points: he weaves a sort of magic in his storytelling designed to disrupt the reader’s familiar mode of analysis; that agribusiness reading and writing model that underpins not just the academy but so much of our society’s accepted ways of configuring knowledge. A shaman-scholar, indeed. It’s Taussig’s particular talent: not just anyone can develop an essay drawing together bumblebees, the dialectics of humming, Theodor Adorno and Winnie-the-Pooh. Or produce serious, thought-provoking reflections on what a zebra in a zoo must think of a man riding by on a bicycle.

The value of Taussig’s work is that it can often be read on multiple levels; as enriching to return to as when it provokes for the first time, although the experience and what one gains from it is often quite different each time. The essay “Excelente Zona Social”, originally written to commemorate the anniversary of an anthropological classic, meanders through a set of reflections on the nature of ethnographic fieldwork, set against the backdrop of Taussig’s own time spent with peasants battling the Colombian state for control of occupied land. The peasants and their legal advisors compete with the state and the owners of capital (the palmeros, or palm plantation owners) to produce maps of the territory in dispute: on the state’s side, maps demonstrating ownership and property rights; on the peasants’ side, maps demonstrating usage and community history.

What emerges is a struggle over contesting frames of reference, and even over the language used to articulate the politics of presence. The state and palmeros speak in a legal, bureaucratic language; the peasants in a language of anecdotes and shared stories. Their legal advisor puts it bluntly: “’We have to create a new language,’ says Juan Felipe. ‘The palmeros have theirs, and we need to show the world an alternate model.’” The dispute echoes a broader one that is emerging in indigenous studies today, between competing histories of culture and the ways we recognize knowledge. In recent years, this trend has involved challenging the ways in which oral histories are traditionally devalued in western legal and intellectual culture.

Food for thought. But Taussig—like his spirit-guide, Walter Benjamin—takes it a step further and implicates the reader in this process, as well: “the origin of storytelling lies in the encounter between the traveler and those who stay at home,” he reminds us. The reader is not an innocent bystander; a point to which Taussig returns in subsequent essays.

The Politics of Field Notes

Another recurring theme in The Corn Wolf appears in the form of valuable reflections on the nature of the field journal, used by anthropologists to collect notes—sketches, snatches of conversation, reflections, vague impressions—and which is then typically translated into more standard form for reader consumption: books or journal articles. But in this process of translation it loses much of its magic, and that includes the capacity of the field journal to convey actual experience. When an anthropologist ‘writes up’ their fieldnotes, muses Taussig, after-thoughts kick in and infuse and suffuse the process. “By afterthoughts I mean secondary elaborations that arise on top of the original notes, photographs, and drawings. Through stops, starts, sudden swerves, the original is pulled into a wider and wilder landscape. To reread and to rewrite is to tug at the memories buried therein as well as engage with the gaps, questions, connections, conundrums, and big ideas that lie latent and in turn generate more of the same.”

The point of this reflection, Taussig continues, is to challenge the conventional trajectory of field-notes-to-publication. “I feel impelled to ask, therefore, if anthropology has sold itself short in conforming to the idea that its main vehicle of expression is an academic book or journal article? This is not a plea for exact reproduction of the fieldwork notebook but rather a plea for following its furtive forms and mix of private and public…”

There’s a revealing clue here to the circuitous and unorthodox nature of Taussig’s own writing style. It’s a form of “magical anthropology”, for lack of a better term. Critics speak of magical realism in fiction and literature as involving the use of magical elements to achieve a deeper insight into reality (well-known examples include the work of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende).  Adam Hothschild, writing in the New York Review of Books, famously referred to the reportage of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski as comprising a form of “magical journalism”. Such labels describe the use of writing not to convey facts but to communicate experience, by provoking ideas and states of mind that more accurately reflect the perceived reality of a situation, even if the process of doing so requires the storyteller (be they author, journalist or anthropologist) to sometimes run rough-shod over the facts as they might be conventionally presented.

This is also a form of what is referred to as ‘fictocriticism’—the combination of fictive and non-fictive elements in a single text. Its application has particular merit in anthropology. What many of us consider reality—“the facts”, or those details which are intended to convey and communicate reality—can sometimes themselves prove to be a barrier to comprehending reality as it is experienced by another. Facts are consumed and ordered by the reader within their own frame of reference, neatly reinforcing the reader’s pre-existing sense of reality; the experience of the Other those facts are intended to relay remains uncommunicated.

However,  by playing with the presentation of those facts, some storytellers (journalists, social scientists) might manage to more accurately share the insights and experience of the Other, by provoking a deeper, experiential resonance in the reader. Or so a magical anthropology, like magical journalism or magical storytelling of any genre, might suggest.

At any rate, the fact is there’s another thread here worth following: the power of storytelling and the role of the reader, as Taussig explains best in his travelogue-essay,  “My Two Weeks in Palestine”. A recurring theme in Taussig’s work is humanity’s fascination with violence and terror. Anthropologists (and other academics) are often criticized for their fly-in, fly-out method of witnessing violence, and of the careers built on our society’s fascination with violence. Like politicians, diplomats, journalists, humanitarians, and others, they are often criticized for writing about violence and terror without (seemingly) actually being able to do anything to stop it or cause it to abate. The academic, therefore, becomes implicated in the culture of violence, helping to stoke humanity’s fascination with the abominable. Yet the complicity of the academic, the anthropologist, is as nothing compared with the complicity of the reader, suggests Taussig.

This alone makes such storytelling and retelling a treacherous activity. Joseph Conrad called it ‘the fascination of the abomination,’ an accurate if ponderous rendering of the stock in trade of war journalists and war photographers, especially the latter, wild men and wild women to the core, too much in love with their work which soon settles into banality. But that is as nothing compared with the conceit of the reader of their work, secure at one remove from the action, yet no less likely to be buoyed up by the tempestuous currents of attraction and repulsion inflaming it before succumbing to indifference or turning the page or clicking the mouse.

In the face of this, what is to be done? Taussig suggests the act of witnessing is important, but it must lead to something more than mere consumption on the part of the reader. Thus the imperative for the writer, the storyteller, to find a way to write their stories (or articles, or books) in such a way as to provoke a more reactive reading that transcends mere passive consumption. Here the unorthodox anthropologist, open to the creative and experimental potential of the field journal medium or other types of experimental writing, might stumble upon ways of provoking such responses.

(I)t is my hope that the flexibility and “multi-tasking” to be found in the fieldworker’s diary can reconfigure this otherwise paralyzing ‘fascination of the abomination.’ Like the magical shield of Perseus, a diary allows of witness without being turned to stone. Like Walter Benjamin’s Denkbilden or ‘thought-images,’ the diary form facilitates grasping those images that flare up at a moment of danger when the potential for innervating the body is at its highest.

In Palestine he is struck by the way people tell him their stories: horrifying, terrible stories, but told thoughtfully and even with humour. “[T]he point was that people were capable, precisely because of their circumstance, of combining the unthinkable with the sayable—that was the miracle—and hence pass the baton of witnessing along to me, to pass on to you in the hope, vain as it may be, that witnessing becomes something more than consumption. Like travel and anthropology, reading has not only its passions but responsibilities, too.”

Occupying Anthropology

Taussig’s storytelling, in this collection, include an arc of stories on the pace of modern life: the speed-up of global capitalism, the precarious and destroyed lives it leaves in its ever-present wake, and the protest it sparks as workers and intellectuals and all those left in the margins (which is to say, the majority) struggle to pull the emergency brakes on a society speeding out of control. In “I’m So Angry I Made a Sign”, those brakes take the form of the Occupy Wall Street protests, which Taussig witnessed first-hand, and reflects upon in a thoughtful photo-essay.

Even more powerful is the essay that follows: “The Go Slow Party”, a moving cry for resistance against the great speed-up that plagues modern society (including academia). Taussig realizes that “the only time I really go slow is in the shower and having a shit. Both are fine examples of what Hakim Bey called ‘the temporary autonomous zone.’ Both free the mind and stimulate creative thinking…” He proceeds to reflect on the right to be lazy and the need to decolonize play and leisure. His own intervention—fighting for the right to install hammocks in his university department—was denied in favour of his colleagues’ more abstract approaches to the issue, but his reflections on the topic offer a powerful provocation.

In the final essay, “Don Miguel”, he offers some parting advice for anthropologists on the nature of fieldwork.

You learn after a long, long time, that the famous ‘method’ of participant-observation tends to be weighted toward the observation end of things and, what’s more, tends not, according to the profession, to allow much by way of self-observation. What you learn is that because of class and race barriers, what I would call ‘true’ participation is rare and unforgettable, but that the ‘stranger-effect,’ being a foreigner, makes this a lot easier. Some anthropologists, perhaps the great majority, make these barriers into a virtue, claiming that such participation is irrelevant and romantic, that we should study not ourselves, not psychology, not the anthropologist-native interaction, but something as vast and nebulous as ‘culture.’

Not so, asserts Taussig, and he offers a lifetime of examples to the contrary. The particular story he tells in the final essay is an amusing and engaging one: as a student, he made the poor decision to follow the advice of more senior academics and, against his own instincts, reach out to those at the top of the social hierarchy in the region of Colombia in which he was working, instead of simply ignoring them and focusing on the peasants he felt more comfortable with. The result was his being targeted by the local secret police (who had previously ignored him), setting off a frenzied dash around the country to convince the necessary authorities that he and his colleague were, after all, harmless researchers. His point, however, was that his own memory of this incident and the insights it opened up became a unique and different form of participant-observation, because “we had become objects in our own story”.

The Corn Wolf essays are prime Taussig: assuming a form that is both whimsical and yet deadly provocative at the same time. Michael Taussig: anthropology’s trickster magician, poet and storyteller, casts his spell again.

Hans Rollmann is a writer and editor based in Eastern Canada. He’s a columnist, writer and opinions editor with the online news magazine His work has appeared in a range of other publications both print and online, from Briarpatch Magazine to Feral Feminisms. In addition to a background in radio-broadcasting, union organizing and archaeology, he’s currently completing a PhD in Gender, Feminist & Women’s Studies in Toronto. He can be reached by email at or @hansnf on Twitter.

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.

Enough about Ethnography: An Interview with Tim Infold (Cultural Anthropology)

April 5, 2016

by Susan MacDougall

The Summer 2014 issue of HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory included the article “That’s Enough about Ethnography!”, by Tim Ingold, who is Chair in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Susan MacDougall conducted with Ingold about the article and reactions to it.

Susan MacDougall: In your HAU article, you identify the need for anthropology to “heal the rupture between imagination and everyday life.” When you talk about this rupture, you link it to a divorce of fact from theory. Can you expand on this notion and why it is important for the future of anthropology? 

Timothy Ingold: The problem here lies in the degree to which anthropology, as an academic discipline, remains compliant with the protocols of normal science. These protocols enforce a division between the real world, from which we are expected to gather “data,” and the world of theory, in which these data are to be interpreted and fashioned into authorized knowledge. This division is only reinforced by continual appeals to the idea of anthropological knowledge production. It is as though we go to the world for our material, but then turn our backs on it in working this material into the finely crafted, peer-reviewed artifacts that we recognize as books and articles. To my mind, this procedure fatally compromises the core mission of anthropology, which is to demonstrate—by precept and example—how to do our thinking in and with the world we inhabit: in response to its summons, rather than after the fact. This means giving due recognition to what we know full well from our inquiries, namely that what is given to us is not just there for the taking as data for collection, but is an offering, the acceptance of which carries a responsibility of care. Anthropology shows that curiosity and care, pried apart in mainstream science policy by a spurious and ethically indefensible division between research and impact, are inseparable aspects of our relations with those to whom we owe our education in the ways of the world.

SM: Timothy Jenkins (1994) referred to fieldwork as a series of apprenticeships, and pointed out that learning how to get along in the field involves quite a bit of un-learning one’s own assumptions. You also mention Kenelm Burridge’s metanoia: an ongoing series of transformations that alter the predicates of being. These are possible results of encounters, ethnographic or otherwise, and if those results lead to fruitful analysis, all the better. If this is such a commonplace thing to do, though, how can the aspiring anthropologist prepare to do it and do it well?

TI: Certainly, there is an element of unlearning in all fieldwork. What would be the point of it otherwise? Such unlearning, moreover, can be unsettling and does involve an element of existential risk. My point, however, is that unlearning is intrinsic to education, understood in its original sense as a leading out into the world that frees us from the limitations of standpoints or perspectives and causes us continually to question what previously we would have taken for granted. This is what we expect from our students in the classroom, as much as what we expect from ourselves in the field.

