I have been re-reading Tim Ingold’s Anthropology Is Not Ethnography (pdf), and this time was quite struck by his discussion of teaching and students near the end of his Radcliffe-Brown Lecture in Social Anthropology.
As educators based in university departments, most anthropologists devote much of their lives to working with students. They probably spend considerably more time in the classroom than anywhere they might call the field. Some enjoy this more than others, but they do not, by and large, regard time in the classroom as an integral part of their anthropological practice. Students are told that anthropology is what we do with our colleagues, and with other people in other places, but not with them. Locked out of the power-house of anthropological knowledge construction, all they can do is peer through the windows that our texts and teachings offer them. It took the best part of a century, of course, for the people once known as ‘natives’, and latterly as ‘informants’, to be admitted to the big anthropology house as master-collaborators, that is as people we work with. It is now usual for their contributions to anthropological study to be fulsomely acknowledged.
Yet students remain excluded, and the inspiration and ideas that flow from our dialogue with them unrecognized. I believe this is a scandal, one of the malign consequences of the institutionalized division between research and teaching that has so blighted the practice of scholarship. For indeed, the epistemology that constructs the student as the mere recipient of anthropological knowledge—rather than as a participant in its ongoing creative crafting—is the very same that constructs the native as an informant. And it is no more defensible (89-90).
This description resonated with me because it captures how students are often treated in the university system, where students come to be civilized and taught. They are our natives to be colonized.
Ingold’s words also give voice to some of the alternative ways that I think about teaching – of working with students, of developing their desire to learn and engage, of working on skills that will stay with them long after a class. Hence my efforts at creating community-based work and online reports with them. For me, all of this is anthropological – a way of being, of seeing things, of learning, of comparing. Ingold writes:
Too often, it seems to me, we disappoint our students’ expectations. Rather than awakening their curiosity toward social life, or kindling in them an inquisitive mode of being, we force them into an endless reflection on disciplinary texts which are studied not for the light they throw upon the world but for what they reveal about the practices of anthropologists themselves and the doubts and dilemmas that surround their work. Students soon discover that having doubled up on itself, through its conflation with ethnography, anthropology has become an interrogation of its own ways of working (89).
Ingold presents a richer view of anthropology, one which is about engagement and practice. This view revolves around a simple question, Does my anthropology stop simply because I am not in the field? For me the answer is most definitely no. So we need to rethink what anthropology is.
Conventionally we associate ethnography with fieldwork and participant observation, and anthropology with the comparative analysis that follows after we have left the field behind. I want to suggest, to the contrary, that anthropology as an inquisitive mode of inhabiting the world, of being with, chararcterised by the ‘sideways glance’ of the comparative attitude is itself a practice of observation grounded in participatory dialogue. It may be mediated by such descriptive activities as painting and drawing, which can be coupled to observation. And of course it may be mediated by writing.
But unlike painting and drawing, anthropological writing is not an art of description. We do not call it ‘anthropography’, and for good reason. It is rather a practice of correspondence. The anthropologist writes, as indeed he thinks and speaks to himself, to others and to the world. His observations answer to his experience of habitation. This verbal correspondence lies at the heart of the anthropological dialogue. It can be carried out anywhere, regardless of whether we might imagine ourselves to be ‘in the field’ or out of it.
Anthropologists, as I have insisted, do their thinking, talking and writing in and with the world. To do anthropology, you do not have to imagine the world as a field. ‘The field’ is rather a term by which the ethnographer retrospectively imagines a world from which he has turned away in order, quite specifically, that he might describe it in writing. His literary practice is not so much one of non-descriptive correspondence as one of non-correspondent description, that is, a description which (unlike painting or drawing) has broken away from observation. Thus if anyone retreats to the armchair, it is no the anthropologist but the ethnographer. As he shifts from inquiry to description he has of necessity to reposition himself from the field of action to the sidelines (87-88).
Ingold’s view of anthropology also brings a shift in our view of ethnography.
Nothing has been more damaging to ethnography than its representation under the guise of the ‘ethnographic method’. Of course, ethnography has its methods, but it is not a method. It is not, in other words, a set of formal procedural means designed to satisfy the ends of anthropological inquiry. It is a practice in its own right, a practice of verbal description. The account it yields, of other people’s lives, are finished pieces of work, not raw materials for further anthropological analysis.
But if ethnography is not a means to the end of anthropology, then neither is anthropology the servant of ethnography. To repeat, anthropology is an inquiry into the conditions and possibilities of human life in the world; it is not as so many scholars in fields of literary criticism would have it, the study of how to write ethnography, or of the reflexive problematics of the shift from observation to description (88-89).”
Here ethnography is presented as writing – of accounting and describing and rendering and evoking. Yet this act of writing is treated as more than a text, that rhetorical turn that Geertz takes in The Interpretation of Culture after going into much greater depth about thick description and interpretation and which then became a full-fledged approach in Writing Culture edited by James Clifford and George Marcus.
My concern is not really with Ingold’s characterization of ethnography. Chris Kelty has looked more closely at Ingold’s approach to ethnography and its relation to anthropology in Small Craft Warning. Kerim at Savage Minds also takes on the ethnographic side of Ingold’s essay, in particular “the idea of a one-way progression from ethnography to anthropology.” In my mind, his point that ethnography is about writing and not text is an important one, but not fully developed in the essay.
Here is what I do take way from Ingold’s lecture. We can learn something about how we do anthropology by paying attention to our students, by seeing the field as all around us, and by embracing anthropology as a way of interacting with the world.
Tim Ingold is professor of anthropology at the University of Aberdeen.
You can hear the entire Radcliffe-Brown lecture by Tim Ingold here in podcast form. You can get the published form at Scribd.
For more from Ingold, both Greg and I quite like his book, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (London : Routledge, 2000).