Students Are Not Natives – So Why Do We Treat Them That Way?

Tim Ingold Black and White
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).

Tim Ingold Color
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).

7 thoughts on “Students Are Not Natives – So Why Do We Treat Them That Way?

  1. An interesting read.

    Jon Elster wrote once that french universities work in a sort of feudal way, while their american counterparts have incorporated the principles of free market more openly. I´m not sure if that´s quite right; but I do think that academia often acts like a medieval guild, where apprentices, officers and masters work within frameworks quite different from those of capitalist relations.

    It´s not a very pleasing analogy, but I think it sheds some light on the way students are treated.

  2. I also was intrigued by this aspect of Ingold’s provocative and fascinating lecture. It seems to me to be a call to help our students engage in the way of seeing and interacting with the world that is anthropology. This means both getting our students to be doing anthropology (and ethnography) and also to be doing anthropology with them in the classroom concerning their culture, what is all around them. Ingold comes out against simply having our students read the ethnographies of other anthropologists who always do anthropology with something other than the students own experience, so that anthropology is over there always. Even worse is to have students endlessly reading anthropologists discussions of what anthropologists do. I am in complete sympathy with this idea, although I have very much been guilty of the precise practices that he disavows.

  3. By chance, I just happened to read this essay for the first time the other day. The part about students and how they are viewed in the educational process was pretty striking, and I appreciate Ingold’s ideas about how things might be changed–or at least looked at differently. I especially liked his idea of thinking of students as PART of the anthropological process, as opposed to receptacles that are merely there to receive and regurgitate information.

    He also made a pretty thought provoking point when he asked where anthropology ends and begins–does it end in the field, and ultimately result in publications that students use to experience the discipline in a second hand manner? Or is anthropology a kind of philosophical endeavor that continues long after fieldwork, and one that includes the process of learning and exploration that exists in universities?

    Daniel wrote:

    “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.”

    I agree. Although there is also the possibility of jettisoning the whole idea of the “field,” which is kind of an abstraction in and of itself. There are, after all, plenty of essays that talk about the difficulties of figuring out where the field begins and ends–and maybe that’s all just in our heads so that we can try to distinguish between work and regular life “off the clock.” Who knows. Maybe the field is everywhere, or maybe there is no field and anthropology applies everywhere, at all times. Six to one…

  4. There is no question about it that anthropology is a great way of engaging the world, both in the field and back at home. It is also a great idea to engage students in doing anthropology, to acquire the practice and not just the head trip that comes from reading books and writing papers about them. That said, and here I project my personal experience, there is something to be said for the idea that fieldwork in an alien place is hugely educational. Where else does a young, or not so young, adult get to re-experience having less street smarts than the average two year old while conscious of what’s going on? There is something to this initiation that no amount of qualitative research in an already familiar setting provides. Can it be simulated? Perhaps if every Anthro BA included a total immersion field school in some place very different from that where the graduates grew up….

    1. Since Daniel was kind enough to track me down on OAC, I return the favor, reproducing here my response on OAC to Daniel’s eloquent post there.


      Whoops. That last message wasn’t the message I created when I tried to respond to what Daniel Lende so eloquently wrote. Let me try again.

      There is so much in Daniel’s message; it reminds me of a banana split with three flavors of ice cream, chocolate and caramel sauce. Delicious but where to begin. I proceed from silly to serious.

      Re Hegel: I recall Hal Walsh, a philosophy professor at Michigan State (the time was circa 1963) that, “Hegel was the first great philosopher who was both a university professor and a married man. It’s been downhill ever since.”

      Re Rousseau and Kant: Don’t both assume a universal goodness/rationality that is bound to emerge once human beings are freed from the distortions and corruptions of society, an idea that reaches its apotheosis in rational choice theory and market fundamentalism, in which all human beings are assumed to behave rationally in pursuit of their own interests? How does this square with the anthropological observation that human infants take a long time to be socialized into some particular kind of human being, and Clifford Geertz’s assertion that there is no universal actor behind the lines and costumes some particular culture provides?

      Re the notion of teaching as pouring water into empty buckets: When I was teaching seminars on advertising and marketing, I proposed to my students that knowledge creation is picture making. There are, however, two kinds of pictures, those found in jigsaw puzzles and those created when an artist confronts a blank canvas. The former are convenient for both students and teachers; the object of the exercise and the measure of its success are getting all the pieces and getting them in the right places. This exercise is easy to grade. The latter are inconvenient. As in art school, the teacher introduces materials and techniques, requires exercises that put them to work, offer hints as the students’ projects develop. But how are the results to be graded? Who decides when a work of art is finished? Who decides whether the work is impressive or dull or tasteless? These judgments are inevitably subjective.

