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.


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?‘.

Design Anthropology Pt. 1: Anthropology of Design, and for Design

Maybe you just read the words ‘design anthropology’ for the first time. It might be easy to imagine what this new branch of anthropology involves. People design things like computers, buildings and cars, launching them out into social worlds. Ethnographic research seems like a rich way for learning about the social lives of these designed things. Or you might have imagined a designer reading anthropology texts, on topics like liminality or ontology, to inform or inspire their design practice.

These are indeed aspects of design anthropology. People and companies are using ethnography to inform design, including Volvo, which is using ethnography to inform the design of autonomous vehicles. And anthropological knowledge is being co-opted for design (for instance, Anastassakis and Szaniecki 2016), along with social theory more broadly (for instance, DiSalvo 2012; Fry 2012). Anthropologists are also taking cues from design – for instance, by creating new concepts using a design workshop ethos (Rabinow and Marcus, 2008).

A concept for an autonomous car, the Volvo 360c Exterior, released in 2018 by Volvo.

But design anthropology also goes a step further, shaking up the two disciplines. Design and anthropology transmute. For me, this is the most exciting aspect of design anthropology.

To get at this exciting and transmuting form of design anthropology, taken up in part two of this post, it’s helpful to first differentiate between anthropologies of design and design for anthropology (Murphy 2016).

Anthropologies of design take design as a research topic, following the ‘anthropology of x’ formula, like An Anthropology of Scientific Things. For Gatt and Ingold (2013), anthropologists have two options for doing an anthropology of design. Design can be taken as an innate human capacity, similar to language or symbolic thought (p. 139). Alternately, design can be approached as something done by people who identify professionally as designers. Murphy notes (2016) anthropologists have historically tended to focus on the ‘forms, meanings and social effects’ of designed things like buildings, spaces and clothing. This focus has led to a neglect of actual practices of designing, up until very recently (p. 437). Murphy’s recent (2015) Swedish Design: An Ethnography falls into the latter category. He shows that Swedish design practices are informed by social democratic thinking, with design seen as ‘the basic starting point for crafting a just society’ (p. 11).

A major aspect of anthropology for design involves using ethnography to ‘try to look into what people do, what tools they use, and how they think’ in order to design with more sensitivity to local contexts (Salvador et al. 1999, p. 35). Anthropology for design also involves using anthropological concepts and texts to inform the design process, including but not limited to the above-mentioned anthropologies of design.

This is part of what design anthropologists do: they use anthropology and ethnography to bolster design. But, as mentioned above, some design anthropologists take this a step further, mixing design and anthropology, and creating a new ‘style of knowing’ (Otto and Smith, 2013, p. 11). This is taken up in part two of this post.


Anastassakis Z and Szaniecki B 2016, ‘Conversation Dispotifs: Towards a Transdisciplinary Design Anthropological Approach’, in R Charlotte Smith, K Tang Vangkilde, M Gislev Kjaersgaard, T Otto, J Halse and T Binder (eds), Design Anthropological Futures, Bloomsbury, London, 2013, pp. 121-139.

DiSalvo C 2012, Adversarial Design, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.

Fry T 2012, Becoming Human by Design, Berg, New York.

Gatt W and Ingold T 2013, ‘From Description to Correspondence: Anthropology in Real Time’, in Gunn W, Otto T and Charlotte Smith R (eds), Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 139-159.

Murphy K 2016, ‘Design and Anthropology’, Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 45, pp. 443-449.

Murphy K 2015, Swedish Design: An Ethnography, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Otto T and Smith R 2013, ‘Design Anthropology: A Distinct Style of Knowing’, in Gunn W, Otto T and Charlotte Smith R (eds), Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 1-32.

Rabinow P and Marcus G 2008, Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, Duke University Press, Durham.

Salvador T, Bell G and Anderson K 1999, ‘Design Ethnography’, Design Management Journal, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 35-41.

