The Ambition of Fieldwork
In this interview of April 2016, the American anthropologist George Marcus comes back on his academic trajectory in order to enlighten the genesis of the 1995 article on multi-sited ethnography. This particular approach is to be understood less as a tool to analyse globalization per se than as a critical perspective finding its rationale within the history of anthropology. He also insists on his more recent works about the epistemology and methodology of anthropology, as well as on the future of fieldwork and the relation between fieldwork and theory in this discipline.
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Stéphane Dufoix : When re-reading your famous 1995 article about multi-sited ethnography, I was struck by the fact you did not present this perspective as something new but as though it was an old idea of yours. Does that mean that globalization was not intrinsically related to multi-sited ethnography?
- 1 Marcus George E., « Ethnographic Research among Elites in the Kingdom of Tonga: Some Methodological (...)
George E. Marcus : Yes, it’s true; it did not necessarily come up with a concept of globalization. My original interest was directly from my own first fieldwork in the Kingdom of Tonga in the early 1970s. At that time, what was increasingly clear to me, doing traditional anthropological fieldwork, working in villages on the relationship between chiefs and commoners, was that the entire dynamic of life was influenced by overseas connections. Toward the end of my research, by the late 1970s, I started writing about the internationalization – not globalization – of Tonga society, and the idea was that the strength of kin groups in Tonga was really determined by extended networks of sustained exchange relationships abroad. Yet, I wanted to write outside of migration studies. I was interested in elites, the Tongan bourgeoisie, so to speak, and ‘world system theory’ then filled my need. Tonga had to be understood as an international society. That was my au revoir to Tongan Studies1.
Stéphane Dufoix : What have you been doing next?
- 2 Marcus George E. et Dobkin Hall Peter, Lives in Trust: The Fortunes of Dynastic Families in Late Tw (...)
George E. Marcus : I have always been working on elites, which was a very weak anthropological field because of problems of access. Next to Tonga, I started working on the contemporary dynasties of elites in the US. I was doing it from the outside in, meaning that I was interested in the fact that material and symbolic concentrations of wealth tend to have a dynamic quality that shapes generational relations in notable families2. These two examples were the beginning of an interest in multi-locale methods—juxtapositions of unlike objects/subjects of study. I guess this was contemporaneous with the coming vogue of actor-network theory, though I was uninfluenced by that. I thought it was possible to do something with this idea without reducing it to migration studies. This is why I focused on dynastic elites in the United States. What was interesting to me was how the wealth, itself, and its cultures of calculation, administration, and elite welfare had a kind of organic life of its own, separate from families or factions. So the interest here was not in globalization, but in a methodological puzzle of ethnography in different, juxtaposed settings.
Stéphane Dufoix : What would you say influenced you most?
- 3 Appadurai Arjun, Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Minneapolis, University (...)
- 4 Tsing Anna, « The Global Situation », Cultural Anthropology, 15/3, 2000, p. 327-360.
George E. Marcus : From the methodological point of view, the primary influence was from strategies and representations about writing ethnographic narratives. There was the great impact in the late 1980s of literary theory in English-speaking countries trying to remake itself through the late arrival of French post-structural thinking. For me, the multi-sited story intersects with this intellectual capital and growth of interest in globalization in the United States in the 1990s (through developments in and the vogue for cultural and postcolonial studies. In that framework, the writing of Raymond Williams was a primary influence on me). It was mainly Arjun Appadurai3, and Anna Tsing4, for example, who explicitly addressed globalization theory.
- 5 Marcus gave the concluding address at the Design Anthropological Futures Conference held in Copenha (...)
Frankly, it felt good to me to be independent (but of course related) to that discourse. The fate (and present history) of ethnography has been a continuous interest of mine from the 1970s to the present (where I am interested in the importance of collaborations and design practices on ethnography5). This is globalization at the level of concept work in the field, which remains anthropology’s distinctive strength and knowledge base.
Stéphane Dufoix : Did your work in collaboration with James Clifford play a role in the emergence of the multi-sited idea?
- 6 This conference took place in 2011 at Duke University. The book in question, Writing Culture. The P (...)
George E. Marcus : No. Working with Clifford played a role in many things but not in this. We had a 25th anniversary conference of Writing Culture6 in 2011. Clifford wrote a sort of historical piece for that occasion. He tried to think back to what had been considered and not considered in the 1980s. He mentions the fact that, in the volume, nobody was thinking about globalization except me. Globalization was not a key concept. I think I was still world-system-minded in a loose way. Writing Culture was like a bomb you know. It did the work of demolition – or creative destruction? – and anthropology was not the same, but it did not provide the foundations of what came afterwards. The trend now is reaction-coming mainly from developments in British anthropology—and material culture. But new research pretty much follows events and history unfolding. The growth of science studies has provided the most enduring and productive home for the fashionable ideas of the 1980s and 1990s.
