Ethnography as collaboration/experiment

Ethnography as collaboration/experiment is the title of a panel that I organize with Tomás Sánchez Criado in the next conference of the European Association of Social Anthropology: EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & RevolutionWe would like to focus on a cluster of modes of field engagement that we call ‘collaboration/experiment’. We aim to explore what does it mean for an ethnography to be experimental and collaborative? and how could collaborative experiments in the field make us think of more experimental forms of fieldwork collaboration? We believe that paying attention to the contemporary contours of ethnography as ‘collaboration/experiment’ might offer us the possibility of exploring new conditions for the production of anthropological knowledge. You can read below a provocation for triggering the debate.

In the past decades, anthropology has shifted from its traditional naturalistic mode with the ‘been-there-done-that’ rhetoric of immersive fieldwork to new forms of ethnographic engagement that intensify the involvement of anthropologists with their counterparts (Fassin & Bensa, 2008; Faubion & Marcus, 2009). ‘Collaboration’ has been one of the figures invoked by anthropology to describe this situation. However it is far from new (Stull & Schensul, 1987; Ruby, 1992): since the 1980s collaboration has been proposed as a way to inform ethically our relations in the field (Hymes, 1972), or as a way to engage politically with the anthropological fieldwork (Juris, 2007). In the last years collaboration has been mobilized again but in this case in a new sense; it has been proposed as a methodological response to the ethnographies that are developed in expert contexts of knowledge production like scientific laboratories, political institutions, economic organizations or artistic and activist collectives. Holmes & Marcus (2008) have argued that in such context people have ‘para-ethnographic’ practices, very similar to those of anthropologists. As a consequence, they can no longer be treated as ‘informants’ but as collaborating counterparts. In this situation, the articulation of relations in the field in a collaborative mode forces anthropologists to reconsider the scope of their epistemic practices and to rethink the outcomes and representational modes in a gesture that ‘refunctions ethnography’ (Holmes & Marcus 2005).

Following this argument collaboration seems to be an ethnographic mode specifically apposite for social contexts oriented by the production of knowledge. But we have witnessed an intense change in the production of knowledge in the last years. Hybrid institutions have emerged as part of a process that have brought about profound shifts in the nature and distribution of expertise (Nowotny et al. 2001). The generalization of digital technologies seems to have intensified this trend as well as added challenges to the anthropological fieldwork (Kelty et al. 2009). People with no social science expertise are taking part in the fabric of social science research through the development of tools (visualization of Twitter interactions, techniques for the extraction of Facebook social data…) that allow them to elaborate very sophisticated analyses of large empirical data.

Therefore, collaboration seems to be an ethnographic mode that could be generalized to even more contexts. In fact, we consider it to be part of a wider debate on the need of reinvention of social science research methods provoked by this widespread distribution of digital technologies. A situation that, for some authors, represents a coming crisis for the social sciences (Savage & Burrows, 2007) while it is interpreted by others as a chance to renew the social sciences (Lury & Wakeford, 2012).

This claim for a collaborative mode in ethnography is part of the emergence of collaboration as a figure praised in many social contexts. It is pointed out by governments when promoting collaborative efforts in innovation; it is mobilized in artistic contexts as a way to articulate publics and to figure the social engagement of art; it is also claimed by technology designers and developers as a key feature of digital culture. In such contexts, collaboration is praised as a value in itself and as a productive social practice. In its ethnographic mode collaboration seems to point to a two-way egalitarian relation that produces at the same time egalitarian benefits (Konrad, 2008), although it is not always necessarily this way (Strathern, 2008). Despite such a collaborative impetus in our contemporary societies we lack a precise vocabulary to refer to the particularities, nuances and differences of diverse modes of collaboration, a trend that has also affected our lack of detail in the articulation of multiple experiences of participation (Fish el al. 2011).

Hence, in this session we would like to suspend for a moment the assumptions we have over collaboration to ask some simple questions: What do we mean when we call a form of collaborative relation? What ethical imprint do we concede to such a practice? What are the political dimensions attributed to it? In doing so we would like to take into account the invocation of collaboration in knowledge-production contexts without forgetting its twofold character referring either to the manifold ways of ‘doing together’ (collaboration as a social form) or to the more specific ways of joint thinking and information sharing (collaboration as an epistemic mode). In this vein, maybe collaboration might be characterized as a specific contemporary mode of inquiry on the transformations of relationality in knowledge production practices. For this panel we would like to follow this trail, exploring this twofold features in the ongoing revival of more explicit forms of ethnographic research collaboration. We believe that doing so might open up the possibility not only to think of the contemporary conditions of production of anthropological knowledge but also to explore the transformation of the contemporary as a consequence of the intensification of the circulation of knowledge.

Or, to say it otherwise, to think of collaboration practices as experimental forms for ethnographic research. Building on the practices of experimental sciences, both Isabelle Stengers (2006) and Hans-Jorg Rheinberger (1997) have characterized ‘experimentation’ as the sociomaterial craft of devices that pose us new questions. An experiment is a controlled situation that has the power to convey us with the power to speak and think otherwise about our world, as creating ‘causes for thought.’ More concretely, Rheinberger (1997) describes experiments as a situations that allow experimenters to pose new questions that they might not even have had in advance. Thus, we would like to think of collaboration practices as experiments that allow anthropologists to pose questions that they might still not be able to grasp. Collaboration is, therefore, not simply a methodological strategy but a relational and epistemic mode anthropologists recursively unfold to pose questions that are still not able to articulate. In this vein, ‘experimentation’ becomes a figure for capturing the transformation of ethnography in these situations (Marcus 2013).