Two things follow from this. First, although only a tiny proportion of the students we teach—at least at introductory levels—will go on to become practicing anthropologists, our task is nevertheless to foster an anthropological attitude that all of them may take into whatever walks of life they subsequently follow. Preparation for anthropology is preparation for life, and it lies in the cultivation of a readiness to both listen to others and question ourselves. Second, whether this preparation and the results that flow therefrom yield to “fruitful analysis,” as you put it, depends on what we mean by analysis. If we mean the processing and interpretation of empirical data in the normal scientific sense, then the answer is no. But if analysis means a critical interrogation that opens simultaneously to the self and to the world, then the answer is a definite yes!

SM: Conversely, is it possible to do the encounter badly or incorrectly? Or do weaknesses and mistakes emerge later, in the note-taking and what follows? If anthropologists would like to maintain some claim to ethnography or to participant-observation, then is there a need to distinguish between the high- and low-quality conduct of both?

TI: The opposite of opening is, of course, closure. That is when we refuse to attend to the presence of others or to what they have to offer. I suppose a “bad” encounter would be one in which we see but do not observe, hear but do not listen, touch but do not feel. In such an encounter, we would pick up signals as data, but remain impervious to them. Our curiosity would be divorced from care. This, of course, is what is generally recommended by science in the name of objectivity. But as I have stressed, objectivity is one thing, observation quite another. Observers are bound to make mistakes, and our field notes are doubtless full of them. We can misunderstand what people say, jump to the wrong conclusions, or confuse one thing for another. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that: as in any situation of apprenticeship, we learn from our mistakes. But no amount of correction can make up for a failure to attend. Even if, objectively speaking, there were to be not a single error in our data, we could still fail to draw any lessons from them. We learn much from mistakes of observation grounded in attention, and nothing whatsoever from an objectively “correct” record that is nevertheless grounded in inattention.

SM: You point out in the article that anthropologists’ obsession with ethnography has a navel-gazing quality, turning “the project of anthropology into the study of its own ways of working.” Certainly anthropologists can be sentimental about their fieldwork experience and consider it formative for their characters as well as their scholarship. But, as you point out, this willingness to be changed by the fieldwork experience is what makes it an education as opposed to straightforward data collection. Do you see a way for this admission—that is, that participant observation can be personally transformative—to enhance anthropology’s impact in the world, rather than undermining it? 

TI: This is precisely why anthropology can potentially make such a difference in the world. But we should not have grudgingly to “admit” that fieldwork can personally transform the observer, as though we were offering an apology for anthropology’s inability to come up with accounts that more positivist disciplines would regard (in their terms) as suitably robust or evidence-based. Nor should our addiction to fieldwork be used to justify disciplinary introversion, affording an excuse to retreat into our own shells and to talk only to ourselves about the conditions and possibilities of anthropological knowledge production. On the contrary, we should be leading a campaign against the very idea that the world presents itself to human science as a standing reserve of data for collection. And to do this, we must stop pretending to believe in this idea ourselves.

For this reason I insist that participant-observation is not a research method but, more fundamentally, an ontological commitment: an acknowledgement of our debt to the world for what we are and what we know. This is a commitment, I believe, that should underwrite not just anthropology but every branch of scientific inquiry. Whatever our field of specialization, we should have the humility to recognize that understanding can only grow from within the world we seek to know, the world of which we are a part. This recognition, however, strikes at the core of the constitution of the academy. It is why anthropology’s campaign must also be a campaign for the heart and soul of the academy. The stakes could scarcely be higher.

SM: In a related vein, I’d like to bring up Amy Pollard’s (2009) piece “Field of Screams,” which took anthropology to task for sending vulnerable students off into the field to meet with traumatic and isolating experiences. It seems that a direct, convincing definition of ethnography will remain elusive if postfield graduate students are afraid to talk about what they actually did in the field. Do you see a way for anthropology to address the sometimes painful realities of fieldwork, without undue reliance on procedures that look like they were written by university risk management offices and not anthropologists? 

TI: Traumatic and isolating experiences are not exclusive to anthropological fieldwork. They are a part of life. In life in general, as in fieldwork in particular, painful realities are always hard to talk about. The absurdity of bureaucratic risk management, on which so many of our universities nowadays insist, is that they fail to understand this. Were we to follow their logic to the letter, then we would have a society in which no baby could be born without a divinely ordained risk management schedule that would anticipate every contingency of its future life. That institutions should have usurped such godlike powers for themselves—in the interests, it must be said, not of protecting their researchers but of protecting themselves against litigation should things go wrong—is an indication of the corporate dishonesty that now pervades the higher education sector. Anthropology should not participate in this dishonesty. I do not think, however, that this issue of risk management has any immediate bearing on the definition of ethnography, unless of course we were to include within our catalog of risks the isolations and traumas of writing up. As I have endeavored to show, ethnography and participant-observation are not the same, and their common identification has brought nothing but confusion.

SM: One of the reasons I was interested in discussing this article with you is that it clearly sparked a conversation. Rarely do journal articles show up in my Twitter feed or inspire threads on the Open Anthropology Cooperative, and this one certainly did. Have you had any particularly thought-provoking responses to this article? Have any of them prompted you to reevaluate your views?

TI: There is no doubt that my article touched a raw nerve in the discipline. It seems to have brought into the open a number of issues that have long been simmering beneath the surface, and that many would have preferred to have kept there. The responses I have received are roughly of two kinds. The first are supportive. They come principally from younger scholars who thank me for stating explicitly what they have long felt, but have been afraid to express for fear of rocking the boat. The second come from critics who accuse me of tilting against windmills. They complain that, in distinguishing ethnography from anthropology, I have resorted to a narrow, old-fashioned, and overly literal characterization of ethnography that bears little resemblance to what most scholars who would call themselves ethnographers actually do nowadays. Looking at the content of most mainstream anthropological journals, I am a little skeptical of this complaint.

Be that as it may, my response is that even if so-called ethnographers are already doing everything that I am calling for under the banner of anthropology, ethnography is nevertheless a singularly inappropriate term by which to describe it. Maybe among ourselves, with our common experience of having undertaken fieldwork of one kind or another, we can share an in-house understanding of what ethnography means without having to spell it out too precisely. This understanding, however, does not extend to realms beyond the bounds of the discipline, where fundamental misapprehensions remain about what anthropologists do and why it is important. Overuse of the term ethnography, I believe, only feeds these misapprehensions and makes it more difficult, not less, to explain what we do and what its value might be to others: whether they are students, academics in other disciplines, or the public at large. Anthropology is a noble calling and not one to be ashamed of. Why should we hide it under another term, ethnography, as if pretending to do something completely different?


Jenkins, Timothy. 1994. “Fieldwork and the Perception of Everyday Life.” Man 29, no. 2: 433–55.

Pollard, Amy. 2009. “Field of Screams: Difficulty and Ethnographic Fieldwork.” Anthropology Matters 11, no. 2.

Playing Along: Fieldwork, Emotional Labor and Self-Care (The Geek Anthropologist)

July 24, 2015

By Emma Louise Backe

For any practicing or aspiring anthropologist, fieldwork is the defining, almost qualifying practice of the discipline. As an undergraduate studying sociocultural anthropology, we read the seminal journals of Bronislaw Malinowski, followed by foundational ethnographic research from around the world. Even though the field has ostensibly moved beyond the “exotic”—no longer wholly consumed with discovering new indigenous communities or uncovering a culture untouched by capitalism and globalization—students are still encouraged to conduct their fieldwork in remote, isolated, and, yes, tacitly exotic locations. As my professor lectured during my Anthropology Senior Seminar at Vassar College, you have to conduct your first fieldwork abroad if you want to be taken seriously as an anthropologist. The implication was that if you don’t go somewhere distant and strange, you won’t experience the same level of cultural difference, linguistic estrangement, physical hardship, and existential negotiation that molds the student into a consummate ethnographer. Fieldwork, rather than being a praxis for cultural research, has rather become the test for one’s anthropological training and credentials. Yet, throughout my undergraduate degree, we never discussed the emotional or physical challenges of fieldwork—it was always framed as this transformative, clarifying experience during which the theory we worked so assiduously to grasp could finally be applied. It was understood that everyanthropologist inherently falls in love with their site, integrates into their chosen community, and concludes their fieldwork with a sense of kinship and satisfaction at the rich ethnographic data and knowledge they have been able to accumulate. This silence surrounding the very real personal challenges of fieldwork can, however, be detrimental to a student’s first foray into fieldwork.

After graduating from college, I almost immediately joined the Peace Corps as a community health volunteer in Fiji. I felt certain that my anthropological training had adequately prepared me for my service in the South Pacific, where I was expected to learn the language, integrate into the community, and develop programs based off of local needs-assessments and desire. After spending my Pre-Service Training at a home stay in a remote, mountainous fishing village, I moved to my site in an equally remote town on the Eastern Coast of Viti Levu, one of the bigger islands the country consists of. Throughout my service, in an attempt to adapt to the culture and be accepted into my community, I found myself emptying out my identity to make space for a new “Fijian” version of myself. I struggled with how to translate my personality into my adopted social space, while simultaneously struggling with health issues from the moment of my arrival. Because of my anthropological training, and the ideologies that undergird Peace Corps, I took responsibility for any programmatic failures or difficulties I had connecting with my local partners. If I wasn’t able to befriend a neighbor, I felt that it was my fault—I wasn’t being sensitive or reflexive or open enough, there must be a flaw in my personality. I didn’t feel comfortable reaching out to members of the Peace Corps staff, for fear that my struggles would reflect poorly on me as a volunteer. Similarly, I was anxious to contact my anthropological mentors, afraid that my seeming challenges to connect with my Fijian counterparts meant that despite all my education and devotion to the discipline, I was not personally adept at cultural integration. This concern was perhaps the most devastating and depressing aspect of my service.

Conducting a health screening at a local secondary school

These anxieties, frustrations and feelings of guilt are ones that anthropologists share. As Amy Pollard has written for Anthropology Matters, many of the anthropology students she interviewed about field work experienced feelings of loneliness and isolation, stress, stress, regret, feelings of powerlessness or captivity to your site, disappointment, fear, frustration, guilt, depression coupled with self-hate for feeling depressed during fieldwork, and embarrassment at perceptions of poor success or lack of productivity. Despite these struggles, “Some students reported feeling they should not talk about how difficult they had found fieldwork because other people would perceive them as weak” (Pollard 2009). This feeling of weakness stems from the misapprehension that anthropological training inures you to feelings of culture shock or the other mental health crises others might experience during prolonged periods of time in new cultural habitats. Indeed, as Rachel Irwin writes,

For multiple reasons, researchers admitting to fear or depression during fieldwork may be ridiculed or dismissed as ‘cowardly anthropologists’. I was once strongly encouraged to conduct fieldwork in a remote village rather than a larger town, so that I could be a ‘courageous anthropologist’. Chiefly, I would argue that this is closely linked to a sense of academic bravado and competitive virility. I was given the idea that there is something inherent about studying anthropology that protects one against ‘culture shock,’ and that anthropologists are naturally better at negotiating unfamiliar situations than other sojourners. As such, anthropologists can feel a certain ‘culture shock’ within their own academic community, because their experiences of culture shock ‘in the field remain unacknowledged, and they are feeling something that they believe they ought not feel. (2007)

When anthropologists actively avoid discussing the feelings of anxiety, depression and desperation associated with their fieldwork, they do a disservice to the next generation of aspiring anthropologists. Even though ethnography relies upon qualitative research methods, anthropologists inevitably enter their field site with certain expectations about the questions they want answered, the traditions they intend to explore, the in-depth interviews they hope to conduct. If, for any number of mitigating and complicating reasons and factors, you aren’t able to accomplish these goals, it precipitates yet another watershed of shame and regret that you simply weren’t good enough. Because anthropologists are participant observers, their bodies and identities are essentially the very tools of their practice. Therefore, personality clashes or the development of stress or fear under certain situations place the onus of culpability on the researcher. As an anthropologist, a “failure of fieldwork” is essentially conflated with a failure of yourself. In so doing, “A large number of students felt profound shame over their sense of failure in the field […] For some, going home early was a source of great shame” (Pollard 2009). When I left my Peace Corps service early, after months of illness and the impending signs of depression, it felt like I was abandoning the aspirations I had to become an anthropologist, despite the fact that the majority of my fellow volunteers were struggling with similar programmatic and personal issues. After spending so many years planning my trajectory toward becoming an anthropologist, this belief that my emotional struggles somehow disqualified me as an anthropologist only further tangled the crisis of identity I had undergone during my service. And I didn’t know how to talk about it because I felt completely alone.