I never actually sat down and re read that 1995 article until three years ago when there was a conference at the AAA [American Anthropological Association] to debate what was its status and influence now. Otherwise, I had never gone back to it. I see it now as a kind of an inspired moment of crystallizing thinking that happened to reflect and address a powerful intellectual need at the time (and since) and not something I thought I could come back to later on. You asked me about that article and I thought about it again. There was a high bar set and there was a kind of a liberation from sociology that anthropology was trying to push anyhow. As a fieldworker in anthropology, you tend to know what you know from intensive work in a particular site but obviously that’s really not adequate, processually or otherwise, to understanding what is going on because phenomena are multi-sited—now the problem would be discussed as ‘scaling’ in the theory of method. For an anthropologist, this is an incredible challenge. The Writing Culture volume explored the way the ethnographic material was made into a narrative framing, a narrative that was at the very same time being challenged by the notion of globalization—now the problem of scaling. Though I liked the more open and ‘savage’ notion of multi-sitedness which could be evolved in a variety of ways (for which I used the ‘following’ metaphor to introduce in the 1995 article).
- 7 Earlier writings about how to expand the scope of anthropological methods may be found in Marcus Ge (...)
Stéphane Dufoix : You had already written on multi-sited ethnography before the 1995 article but nobody does really mention that7.
- 8 Marcus George E. et Fischer Michael F., Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment i (...)
George E. Marcus : Yes, I did, but it was embedded in research and not proclamatory. If you really want to know the state of the multi-sited credo beyond the 1995 article, it is to be found in Anthropology as Cultural Critique, with Michael Fischer, published in the same year, in 19868. Then, it was to say that you can’t write about the phenomena if you don’t write about the system but that the systems perspectives that had been provided to us by nineteenth century social theory were inadequate today. The requirement of anthropological research is critique, that necessitates rethinking of the world from the micro. Fischer, who migrated to science studies, has continued to write deeply and voluminously on this.
Stéphane Dufoix : I had the impression that your idea of a multi-locale perspective was not taken up by other anthropologists before the 1995 article.
George E. Marcus : Yes, that’s right. Multi-sited ethnography was then an effective formulation to influence methodological innovation both superficial and creative. It has now become an embarrassingly classical reference.
Stéphane Dufoix : Would you agree with the fact that there was a ten-year gap between your first mentioning multi-sited perspective and its adoption? And that maybe this gap had to do with the fact that in the meantime the emergence and popularization of the concept of globalization had made it possible to turn to the multi-sited approach, because it was at that time the right thing at the right time.
- 9 Gupta Akhil et Ferguson James, « The Field as Site, Method and Location in Anthropology », in Gupta(...)
George E. Marcus : I would agree with that but I was not the only one. In the American case, as I mentioned, there was Appadurai, there was Anna Tsing with her article on the global situation, there was Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson9. I think my article was the most literal because of its perspective in the practice of fieldwork. It had a lot of impact because people are pretty much literal in anthropology about methods. They’re not so much interested in macro-thinking. This is a great strength and emblem of anthropology. To the extent that it remains intellectually distinctive itself and also socially embedded or concerned, the multi-sited idea has been versatile, effective, and yes, sophisticated close to the conditions of practice.
Stéphane Dufoix : Would you consider that the success of both the formula and the perspective of multi-sited ethnography fulfil your expectations?
George E. Marcus : No. I think multi-sited became a mantra, a slogan for researchers writing about their methodological proposals. It lacked the imagination I had tried to incorporate into my paper. The “following” was an attempt at laying out the imaginary into different dimensions of multi-sited: commodity chains, productions processes, even metaphors, and fictions. There were some works mentioned in the article that I had found inspiring because I did not want to propose something that could not be done. I hate to think that it was just a word that people can use to try to make up for inadequate methodology, but often that has been the case.
Stéphane Dufoix : Have you actually tried to do some multi-sited research since your first efforts in the 1970s and 1980s?
