Ethnography and Care-full Description (Fall 2015 - Winter 2016)

Led by ISS Fellow Cristiana Giordano, an assistant professor of anthropology, this Proseminar covered ethnography, fieldwork and the kinds of texts and representations social scientists produce post-fieldwork to disseminate and interpret the results of their research. Through workshops, presentations, and guest lectures, students explored different ethnographic methods, as well as various texts and forms of representation based on ethnographic material.

Traditionally, sociocultural anthropology as an academic field has relied on ethnographic methods to understand, translate and explain the customs, practices and infrastructures of different cultures. These methods include participant observation, structured and semi-structured interviews, “thick” description and the production of a canonical text that links the experience of fieldwork with theories of social interaction, subjectivity, political and economic systems, and historical narrative.

In order to use this methodology, social scientists need to learn how to listen to and observe the complexities and contradictions of social life. Whether it is listening to the words others share with us during interviews and conversations (and to the questions they pose us), or observing the practices people engage in, or participating in rituals, ethnographic methods allow us to gather data that can lead to a careful description.

ANT 298 | Alternating Wednesdays 2:00-5:00 p.m. | SSH 273 | Flyer 
Fall 2015 (CRN 42211): October 7, 21 / November 4, 18  / December 2 | Syllabus
Winter 2016 (CRN 12315): January 13, 27 / February 10, 24 / March 9 | Syllabus

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Winter 2016 Blog

1. Traces and Clues as Ethnographic Sites with Cristiana Giordano

January 13, 2016

To begin the Ethnography and Care-full Description pro-seminar for winter quarter we engaged with the idea of clues and traces as sites of ethnographic inquiry. In this workshop, we focused on interrogating how clues and traces - or maybe more succinctly we must call them “leads into something”- can be and are at the same time a technology of ethnography and an object of research of ethnography. In this way, the concepts of clues and traces lured us into a reflection on ethnography as a method and a theory, and more particularly into recognition of what we may suggest is an ethnographic mode of attention. The main purpose of the workshop was to have students challenge their own researches through these concepts, and to explore the openness that it entailed. How can we use the idea of clues and traces as tools to approach our research? Where can think about clues and traces lead us to?

During the workshop, we firstly explored the physical space of our classroom by carefully extending our awareness of the material clues and traces there. While walking around the room, each one of us probed the different physical properties of the classroom--tactile, visual, and auditory--calling out our discoveries as we made them. Then, standing in a circle, we employed our bodies to demonstrate the physical properties of the different objects we had found in the room to the other members of the class by miming the process of carrying these objects across the circle. After this, we broke into pairs where we introduced ourselves and our research to a partner, who then introduced us, and their own versions of our research, to the entire group.

Finally, we broke into different sets of pairs and each of us presented a written piece on significant material clues and traces we have discovered in our fieldwork to our partner. After these clues and traces were related to the class by the partner, we then engaged in a class discussion and workshopping on our particular experiences trying to use these ideas on our own research. 

2. The Pragmatics of Listening (as a Methodology) with Xochitl Marsilli-Vargas

January 27, 2016 

Exercise: Consume various forms of mediated voice and sound – looking for new points of entry or ways of rethinking our own listening practices. We collectively heard a Tom Waits track “What’s he building in there?”, discussing aurality as a particular sensing mode haunted by a specter of not knowing. We later watched a scene from The Big Lebowski, listening for modes of address and subject-positioning through intonation and indications word choice and cadence.

This week explored the study of language grounded to cultural contexts, learning to take time to recognize coded positionalities and patterns past the immediate surface of what is said by ethnographic interlocutors. Via Marsilli-Vargas, we discussed the discerning of affect in social relations, nonverbal social acknowledgements, listening as a cognitive mode of attention, and recognizing constraints. We also dwelled in a discussion of semiotics, tying our discussion of sounds and speech to referents, signs, signifiers, etc – noting the physics in the near universal drive in humans to “assign meaning” in some shape or form.

We concluded this workshop by presenting some of our own transcripts/audio clips to Marsilli-Vargas – using the tools and methods discussed to analyze ethnographic work already undertaken. The relationship between performing different modes of listening, and enacting different genres of presence (anthropological listening versus psychoanalytic listening, for example) were brought to bear in the styles of our own modes of inquiry. The class was left with a query to think through our own research/data moving forward – how can we cultivate productive and variously attentive modes of listening for our subjects?

3. Affects as Method with Jiwon Chung

February 10, 2016

For our workshop on Affects as Method, we worked closely with Jiwon Chung, a professional actor, directory, and key theorist of the Theatre of the Oppressed. Jiwon led us through a number of exercises that explored issues of partnership and trust as well as power and domination and our own personal affective responses that resulted from these exercises.