Upon returning to the United States, I was covered in scars from persistent skin infections and stress hives, my hair had fallen out, and my mood was ragged. I experienced many of the symptoms of depression, including sleeplessness and moodiness; sometimes interactions or objects would trigger uncontrollable feelings of sadness or anger. I had difficulty being around people and I walked everywhere draped in a cloak of self-loathing. For my friends and family members who haven’t traveled widely or spent long periods abroad, they couldn’t understand why I believed that my difficulties in Fiji were solely my fault. When I sought out therapists to talk through my lingering misgivings, they praised me for my strength and courage, when what I wanted was not to be coddled, but to understand why I hadn’t “worked” in my community, when it felt like I had spent all my energy trying to integrate. Many friends and acquaintances also did not want to hear that I hadn’t had a positive experience—in their minds, Fiji was nothing more than a tropical paradise and it seemed feckless to explain my humanitarian, existential misgivings about it. This was not reverse culture shock per se, yet I was at a loss about how to recuperate and heal, mentally as well as physically, let alone negotiate my anthropological path moving forward. I was simply afraid that I wasn’t cut out to do fieldwork.

During this period of uncertainty, I turned to video games. In the past, I’ve also used video games as a coping mechanism. After suffering from a traumatic brain injury my freshman year, I suffered from sometimes crippling dissociation and self-doubt about my cognitive abilities. My neurologist was unhelpful, and the only option I was offered to heal was to sit and wait for my brain to stop bleeding. Brain injuries are unique in that they often invoke crises of identity. With so much forthcoming research on the connection between the frontal lobe and personality, I experienced an acute crisis of self after my brain contusion. Offered with no other recourse or resilience methods, video games helped coax me back to a space of equilibrium. In both cases, playing video games provided a viable alternative to being social. If I felt disconnected from the world around me, or anxious about having to explain why I had come home early, I could retreat to RPG’s. Video games can put you in touch with a wide online community, thereby facilitating social contact for those who might otherwise feel stress or anxiety at the prospect of socializing with strangers. For me, I felt powerless to help myself—video games were an active way to use my time and process my emotions. Rather than passively consuming other forms of media, such as movies or television shows, video games provide you with tangible goals, objectives that, when achieved, provide players with a sense of success and achievement. As Romeo Vitelli wrote for Psychology Today, “By setting specific tasks and allowing young people to work through obstacles to achieve those tasks, video games can help boost self-esteem and help children learn the value of persistence. By providing immediate feedback as video game players solve problems and achieve greater expertise, players can learn to see themselves as having skills and intelligence they might not otherwise realize they possess” (2014). During a period of such acute self-doubt, it was extremely satisfying to be posed with challenges and obstacles that at first seemed insurmountable, but that could be accomplished through patience, creativity and skill-building.

Video games became a refuge for my cultural concerns as well. Games like BioShock: Infinite (2013) and Dishonored (2012) were dystopian alternatives to human history, new life worlds I could explore and inhabit through a sense of play and constant discovery. I was particularly drawn to games with robust storytelling mechanics, where the developers and programmers had clearly invested a lot of time and attention to the minutia of the world, encouraging players to interact with minor characters, read books and notes scattered around the stages, and learn about the internal mythologies, politics and social dynamics that informed the action of the game. I no longer felt powerless, but had a degree of agency to determine the kind of player I wanted to be. In Dishonored, like other games such as Infamous (2009), your actions as a player determine the internal stability of the virtual play space. Even though I had spent months working on community health empowerment, with few visible signs that my efforts were making any difference, I could immediately see how acts of benevolence positively impacted the city of Dunwall. In recent games, many of the avatars that players inhabit are also saddled with their own traumatic experiences which are explored throughout the game. Booker DeWitt of Bioshock: Infinite has a dark past, and other characters, like Bruce Wayne’s Batman throughout Arkham Asylum, City and Origins, are constantly battling their own demons, whether invented or embodied as supervillains. To a certain extent, I was able to project my internal monsters onto the villains in the games, channeling my anger and frustration in a way that felt both productive and cathartic. I could go to bed at night feeling as though I had accomplished something, and had something in the morning I could look forward to. In the absence of other motivations, and paralyzed by fear about the future, this sense of purpose saved me.

There's always a lighthouse, BioShock: Infinite,

New literature has begun to indicate the salutary psychological effects of video games. Studiessuggest that video games may have beneficial effects on cognition, motivation, emotion and sociality; some psychologists have even begun to recommend video games as a form of therapyfor patients with mental health issues, including depression. Contemporaneously, programmers and developers are working on video games as tools to cope with mental health issues. Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest (made famous due to its involvement in the #Gamergate controversy) was created to explore what life was like living with depression; other forms of e-literature build interactive stories around the expression of grief and mourning. Whereas several years ago, critics and concerned parents worried that video games like Grand Theft Auto were producing violent, unempathetic adolescents, practitioners are beginning to understand that the process of play may actually serve a positive psychological function. On a related note, The Mary Sue recently published “Coping With Anxiety and Depression Through Fiction” (2015), a poignant piece outlining the ways in which Guardians of the Galaxy’s character development and musical composition helped the writer overcome anxiety attacks and obtain a sense of emotional stability. Marie-Pierre wrote about rewatching episodes of Star Trek to maintain her equilibrium during fieldwork and Peter Olthoff remarked on the therapeutic efficacy of geek culture. Whether it’s a space opera, a society ravaged by an infection of zombies, or a fantastical universe populated by dragons, elves and other mythological beings, video games help transport you to another world, not necessarily as a form of escapism, but rather as a creative space to process your own lived reality.

As it turned out, the rediscovery of video games upon my return led me back to anthropology. I read about ground-breaking games like The Last of Us (2013) and its place within the larger resurgence in zombie-lore. Through my research, I discovered the work of Louise Krasniewicz, a UPenn Anthropology professor who built a class around The Walking Dead. I was lucky enough to sit down for coffee with Dr. Krasniewicz to discuss her approach to geek anthropology, but after running through our recent favorite shows and theories about monstrosity, we inevitably turned to the topic of fieldwork. Emboldened by our conversation, I opened up to her about my experience in Fiji, my doubts as an anthropologist, and my misgivings about the negative consequences of prolonged sojourns in new cultural territory. Expecting reproach or judgement, my story was instead met by a laugh from her. “Welcome to your first time doing fieldwork! It’s horrible for everyone!” she replied. She then went on to recount her own experience conducting fieldwork in upstate New York—hardly the “exotic” destination one would expect for an Ivy League professor—and how difficult the process was emotionally. Even within her native country, where she spoke the language and shared similar cultural assumptions, she struggled to find a community and sense of connection with her interlocutors. Yet, despite her ethnographic challenges, she went on to become a successful anthropology professor. She did not interpret the issues with immersion as her failure as a practitioner, as I had during my experience in Fiji. While many anthropologists have written about the role of emotion during ethnography, such as James Davies and Dimitrina Spencer’s book Emotions in the Field: The Psychology and Anthropology of Fieldwork Experience (2010), and phenomenological anthropologists encourage attention to the ways we physically and emotionally react to our surroundings, I don’t believe that there has been enough discussion about the emotional labor of fieldwork, both to prepare students and acknowledge that the anthropologist is not wholly culpable for “failure” in the field.

In professional fields that deal with emotionally draining issues, such as gender-based violence, there is a heavy emphasis on self-care for activists. An advocate may experience vicarious trauma if they work with survivors of sexual violence day after day, sometimes leading to emotional fatigue and burn-out. For humanitarian researchers conducting interviews with refugees, internally displaced populations, or war-torn communities still reeling from horrific acts of violence, program managers ensure that the interviewers have sufficient support and counselling mechanisms to decompress and work through the emotional labor of their work. The same practices can and should be applied to anthropology. Indeed, as Amy Pollard points out, “Students reported finding it difficult to let go of the traumas of fieldwork, because the writing-up process meant they were continually having to relive them” (2009); their recuperation process may be only further stymied by the culture of silence that pervades discussions about what occurs in the field. Students of anthropology recognize and perhaps relish in the hardships they will encounter during ethnographic research, but if they are given no inkling of the possibility that they won’t always jive with their chosen community or culture, they will have no coping mechanisms or strategies for resilience. Larissa Begley writes of her experience in Rwanda, “As anthropologists, we are part of the narrative we create. Our fieldwork does not exist detached from our own emotions and our lives. We impact on those we study and they impact on us. It is because of this dialectical relationship we have with the ‘field’ that we must recognize the impact that fieldwork can have emotionally, psychologically and physically on us” (2009). Just because we are academically prepared to live in a different culture, doesn’t mean we have the emotional methodologies to succeed.

How do you translate your personality into a new cultural space while also being sensitive and flexible? Rachel Irwin writes that, “Depression, in the form of culture shock, occurs when the firm grounding in one’s own symbolic world is lost” (2007)—this symbolic world and one’s own identity is thrown into flux when you enter and attempt to become a part of a new cultural space. There are bound to be growing pains and types of people you don’t always get along with. I realize now that I didn’t have to suppress my identity in the process of incorporating into Fijian culture. I wish I had read Jessika Tremblay’s post on “10 Tips For Surviving Anthropological Fieldwork” before my service, especially her recommendations on not taking things so personally and “harnessing the power of your introversion” (2014). I know that there were nights in Fiji I retreated to my house to decompress and write, but felt guilty if I was skipping one of the nightly kava sessions held on my compound. If anthropology is to continue to grow as a discipline, we need to ensure that students are prepared for fieldwork, equipped to be both emotionally vulnerable while mentally sustainable. A vital part of self-care is an institutional support system, one that the anthropological community can strive to cultivate. If we are concerned with cross-cultural psychiatry, we should be equally in tune with the mental health of our comrades. You can never predict how fieldwork will change you, and it’s important to maintain a disposition of self-reflexivity, yet the process of discovery should not necessarily come at the cost of self. We need to turn, yet again, within our own community to analyze our professional and personal predispositions, and clarify how we can support one another through the process.

Audre Lorde,

Works Cited

Backe, Emma Louise (2014). “Geeking Out With Louise Krasniewicz.” The Geek Anthropologist.

Begley, Larissa R. (2009). “The other side of fieldwork: experiences and challenges of conducting research in the border area of Rwanda/eastern Congo.” Anthropology Matters, Vol. 11, No. 2.

BioShock Infinite (2013). Irrational Games.

“Coping with Anxiety and Depression Through Fiction” (2015). The Mary Sue.

Davies, James & Dimitrina Spencer (2010). Emotions in the Field: The Psychology and Anthropology of Fieldwork Experience . Stanford University Press.

Dishonored (2012). Arkane Studios.

Granic, Isabela et al. (2014). “The Benefits of Playing Video Games.’ American Psychologist, Vo. 69, No. 1, pp. 66-78.

Infamous (2009). Sucker Punch Productions.

Irwin, Rachel (2007). “Culture Shock: Negotiating Feelings in the Field.” Anthropology Matters, Vol. 9, No. 1.

Olthoff, Peter (2015). “The Many Roles of Popular Culture in Therapy.” The Geek Anthropologist.

Petronzio, Matt (2014). “Your Next Psychologist May Prescribe ‘Legend of Zelda’.” Mashable.

Pollard, Amy (2009). “Field of Screams: Difficulty and Ethnographic Fieldwork.” Anthropology Matters, Vol. 11, No. 2.

Renaud, Marie-Pierre (2015). “Note From the Field: Go Home To A Starship.” The Geek Anthropologist.

The Last of Us (2013). Naughty Dog.

Tremblay, Jessika (2014). “10 Tips For Surviving Anthropological Fieldwork.” Netnographic Encounters.

Quinn, Zoe (2014). Depression Quest.

Vitelli, Romeo (2014). “Are There Benefits to Playing Video Games?” Psychology Today

Ethnography: A Scientist Discovers the Value of the Social Sciences (The Scholarly Kitchen)


Picture from an early ethnographic study

I have always liked to think of myself as a good listener. Whether you are in therapy (or should be), conversing with colleagues, working with customers, embarking on strategic planning, or collaborating on a task, a dose of emotional intelligence – that is, embracing patience and the willingness to listen — is essential.

At the American Mathematical Society, we recently embarked on ambitious strategic planning effort across the organization. On the publishing side we have a number of electronic products, pushing us to consider how we position these products for the next generation of mathematician. We quickly realized that it is easy to be complacent. In our case we have a rich history online, and yet – have we really moved with the times? Does a young mathematician need our products?

We came to a sobering and rather exciting realization: In fact, we do not have a clear idea how mathematicians use online resources to do their research, teaching, hiring, and job hunting. We of course have opinions, but these are not informed by anything other than anecdotal evidence from conversations here and there.