George E. Marcus : Hmmm. I have students who have been powerfully influenced by this framework. You know, I’m living out the end of my career – though it’s not over yet – in that kind of mentality. Younger students are very skilled at rethinking that idea of scaling and the critical issues of how you scale up a kind of micro-focused fieldwork because the research imaginary of anthropologists still remains local. We know about Marx, Durkheim and Weber, but none of them helps in scaling up a project. We might say this has been a true effect of globalization, these sorts of surprising currents and outcomes. It created more uncertainty in the realm of the meso and the macro, and someone working in the area of the micro had to think beyond the field site. You have to think globally but it’s not a precise way of thinking. You have to think in terms of markets, and of what markets are, for example. From that positioning, all the interest in theory, from our point of view, is deconstructive. Markets are cultural phenomena. But not just markets (well defined and theorized by Callon, for example). I have a penchant now for design thinking and a weakness for conceptual art because those in such fields are free to open the spaces of what ethnography defines as fieldwork in very creative and unexpected (and sufficiently self-critical) ways. They are deeply “multi-sited” without the tireless pursuit of detail and “local knowledge” characteristic of basic research in anthropology.
- 10 See Marcus George E., « Notes on the Contemporary Imperative to Collaborate, the Traditional Aesthe (...)
Stéphane Dufoix : In the last ten years or so, you have written quite a lot about the collaborative – and pedagogical – dimension of anthropology10.
- 11 Faubion James D. et Marcus George E., Fieldwork is Not what It Used to Be. Learning Anthropology’s (...)
- 12 Boyer Dominic, Faubion James D. et Marcus George E. (dir.), Theory Can Be More than It Used to Be. (...)
- 13 Marcus George E., Where Theory Work is Done in the Production of Contemporary Anthropological Resea (...)
George E. Marcus : In the politics of knowledge-making, anthropology and its long fieldwork tradition is of course collaborative but in terms that the anthropologists define for themselves in relation to what the discipline is trying to do. To do that now, in many places and for many projects in which anthropologists have an interest, you simply have to join other projects in progress, to define research at all. You can do this as an activist but, personally, I consider this move totally skews the independence of question-asking that is at the heart of the multi-sited project. I spoke of “circumstantial activism” in the original piece, which is different from social movement activism as dual identity for the ethnographer, for example. If you are crossing scales, it’s a history of relations of collaboration which have different ethics and values. This is the sort of emergent, circumstantial activism, specific to multi-sited ethnography to which I referred. I find increasingly that you owe more of your committed thinking to internal receptions and publics in that the arguments that you make as an anthropologist are really created in that milieu in a way that they were not before. This of course productively challenges official and authoritative forms of thinking (including academic thinking) that are developed in fieldwork. So when ethnography gets good, it is about illicit discourse, in the words of Douglas Holmes (and as classically and uniquely expressed by Jeanne Favret-Saada). Fieldwork itself is a kind of more theoretically important enterprise but it can only be shown by disrupting the classic image of the fieldworker as participant observer in solitude within his or her own fieldnotes. In multi-sited anthropology are developed relations with the informants, if we want to call them that, at different levels. This is at the heart of circumstantial activism. This does not mean mere activism, when people get involved and join causes. That’s’ totally okay. That’s’ not what I meant. By using the word “circumstantial”, I meant that you can stand for objectivity but you’re pulled into participation of the non-conventional sort. The discipline, methodologically, has no answers for you about how to manage that. I would say that all global fieldwork requires alternative dimensions of the classic methodology. Anthropology is different from sociology because I think sociology is less dependent on (or manically creative about) fieldwork ideology in producing its results whereas anthropology relies on constantly restating and reliving its emblematic ideology of method. I do actually see the question of method as being key to current changes. There’s a book I edited with James Faubion called Fieldwork Is Not What It Used to Be11. Now there’s another one called Theory Can Be More than It Used to Be12. It’s a follow-up. It addresses to what degree and in what forms of theory anthropology has indulged or needs to indulge within its commitment to ethnography13.
- 14 Marcus George E. et Rabinow Paul, avec Faubion James D. et Rees Tobias, Designs for an Anthropology (...)
In the 2000s, I moved from Rice University to the University of California, Irvine where I started a Center for Ethnography. Collaboration has been the leading theme of that center. One of the first things I did was to call on five or six of the American anthropologists who seemed to be operating in these complicated arenas, demanded by globalization and I’ve been very interested in the progress of their projects, their second projects mainly, what they did after their dissertations. I followed them from the mid-2000s. All are ‘mutli-sited’ and none rely on a theory of globalization, but build ingenious concepts and theories of practice as adaptation within the ethnographic “task”. During this period I had a temporary but resonant relation to Paul Rabinow. In the book of discussions we did together14, we both end with the idea that we need to have ideologies of intervention, to design practice, process, thinking, and some sort of model for methods going forward. We should have ethnographic coordinated labs or studios.
- 15 See Marcus George E., « Notes on the Contemporary Imperative to Collaborate, art. cit.
