The End(s) of Ethnography: Social/Cultural Anthropology's Signature Form of Producing Knowledge in Transition

Abstract

Today's investment in and calls for public anthropology are one symptom of the profound rupture and reorganization of the research agendas of social/cultural anthropology as it moved away from the four-field organization of anthropology into an alignment with certain humanities-driven, energetically interdisciplinary appropriations of the concerns of the social sciences in the name of "theory." In anthropology, this story can most cogently be told by focusing on what happened to its central professional culture of method: what ethnography looks like today and the conditions of research, encompassing fieldwork, that produce it. This article is an examination of this reorganization of social/cultural anthropology, which has left the center of the discipline intellectually weak relative to the vitality of its diverse interdisciplinary and even nonacademic engagements. It asks whether this post-1980s reorganized social/cultural anthropology might rediscover and reunite with some of its historic core associations (four-field as well as topical) in the new terrains of research and partnerships on the peripheries of its old disciplinary center.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology is a quarterly publication of the Society of Cultural Anthropologists. In the past it has published essays on ethnography such as Faye Ginsburg’s “Ethnography and American Studies” and Amitav Ghosh’s “The Global Reservation: Notes toward an Ethnography of International Peacekeeping.”

George Marcus was the founding editor of Cultural Anthropology in 1986. He has published particularly important volumes in the field, such as WC (Clifford and Marcus 1986) and Anthropology as Cultural Critique (Marcus and Fischer 1999). An essay of his in Cultural Anthropology that may be of particular interest is his final “Editorial Retrospective” (1991). Other authors have also written essays on the state and future of the field of anthropology. See, for example, Paul Rabinow’s “Beyond Ethnography: Anthropology as Nominalism” (1988) and Elizabeth Enslin’s “Beyond Writing: Feminist Practice and the Limitations of Ethnography” (1994). 

About the Author

Editorial Overview

Anthropology has been vital to recent interdisciplinary endeavors such as feminist studies, postcolonial studies, and science studies, but its own disciplinary core remains “in suspension,” awaiting an infusion of fresh theories and methods, argues George Marcus in an interview published in the February 2008 issue of Cultural Anthropology.

“There are no new ideas, and none on the horizon, as well as no signs that its traditional stock of knowledge shows any sign of revitalization,” states the University of California at Irvine Chancellor's Professor of Anthropology in this wide-ranging and provocative interview. One of anthropology’s most accomplished figures, Marcus acknowledges that many outside the field have turned to it for answers when examining this century’s dramatic cultural, political, and economic transformations. Yet while such new “terrains and contexts” continue to beckon, anthropologists remain wedded to traditional methods “a la Malinowski and Boas” and unable yet to bring to its center “coherent ideas” about the meaning and practice of anthropology in the contemporary world.

Marcus co-edited with James Clifford, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, the 1986 landmark volume that transformed anthropology with its emphasis on critical theory and break with old forms and discourses. Now surveying the field the book reinvigorated with interdisciplinary concerns, Marcus says he finds himself “unfashionably concerned” again with the fate of anthropology as a singular discipline.

“We don’t need more conferences or seminars but a different style and process of training anthropologists, also a rethinking of the standard forms and functions of writing in anthropology, Marcus suggests.” At the heart of this reworked fieldwork would be the “anthropologist as collaborator,” a scholar who works not with “others” but with “counterparts,” who often share the anthropologist’s concern and inhabit the same intellectual world – a world of questions, emergences, and experiments rather than the holistic certainties of an older conception of “culture.” 

“What’s left to do then, is to follow events, to engage ethnographically with history unfolding in the present, or to anticipate what is emerging. The great majority of projects of anthropology are pursued in this defining kind of temporality, which, in my view, has become much more important than traditional spatial tropes of “being there” in situating ethnography in time-space.”

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