To gain a sense of how mathematicians are using online resources, we embarked on an effort to gather more systematic intelligence embracing a qualitative approach to the research – ethhnography. The concept of ethnographic qualitative research was a new one to me – and it felt right. I quickly felt like I was back in school and a graduate student in ethnography, reading the literature, and thinking through with colleagues how we might apply qualitative research methods to understanding mathematicians’ behavior. It is worth taking a look at two excellent books: Just Enough Research by Erika Hall, and Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector by Sam Ladner.

What do we mean by ethnographic research? In essence we are talking about a rich, multi-factorial descriptive approach. While quantitative research uses pre-existing categories in its analysis, qualitative research is open to new ways of categorizing data – in this case, mathematicians’ behavior in using information. The idea is that one observes the subject (“key informant” in technical jargon) in their natural habitat. Imagine you are David Attenborough, exploring an “absolutely marvelous” new species – the mathematician – as they operate in the field. The concept is really quite simple. You just want to understand what your key informants are doing, and preferably why they are doing it. One has to do it in a setting that allows for them to behave naturally – this really requires an interview with one person not a group (because group members may influence each other’s actions).

Perhaps the hardest part is the interview itself. If you are anything like me, you will go charging in saying something along the lines of “look at these great things we are doing. What do you think? Great right?” Well, of course this is plain wrong. While you have a goal going in, perhaps to see how an individual is behaving with respect to a specific product, your questions need to be agnostic in flavor. The idea is to have the key informant do what they normally do, not just say what they think they do – the two things may be quite different. The questions need to be carefully crafted so as not to lead, but to enable gentle probing and discussion as the interview progresses. It is a good idea to record the interview – both in audio form, and ideally with screen capture technology such as Camtasia. When I was involved with this I went out and bought a good, but inexpensive audio recorder.

We decided that rather than approach mathematicians directly, we should work with the library at an academic institution. Libraries are our customers. The remarkable thing about academic libraries is that ethnography is becoming part of the service they provide to their stakeholders at many institutions. We actually began with a remarkable librarian, based at Rice University – Debra Kolah. She is the head of the user experience office at the Fondren Library of Rice University in Texas. She also happens to be the physics, math and statistics librarian at Rice. Debra is remarkable, and has become an expert in ethnographic study of academic user experience. She has multiple projects underway at Rice, working with a range of stakeholders, aiming to foster the activity of the library in the academic community she directly serves. She is a picture of enthusiasm when it comes to serving her community and to gaining insights into the cultural patterns of academic user behavior. Debra was our key to understanding how important it is to work with the library to reach the mathematical community at an institution. The relationship is trusted and symbiotic. This triangle of an institution’s library, academic, and outside entity, such as a society, or publisher, may represent the future of the library.

So the interviews are done – then what? Analysis. You have to try to make sense of all of this material you’ve gathered. First, transcribing audio interviews is no easy task. You have a range of voices and much technical jargon. The best bet is to get one of the many services out there to take the files and do a first pass transcription. They will get most of it right. Perhaps they will write “archive instead of arXiv, but that can be dealt with later. Once you have all this interview text, you need to group it into meaningful categories – what’s called “coding”. The idea is that you try to look at the material with a fresh, unbiased eye, to see what themes emerge from the data. Once these themes are coded, you can then start to think about patterns in the data. Interestingly, qualitative researchers have developed a host of software programs to aid the researcher in doing this. We settled for a relatively simple, web based solution – Dedoose.

With some 62 interviews under our belt, we are beginning to see patterns emerge in the ways that mathematicians behave online. I am not going to reveal our preliminary findings here – I must save that up for when the full results are in – but I am confident that the results will show a number of consistent threads that will help us think through how to better serve our community.

In summary, this experience has been a fascinating one – a new world for me. I have been trained as a scientist. As a scientist, I have ideas about what scientific method is, and what evidence is. I now understand the value of the qualitative approach – hard for a scientist to say. Qualitative research opens a window to descriptive data and analysis. As our markets change, understanding who constitutes our market, and how users behave is more important than ever.

Carry on listening!

Fast Writing: Ethnography in the Digital Age (Savage Minds)

March 30, 2015 Carole McGranahan

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Yarimar Bonilla as part of our Writer’s Workshop SeriesYarimar is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming Fall 2015) and has written broadly about social movements, historical imaginaries, and questions of sovereignty in the Caribbean. She is currently a fellow in the History Design Studio at Harvard University where she is working on a digital project entitled “Visualizing Sovereignty.”]

In a recent contribution to this writers’ series, Michael Lambek offered some reflections on the virtues of “slow reading.” In an era of rapid-fire online communication, when images increasingly substitute for text, Lambek argues we would be well served to revel in the quiet interiority and reflective subjectivity made possible by long-form reading.

In this post I would like to think more carefully about this claim and to consider whether we might want to make a similar argument regarding the shifting pace of academic writing. If, as Lambek and others suggest, the temporality of reading has been altered by the digital age, can the same be said for research and writing? How have new digital tools, platforms, and shifts in technological access transformed the temporality of ethnographic writing, and is this something we necessarily wish to slow down?

I recently had occasion to experiment with sped-up academic pacing when offered the opportunity to contribute a piece to American Ethnologist about the protests surrounding the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In brainstorming our article, my co-author Jonathan Rosa and I asked ourselves hard questions about what we could contribute to the unfolding discussion about Ferguson. Both of us had produced academic “slow writing”— the product of years of careful research, analysis, drafting and editing. We had also engaged in some forms of “fast writing.” For example, I had published journalistic pieces on social movements in Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe. But these pieces focused on events not being covered in the mainstream media and for which informed journalism was necessary. The same could not be said of Ferguson. Despite an initial lag in journalistic coverage, by the time we were drafting our article, Ferguson had reached a point of media saturation, indeed it had become a challenge to keep apace with the numerous thought pieces and editorial columns emerging at a feverish pace during this time.

hands upImage from the Ferguson newsletter

In plotting our article we thus asked ourselves: how can we contribute to this fast moving conversation while still producing a piece that might hold up over time? That is, how could we produce something fast but not ephemeral?

The result was an exercise in mid-tempo research and writing. It was not the product of long-sustained fieldwork, and was very much written “in the heat of the moment,” but it nonetheless tried to anticipate how anthropologists might look back on Ferguson over time—how they might use this event to teach and write about broader issues of racialization, longer histories of race-based violence, the racial politics of social media, and the shifting terrain of contemporary activism.

This process forced us to think about the challenges of being not just fast writers but fastethnographers. How can we speak to fast moving stories while still retaining the contextualization, historical perspective, and attention to individual experiences characteristic of a fieldworker? Also, how can we engage with emerging digital platforms like Twitter with the comparative and ethnographic perspective characteristic of our discipline?

The latter requires us to take seriously the narrative genres and political possibilities afforded by new forms of digital communication without assuming that their speed robs them of their social complexity. For example, while some might see the prevalence of “memes” and the seeming dominance of image over text on the internet as an inherently negative development, as anthropologists we are well poised to recognize that shifts in communicative practices are neither inherently virtuous nor corrosive. Rather, they speak to, and are themselves generative of, a new set of social and political possibilities.

can't breathePhotograph from the Ferguson newsletter

In the case of Ferguson, the fast-moving pace and ease-of-access afforded by Twitter helped activists and supporters bring heightened awareness to what would have otherwise been an under-reported story. Moreover, it allowed many individual users for whom slow writing is not a possibility or a desired practice, to engage in forms of creative expression and reflective activity that could challenge, contest, and contextualize mainstream print narratives in which they rarely see themselves adequately represented. The tweets, images, memes, and hashtags that circulated during this time (and which continue to circulate) should thus not be seen as cheap and fast substitutes for artisanally crafted modes of personal reflection. Instead, they need to be understood as complex texts, worthy of the same kind of close-reading and critical analysis scholars usually devote to long-form prose.

Ethnography in the digital age requires us to avoid conflating the fast with the ephemeral or the vacuous. The aggregative and cumulative dimensions of social media, as well as their far-reaching scope, force us to re-think what constitutes an enduring or transformative social action. Moreover, attention to these practices also requires us to think more carefully about how we, as academic writers, can contribute to fast moving conversations without giving short shrift to the historical and analytical contextualization that is often absent in quick moving public debate. These challenges require us to move quickly when we feel something is worth attending to while still rallying in those quick moments the kind of critical perspectives that can only be honed slowly, accumulatively, over time.

Here’s Why Companies Are Desperate To Hire Anthropologists (Business Insider)

MAR. 27, 2014, 4:22 PM

red associates talking

ReD Associates. A Red Associates staffer consults with a client

At a time when we’re debating the value of majoring in the humanities, major companies are increasingly hiring anthropologists.

Google, for example, hired an ethnographer to ferret out the meaning of mobile. Intel has an in-house cultural anthropologist, and Microsoft is reportedly the second-largest employer of anthropologists in the world.

So the question becomes: Why are giant corporations now seeking cultural expertise?

While most execs are masters of analyzing spreadsheets, creating processes, and pitching products, anthropologists — and other practitioners of applied social science — can arrive at customer insights that big data tends to gloss over, especially around the role that products play in people’s lives.

That information is more valuable than you might think. What customers want from a product and what companies think they want can be totally different, but it can take an anthropological lens to learn why.

Take Adidas, for example. The brand has always been associated with elite performance: Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, and Zinedine Zidane all wore the brand. Founded by cobbler and athlete Adi Dassler in 1948, the assumption within the company had been that people bought athletic gear to gain a competitive edge. But in the early 2000s VP James Carnes noticed something strange: He kept running into people who were jogging around the city, headed to the gym, or on their way to yoga.

While they led the active lives of potential customers, these people weren’t training for a competition. “Is yoga a sport?” Carnes asked in an offsite meeting in 2003.

Trying to figure out the disconnect, he brought in a consultancy called Red Associates, which has a client list that includes Intel, Samsung, and Carlsberg, the European beer giant. Unlike elite consulting firms such as McKinsey, Red isn’t in the business of big data and management science. Instead, it focuses on arriving at insights that can only be found through the applied liberal arts, or what it calls “the human sciences,” a strategy that is detailed in its new book “Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences To Solve Your Toughest Business Problems.” That’s why most of the Red’s 70-some employees aren’t MBAs; they come from disciplines like philosophy, sociology, and anthropology.

When Red collaborated with Adidas, it trained members of Adidas’s design team in conducting anthropological research. Design staffers spent 24 hours straight with customers, eating breakfast with them, joining them on runs, and asking them why they worked out. As detailed in the Economist, a Red staffer sent disposable cameras to customers, asking them to take a picture of the reason they exercised. Thirty women responded, and 25 of them sent a picture of a little black dress.

A little black dress is quite different than a marathon finish line or gold trophy.

To use a favorite word of Red partner Christian Madsbjerg, the little black dress shows an “asymmetry.” The traditional thinking at Adidas was that people bought their gear to help them win. But after observing their behavior through the lens of anthropology, it became clear that customers wanted products to help them lead healthy lifestyles, not win competitions.

Christian Madsbjerg red associates

Christian Madsbjerg, a Red Associates partner 

How had Adidas misunderstood its customers for so long? Because Adidas executives thought they understood their customers’ motivations and lives, but they had never observed them closely enough.

Running, mountain biking, hitting the gym, going to yoga — people did these things to live healthier lives. But these “urban sports” weren’t like the traditional competitions that the company was originally organized around.

That was Carnes’s realization: His consumer’s definition of “sport” had changed, and his company had to change along with it. As described in “Moment of Clarity”:

If urban sports are on par with basketball or soccer, Adidas must then deliver on products with functionality, aesthetics, and quality. Adidas must lead, not copy in this whole new category of lifestyle sport …

The company went from being a sports brand exclusively for athletes … to becoming an inclusive brand inviting all of us to join a movement of living a healthier and better life. It went from creating corporate credos aimed at high-performance sports aficionados, such as “Impossible is nothing,” to sending democratic, yet aspirational message like “All In.”

With the help of Red, Adidas was able to understand the world of its customers. Interestingly, it’s the human sciences — literature, arts, anthropology — that allow for understanding the unique worlds that people live in. By observing people’s daily lives and the ways in which they interact with products, consultancies like Red are able to discern what products mean to customers in a way that big data can’t determine.

Why literature helps you understand customers

“If you look at launches of a new product, most of them fail,” Madsbjerg says. “That’s because people don’t understand the worlds in which we operate.”

The problem with standard corporate research, Madsbjerg says, is that it’s incredibly difficult to get around your own preconceptions. Even if your analytics are fresh, you’ll read old assumptions into them. By applying the humanities, however, you can get around them.

Say, for instance, you read an epic novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In doing so, you’re not just processing words on a page, you’re beginning to understand a character’s world in Russia in a specific place, specific time, and from a specific perspective. To hear Red tell it, making an empathetic understanding of a character in a novel is very much like trying to understand a customer — Ford, after all, would be immensely interested in the world of someone buying a car.