To begin, we each walked in our own paths around the classroom, and when Jiwon told us to freeze we would try to reach out and touch as may fellow workshop members as possible—2, 3, 4, or even more. In the next step, we modified this activity by reaching out to touch a person who fit a certain category—e.g. most likely to be able to fix a car, or most scary when angry—based on our affective impressions of the other members of the workshop.

After these initial warm-ups, we began engaging in partner exercises, exercises which it quickly became clear elicited strong affective responses in us as participants. In each exercise there was a “leader” and a “follower,” with the roles alternating between partners. In the first, the leader held her palm about 6 inches in front of the follower’s face, while the follower was instructed to follow this palm no matter where it might go. As leaders discovered that they could lead their follower  just about anywhere in the classroom, followers found themselves often engaged in strenuous activity just to follow their partner’s hand.

Afterwards we each struck a pose and a single word that reflected our affective response to the exercise, and the range of reactions was remarkable. While many leaders chose poses and words that emphasized power, freedom, and fun, some followers adopted poses that suggested affects of domination, subjection, or “being led around like a dog.” Continuing to reverse follower/leader roles in every activity, we explored a number of similar exercises—several of which relied explicitly on trust of one’s partner. In one exercise, followers closed their eyes and walked around the room guided by nothing but the sound of their partner calling their names—all the while trusting their partners to prevent them walking into any obstacles or other participants. In another, followers “danced” with their eyes closed to the different vocal sounds their partner made for them. As with the first exercise, we found that each of these elicited extremely powerful affective responses in many of the workshop members.

Finally, we ended the session by sitting in a circle and having participants come to the center and tell a story to the rest of the group. After completing their story, the person in the center would listen as everyone around the circle repeated words and phrases that they had found particularly striking in the story—all the while highlighting the affective features of the story.

4. Choice[MAKING]: Distilling [LIFE] into Performance with Krista DeNio

February 24, 2016

This workshop explored how theatrical devising techniques could be used by ethnographers when working with field-notes collected during research. Before the workshop, participants were asked to choose three passages from our field-notes that captured our attention, and “free-write” for five minutes on each. These would form the basis of our explorations in class.

During the workshop itself, Krista DeNio, a theatre director, choreographer and performer, led participants through a series of exercises. We warmed up by exploring the space and the objects around us. We were encouraged to play and experiment with what we found, and create scenes out of how we positioned objects and our bodies. This was to become the basis for devising “moments” – short scenes where a stage is created for a theatrical event. These moments forced us to decentre our usual preoccupations with text. Instead we had to create narratives through something as apparently simple as the positioning of objects.

After some time experimenting in this way, we began to add our field-notes and writing into the process. We discussed in pairs the writing that we had brought to class and were asked to pick out significant images, sounds and movements. From these components we began to make moments, reassembling and re-enacting our fieldwork. To finish the workshop we collectively reflected on these moments and were able to generate many novel connections through this process, allowing us to engage our field-notes in creative new ways.

5. Curational Work with Tarek Elhaik

March 9, 2016                

For this workshop, we prepared by reading a conversation between Tarek Elhaik and George Marcus on the poetics and politics of ethnography, along with some of Elhaik’s new book The Incurable-Image: Curating Post-Mexican Film and Media Arts. During the workshop, Elhaik showed us a series of clips from films using the icon of the maguey plant in Mexico. The juxtaposition of these images demonstrated Elhaik’s method of curational practice and opened the discussion about montage, juxtaposition, curation, and ethnography. Regarding curation as practice, Elhaik asked, “Is curatorial work a translation of ethnographic encounters? Or something else?”

Elhaik talked about how iteration produces certain kinds of differences and his inspiration from Deleuze’s distinction between diversity and difference. Diversity is in relation to extensions of things which have already been constituted and can be identified (representation). Difference, however, escapes repetition of the same. Elhaik then talked about how the practice of curation in fieldwork can help accomplish this. We discussed how the opposition of juxtaposition shows a form that endures (as in the incurable image), and show a sequences in which difference may or may not be produced. The “incurable” is one side of the image, while the “future,” which may generate other ways of life, is the other side. In the cases where difference is produced, the practice of montage releases something that is the order of the future, like Deleuze’s “non-symptomatic repetition.”