See also:

Imo interviewed people about where your anthropology degree can take you, including Katie, who completed a Masters in Design Anthropology.

Here’s a short lecture about design ethnography from Sarah Pink, Director of the Emerging Technologies Lab at Monash University.

If you’re interested in ethnography outside academia, you could also check out EPIC, a member-based organisation which brings together ethnographers working outside academia. Looking at the EPIC job board might give you some ideas about where you can take your anthropology degree.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Participant Observation

Image result for participant observation cartoon

“Not sure if stalking, or participant observation”

Anthropologists and sociologists claim participant observation to be a method that distinguishes their fieldwork from other types of social science. Whereas quantitative methods involve cold hard numbers (which seems boring, to be honest), qualitative methods are more based on feelings, observations and language. Yet participant observation is still a rigorous method! A participant observer tries to immerse themselves in new experiences whilst suspending all judgement and being open to new experiences. This is a difficult feat for anyone, it takes a lot of patience and self-critique.

The general order to participant observation is that a researcher will connect with a group or community, then integrate into this group in order to watch and learn about social structures, patterns and behaviours. Participant observation is usually overt, the participants know that the anthropologist is observing them with the intention of writing about them, and have given informed consent. In the past, anthropologists have been more covert, but this raises a whole host of ethical issues around such deception and extraction of knowledge. The researcher is responsible for minimising any potential risks that might be inflicted upon the participants from the research, the Australian Anthropological Association has a code of conduct for more information on this matter.  

Participant observation can change depending on the field, but the standard depiction of it, is of a researcher joining in on the everyday or routine tasks of their participants. It also might involve some conversations with participants, scribbling observations in notebooks and waiting around. During this time, the researcher often monitors their internal thoughts and prejudices. This might include considering how their own identity and experience effect their feelings and interactions with participants, which they sometimes record in a journal of self-reflection. The researcher must also be mindful that participants behaviour may change, since the participant know they are being researched. For example, they might subconsciously try to mirror what they believe the research is about. The researcher will often check with the participants to see if they feel as though they are being represented accurately.

You don’t have to do participant observation in a faraway place, you can do it in your own community. There are different types of participant observation, ranging from complete involvement, where the researcher is already a member of the group, to passive involvement. For some more information about how complete participant observation is used by activists, see this post.

At the end, the researcher will remove themselves from the situation and often compile their observations in the form of an ethnography. Through this deep sense of engagement with a group of people, participant observation can unveil things that might be below the surface level, that are subconscious, taboo or rarely talked about amongst a group of people (Guest et al., 2013). This means that participant observers are able to shed light on different experiences of being human, which not only generates knowledge about the world but also fosters empathy and openness.


Australian Anthropological Society. 2019, Code of Ethics. Retrieved from 

DeWalt, K. M. DeWalt, B. R. 2011, Participant observation: a guide for fieldworkers. Rowman & Littlefield. pp 2-11

Guest, G., Namey, E., & Mitchell, M. 2013, “Participant Observation” Collecting qualitative data 55 City Road, London: SAGE Publications. pp. 75-112.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Emic + Etic

Emic. Etic. Inside. Outside. Or wait, is it the other way around? Etic. Emic. Outside. Inside? Wait, but inside and outside of what? Of everything? What exactly does this mean? I feel so confused. What exactly was Monica talking about? Wow, she really lost me when she started with this whole emic, etic business. Eh, maybe it’s not so important…

I first came across the terms ‘etic’ and ‘emic’ in Monica’s third year subject, The Anthropology of Nature. My head was already being turned inside out by each new nature/culture concept, let alone trying to fully understand and remember forms of anthropological analysis. I am not ashamed to admit that it took me a while to catch on to this whole ‘etic’ and ‘emic’ thing. As it turns out, they are pretty important approaches to constructing anthropological knowledge. So, here I am to help you out so you’re not sitting in class lost in space (like I was).

