Thinking with Tim Ingold

Sometimes when talking about anthropology, we can tend to talk about the discipline as though it is singular. Perhaps this is shorthand: we need a generalised ‘anthropology’ to make possible a general debate.

It’s also crucial not to obfuscate the diverse range of research methods, concepts, and ethical stances. So, what can we do to keep the anthropology’s diversity in mind?

One option: looking to thinkers whose style of doing anthropology diverges so much that some would wonder whether we can still call it anthropology. In this regard, I think Tim Ingold is helpful.

For some time now, Ingold has been trying to decouple anthropology and ethnography. For a discipline often defined through its use of ethnography, this decoupling presents a serious epistemological affront. 

For Ingold, ‘the collapse of anthropology into ethnography has deflected the discipline from its proper purpose’ (Ingold 2017, p. 21). What ‘proper purpose’? He offers a definition: ‘anthropology, I maintain, is a generous, open-ended, comparative, and yet critical inquiry into the conditions and possibilities of human life in the one world we inhabit’ (Ibid., 22). Ingold claims:

‘in finding ways to carry on… no specialist science, no indigenous group, no doctrine or philosophy already holds the key to the future if only we could find it. We have to make that future together, for ourselves, and this can only be done through dialogue. Anthropology exists to expand the scope of this dialogue: to make a conversation of human life itself’ (Ibid.).

To qualify this statement, I should stress that such a conversation could come in many forms. It could be between a student and the anthropology of gender, focused on alternatives and possibilities. A conversation can also happen on a much larger scale. In the Unites States during late 1920s, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa started a large-scale conversation around the perceived difficulties of adolescence (Shankman 2009, p. 116). It’s imperative, in holding such conversations, to think about who might be excluded or not listened to.

How can anthropology best contribute to discussions about the future?

So why Ingold is so down on ethnography, when he’s so hopeful about anthropology? What would anthropology be, if not for ethnography?

Ingold doesn’t want to banish ethnography from anthropology. His concern is with misuse of the word ‘ethnography’. He thinks its misuse has negative effects. Encounters with people are not intrinsically ‘ethnographic’, rather, ‘what we could call ‘ethnographicness’’ is cast retrospectively after encounters’ (Ingold 2014 p. 386). Herein lies a temporal distortion. Casting encounters as ethnographic ‘consign[s] the incipient – the about-to-happen in unfolding relationships – to the temporal past of the already over… it is though, on meeting others face-to-face, one’s back is already turned on them’ (p. 386).

Ingold argues that anthropologists in the ‘field’ don’t experience the present as ‘ethnographic’. He suggests anthropologists should instead think in terms of participant observation. The reason for this is because participant observation asks anthropologists ‘to join in correspondence with those whom we learn or among whom we study, in a movement that goes forward rather than back in time’ (p. 390). In this way, anthropology can participate in dialogues of making futures.


References:

Ingold, T 2014, ‘That’s Enough About Ethnography!’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 383-395.

Ingold, T 2017, ‘Anthropology Contra Ethnography’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 21-26.

Shankman, P 2009, The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Concept, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

See also:

Want to further explore anthropology’s purpose? Check out Maddie’s post ‘So What’s the Point of it All?‘.

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