We also discussed second order observations, as in curating curators’ curating, and how such practices might play a part in our own projects through “affinity” with those we learn from in the field (“to speak nearby (adjacent), not to speak about”). Cristiana Giordano brought up the point that such affinity is not radical alterity, but that there can be moments of rupture in affinity, where it can turn harmful (and we talked about ruptures which can destroy relations with others at our fieldsites). Elhaik had us go around the room and explain our projects, and then we workshopped some of them, with Elhaik asking questions about how such curational inquiry could be useful in our work. We discussed that in many cases, fieldwork is possible because something has broken down and is in need of repair (or curation). He helped analyze our fieldsites for that breakdown which needs to be addressed by the creation of new concepts.

In relation to other students’ projects, we talked about assemblages and how the mode that the elements have in a particular assemblage is different from how they act by themselves; assemblages can already be there when we enter the field, or we can create them. Elhaik offered some advice for how to place pieces of our work next to each other, like panels, which can create a resonance and a dissonance (not a comparison). We left the class with the task of continuing to consider the relation between ethnography, with its methods, and curational work, as a type of inquiry that is not “method,” and how to engage in this practice in our work.    

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Fall 2015 Blog

How do we claim to understand the practices and infrastructures of the worlds around us? Are there ways to listen to and observe these worlds that reveal—rather than obscure—their complexities and contradictions?

Through readings, workshops, and guest lectures, the proseminar has explored different ethnographic methods, modes of paying attention, and the relation between methods and objects of inquiry. This fall, the proseminar focused on listening, sound, art, institutions, and the body as different kinds of methods (see below for descriptions of the first three topics and the questions these topics covered). The proseminar will continue in the winter with further emphasis on the body, language, traces, listening, and affect.

1. Listening: “What escapes it?”

Introductory exercise: Ask as many different people as you can how they are doing today. Ask it genuinely, and try to listen as attentively as possible. As you listen, pay attention to what it feels like. Is it easy to focus on their answer? What kind of answer do they give? What kind of answer do you hear? Who didn’t you ask?

Our first workshop explored the ways in which our listening shapes what it is that we hear, and what it is that we tune out. Students raised their concerns that they sometimes don’t “listen well” in the field, and wondered how tiredness, frustration, anxiety, and grief affect how one listens. One of the main foci of the workshop was to think about whether there are other ways to think about listening and being there beyond just “well.” What happens when you think about your tiredness or sadness as a method of attention? What kinds of knowledge comes into view when you share your interlocutors’ anxieties?

In particular, we focused on the ways in which listening and comprehension always take place through the bodies of both the listener and the speaker. Because bodies facilitate particular sets of relations, they also, in turn, facilitate particular genres of listening. Italo Calvino’s short story A King Listens offers a poignant example of how relations—in this case, relations of power between a ruler and their subjects—simultaneously constrain and make possible certain kinds of listening. Calvino explores the ways in which categories of identity take on their own kinds of social lives. If we want to hear more than a ruler when we speak to a ruler, in other words, the category of “ruler” nevertheless continues to act on our relation with the ruler as social scientists.

The workshop concluded with students sharing their thoughts on the simultaneous productiveness and limitations of social categories. Rather than bemoan our inability to listen outside of categories, what would it look like to listen both inside and outside these categories? Can we listen without fixing them? Can we be co-thinkers with those we are listening too, even if they are rulers? Can we approach different genres of listening as opportunities to learn different kinds of things, and not just limitations?

In order to further explore the questions with which we ended our first meeting, the second workshop turned to the question of sound and the ways in which we as social scientists can pay better attention to the sounds that escape our listening.

2. Sound: “Is there supposed to be sound?”

Introductory exercise: Reflect on a sound that reminds you of Davis, or a sound that you recorded during your fieldwork. Attempt to locate, listen to, and absorb this particular sound or soundscape. Experiment with different forms of attention (and inattention). What sounds do you perceive when you are busy or distracted—typing, reading, or looking at your phone? What differences do you perceive when you look at your environment? If you are around people, how do their gestures influence your perception of their voices or the conversation? Listen to volume, rhythm, and cadence. Attempt to focus on different elements—foregrounding and backgrounding different sounds. Close your eyes and listen for a couple minutes.

Reflect on how different modes of attention influence your listening, perception, and experience.

These were the questions explored by Alexandra Lippman in her workshop on sound on October 21st. Currently a postdoctoral scholar at UC Davis’ Science and Technology Studies program, Dr. Lippman’s research explores how globalizing alternative intellectual property practices and technological changes impact creativity, access to knowledge, media, and music. Dr. Lippman’s workshop shed light on what thinking through and with sound as an ethnographic method could contribute to social science research.

