In the recent edition of Imponderabilia (in which I have an article, but that’s not what we’re talking about here), Alisa Maximova from the National State University in Russia has a nice little piece about “Understanding Ethnographic Work: Through Fieldnotes and Diaries.” In it she draws upon the sociology of science – specifically Kerin Knorr-Cetina, who I’m not familiar with – to better understand the practices of ethnographers and the role of fieldnotes and diaries in the construction of ethnographic knowledge. It’s a really interesting essay – something I’ve contemplated myself in recent years. I have no critiques of it, but only a few things to add that make the full breadth of the work of ethnographers more apparent.
Knorr-Cetina’s research seems to focus on the (human) practice of writing and composing a text – in this case a scientific paper. If we are to use science and technology studies as a means of understanding anthropological practice, I would advocate looking to the work of other STS researchers like Latour, Callon, Haraway, Stengers, and Law (who has done a great deal himself on the work of social science research) in addition to Knorr-Cetina and others who focus on the production of texts. While the production of texts is an important and essential part of the practice of science, it is not all that scientists do, and these other researchers attend to the full breadth of scientific practice. What this means is that they attend to the ways that scientists compose not just texts, but also relations with others – including non-humans. Thus it is the practices of humans and non-humans that composes the knowledge of science and not simply the rhetorical practices of humans composing texts. This is an important insight because it allows us to judge the differences between knowledge claims. Instead of asking whether the knowledge claim was well or poorly argued (by means of textual composition) we can ask whether the knowledge was well or poorly composed (by means of the relationships composed by the practices of the scientists). What’s more, we recognize the agency of those beings studied by scientists, whereas a focus exclusively on textual (re)production acknowledges only the agency of the humans composing the texts.
I would extend this to the work (practice) of ethnography itself. It’s true that ethnographers spend a great deal of time producing texts – diaries, fieldnotes, jottings, research papers, correspondences, etc. – but that’s not all we do when we are in the field. Indeed, the term “fieldwork” encompasses a broad range of activities that could be characterized as relationship building. We spend time with the people we study, we build rapport, we participant-observe, we offer advice, goods, and services, and in many cases these days we actually work with these people to compose knowledge in the form of texts. Only by looking at the full range of work that constitutes fieldwork can we understand the practice of anthropology. For one, we must recognize the participation of these other human beings in the production of ethnographic knowledge – it is not merely the rhetorical production of texts, but an engagement with others that alters and affects us in a variety of ways. To claim otherwise is to deny their agency. Furthermore, we must be attentive to the role of non-humans in the production of ethnographic knowledge. Certainly, they tend not to be the focus of our texts, but they often play an important role and carry an agency of their own which we deny by a focus only on the rhetorical strategies of ethnographers. Finally, it becomes possible to see that ethnographers are not simply constructing knowledge about a pre-existing world. Rather, through our work we construct the world itself. A focus on knowledge production alone allows us to ignore other aspects of ethnographic work that are often more profoundly world changing than the production of texts. The question then becomes, what kind of world do we create through the practice of ethnography – through our interviews, our participant-observation, our rapport building, our gifting, etc.? How do we alter and affect that which we study, and how can we be more attentive to the realities that we construct?
I believe this is very fertile ground for consideration. It’s not a theory to be validated – a “theory of” – but one which, hopefully, informs our work and leads us to better practices – a “theory for.” The researchers mentioned above are at the forefront of this approach, and there are many more out there who have been thinking in much the same way. It is one of my central concerns as an anthropologist – a better way of think about the work of anthropology.