Stéphane Dufoix : What would you say is the main difference between the Center for Ethnography you have created and the Anthropology of the Contemporary Research Collaboratory that was created by Rabinow, Lakoff and Collier at Berkeley? You have written about the importance of that specific collaborative research center15.
George E. Marcus : Yes, that is an important attempt. But I think that Paul and I have a different conception. Paul has somehow remained a classic anthropologist – though a delightfully unruly academic and intellectual – considering that the results of fieldwork have to be discussed in a seminar room. My idea is that eventually the natives come back! Eventually they invade the seminar room, whoever the native is, and change the project of ethnography in its very home preserve of the academy. This is “savage” multi-sitedness. And eventually the seminar gives up its coherence to some kind of richness for the development of further thinking with a range of unexpected participations that multi-sited fieldwork has produced.
Stéphane Dufoix : I have the feeling that your vision of the anthropologist always sees him or her as being embedded, or inscribed within a set of relations, and never as an outsider trying to tell the truth from above. You also consider that anthropology can be nothing but political because it is critical and not because it is activist.
George E. Marcus : Yes, perfect. Thank you for that summary!
Stéphane Dufoix : Fieldwork is often seen in opposition to theory. You have already mentioned that there could be something theoretical in fieldwork. It seems that in your latest papers you’re trying to say that theoretical work is part of the fieldwork.
- 16 The presentations by Philippe Descola and Bruno Latour, as well as the comments by Marshall Sahlins (...)
- 17 Ingold Tim, « That’s Enough about Ethnography ! », Hau, 4/1, 2014, p. 383-395, quote from p. 393.
George E. Marcus : Exactly. For a long time, the theoretical ambitions of anthropology were embedded in the conditions of fieldwork. I pretty much agree with the answer Michael Fischer gave to Latour and Descola’s presentations at the American Anthropological Association meeting in Chicago in 201316. Theory is embedded within fieldwork. We could argue that anthropology is not a very theoretical discipline in fact, except that its ideas are developed and embedded and argued within the framework of ethnography. When Tim Ingold says that anthropology is not ethnography, and that the idea of “anthropological theory”, which is very tied to perception, phenomenology, and the body, pushes ethnography far beyond the limits of what it had been before, he argues that fieldwork and theory could be illuminating each other in an “undivided, interstitial field of anthropology”17. What the proper role of theory in anthropology right now is a very open question. People are judged from their ethnographic work. Very few articles in American anthropology have had a success if they were epistemological or theoretical per se. There is no identifiable sustained theoretical discourse specific to the discipline of anthropology, other than through ethnography.
Stéphane Dufoix : Then what does that mean to say that theory is part of the fieldwork?
- 18 Debaene (Vincent), Far Afield : French Anthropology between Science and Literature, Chicago, Univer (...)
- 19 Turner (Terry S.), « The Crisis of Late Structuralism. Perspectivism and Animism: Rethinking Cultur (...)
George E. Marcus : I think anthropologists are not doing anything much in terms of the classic concerns of the discipline, such as rituals or kinship, for which there are distinctive ‘theories.’ There is work still being done on these topics, but it seems to me it’s more like a concept work than theory as such. The tradition of anthropologists building a theory separately from their fieldwork, as Vincent Debaene has shown, has been disrupted from the 1980s18. The “ontological turn”, though intellectually powerful, is late structuralism as Terence Turner has argued19, and is really not adequate to provide a theoretical grounding for the diffuse curiosities of generations now of “multi-sited” research.
Stéphane Dufoix : What would you foresee as the future of fieldwork in anthropology?
- 20 Among the latest Marcus’ writings about the evolution of fieldwork in anthropology, one of the most (...)
George E. Marcus : That’s the model by which we train eleven or twelve new graduate students a year. The model is preparation, field site, go out for a year or two, immersion. The dissertation write-up is usually inadequate to the richness of the fieldwork and the thinking within it. This inadequacy and the unpredictable post-doctoral dealing with it sometimes launches the most extraordinary careers. There’s no difference in terms of the training from long established rituals and practices. And then some of these people go on with second projects, which take very different forms, temporalities and shapes methodologically. The dissertation is still based on fieldwork. None of that has changed. My guess is that, in terms of the general argument of the field, none of that is going to change20. It does work. Traditionally, there has been nothing to really teach about methods, except help students read ethnographies, and mentorship. I believe this is changing and there are new theories and discourses about the traditional method. For example, the scaling discourses on method that I mentioned are really discourses about the practice of theory and concept work, appropriate to ethnographic fieldwork. People should know what they want to do and where, and how you scale it. You could tangibly say that it’s what globalization means, that every subject you deal with is a subject that involves multi-sited theoretical articulation from the villager to the banker or the policy-maker, and that the job of anthropology is to move among these levels, perhaps beginning by the one with which it identifies most, that of the people.