It’s anthropological research, like Red helped the Adidas design team with, that allows for understanding the customer’s world.

This is different from the approach of most corporations, which rely on measures like surveys and focus groups. The problem with those is that people have a terrible time reporting their own preferences, Madsbjerg says. In one Swedish study, for instance, everyone reported that they were an exceptional driver, which is obviously impossible. By the same token, asking customers to tell you why they like a particular vodka doesn’t necessarily reveal their motivations.

That’s why Red emphasizes ethnographic interviewing, where you interview a subject again and again and observe them in a range of environments, looking for patterns of behavior. The long-form, in-depth research helps to reveal the worlds that people live in and their real motivations. Major insights follow — that little black dress told Adidas way more about their customers’ world than a survey ever could.

Finding an industry’s need

In another case, Red consulted for a leading pharmaceutical company specializing in diabetes. Back in the day, it was common practice for sales reps to use a “frequency and reach” strategy, talking to as many doctors as possible and pushing a brand message. The sales reps would get the time with doctors by giving them free flights and concert tickets. But then the law changed, and giving swag to doctors was made illegal. All of a sudden what was once a long courtship turned into a 90-second phone call.

In order to sell drugs in this new situation, they needed to recalibrate the conversation.

During the course of interviewing physicians, Red discovered a major concern that most doctors shared: “How do I get my patients to understand their conditions? How do I change their lifestyles?” Medication, it turned out, was the third most important aspect of treating diabetes — diet and exercise were much more vital.

As a result, Red’s associates worked with doctors to find different ways to help people change their diets, and they worked with sales reps to present that info to doctors. Since so many of the diabetes patients didn’t know how to cook, basic meal preparation became part of the sales material. Correspondingly, the pharmaceutical company became way more resonant: By understanding the world of the doctor, the brand saw a 15% increase in key indicators, like doctors’ trust.

The secret was to understand the world of the physicians and to give them what they needed, even if they didn’t consciously realize it yet.

Read more:

Anne Burns: The Virtual and the Visual in Ethnography (Medium)

Fox House, on the outskirts of Sheffield.

Feb 11, 2015

The ethnography I will be conducting for “Picturing the Social’ will be looking at practices of sharing photographs on social media. So is this to be a visual ethnography? A virtual ethnography? Or some kind of combination? Both of these approaches entail different theoretical and methodological models (Ardévol, 2012), which I will now briefly consider, along with outlining where this ethnography is situated in relation. Looking at these fields separately is not to suggest that they do not overlap — on the contrary, I believe that the visual and the virtual share many similarities. Photography is very much a social technology, in that images are typically created with the intention of sharing (Bourdieu, 1990), to the extent that photography has been termed the ‘original’ social media.


The Internet can be used as a means for collecting data, or as the topic of research in itself (Markham and Baym, 2009). Much of the discussion of virtual ethnography considers this first function, in which the Internet is used to access participants. Studies of computer-mediated communication, on the other hand, focus on the specific features of online spaces, such as virtual worlds and games. This particular ethnography will be a combination of both, in that I am not using social media simply to find people to observe, but rather am interested specifically in their online practices. Therefore this is an ethnography of the virtual, rather than an ethnography which makes use of the virtual.

One of my areas of interest relates to the relationship between online and offline space, and the collapse of the division between the two. For example, how does the online construction of notions of Sheffield affect subjects’ experience of it offline? For some members of the social media groups I am considering, their predominant experience of Sheffield is now online, as they live elsewhere — how perhaps should this be conceptualised in regards to the online/offline divide? Additionally, not all online spaces are to be conceptualised alike, as the aims and objectives of virtual worlds, social networks and discussion forums are markedly different from one another. The photography groups I am looking to study as part of this ethnography are communities of interest, in which various motivations — including sharing memories, discussing contemporary issues and soliciting feedback on creative practice — must be explored and understood as affordances of these online spaces.

Internet ethnography offers a useful opportunity to participate in the same settings as participants, and to use the same tools for interactions and expression. This parity of access means that ethnography of online spaces is “meaningfully different” from the study of offline social practices (Kozinets, 2010: 5). Hine conceptualises this difference in terms of an emphasis on flow and connectivity, in contrast to ethnography’s prior focus on location and boundaries (2000). O’Reilly similarly states that virtual ethnography is challenging assumptions of what constitutes a ‘field site’, in that “instead of thinking in terms of places or locations, our Internet ethnographer looks to connections between things” (O’Reilly, 2009: 217). Pink also stresses the importance of considering connections and the “potential forms of relatedness” constituted online, in which online and offline materials and localities “become interwoven in everyday and research narratives” (Pink, 2012). I am particularly interested to explore how theories of place and space will be useful for this ethnography, in that the groups’ focus on Sheffield as a physical and conceptual place is mediated and constituted through online spaces. How do these different notions of place and space entangle, and how do they affect each other in order to create new notions of what constitutes Sheffield and people’s relationship to it? My early observations have already yielded an interesting example of the online representation of a sensory experience of Sheffield as locality and as history — a video uploaded to one Sheffield-themed social media group documents a walk through the post-industrial landscape, in which the participant draws attention to the shift from Sheffield’s identity as a steel working city, to a collection of vacant lots and empty office buildings. The online space is therefore used to provide not just a commentary on contemporary politics, but also to capture a physical experience, and an emotional reaction to it.


Ethnographies frequently use participant-generated photographs to explore the perspectives of those involved, enabling them to ‘speak’ through images (see Mitchell, 2011). As I am not inviting participants to produce materials for this project, but using those that they have made already, this approach is not applicable here. Although I will be considering people’s use of photography to discuss issues that are of relevance to them — relating to history, sport, wildlife, weather and so on — my aim is not to use photography to access those beliefs, but rather to explore the specific role of photographs in this process. Much as I stressed above regarding the virtual, this is not an ethnography that uses the visual, but is rather an ethnography of the visual.

I therefore similarly will not be using images within this ethnography in order to supplement my findings, or to ‘show’ something under the pretence of unmediated communication. This function, in which images act as a kind of supporting evidence, is problematic for numerous reasons, in that it assumes that images can be regarded as objective, but only fragmentary, adjuncts to text. As this ethnography is focused upon the practice and discussion of photography, such an approach to the visual would be inappropriate, as it fails to acknowledge that images must be studied as cultural objects in their own right. Therefore this ethnography of the visual will consider how images — at the level of objects as well as the production of objects — function within broader social relations (Pink, 2012: 5). As such, I will need to employ a range of theoretical approaches, which explore photography as a social process, as a form of identity negotiation, and as a phenomenon that continually remakes its own cultural circumstances of production.

Pauwels (2012) provides a particularly useful overview of conducting visual research, in which the status of the materials, and the extent to which they matter, is of primary concern. This is one of my main topics of investigation — not so much what images are of, but why they matter to people, what they enable viewers to do, say and think, and why they have been shared in the first place. For me, this is the key concern of contemporary visual research: what is it that makes social media photography — from the taking of snaps on Snapchat, to the sharing of photographs on Flickr — so important?

It will be my aim, therefore, to study how the visual and the virtual combine in the notion of ‘photographic sharing’. In particular, the social media communities in which these photographs are circulated will offer an important means for studying how notions of place are negotiated and constituted through the co-presence that is facilitated by looking at images online.

Ardévol, E. (2012) Virtual/Visual Ethnography: Methodological Crossroads at the Intersection of Visual and Internet Research. In: Pink, S. (2012) Advances in Visual Methodology. London: Sage.

Bourdieu, P. (1990) Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Hine, C. (2000) Virtual Ethnography. London: Sage.

Kozinets, R. V. (2010) Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online. London: Sage.

Markham, A. N. & Baym, N. K. (2009) Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Method. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Mitchell, C. (2011) Doing Visual Research. London: Sage.

O’Reilly, K. (2009) Key Concepts in Ethnography. London: Sage.

Pauwels, L. (2012) Contemplating the State of Visual Research. In: Pink, S. (2012) Advances in Visual Methodology. London: Sage.

Pink, S. (2012) Advances in Visual Methodology. London: Sage.

‘Picturing the Social: Transforming our Understanding of Images in Social Media and Big Data research’ is an 18-month research project that started in September 2014 and is based at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. It is funded through an ESRC’s Transformative Research grant and is focused on transforming the social science research landscape by carving out a more central place for image research within the emerging fields of social media and Big Data research. The project aims to better understand the huge volumes of images that are now routinely shared on social media and what this means for society. This project involves an interdisciplinary team of seven researchers from four universities as well as industry with expertise in: Media and Communication Studies (Farida Vis and Anne Burns, University of Sheffield), Visual Culture (Simon Faulkner and Jim Aulich, Manchester School of Art), Software Studies and Sociology (Olga Goriunova, Warwick University), Computer and Information Science (Francesco D’Orazio, Pulsar and Mike Thelwall, University of Wolverhampton). The project is part of the Visual Social Media Lab.

Be the Street: On Radical Ethnography and Cultural Studies (Viewpoint Magazine)

September 10, 2012

The man who only observes him­self how­ever never gains
Knowl­edge of men. He is too anx­ious
To hide him­self from him­self. And nobody is
Clev­erer than he him­self is.
So your school­ing must begin among
Liv­ing peo­ple. Let your first school
Be your place of work, your dwelling, your part of the town.
Be the street, the under­ground, the shops. You should observe
All the peo­ple there, strangers as if they were acquain­tances, but
Acquain­tances as if they were strangers to you.
—Bertolt Brecht, Speech to the Dan­ish Working-Class Actors on the Art of Obser­va­tion (1934-6)

“Anthro­pol­ogy is the daugh­ter to this era of vio­lence,” Claude Levi-Strauss once said. Poetic as that state­ment is, I pre­fer the more pre­cise and less gen­dered words of esteemed anthro­pol­o­gist and Johnson-Forest Ten­dency mem­ber Kath­leen Gough: “Anthro­pol­ogy is a child of West­ern impe­ri­al­ism.” Much like Catholic mis­sion­ar­ies in the Span­ish Empire, anthro­pol­o­gists exam­ined indige­nous groups in order to improve colo­nial admin­is­tra­tion, a tra­di­tion that con­tin­ues into the present day with the US military’s Human Ter­rain Project in Iraq and Afghanistan. Often, this colo­nial imper­a­tive has fed a racist dis­re­spect of the sub­jects under study. It was not uncom­mon, for exam­ple, for researchers to draw upon colo­nial police forces to col­lect sub­jects for humil­i­at­ing anthro­po­met­ric measurements.

Accord­ing to Gough, at their best, anthro­pol­o­gists had been the “white lib­er­als between con­querors and col­o­nized.” Ethnog­ra­phy, the method in which researchers embed them­selves within social groups to best under­stand their prac­tices and the mean­ings behind them, had only medi­ated this rela­tion­ship, while Gough, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ist, wanted to upend it. Writ­ing in 1968, she urged her dis­ci­pline to study impe­ri­al­ism and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments against it as a way to expi­ate anthro­pol­ogy of its sins. Gough later attempted this her­self, trav­el­ling through­out Asia in the 1970s. Although she lacked a solid uni­ver­sity con­nec­tion due to her polit­i­cal sym­pa­thies, she man­aged to con­duct field­work abroad, ana­lyz­ing class recom­po­si­tion in rural South­east India dur­ing the Green Rev­o­lu­tion, and detail­ing the improve­ment in the liv­ing stan­dards of Viet­namese peas­ants after the expul­sion of the United States.

Years later, anthro­pol­o­gist Ana Lopes sees fit to ask, “Why hasn’t anthro­pol­ogy made more dif­fer­ence?” The prob­lem is not that anthro­pol­o­gists are ret­i­cent to con­tribute to end­ing impe­ri­al­ism. Indeed, there are prob­a­bly more rad­i­cal and crit­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gists now than dur­ing Gough’s time, and cer­tainly the dis­ci­pline takes anti-racism and anti-imperialism incred­i­bly seri­ously. Gough her­self artic­u­lated some dif­fi­cul­ties:

(1) the very process of spe­cial­iza­tion within anthro­pol­ogy and between anthro­pol­ogy and the related dis­ci­plines, espe­cially polit­i­cal sci­ence, soci­ol­ogy, and eco­nom­ics; (2) the tra­di­tion of indi­vid­ual field work in small-scale soci­eties, which at first pro­duced a rich har­vest of ethnog­ra­phy but later placed con­straints on our meth­ods and the­o­ries; (3) unwill­ing­ness to offend the gov­ern­ments that funded us, by choos­ing con­tro­ver­sial sub­jects; and (4) the bureau­cratic, coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary set­ting in which anthro­pol­o­gists have increas­ingly worked in their uni­ver­si­ties, which may have con­tributed to a sense of impo­tence and to the devel­op­ment of machine-like models.