The terms ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ were first coined by linguist Kenneth Pike (1967) to refer to the particular sounds of a specific language (emic) and how they are represented and transcribed from an outsider’s perspective (etic).  It has since become a common way of describing the research perspectives of anthropologists in the field.

So let’s break this down:

Emic – The ethnographer engages in participatory observation within the field, living or working within a specific cultural place (‘field’) to learn about people and their ways of life. Essentially, emic research is focused on the perspectives of those being studied (participants/peoples/informants).

Etic – The ethnographer tends not to integrate themselves into the culture they are observing and become an ‘outsider looking in’. In this case, the researcher acts as an ‘outsider’ and is expected to have more detached and objective observations of that culture. Etic research is an objective analysis of a culture by the researcher.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. These terms may be useful in understanding the groundwork of ethnographic research; but ultimately, they cannot really be divided into two separate categories. An ’emic’ perspective assumes that the ethnographer can detangle themselves from their Ethnocentric beliefs and enter the field from a neutral position that enables them to adopt and fully comprehend the cultural belief systems of the ‘other’. However, the idea of neutrality in the field is an illusion. The researcher is always attached to specific relations and identifications from their own culture, histories and personal narratives.

Marvin Harris (1976), an American anthropologist, argues that creating an ‘etic’ and ’emic’ division can produce problems in the construction of anthropological knowledge. He stated that ’emic’ models and observations of culture are ‘invented’ rather than ‘discovered’ by the researcher. He questioned whether there could actually be a cultural authority and if we could guarantee that the observer’s supposedly ‘etic’ research perspective isn’t actually their own ’emic’ one. In this respect, the mere presence of the researcher brings their ‘subjectivity’ into the field site and results in unique interactions specific to their personal characteristics. As a result, these interactions are un-replicable and become “artefacts” of the field instead of true reflections of what is actually there (Pachirat 2017, p.19).

The division of ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ alludes to broader philosophical debates on ‘subjectivity’ and ‘objectivity’, which highlights controversial issues revolving around the construction of anthropological knowledge.

So, where to from here?

Well, I am no expert in this debate. However, one of our core philosophies as anthropologists is to understand. Perhaps the magic in our work actually emerges from our continual efforts to merge the ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ observations we have. While there may be subjectivities inherent to all work that academics conduct, we can seek to maintain a higher level of awareness of our positionality and the repercussions this has in the ‘field’.  


Harris, M 1976, ‘History and significance of the emic/etic distinction’, Annual review of anthropology, vol. 5, no.1, pp.329-350.

Pachirat, T 2017, Among wolves: Ethnography and the immersive study of power, Routledge.

Pike, K.L 1967, Etic and emic standpoints for the description of behavior.

Anthropology and Mediumship: Should anthropologists access spaces beyond the Earth realm?

Pictured above is the “Arthur Findlay College” located in Stansted, the UK. The college is a spiritualist residential centre where some of the best mediums and psychics from around the world gather to study and deepen their natural abilities.
Arthur Findlay

Elderly couples sat in the rows behind me, all dispersed throughout the back rows. A few elderly gentlemen were scattered in between. I, sitting eagerly in the front row, was accompanied by an elderly woman – who I later discovered had been attending the church for close to fifty years. The whispers and chatter of others in the audience slowly began to fade away as my mum stood forth for platform and began to connect with spirit. Directing her attention to an elderly gentleman in the crowd, she began to bring evidence through and asked for confirmation of a little boy in the spirit world, with long white socks and sandy hair, that she could see running excitedly around her in circles. She continued on to describe and confirm his cause of death to the gentleman and brought through the little boy’s message…

What I have described above is a common ritual practice amongst spiritualist communities both in Australia and around the world. Often on a Sunday afternoon or evening, the community gathers for a ‘church’ service that often includes a philosophical talk on spiritualism, a meditation, singing and a demonstration of mediumship (‘platform’). During the demonstration of mediumship, the medium is connecting to the spirit world and may either bring through evidence of deceased loved ones – now ‘spirits’ in the ‘spirit world’ – or channel a philosophical message from a spirit, entity or other consciousness.