1 Marcus George E., « Ethnographic Research among Elites in the Kingdom of Tonga: Some Methodological Considerations », Anthropological Quarterly, 52/3, 1979, p. 135-151, as well as Marcus George E., « Elopement, Kinship, and Elite Marriage in the Contemporary Kingdom of Tonga », Journal de la Société des océanistes, 35/63, 1979, p. 83-96. All notes are from Stéphane Dufoix.
2 Marcus George E. et Dobkin Hall Peter, Lives in Trust: The Fortunes of Dynastic Families in Late Twientieth Century America, Boulder, Westview Press, 1992.
3 Appadurai Arjun, Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
4 Tsing Anna, « The Global Situation », Cultural Anthropology, 15/3, 2000, p. 327-360.
5 Marcus gave the concluding address at the Design Anthropological Futures Conference held in Copenhagen, 12-15 August 2015. See Smith Rachel Charlotte, et al. (dir.), Design Anthropological Futures, London, Bloomsbury, 2016.
6 This conference took place in 2011 at Duke University. The book in question, Writing Culture. The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus, had been published in 1986.
7 Earlier writings about how to expand the scope of anthropological methods may be found in Marcus George E., Ethnography Through Thick and Thin, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1998, especially in chapters 1 and 2 that were published respectively in 1989 and 1991.
8 Marcus George E. et Fischer Michael F., Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1986.
9 Gupta Akhil et Ferguson James, « The Field as Site, Method and Location in Anthropology », in Gupta Akhil et Ferguson James (dir.), Anthropological Locations, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997, p. 1-46.
10 See Marcus George E., « Notes on the Contemporary Imperative to Collaborate, the Traditional Aesthetics of Fieldwork That Will Not Be Denied, and the Need for Pedagogical Experiment in the Transformation of Anthropology’s Signature Method », in Concept Work and Collaboration in the Anthropology of the Contemporary, ARC Exchange, No. 1, July, 2007, p. 33-44, available on the Anthropological Research on the Contemporary website : http://anthropos-lab.net/wp/publications/2007/08/exchangeno1.pdf. Also see Marcus George E., « Collaborative Options and Pedagogical Experiment in Anthropological Research on Experts and Policy Processes », Anthropology in Action, 15/2, 2008, p. 47-57.
11 Faubion James D. et Marcus George E., Fieldwork is Not what It Used to Be. Learning Anthropology’s Method in a Time of Transition, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2009
12 Boyer Dominic, Faubion James D. et Marcus George E. (dir.), Theory Can Be More than It Used to Be. Learning Anthropology's Method in A Time of Transition, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2015.
13 Marcus George E., Where Theory Work is Done in the Production of Contemporary Anthropological Research And How It Might Be Made Accessible in Intermediate Forms of Reception in Ethnography, Vienna Working Papers in Ethnography, n° 2, 2014.
14 Marcus George E. et Rabinow Paul, avec Faubion James D. et Rees Tobias, Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, Durham, Duke University Press, 2008.
15 See Marcus George E., « Notes on the Contemporary Imperative to Collaborate, art. cit.
16 The presentations by Philippe Descola and Bruno Latour, as well as the comments by Marshall Sahlins, Michael Fischer and Kim Fortun were published in Hau, 4/1, 2014, p. 259-360.
17 Ingold Tim, « That’s Enough about Ethnography ! », Hau, 4/1, 2014, p. 383-395, quote from p. 393.
18 Debaene (Vincent), Far Afield : French Anthropology between Science and Literature, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2014, (in French : L’adieu au voyage. L’ethnologie française entre science et littérature, Paris, Gallimard, 2010).
19 Turner (Terry S.), « The Crisis of Late Structuralism. Perspectivism and Animism: Rethinking Culture, Nature, Spirit, and Bodiliness », Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America, 7(1), 2009, p. 3-42.
20 Among the latest Marcus’ writings about the evolution of fieldwork in anthropology, one of the most insightful is certainly « Where Have All the Tales of Fieldwork Gone ? », Ethnos, 71(1), mars 2006, p. 113-122.Top of page
George E. Marcus, « The Ambition of Fieldwork », Terrains/Théories [Online], 5 | 2016, Online since 05 January 2017, connection on 28 April 2017. URL : http://teth.revues.org/856 ; DOI : 10.4000/teth.856Top of page
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