None of these plague anthro­pol­ogy today. Anthro­pol­o­gists are often incred­i­bly deep knowl­ege about mul­ti­ple dis­ci­plines (I have an anthro­pol­o­gist friend I con­sult on any ques­tions of struc­tural semi­otics, Marx­ism, 19th cen­tury lit­er­a­ture, or gam­bling); they have exam­ined cul­ture within large indus­trial and post-industrial soci­eties; they have been involved in all sorts of rad­i­cal issues, from union­iz­ing sex work­ers to ana­lyz­ing the secu­ri­tized state; and while the uni­ver­sity may remain a bureau­cratic, coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary set­ting, anthro­pol­o­gists have largely aban­doned machine-like mod­els. So what gives?

One issue is how anthro­pol­ogy chose to atone for its com­plic­ity in racism and impe­ri­al­ism. Instead of mak­ing a direct polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion into impe­ri­al­ist prac­tice, ethnog­ra­phy attacked impe­ri­al­ist hermeneu­tics. A deep cri­tique of the Enlight­en­ment sub­ject, the source of anthropology’s claims to sci­ence and objec­tiv­ity as well as meta­phys­i­cal ground for West­ern notions of supe­ri­or­ity, became a major tar­get of the dis­ci­pline. Thus rose crit­i­cal ethnog­ra­phy, decon­struc­tive in spirit. Accord­ing to Soyini Madi­son, crit­i­cal ethnog­ra­phy “takes us beneath sur­face appear­ances, dis­rupts the sta­tus quo, and unset­tles both neu­tral­ity and taken-for-granted assump­tions by bring­ing to light under­ly­ing and obscure oper­a­tions of power and control.”

This func­tions at the level of the method itself: crit­i­cal ethno­g­ra­phers should be self-reflexive. Rather than assum­ing an omni­scient author­i­ta­tive view­point, they should high­light their own posi­tion­al­ity in the field by empha­siz­ing it in the writ­ten account, thereby decon­struct­ing the Self and its rela­tion to the Other when­ever pos­si­ble. In an attack on Enlight­en­ment pre­ten­sions to uni­ver­sal­ity, accounts became par­tial and frag­men­tary, a way to head off poten­tially demean­ing total­ized por­tray­als at the pass.

How­ever, iron­i­cally enough, by per­for­ma­tively ques­tion­ing one’s own research, the fig­ure of the ethno­g­ra­pher risks becom­ing the cen­tral fig­ure in the study, rather than the social group. Even as it pro­duces an often-engrossing lit­er­a­ture, crit­i­cal ethnog­ra­phy can under­mine its own polit­i­cal thrust by dras­ti­cally lim­it­ing what it per­mits itself to say. While Marx­ist soci­ol­o­gist Michael Bura­woy, who shov­eled pig iron for years in the name of social sci­ence, claims that with exces­sive reflex­iv­ity ethno­g­ra­phers “begin to believe they are the world they study or that the world revolves around them,” I’d counter that this isn’t so much pro­fes­sional nar­cis­sism as a prod­uct of the very real anx­i­ety sur­round­ing the ethics of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. How best to fairly, but accu­rately, por­tray one’s sub­jects? How can one really know the Other? I’ve strug­gled with this in my own work, and I know col­leagues who have been all but con­sumed by it. Writ­ing about one­self seems, at the very least, safer. But this aban­dons sci­en­tific rigor in its reluc­tance to make any gen­er­al­iz­able claims.

My own expe­ri­ence in ethnog­ra­phy came from a study of pop­u­lar cul­ture. I had grown tired of schol­arly tex­tual analy­sis: it seemed like more of a game for the com­men­ta­tors, where we crit­ics bandied about spec­u­la­tive assess­ments of books and films and TV shows, try­ing to one-up each other in nov­elty and jar­gon. These inter­pre­ta­tions said more about our posi­tions as theory-stuffed grad­u­ate stu­dents eager to impress than they did about the puta­tive “audi­ences” for the texts. Our con­scious­ness of the objects in ques­tion had been deter­mined by our mate­r­ial lives as critics-in-training. I felt pulled fur­ther away from cul­tural phe­nom­ena, when I wanted to get closer in order to bet­ter under­stand its sig­nif­i­cance. So I revolted against the rule of thoughts, start­ing to learn the meth­ods that got closer to the mat­ter at hand: ethnography,

In cul­tural stud­ies, ethnog­ra­phy (or as a fully-trained anthro­pol­o­gist would prob­a­bly write, “ethnog­ra­phy”) is most closely asso­ci­ated with audi­ence recep­tion and fan­dom stud­ies. Tex­tual analy­sis tells you only what a critic thinks of the work; in order to dis­cover how “aver­age” con­sumers expe­ri­ence it, you have to ask them. This way you avoid the total­iz­ing, top-down gen­er­al­iza­tions of some­one like Adorno, where a rei­fied con­scious­ness is deter­mined by the repet­i­tive, sim­pli­fied forms of the cul­ture industry.

This was Janet Radway’s goal when she stud­ied female read­ers of misog­y­nist romance nov­els. She found out that read­ers cared more about hav­ing pri­vate time away from domes­tic duties than the borderline-rape occur­ring in the books. How­ever, she was forced to con­clude that romance nov­els worked as com­pen­satory mech­a­nisms, secur­ing women in cap­i­tal­ist patri­ar­chal dom­i­na­tion – in other words, she took the long way around and ended up in the same Adornoian con­clu­sion: we’re fucked and it’s our mass cul­ture that makes it so.

My cho­sen topic helped me get on a dif­fer­ent path, one that I believe has more rel­e­vance to rad­i­cal pol­i­tics than harangu­ing the choices of hap­less con­sumers. I wanted to study inde­pen­dent pop­u­lar music instead of romance nov­els. This meant I was well posi­tioned to exam­ine music from the stand­point of pro­duc­tion, rather than just sur­vey­ing audi­ence mem­bers, a tech­nique that always felt too spec­u­la­tive and a bit too closely aligned with mar­ket research.

Not that mar­ket research was totally off base. Pop­u­lar music exists in the form of com­modi­ties. Its form, as Adorno rightly points out, is dic­tated by the needs of the cul­ture indus­try. If the music indus­try was a fac­tory, then musi­cians were the work­ers, bang­ing out prod­ucts. A pecu­liar fac­tory, to be sure, where oper­a­tions spread to the homes of the work­ers, the machines were pirated soft­ware, and the prod­ucts were derived from unique cre­ative labors, becom­ing objects of intense devo­tion among consumers.

You can run into resis­tance when you define art in this way – it seems to cheapen it, as if you can’t call a song a “com­mod­ity” with­out implic­itly stick­ing a “mere” in there, just as refer­ring to artists as work­ers seems to demean their abil­i­ties. But this resis­tance comes almost entirely from music fans, who com­mit their own Adornoian blun­der by plac­ing music on that archaic crum­bling pedestal of Art. The pro­duc­ers and DJs I spoke to in Detroit didn’t see it that way. They saw them­selves as cre­ative work­ers; at best, as entre­pre­neurs. One DJ talked about remix­ing songs in the morn­ing over cof­fee. “You know how some peo­ple check their email or read the news­pa­per? Well, I’m mak­ing a remix of the new Ciara song dur­ing that time.” He took pride in his work ethic, but never roman­ti­cized his occupation.

There wasn’t much to wax roman­tic about in the Detroit music scene at that time. The cul­ture indus­tries were under­go­ing a restruc­tur­ing for the imma­te­r­ial age. Vinyl was no longer mov­ing. Local radio and local music venues had gone cor­po­rate, squeez­ing out local music. DJs who wanted local gigs had to play Top 40 playlists in the sub­ur­ban mega­clubs instead of the native styles of elec­tronic music that had given Detroit mythic sta­tus around the world. Many had given up on record labels entirely. Every­one looked to the inter­net as the sav­ing grace for record sales, pro­mo­tion, net­work­ing – for every­thing, prac­ti­cally. Some of the more suc­cess­ful artists were attempt­ing to license their tracks for video games. Almost every­one had other jobs, often off the books. For crit­i­cally acclaimed Detroit pro­ducer Omar-S, music is his side job, in case his posi­tion on the fac­tory line is eliminated.

I wasn’t embed­ded within this com­mu­nity, as an anthro­pol­o­gist would be. Instead, I made the 90 minute drive to Detroit when I could, and spent the time inter­view­ing artists in their homes or over the phone. I attended some events, par­tic­i­pated and observed. And still, I could have writ­ten vol­umes on my subject-position and how it dif­fered from many of the musi­cians: I was white, college-educated, not from Detroit (the last one being the most salient dif­fer­ence). But my goal was to go beyond self-reflexive inter­ro­ga­tions, in spite of their impor­tance as a start­ing point. I aspired to write some­thing that would in some way, how­ever minor, par­tic­i­pate in the implicit polit­i­cal projects of musi­cal workers.

I can’t say I suc­ceeded in this goal. But while I may have done lit­tle for the polit­i­cal for­tunes of Detroit musi­cians, I had started to think about how to rev­o­lu­tion­ize my the­o­ret­i­cal tools. The point was not to efface or under­mine my role in my research, but to iden­tify the struc­tural antag­o­nism the artists were deal­ing with and describe it from a par­ti­san per­spec­tive. Beyond the self-reflexive analy­sis of the ethnographer’s subject-position was the pos­si­bil­ity of pick­ing sides.

Decid­ing to pick sides is the dif­fer­ence between mil­i­tant research, of the kind Kath­leen Gough prac­ticed, and purely scholas­tic exer­cises. Bura­woy argues that this is a fun­da­men­tal ele­ment of Karl Marx’s “ethno­graphic imag­i­na­tion”: Marx rooted his the­o­ries – not just of how cap­i­tal­ism func­tioned, but how best to destroy it – in the con­crete expe­ri­ences of work­ers, as relayed to him by Engels and oth­ers. Kath­leen Gough is an exem­plary fig­ure in this respect, remain­ing a firm mate­ri­al­ist in her stud­ies. As Gough’s friend and col­league Eleanor Smol­lett puts it in a spe­cial jour­nal ded­i­cated to Gough’s legacy,

she did not arrive in Viet­nam with a check­list of what a soci­ety must accom­plish to be ‘really social­ist’ as so many Marx­ists in acad­e­mia were wont to do. She looked at the direc­tion of the move­ment, of the con­crete gains from where the Viet­namese had begun… Observ­ing social­ist devel­op­ment from the point of view of the Viet­namese them­selves, rather than as judged against a hypo­thet­i­cal sys­tem, she found the people’s stated enthu­si­asm credible.

After study­ing mate­r­ial con­di­tions and for­eign pol­icy in the social­ist bloc, Gough decided that the Soviet Union, while cer­tainly no work­ers’ par­adise, was a net good for the work­ers of the world – heresy for any­one try­ing to pub­lish in the West, let alone a Trotskyist.

Analy­sis is impor­tant, but the really explo­sive stuff of ethnog­ra­phy hap­pens in the encounter. Accord­ingly, ethno­g­ra­phers and oth­ers have increas­ingly turned towards the meth­ods of par­tic­i­pa­tory action research (PAR). In these stud­ies, a blend of ethnog­ra­phy and ped­a­gogy, the anthro­pol­o­gist takes a par­ti­san inter­est in the aspi­ra­tions of the group, and aids the group in actively par­tic­i­pat­ing actively in the research. Mem­bers of the group under study become co-researchers, ask­ing ques­tions and artic­u­lat­ing prob­lems. The goal is to tease out native knowl­edges that best aid peo­ple in nav­i­gat­ing dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances while mobi­liz­ing them to cre­ate polit­i­cal change.

But par­tic­i­pa­tory action research has returned to the same old prob­lems of impe­ri­al­ist anthro­pol­ogy. In the hands of rad­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gist Ana Lopes, PAR led to the for­ma­tion of a sex work­ers’ union in Great Britain. But in the hands of devel­op­ment scholar Robert Cham­bers, PAR is a tool to bet­ter imple­ment World Bank ini­tia­tives and gov­ern pop­u­la­tions by allow­ing them to “par­tic­i­pate” in their subjection.