Building from this, in this invited panel we would like to focus on a cluster of modes of field engagement derived from these transformations and problematizations that we might call ‘ethnography as collaboration/experiment.’ We would like the slash in our title to direct our attention to collaboration as an experiment, proposing experimentation as a strategy for problematizing the diverse and always particular modes of collaboration. It is our believe that different modes of experimentation/collaboration might entail a proposal for ‘rethinking from’ and maybe ‘experimenting with’ new ethnographic modes (Harvey & Knox, 2008; Rabinow, 2011). Hence, in this invited panel we are interested in works addressing the specificities of those modes of engagement we deem ‘collaborative’ and what we mean when we call a relation collaborative. Indeed, we would like to to pay attention to the temporalities of these relations and when they might be said to be collaborative and how they might be sustained in time. It is our believe that these questions challenge us with new questions related to our role as anthropologists:

  • What are the contexts –in spatial, temporal and relational terms- needed for ethnography as collaboration/experiment to happen?
  • How could experimental collaboration be established and maintained? What are its catalysers and experimental devices? Could experimental collaboration explode, such as laboratory experiments sometimes do?
  • What might the methodological, epistemic and relational transformations of such collaboration/experiments be? How is the expertise of social science redistributed in these experimental collaborations? Could collaborative experiments in the field make us think of more experimental forms of fieldwork collaboration?

In sum, we believe that paying attention to the contemporary contours of ethnography as ‘collaboration/experiment’ might offer us the possibility of exploring new conditions for the production of anthropological knowledge.


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Fassin, D., & Bensa, A. (Eds.). (2008). Les politiques de l’enquête: Épreuves ethnographiques. Paris: La Découverte.

Fish, A. et al. (2011). Birds of the Internet: Towards a field guide to the organization and governance of participation. Journal of Cultural Economy, 4(2), 157–187.

Harvey, P., & Knox, H. (2008). “Otherwise Engaged:” Culture, deviance and the quest for connectivity through road construction. Journal of Cultural Economy, 1(1), 79–92.

Holmes, D., & Marcus, G. E. (2005). Cultures of Expertise and the Management of Globalization: Toward the Refunctioning of Ethnography. In A. Ong & S. J. Collier (Eds.), Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems (pp. 235-252). Oxford: Blackwell.

Holmes, D. R., & Marcus, G. E. (2008). Para-Ethnography. In L. Given (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods (pp. 596–598). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Hymes, D (Ed.) (1972). Reinventing anthropology. New York: Random House

Juris, J. S. (2007). Practicing Militant Ethnography with the Movement for Global Resistance (MRG) in Barcelona. In S. Shukaitis & D. Graeber (Eds.), Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigation, Collective Theorization (pp. 164-176). Oakland, Calif: AK Press.

Kelty, C. et al. (2009). Collaboration, Coordination, and Composition: Fieldwork after the Internet. In J. D. Faubion & G. E. Marcus (Eds.), Fieldwork is Not What it Used to Be: Learning Anthropology’s Method in A Time of Transition (pp. 184–206). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Lury, C., & Wakeford, N. (Eds.). (2012). Inventive Methods: The happening of the social. London: Routledge.

Marcus, G. (2013). Experimental forms for the expression of norms in the ethnography of the contemporary. Hau. Journal of ethnographic theory, 3(2), 197–217.

Nowotny, H., Scott, P., & Gibbons, M. (2001). Re-Thinking Science: Knowledge and the Public in an Age of Uncertainty. Oxford: Polity.

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Rheinberger, H.-J. (1997). Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Ruby, J. (1992). Speaking For, Speaking About, Speaking With, or Speaking Alongside: An Anthropological And Documentary Dilemma. Journal of Film and VIdeo, 44(1-2), 42–66

Savage, M., & Burrows, R. (2007). The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology. Sociology, 45(5), 885-889.

Stull, D., & Schensul, J. J. (1987). Collaborative research and social change: applied anthropology in action. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Stengers, I. (2006). La Vierge et le neutrino : Les scientifiques dans la tourmente. Paris: Les Empêcheurs de Penser en Rond / La Découverte.

Strathern, M. (2012). Currencies of Collaboration. In M. Konrad (Ed.), Collaborators Collaborating. Counterparts in Anthropological Knowledge and International Research Relations (pp. 109-125). New York and Oxford: Berghahn.


13th EASA Biennial Conference
Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution – innovation and continuity in an interconnected world
Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Estonian Institute of Humanities, Tallinn University, Estonia
31st July – 3rd August, 2014


Adolfo Estalella (The University of Manchester)
Tomás Sánchez Criado (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

Panel Discussant
Alban Bensa (Iris – EHESS), French anthropologist, Directeur d’études at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and joint director of the IRIS (Institut de recherche interdisciplinaire sur les enjeux sociaux – Sciences sociales, Politique, Santé), with field expertise in New Caledonia and the Kanak people. He has worked on the epistemological and political groundings of an anthropology of action, the event and social transformations. He has also worked on the political and practical conditions of anthropological fieldwork, a field in which he has recently co-edited with Didier Fassin the book Les politiques de l’enquête. Épreuves ethnographiques (2008).

Key dates
Call for papers: 27/12/2013-27/02/2014
Registration opens: 10/04/2014
End of early-bird rate: 22/05/2014

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