On October 5, 2022, we held an online celebration for the one-year birthday of Experimenting with Ethnography: A Companion to Analysis (Duke University Press 2021, eds. Andrea Ballestero and Brit Ross Winthereik). With over a hundred attendees from around the world, we heard how readers have drawn on, been inspired by, and also transformed the book’s ideas through their own pedagogical, research, and scholarly engagements with the text. Watch a recording of the event here. Below we reflect on some of our favorite moments.
We were thrilled to have amazing guest speakers ground the event’s discussion: Marilyn Strathern (University of Cambridge), Dawn Nafus (Intel), and Nikhil Anand (University of Pennsylvania). Two of the book’s contributors, Patricia Alvarez Astacio (Brandeis University) and Tone Walford (University College London), responded to our guest speakers’ provocations, as well as several other contributors in the audience.
After welcoming remarks and introductions from Andrea and Brit, Nikhil Anand kicked off the discussion by reflecting on his experiences teaching with the book. He ended by posing to book contributors as well as the broader audience the question of how experimenting with ethnography intervenes in anthropological and STS ethnographies of experimentation. He also asked the volume’s contributors about the everyday work of collaboration and companionship that went into both the making of the book and its life, touching on key themes–collective thinking, sharing, and companionship–that would reverberate throughout the event.
Then we heard from Dawn Nafus, who shared the sometimes baffling, sometimes playful experiences of slowing down to cultivate an ethnographic sensibility toward even the most seemingly mundane or standard moments in industry, academia, and beyond. She asked book contributors to reflect on how writing their protocols felt, especially in comparison to other forms of writing. What kinds of companionship were afforded by writing and reading other’s ethnographic analysis protocols? This spoke to an emerging theme of the discussion around the value of slowing down ethnography to afford intimacy with the material, analysis, and others.
Marilyn Strathern was next to reflect, commenting on her own recent experiences and challenges with collaborative, cross-disciplinary work. She posed how it might feel untethering to use another person’s protocol that brings with it the entire world and situation that engendered it, even as one uses it in a different context. Protocols, after all, are written post-event, post-ethnographic moment, and thus carry their particular histories. She also asked the book contributors and audience for assistance: did anyone have tips for making the pause before analysis–that slowing down to prevent one’s already existing conceptual frameworks from flooding a new moment–not feel like paralysis in collaborative relationships? How to handle, especially when working with others from different disciplines, such pauses, such suspension of theorization, and the feeling of a research object still in formation when others are asking you to articulate it? When an invitation from an interlocutor is more than an invitation but an expectation to experiment together, what is the weight of that invitation?
Patricia Alvarez Astacio and Tone Walford offered brief but deep responses to all of these questions, opening up a generative discussion with the audience. One point that Patricia touched on was how writing her chapter offered the opportunity to recreate and reopen a different kind of ethnographic space. Because field notes are usually treated as a private matter, and there is a mystical, tacit process of turning them into published analysis, for Patricia it felt like baring her soul to write about her analytic protocol. The process of stepping back to ask how analysis actually happens felt like getting naked in public, being totally exposed. Because of this, she couldn’t do any other way of writing that wasn’t intimate in that sense. But with this also came a sense of forming a bond of trust, like one does with a friend, and there was beauty in this process, as something we don’t tend to do with academic writing.
Tone spoke to the sense of emergence they felt writing their chapter: instead of feeling like they had a pre-existing understanding of their analytical protocol before writing, they became a kind of person throughout the process who had a protocol to pass on. There was something creative and generative in what and who they became through the act of making it, like how STS scholars have written about the co-emergence of scientific objects and scientists themselves. Tone appreciated this transformation as a researcher. Picking up on this sense of emergent researcher subjectivities and relationships, they replied to Marilyn’s request for tips by wondering if it would be possible to simply decline relating in certain ways to certain collaborators. If we don’t take certain kinds of relating as necessarily possible in an a priori way, but see forms of relating as deliberate choices (like the analogies Tone writes about in their chapter), can we also be deliberate in who we relate to, or not, as collaborators? Do we have to collaboratively relate to everything and everyone? Yet, as Marilyn responded, one is sometimes already related in such ways just by nature of working together in other capacities.
Others picked up on these challenges of collaborative relations and collective thinking. The discussion explored sharing and collaborating as not just a “good” in itself, or merely a “resource.” We can celebrate expanding access to volumes like Experimenting with Ethnography, but it’s also important to slow down and question where the imperative to share comes from in the first place. When does a quantitative sense of sharing–maximizing the number of people who can be involved or participate–start to affect more qualitative understandings of sharing, the nature of these sharing relationships? Collaborative relationships and collective work, rather than being mere “goods” in themselves, are conditions one can carefully construct and also decide to check out of. Good collaborative relations require protocols of their own, processes for establishing shared purposes and expectations. These aren’t necessary simply to facilitate collective work, but they actively structure inclusivity. If we share at a slower pace, sit longer in even the discomfort of pauses and suspension, how does that lead us to value collaboration differently?
Again, thank you to all of our participants and audience members, and we look forward to celebrating more book birthdays in the future!
Want to hear more? Experimenting with Ethnography is open-access and available here.
Finally, a big thank you to our co-sponsors for this event, the USC Levan Institute for the Humanities and the USC Center on Science, Technology, and Public Life.