      I then offer a word of advice that I was given at the start of the thirteen years I spent as a copywriter and creative director at a large Japanese advertising agency. A wise woman named Alice Buzzarte told me, “John, to succeed in this business you will need a thick skin. You have to realize that three out of four of your brilliant ideas are going straight into the trash can.” I follow by observing that in all the time I spent at the agency, I never saw anyone paid big bucks for repeating what others had already done. A creator might start with something “like that,” having in mind an ad seen in another context, but no comment was more damning than “already been done.” Without some new angle or twist, that idea was dead.

      Now the ad industry takes to an extreme the endless pursuit of the new and different that everyone talks about these days (including, I note, academics trying to get things published). There are still plenty of industries where repetitive physical labor is needed. But given these two extremes, knowledge-creation and mass-production, it is, advanced business thinkers believe, the former that is now the primary source of value in the postmodern, post-industrial global economy. How to educate knowledge workers is a hot topic for politicians as well as business leaders. I wonder what anthropologists can contribute to this debate.

  5. Just for the record, the eloquence wasn’t mine but Keith Hart’s (for more, check out Keith’s Memory Bank blog). Here’s what I posted over at Open Anthropology Cooperative in the Students Are Not Natives discussion that John started, spurred on by this post. It was just me copying something that Keith had written in another discussion about teaching, which got its start in ideas provoked by this post here. Yeah, complicated…

    So anyway. Start of the Comment There:

    Keith Hart, who kicked off the Open Anth Co-op, commented on teaching and Tim Ingold in another thread started by Jeremy Trombley, Toward an Anthropological Pedagody. Keith wrote:

    “Tim Ingold was my first ever student in Cambridge. I was a graduate student just back from the field and he was a second year undergraduate. I was asked to give him some one-on-one supervisions. He blew me away. He knew far more anthropology than I did (which wasn’t difficult since I had been a classicist).maybe that persuaded me that students should lead teachers rather than the other way round.”

    Keith also expanded in depth on how he thinks about teaching, which I definitely appreciated:

    “I care more about getting the education right than whether or not we would attach to the principles involved a Greek tag of six syllables. It is important to go back to fundamentals.

    Education as we know it is the camera obscura of ideology in Marx’s sense, an attempt to persuade people that ideas (as packaged by experts) come before life. This reflects a social order whose priority is to secure compliance to what already exists rather than explore something new. The result is a ‘hose in a bucket’ approach. The student is expected to discard any personal experience in order to be filled with prepackaged ‘knowledge’. Content in this sense, as you say, is useless to anyone who would learn to think for themselves.

    You can lecture for knowledge or lecture for belief. I lecture for belief which is to say I want the students to believe that ideas come from life, from my life and implicitly from their own in the context of the long human conversation about a better world. I don’t want to impose my thoughts on theirs, but to help them discover their own. I resist the idea that they should become like me, wishing rather to hitch a ride on their lives, since they will be going places I could never imagine. This principle applies to parenthood with even greater force.

    My master in all this is Jean-Jacques Rousseau whose Emile: or on education is my all-time favourite book. It is so revolutionary that the Archbishop of Paris unleashed the hit squads on its author by issuing a fatwah under which Rousseau’s killers would receive the benediction of the church. Essentially he was saying that we are normally in too much of a hurry to make children like oursleves. We reward the speed with which they acquire familiar habits. Any child can learn to entertain dinner guests with a Mozart violin sonata at the age of five if they sacrfice all other activities to that end. Rousseau’s revolutionary idea was that children should be allowed to enjoy doing whatever they are suited for especially at a given age. His book is a fictitious accopunt of hmself as tutor to the boy, Emile, and his girlfriend Sophie, according to what J-J considered to be natural principles of self-development. The goal of his educational system was to help someone become the best person they are capable of, without concern for how this might fit him for contemporary society. At least he went to the root of the problem rather than complain about some of the surface manifestations.

    It is worth noting that Immanuel Kant’s Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view (1798) was likewise designed as a primer for self-development. The romantic movement as a whole dumped the idea of education as a means of adapting to existing social structure in favour of equipping individuals to do the best they could by relying on what was between their own ears. Renaissance humanism and 20th century existentialism shared some elements of this philosophy and I would prefer to found 21st century anthropology on something similar.

    What we take for grantedpo as ‘education’ is based on a formula first articulated by Hegel in The philosophy of right (1821). He prosed states to manage the unequal excesses of capitalism and the latter to discipline the abuse of power by politicians. The common interest would be addressed by a class of university-trained bureaucrats. This programme was realised in stages after the first world war and it is unravelling now. The emphasis on academic research rather than teaching was exclusively a Cold War phenomenon. From now on in we can expect the focus to shift back to bums on seats, teaching in other words. Universities have been around for a millennium, but what we think they are was only established in the 1960s and has been running out of juice ever since. I will leave it there, but at this point I am clearly seguing into the discussion on Ingold and students are natives. This overlap is hardly accidental, since we need to rethink social models and anthropology offers an off-centre vantage point for doing so.”

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