The point, then, is to real­ize that ethnog­ra­phy has no polit­i­cal con­tent of its own. Pol­i­tics derives not from the com­mit­ment or beliefs of the researcher, but from engage­ment with wider social antag­o­nisms. Ethnog­ra­phy enables Marx­ism to trace the con­tours of these antag­o­nisms at the level of every­day life: a mil­i­tant ethnog­ra­phy means Marx­ism at work, and func­tions not by impos­ing mod­els of class con­scious­ness and rad­i­cal action from above, but by reveal­ing the ter­rain of the strug­gle – to intel­lec­tu­als and to work­ers – as it is con­tin­u­ally pro­duced. Ethnog­ra­phy can con­tribute in just this way, as a method where researchers lis­ten, observe, and reveal the now hid­den, now open fight for the future.

is a graduate student in Washington, DC.

How to get published in an academic journal: top tips from editors (The Guardian)

Journal editors share their advice on how to structure a paper, write a cover letter – and deal with awkward feedback from reviewer.

hurdles athletes

 How to negotiate the many hurdles that stand between a draft paper and publication. Photograph: Clint Hughes/PA

Writing for academic journals is highly competitive. Even if you overcome the first hurdle and generate a valuable idea or piece of research – how do you then sum it up in a way that will capture the interest of reviewers?

There’s no simple formula for getting published – editors’ expectations can vary both between and within subject areas. But there are some challenges that will confront all academic writers regardless of their discipline. How should you respond to reviewer feedback? Is there a correct way to structure a paper? And should you always bother revising and resubmitting? We asked journal editors from a range of backgrounds for their tips on getting published.

The writing stage

1) Focus on a story that progresses logically, rather than chronologically

Take some time before even writing your paper to think about the logic of the presentation. When writing, focus on a story that progresses logically, rather than the chronological order of the experiments that you did.
Deborah Sweet, editor of Cell Stem Cell and publishing director at Cell Press

2) Don’t try to write and edit at the same time

Open a file on the PC and put in all your headings and sub-headings and then fill in under any of the headings where you have the ideas to do so. If you reach your daily target (mine is 500 words) put any other ideas down as bullet points and stop writing; then use those bullet points to make a start the next day.

If you are writing and can’t think of the right word (eg for elephant) don’t worry – write (big animal long nose) and move on – come back later and get the correct term. Write don’t edit; otherwise you lose flow.
Roger Watson, editor-in-chief, Journal of Advanced Nursing

3) Don’t bury your argument like a needle in a haystack

If someone asked you on the bus to quickly explain your paper, could you do so in clear, everyday language? This clear argument should appear in your abstract and in the very first paragraph (even the first line) of your paper. Don’t make us hunt for your argument as for a needle in a haystack. If it is hidden on page seven that will just make us annoyed. Oh, and make sure your argument runs all the way through the different sections of the paper and ties together the theory and empirical material.
Fiona Macaulay, editorial board, Journal of Latin American Studies

4) Ask a colleague to check your work

One of the problems that journal editors face is badly written papers. It might be that the writer’s first language isn’t English and they haven’t gone the extra mile to get it proofread. It can be very hard to work out what is going on in an article if the language and syntax are poor.
Brian Lucey, editor, International Review of Financial Analysis

5) Get published by writing a review or a response 

Writing reviews is a good way to get published – especially for people who are in the early stages of their career. It’s a chance to practice at writing a piece for publication, and get a free copy of a book that you want. We publish more reviews than papers so we’re constantly looking for reviewers.

Some journals, including ours, publish replies to papers that have been published in the same journal. Editors quite like to publish replies to previous papers because it stimulates discussion.
Yujin Nagasawa, co-editor and review editor of the European Journal for Philosophy of Religion, philosophy of religion editor of Philosophy Compass

6) Don’t forget about international readers

We get people who write from America who assume everyone knows the American system – and the same happens with UK writers. Because we’re an international journal, we need writers to include that international context.
Hugh McLaughlin, editor in chief, Social Work Education – the International Journal

7) Don’t try to cram your PhD into a 6,000 word paper

Sometimes people want to throw everything in at once and hit too many objectives. We get people who try to tell us their whole PhD in 6,000 words and it just doesn’t work. More experienced writers will write two or three papers from one project, using a specific aspect of their research as a hook.
Hugh McLaughlin, editor in chief, Social Work Education – the International Journal

Submitting your work

8) Pick the right journal: it’s a bad sign if you don’t recognise any of the editorial board

Check that your article is within the scope of the journal that you are submitting to. This seems so obvious but it’s surprising how many articles are submitted to journals that are completely inappropriate. It is a bad sign if you do not recognise the names of any members of the editorial board. Ideally look through a number of recent issues to ensure that it is publishing articles on the same topic and that are of similar quality and impact.
Ian Russell, editorial director for science at Oxford University Press

9) Always follow the correct submissions procedures

Often authors don’t spend the 10 minutes it takes to read the instructions to authors which wastes enormous quantities of time for both the author and the editor and stretches the process when it does not need to
Tangali Sudarshan, editor, Surface Engineering

10) Don’t repeat your abstract in the cover letter
We look to the cover letter for an indication from you about what you think is most interesting and significant about the paper, and why you think it is a good fit for the journal. There is no need to repeat the abstract or go through the content of the paper in detail – we will read the paper itself to find out what it says. The cover letter is a place for a bigger picture outline, plus any other information that you would like us to have.
Deborah Sweet, editor of Cell Stem Cell and publishing director at Cell Press

11) A common reason for rejections is lack of context

Make sure that it is clear where your research sits within the wider scholarly landscape, and which gaps in knowledge it’s addressing. A common reason for articles being rejected after peer review is this lack of context or lack of clarity about why the research is important.
Jane Winters, executive editor of the Institute of Historical Research’s journal, Historical Research and associate editor of Frontiers in Digital Humanities: Digital History

12) Don’t over-state your methodology

Ethnography seems to be the trendy method of the moment, so lots of articles submitted claim to be based on it. However, closer inspection reveals quite limited and standard interview data. A couple of interviews in a café do not constitute ethnography. Be clear – early on – about the nature and scope of your data collection. The same goes for the use of theory. If a theoretical insight is useful to your analysis, use it consistently throughout your argument and text.
Fiona Macaulay, editorial board, Journal of Latin American Studies

Dealing with feedback

13) Respond directly (and calmly) to reviewer comments

When resubmitting a paper following revisions, include a detailed document summarising all the changes suggested by the reviewers, and how you have changed your manuscript in light of them. Stick to the facts, and don’t rant. Don’t respond to reviewer feedback as soon as you get it. Read it, think about it for several days, discuss it with others, and then draft a response.
Helen Ball, editorial board, Journal of Human Lactation 

14) Revise and resubmit: don’t give up after getting through all the major hurdles

You’d be surprised how many authors who receive the standard “revise and resubmit” letter never actually do so. But it is worth doing – some authors who get asked to do major revisions persevere and end up getting their work published, yet others, who had far less to do, never resubmit. It seems silly to get through the major hurdles of writing the article, getting it past the editors and back from peer review only to then give up.
Fiona Macaulay, editorial board, Journal of Latin American Studies

15) It is acceptable to challenge reviewers, with good justification

It is acceptable to decline a reviewer’s suggestion to change a component of your article if you have a good justification, or can (politely) argue why the reviewer is wrong. A rational explanation will be accepted by editors, especially if it is clear you have considered all the feedback received and accepted some of it.
Helen Ball, editorial board of Journal of Human Lactation

16) Think about how quickly you want to see your paper published

Some journals rank more highly than others and so your risk of rejection is going to be greater. People need to think about whether or not they need to see their work published quickly – because certain journals will take longer. Some journals, like ours, also do advance access so once the article is accepted it appears on the journal website. This is important if you’re preparing for a job interview and need to show that you are publishable.
Hugh McLaughlin, editor in chief, Social Work Education – the International Journal

17) Remember: when you read published papers you only see the finished article

Publishing in top journals is a challenge for everyone, but it may seem easier for other people. When you read published papers you see the finished article, not the first draft, nor the first revise and resubmit, nor any of the intermediate versions – and you never see the failures.
Philip Powell, managing editor of the Information Systems Journal

Latour on digital methods (Installing [social] order)


In a fascinating, apparently not-peer-reviewed non-article available free online here, Tommaso Venturini and Bruno Latour discuss the potential of “digital methods” for the contemporary social sciences.

The paper summarizes, and quite nicely, the split of sociological methods to the statistical aggregate using quantitative methods (capturing supposedly macro-phenomenon) and irreducibly basic interactions using qualitative methods (capturing supposedly micro-phenomenon). The problem is that neither of which aided the sociologist in capture emergent phenomenon, that is, capturing controversies and events as they happen rather than estimate them after they have emerged (quantitative macro structures) or capture them divorced from non-local influences (qualitative micro phenomenon).

The solution, they claim, is to adopt digital methods in the social sciences. The paper is not exactly a methodological outline of how to accomplish these methods, but there is something of a justification available for it, and it sounds something like this:

Thanks to digital traceability, researchers no longer need to choose between precision and scope in their observations: it is now possible to follow a multitude of interactions and, simultaneously, to distinguish the specific contribution that each one makes to the construction of social phenomena. Born in an era of scarcity, the social sciences are entering an age of abundance. In the face of the richness of these new data, nothing justifies keeping old distinctions. Endowed with a quantity of data comparable to the natural sciences, the social sciences can finally correct their lazy eyes and simultaneously maintain the focus and scope of their observations.

Summer Field School in Ethnographic Methods in New York City

5th CIFAS Field School in Ethnographic Research Methods

June 16 to 27, 2014

The Comitas Institute for Anthropological Study (CIFAS) is pleased to announce the 5th CIFAS Field School in Ethnographic Research Methods, in New York City

The goal of the Field School is to offer training in the foundations and practice of ethnographic methods. The faculty works closely with participants to identify the required field methods needed to address their academic or professional needs. The Field School is suitable for graduate and undergraduate students in social sciences and other fields of study that use qualitative approaches (such as education, communication, cultural studies, health, social work, human ecology, development studies, consumer behavior, among others), applied social scientists, professionals, and researchers who have an interest in learning more about ethnographic methods and their applications.

The total work load of the course is 30 hours. Students interested in earning credits for the course may have additional assignments in order to totalize 45 hours of activities (what is equivalent to 3 credits).

Course venue: classes will take place at the Institute for Latin American Studies at Columbia University, in the Upper West Side of New York City.

See pictures of the previous editions of the CIFAS Summer Field School here.


Renzo Taddei (Assistant Professor, Federal University of São Paulo/Affiliated Researcher, Columbia University). CV:

Lambros Comitas (Gardner Cowles Professor of Anthropology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University). CV:

Registration and other costs: Places are limited. The tuition fee is US$900. The tuition fee does not cover accommodation, meals or transportation. Registration should be completed online here.

Accommodations: International House offers housing for participants for the discount price of US$ 60 per night (provided there are rooms available). Rooms and other facilities can be checked out on their website, on the virtual tour option (the blue button that says “take a tour”):

Other information:

Insurance: Participants are required to have travel insurance that covers medical and repatriation costs (for international students). Proof of purchase of travel insurance must be presented at the first day of activities.

For more information, please write to Renzo Taddei at, or visit


Session Topic
June 16
  • Foundations of ethnographic research
June 17
  • Theory and practice: social theories in the field
June 18
  • Research design & data collection techniques
June 19
  • Planning the logistics of field research
June 20
  • Field trip & individual, one-on-one discussion of research projects
June 23
  • Ethnography in specific fields of activity (applied social sciences, public policy design, business & management, and others)
June 24
  • Principles of organization and indexation of field data
June 25
  • Analyzing field data
June 26
  • Qualitative analysis software packages: basic principles
June 27
  • Field trip & wrap up session

Mixed Methods Should Be a Valued Practice in Anthropology (Anthropology News)


By Thomas S Weisner

1 May 2012

Methods are systematic, socially agreed upon ways to represent the world. Mixed methods integrate qualitative and quantitative evidence through intentional efforts to focus “on research questions that call for real-life contextual understandings, multi-level perspectives, and cultural influences” (Cresswell, et al, 2011, Best Practices for Mixed Methods Research in the Health Sciences, p 4).

Good anthropology will always benefit from the widest variety of data. High quality examples of combining qualitative and quantitative methods abound in anthropology today and have done so throughout our history. Although ethnography and qualitative methods remain central, it has always been true that other methods are commonly used as well in every field of anthropology.

Elinor Ochs and colleagues at UCLA assembled what is arguably the richest family database in the world today (combining video, sociolinguistic, ethnographic, questionnaire, daily diary, material possession, stress hormone and other evidence) in their study of the everyday lives of two-parent, middle class working Los Angeles families and their children ( Robert LeVine and collaborators combined sociolinguistic, ethnographic, systematic observational, demographic, historical and child assessment methods in their study of the connections between women’s gains in literacy, lower completed family size, improved health and changes in maternal care in communities around the world (Literacy and Mothering: How Women’s Schooling Changes the Lives of the World’s Children, 2012). The New Hope community based work and family support study (Duncan, Huston and Weisner, Higher Ground: New Hope for the Working Poor and their Children, 2007) used a random-assignment social experiment, survey, questionnaire, child assessment and qualitative ethnographic fieldwork to discover why the program was successful in improving the well-being of parents and children, and yet why sometimes only selectively so.

