As a concept, ethnography is currently riding on a wave of popularity. Having branched out from the folds of anthropology and ethnology it is now currently in vogue in a range of disciplinary fields from contemporary cultural sociology to architecture, design, marketing and management. But the question this article focuses upon concerns the ends of ethnography. What is it capable of becoming, and how might its limits be pushed?
Pursuing this question, the article argues for a need to rethink and re-theorize ethnography from a slightly different direction than that which is predominantly taught in the cultural and social sciences. It is direction that the article describes as distributive in stance and orientation rather than accumulative. That is, while ethnography is usually framed and taught as an accumulative process of gathering and assembling materials (an endeavor of creating order) the article argues for a need to more systematically theorize (and teach) ethnography in relation to the audiences it is meant to touch, move, and have an impact upon.
In order to do this, the text takes critical inspiration in George Marcus’ writings on multi-sited ethnography and pushes the concept in the direction of ethnography’s audiences, and towards the development and theorization of new modes of multi-targeted ethnography.
Central to the line of argumentation made in the paper is an emphasis upon a metaphorical shift in how ethnography is thought of: a shift that moves from the realm of “writing culture” to one of composing ethnography. Writing culture, it is argued, is a cognitive textual endeavor, but composing ethnography moves further, bringing the senses and embodied experiences into play. It asks how, in addition to writing, can culture and cultural experiences be rendered sensually to engage and move different publics and to ever gauge, calibrate and configure that rendering to best meet the needs and competencies of the audience of the day. And the phrasing “of the day” is important here, because it is argued that a disposition to multi-targeted ethnography understands the ethnographic outcome to be temporary, contingent and ever open to change and development.
This requires a bricolage approach to the melding of analytical/theoretical perspectives with materials, but it also necessitates the development of performative techniques that move beyond textual representations, and it involves explicitly formulated distributive ambitions often not addressed in traditional anthropological courses: including, but not limited to the oral, visual, and digital skills needed to engage different publics and communicate results, the ability to translate concepts and explanations in ways that make them relevant in different contexts, and a belief in the ability of cultural analysis to provide solutions.
International SCACA symposium: ETHNOGRAPHY AND ITS AUDIENCES, 14-15 October 2015, Halmstad University, Halmstad, Sweden