In particular, we focused on the ways in which sound—as a category—can be mobilized politically and epistemologically. In other words, how does what we hear, or what we don’t hear, open up another way to think about space and politics? A key question for the seminar was how noise is different categorically than sound, or music, and how we—as social science researchers—both make and respond to the categories that differentiate noise from sound. At stake here for social science research is the fact that only some things are allowed to become recognizable or identifiable as something to pay attention to. Most things disappear into the background of noise. What would it take to foreground both noise and sound, as well as the categories we leverage to make sense of them, as a site of research, and not just the background to our research?

Dr. Lippman ended the workshop by training the participants how to use the Audacity application, an audio recorder and editor that allows users to upload, mix, and edit sounds. Students practiced using Audacity by weaving the sound recordings they had collected from around Davis and in their sites of research together and trying to produce a “Soundscape of Davis.” Playing with sound and producing a soundscape in many ways mirrored what we do when we write an essay. Instead of words and texts, however, we thought with sound. Thinking with sound, we discovered, opens up new ways to think about and with a place. Sounds—noises, musical notes, rustles, car horns, creaks, etc.—reach our ears and act on us in unrecognizable ways. Though all sounds shape our experiences of different places, our bodies categorize them before we recognize how they shape us. We don’t just listen with our ears, in other words, we also listen with our skin, our skeletons, our brains. Which sounds are worth paying attention to? Which are worth listening to? And which are worth trying to understand?

By intentionally tuning into the noises that so often slip through our attention, we were reminded of how little we actually pay attention to. Dr. Lippman’s workshop helped us gain a little bit of that attention back. How, we concluded the workshop asking, can we tune into a situation/world/relation/encounter and listen to it through different senses?

For more details about how social scientists can engage with sound, please check out the Sound Ethnography Project, a project Dr. Lippman founded. An online collaboration where different social scientists experiment with engaging sound to produce novel ethnographic methods and forms, the project includes a list of sound ethnographies and a list of “sound elsewhere” of fantastic sound-based projects.

3. Art and Performance

Exercise: Imagine you had to present your work in an art gallery, or in a performance space. What would you choose to present on? What kinds of materials would you present with?

This was the question addressed by Fiamma Montezemolo’s workshop on November 4th. Currently an associate professor of cinema and digital media at UC Davis’ cinema and digital media program, Dr. Montezemolo is both an artist and cultural anthropologist. As an artist, she situates herself within the ethnographic turn in contemporary art which seeks to explore the ways in which art and art practices can be exceptionally ethnographic. As an ethnographer, she situates herself within the post- “Writing Culture” turn in contemporary anthropology, which seeks to question the extent to which the knowing anthropologist-subject can ever truly objectively know the ethnographic material-object.

In this workshop, we approached art as a way to pose these questions:

(1)  How can art as an ethnographic method produce knowledge about a place, people, or thing in a way that can both speak to and exceed more traditional social science methodologies?

(2)  How can art as a mode of knowledge production and relation to a world answer some of the questions about representation and objectivity that social scientists have been grappling with for decades?

Dr. Montezemolo began the seminar with an outline of her work, explaining that ethnographic research was complicated for her when her “fieldwork became life.” Weaving information published in books like Tijuana Dreaming: Life and Art at the Global Border (2012) together with art produced both collaboratively and individually, Dr. Montezemolo illustrated for us the ways in which approaching art as research and research as art could open up opportunities for thinking differently. We did so by workshopping our projects through photos, installations, sound presentations, maps assemblages, and poetry; and experimenting with giving form to ethnographic materials. We asked ourselves about the kind of information we can present about our research using pictures, or drawings, or poems (as opposed to an essay, journal, or presentation)? How is this kind of information different?

5. Embodied Ethnography

How do our movements and gestures capture and contain a multitude of stories and worlds? How can we be attentive to and observant of this multitude? What questions can we ask as we observe, act, participate, and witness ourselves and each other? And what is it like to be observed deeply, even as we are also observing deeply?

These are the questions we explored during the fall quarter's final workshop. Facilitated by Jiwon Chung, a key theorist of Theater of the Oppressed and adjunct professor at Starr King School at the Graduate Theological Union, the workshop included a number of exercises and games typically used in Theater of the Oppressed, a collection of techniques that use the dynamized human body as a laboratory for exploring power and transforming oppression. For our purposes, Theater of the Oppressed helped us to explore methods of attention and observation—both of ourselves and of those around us.

By cultivating certain modes of attention, the workshop helped us to understand the depth and beauty that lie behind ordinary, everyday movements and gestures. Recognizing these takes not only training but also a kind of care. Comprehending the stories behind gestures and movements requires us to look with more than just our eyes. Rather than accuracy or objectivity, it requires intimacy and trust—methods that we can necessarily deploy at will. Rather, they are techniques of being that we must cultivate in our research.