For the members of this community (including myself), our loved ones and the spirit world are always accessible to us and always present in our day-to-day lives. This world, in many respects, forms part of what Deborah Dixon (2007) termed ‘extra-geographies’ – spaces of experience that we do not necessarily see with our physical eyes or truly understand, yet have a significant influence on the ways we experience the world. Many individuals attending the services will come to hear from their loved ones in the spirit world; many may speak of their ‘spirit guides’ who in meditation provide them with wisdom for their problems. Some may even ask their angels to reserve a parking spot for them in an otherwise packed carpark. For me and many others in this community, these are the ‘normal’ day-to-day practices of our lives. However, I imagine that the multiple aspects of this ‘spirit world’ may prompt many ‘outsiders’ to wonder where on earth it is and how do you access it?

Asking a spiritual medium (my mum) to locate the spirit world, she described:

“This spirit world is all around us. Most people can’t see it and generally we can’t see it with our real eyes. To me, it’s like walking through an invisible door and there’s the spirit world (some people call it heaven). It’s a different dimension, if you like. It’s all around us…the spirit world is a form of energy, so it’s everywhere. It’s not like heaven is up in the sky like Catholics are taught – it can be in your heart, it can be in your aura, it can be anywhere and everywhere.”

The spirit world is, therefore, part of our modern social landscape. It is a world, a space and a ‘cultural site’ existing in the everyday lives of many individuals. If this world is so real for so many people, in all its physical, spiritual and mental domains, why does it remain such as under-investigated ‘field’ in anthropology? Why aren’t ethnographers venturing into this space? From an anthropological perspective, should exploring the cultural and symbolic complexities within these unearthly worlds be “off limits”?

If you were engaging with more traditional ethnographers, perhaps the answer would be ‘yes’. From a historical perspective, the ‘field’ in anthropology has been described as a physical location that includes a specific group of people, language and culture that are bounded to one area (e.g. think Margaret Mead’s research in Samoa). As a result, ethnographic material has often been retrieved from participant observation that relies heavily on information from the ethnographer’s five senses: taste, touch, sight, sound, smell. This grounded evidence is what has often made anthropology unique from other disciplines, enabling many anthropologists to claim ‘authority’ from their personal experiences within a cultural field.

This old-hat way of approaching ethnographic research restrains our ability to explore ideological (e.g. ideas of spirituality) and phenomenological (e.g. experiences of a subject/object) fields, which consequently limits the “philosophical scope of anthropology”. Zygmunt Bauman (2000) briefly touches on this in his conceptualisation of ‘fluid modernity’, whereby individuals around the world now engage in constantly changing locations, relationships, identities and cultures. As Bauman (2000) describes, our understandings and sensations of space are now rapidly changing and becoming irrelevant in a world where our socio-cultural relations are being experienced in virtual realities, online interactive spaces and multi-located cultures. In many ways, we have already moved beyond material places and into a domain where the ‘field’ is defined by communities of shared interests and ‘virtual’ or ‘imagined’ worlds (e.g. World of Warcraft or the Spiritual World).

Maybe it’s time now for us, as young anthropologists, to start dipping our toes in these unfamiliar worlds that transcend the earthy realms we have become so comfortable within!


Baumann, Z 2007, Liquid times: Living in an age of uncertainty, Polity, Cambridge, Cambridge: Polity.

Dixon, D 2007, ‘A benevolent and sceptical inquiry: exploring Fortean Geographies’ with the Mothman, Cultural geographies, vol. 4, no., pp.189-210.

See Also (for more on spirituality and religion): Lionel’s article Tio Gong Tao: Using Witchcraft to Rationalise Sexual Objectification in Singapore; Lani’s article Do you believe in ‘Magic’?; and Sarah’s article Ursula Le Guin and the ethnography of future worlds