Andrew Fuligni, Nancy Gonzalez and I currently collaborate on a study of the daily activities, family responsibilities and obligations, and academic and behavioral outcomes of 428 Mexican American immigrant teens and parents in Los Angeles (first, second and later generations, documented and not). Methods include 14-day consecutive daily diaries, survey and questionnaire data, and school and behavior assessments. In addition, a 10% nested random sample of parents and teens from this larger sample participate in a qualitative study in the homes of parents and children in addition. We gave cameras to adolescents in ninth and tenth grades with instructions to take 25 pictures of people, places, events and activities important to them. We plugged the cameras into our laptops and talked with the teens about their photos. We asked questions such as: Who are these friends; oh you have a boyfriend? Tell me more about your soccer team. That’s your Mom cooking; what do you do for chores? That’s one of your teachers? What class is it; how is school going? Teens take photos of other family members’ photos such as grandparents they cannot visit in Mexico; one took a photo of the moon, mentioning the film Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna).

The narratives then can be recorded, transcribed and uploaded to a mixed methods software program such as Dedoose (, a web-based mixed method software tool. Indexing and coding are a matter of dragging and dropping codes on the relevant portions of the text. Quantitative data from the larger study also are uploaded and linked to adolescent and parent narratives and photos. Narratives can be coded; patterns in quantitative data can be enriched qualitatively. The same fieldworkers who went to the homes and did interviews, also often worked on analyses of quantitative data.

Methods and research designs are languages understood across the social sciences. To the extent that we can speak those languages in our work, we more likely will draw in those in other disciplines into conversations with us. A study that creatively integrates quantitative and qualitative methods sends a positive message to those fluent in only qualitative or quantitative methods that we take their methods (and so their identities and ideas) seriously. The increased believability in our and others’ work which often results is itself a criterion for successful mixed methods research. The use of integrated methods is growing across the social sciences; psychology (eg, Yoshikawa, et al, Developmental Psychology 44[344–54]), sociology (eg, Mario Small in Annual Review of Sociology 37[57–86]), psychiatry (Palinkas, et al, Psychiatric Services 62 [3]), public health (Plano-Clark, Qualitative Inquiry16 [6]), political science, education, economics and other fields are benefitting and sometimes looking to anthropology for collaboration. Policy and practice research benefits hugely from integrating qualitative and quantitative methods. Funders increasingly see integrated methods as a strength in grant proposals.

The stark binary contrast of the “two Q’s”—qualitative vs quantitative—is not very useful; it restricts our thinking and limits our conversations. The two Q’s oversimplifies the debates and obscures important shared goals common to all methods. A better narrative and discourse about methods should use a richer conceptual framework. The actual contrast with quantitative levels of measurement (ordinal, interval, ratio scales) should be nominal or categorical levels (words, categories, narratives, themes, patterns); both are useful. The contrast with naturalistic research should not be experimental but research that is contrived or controlled in some systematic way to aid understanding. A useful framework for anthropology should distinguish person and experience-centered, or context-centered and variable-centered methods, not a qualitative/quantitative binary. Such a methods conversation could then focus on the most important Q—our common questions.

Many of us use ethnographic settings, events or activities as our units of analysis to be sure we do not bracket out context that provides essential meaning. However, inquiry across levels of analysis beyond settings and beyond projects often requires mixed methods. We often deal with suspicions about the “bias” of ethnographic and qualitative methods. Mixed methods do not necessarily lead to common findings; there is method variance just as there is expectable heterogeneity, conflict and inconsistency in cultural beliefs and practices themselves. A more useful question is whether our methods have been systematically context-examined or remain context-unexamined—since all methods (whether qualitative or quantitative) entail a context or a set of presumptions and methods effects of some kinds.

Quantitative methods and statistical analyses have guidelines and procedures (not uncontested of course) for deciding if they are done well—if they met accepted standards and should be published and disseminated for example. These include judgments of reliability, validity, sample size and representativeness or generalizability, power, and so forth. Qualitative and ethnographic work can and should have recognized criteria as well, such as breadth, depth, holism, veridicality, specificity of context, meaning centered, narrative and behavioral coherence, shared cognitions, interpretive richness, and others. These are of course more variable, and not so easy to define, yet they are valuable and defensible if carefully described. These should be in addition to explicit descriptions of sampling, setting, and so forth. Reasonable, flexible mixed methods criteria are being developed in these respects (Weisner and Fiese in Journal of Family Psychology 25[6]). Recent NIH guidelines have been developed for the use of mixed methods in health research and in applications for funding (Cresswell, et al, 2011).

I would guess—or at least hope—that most anthropologists are fairly tolerant pluralists regarding methods. Most of us appreciate the vast range of qualitative and ethnographic methods and their integration, as in Russ Bernard’s Research Methods in Anthropology. Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches (2011). I suspect many if not most of us generally agree with this view or use mixed methods in our own research and teaching, and regularly cite such work even if we don’t do this ourselves. If we don’t do quantitative research, we may have partnered with others who do and are interested in similar questions, or we may have taught courses using books and papers with quantitative evidence. And yet it is fair to say that those who critique quantitative methods, or dismiss systematic methods altogether, including mixed methods, sometimes, without justification in my view, seek to claim the dominant view. To the contrary: the future of our field and the social sciences is far more likely to be characterized by interdisciplinary methodological pluralism, often including integrated mixed methods. Anthropology should be at the forefront of such research and practice, not critiquing from the margins or simply ignoring important methodological and research design innovations.

Donald Campbell long ago described this more modest, pluralist, pragmatic, skeptical, empirically based approach to methods: he argued that all methods are valuable and important, but that all methods are also weak in the sense that they are incomplete representations of the incredibly complex world that we hope to understand. Hence we should use the widest range of methods, so that the weaknesses of one method can be complemented by the strengths of another, and so that phenomena in the world that are holistic qualities best or only to be represented by narrative, text, photos or sound are represented that way, and phenomena best or only to be represented with numbers, variables and models are represented quantitatively. As a result, we will get closer to understanding the world, and then persuading others of the truth of what we discover and believe.

Thomas S Weisner ( is anthropology professor in the departments of psychiatry and anthropology at UCLA, and director of Center for Culture & Health. His research and teaching interests are in culture and human development; medical, psychological and cultural studies of families and children at risk; mixed methods; and evidence-informed policy.

4th CIFAS Field School in Ethnographic Research Methods in Xalapa, Mexico

Summer Field School in Ethnographic Methods in Mexico

July 23 to August 10, 2012 – Xalapa, Mexico

The Comitas Institute for Anthropological Study (CIFAS) is pleased to announce the 4th CIFAS Field School in Ethnographic Research Methods, in Xalapa (Jalapa), Mexico.

The goal of the Field School is to offer training in the foundations and practice of ethnographic methods. The faculty works closely with participants to identify the required field methods needed to address their academic or professional needs. The Field School is designed for people with little or no experience in ethnographic research, or those who want a refresher course. It is suitable for graduate and undergraduate students in social sciences and other fields of study that use qualitative approaches (such as education, communication, cultural studies, health, social work, human ecology, development studies, consumer behavior, among others), applied social scientists, professionals, and researchers who have an interest in learning more about ethnographic methods and their applications.


·          Foundations of ethnographic research

·          Social theories in the field & research design

·          Planning the logistics of field research

·          Data collection techniques

·          Principles of organization and indexation of field data

·          Analyzing field data

·          Qualitative analysis softwares: basic principles

·          Individual, one-on-one discussion of research projects

·          Field trips


Renzo Taddei (Assistant Professor, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro/Affiliated Researcher, Columbia University). CV:

Ana Laura Gamboggi (Postdoctoral fellow, University of Brasilia). CV:

Zulma Amador (Faculty member of the Centro de EcoAlfabetización y Diálogo de Saberes of Universidad Veracruzana, Mexico). CV:

Registration and other costs: Places are limited. The registration fee is US$900, which covers the full three weeks of program activities. The registration fee should be paid by July 1, though a deposit to the CIFAS bank account. Pre-registration should be completed online at the link The deadline for pre-registration is June 30, 2012.

The registration fee does not cover accommodation, meals or transportation. If needed, the organizers of the Field School can recommend reasonably priced hotels and places to eat during the program. In Xalapa, accommodation, meals and local transportation costs should be no more than US$100 per day in total.

Course venue: Classes will take place in the Centro de EcoAlfabetización y Diálogo de Saberes of Universidad Veracruzana (refer to For more information on Xalapa, please see “Xalapa: Mexico’s best kept secret

Other information:

Language: The Field School activities will be carried out in English. Special sections of the Field School can be offered in Spanish, depending on the number of interested individuals.

Visa requirements: Citizens of the U.S. and some European and Latin American countries don’t need visas to enter Mexico, but do need valid passports. You can check whether you need a visa here:

Insurance: Participants are required to have travel insurance that covers medical and repatriation costs. Proof of purchase of travel insurance must be presented at the first day of activities.

The average temperature in Xalapa in July is 25 ºC (77 ºF) during the day and 16 ºC (61 ºF) at night. Xalapa´s rainy season goes from June to November, so participants should expect some rain during the field school.

For more information, please see the link or write to Renzo Taddei at

January Field School in Ethnographic Methods in Uruguay

3rd CIFAS Field School in Ethnographic Research Methods

3 to 13 January 2012 – Montevideo, Uruguay

The Comitas Institute for Anthropological Study (CIFAS) is pleased to announce the 3rd CIFAS Field School in Ethnographic Research Methods, in Montevideo, Uruguay.

The goal of the Field School is to offer training in the foundations and practice of ethnographic methods. The faculty works closely with participants to identify the required field methods needed to address their academic or professional needs. The Field School is designed for people with little or no experience in ethnographic research, or those who want a refresher course. It is suitable for graduate and undergraduate students in social sciences and other fields of study that use qualitative approaches (such as education, communication, cultural studies, health, social work, human ecology, development studies, consumer behavior, among others), applied social scientists, professionals, and researchers who have an interest in learning more about ethnographic methods and their applications.


· Foundations of ethnographic research

· Social theories in the field: research design

· Planning the logistics of field research

· Data collection techniques

· Principles of organization and indexation of field data

· Analyzing field data

· Qualitative analysis softwares: basic principles

· Individual, one-on-one discussion of research projects

· Short field trips in the interior of Uruguay



Renzo Taddei (Assistant Professor, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro/Affiliated Researcher, Columbia University). CV:

Ana Laura Gamboggi (Postdoctoral fellow, University of Brasilia). CV:

Assistant Instructors:

Maria Fernanda de Torres Álvarez (M.A. in Anthropology, University of the Republic of Uruguay)

Zulma Amador (Ph.D. candidate, Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology, Mexico)


Registration and other costs: Places are limited. The registration fee is US$600, which covers the full ten days of program activities. The registration fee should be paid on the first day of the program. Pre-registration should be completed online: please send an email to, with name, school/institution, contact address and telephone number. The deadline for pre-registration is December 16, 2011.

The registration fee does not cover accommodation, meals or transportation. If needed, the organizers of the Field School can recommend reasonably priced hotels and places to eat during the program. In Uruguay, accommodation, meals and local transportation costs should be no more than US$100 per day in total.

Course venue: Classes will take place in the beautiful Zonamerica Foundation headquarters (refer to, an educational institution within walking distance of good restaurants, and the very comfortable Regency Hotel ( Other hotels and hostels are available around Montevideo, with easy access to public transportation to and from Zonamerica.

Other information

Language: The Field School activities will be carried out in English. Special sections of the Field School can be offered in Spanish or Portuguese, depending on the number of interested individuals. The Zonamerica Foundation will offer a Spanish Language Immension Course during the same period as the Field School, and arrangements can be made for interested students to attend both the Field School and the Spanish classes. For more information on the Spanish Language Immension Course, write to Ana or Andrea at

Visa requirements: Citizens of the U.S. and most Latin American and European countries don’t need visas to enter Uruguay, but do need valid passports (except for citizens of countries that are Mercosur members). You can check whether you need a visa here:

Insurance: Participants are required to have travel insurance that covers medical and repatriation costs. Proof of purchase of travel insurance must be presented at registration.

Weather: The average temperature in Montevideo in January is 28 ºC (83 ºF) during the day and 17 ºC (62 ºF) at night.

For more information, please write to Renzo Taddei at