Cultural anthropology graduate students, Anthropology Department, University of Colorado Boulder
Friday and Saturday, September 29 - 30 in Hale 450
The Ethnographic Turn: On Theory, Method, and Practice in Anthropology (2016)
What is ethnography? It is a method, a practice, and a theory. Ethnography is the anthropological way of coming to know a people. We write ethnographies, we do ethnography, we think ethnographically; this is sociocultural anthropology’s past and present. In a recent interview, when asked ‘why ethnography,’ anthropologist Kirin Narayan answered: “For the discipline of paying attention; for learning from others; for becoming more responsibly aware of inequalities; for better understanding the social forces causing suffering and how people might somehow find hope; and most generally, for being perpetually pulled beyond the limits of one’s own taken-for-granted world” (Narayan in McGranahan 2014). Ethnography has long been the defining method of the discipline. The recent “Ethnographic Turn” in contemporary anthropology has prompted a discipline-wide reimagining of ethnography. As such, is it redundant to say that anthropology is experiencing an ethnographic turn? We contend that it is not; instead asking what is specific and productive about this current ethnographic turn versus earlier ones such as the Geertzian era of the 1970s and 1980s. In this particular historical moment, what demands are being placed on anthropologists now to speak to and with the world in new ways?
Anthropology is in a moment of creative rupture, redefinition, and profound possibility, and it is the task of the next generation of cultural anthropologists – particularly graduate students – to rethink the potentials of our work. While contemporary anthropologists engage with a multiplicity of theoretical perspectives and paradigms, there is still coalescence around a common commitment to ethnography. In this conference, we aim to conceptualize the current political moment and possibilities for an engaged anthropology by bringing together graduate students thinking through the disciplinary potentials in their own research projects. Now is a time that can be variously characterized by social unrest, insecurity, and inequality across the globe, but also by possibility, connection, and social change. What responsibilities do we as anthropologists have to people engaged in struggles for justice? How can our deep ethnographic knowledge about complex social issues speak to the public and respond to current issues in a timely way? How do the politics of our situated locations as graduate students inform ethical commitments and obligations to the people with whom we work? If ethnography remains our central commitment as a discipline, how can we tell stories that are compelling and at the same time make sophisticated intellectual claims that do justice to the complexity of people’s social worlds?
Do only masochists relish the thought of dealing with bureaucracies and bureaucrats? Facing the seemingly endless waiting and run-arounds so frequently associated with phone calls and visits to bureaucratic offices, sometimes it seems so. Yet despite – or perhaps because of – the seeming indifference and alienating power of such experiences, bureaucracy can reach into the most intimate spaces of life, from before birth to after death. Human lives are measured at least in part by paper trails and material traces-documents, forms, certificates, photographs, signatures, stamps, and thumb prints. If, as Latour contended, bureaucratic documents are the ‘most despised of all ethnographic objects,’ then in promoting their significance we risk fetishizing them. Yet that risk-along with the risk of boredom-is one we invite you to take with us as we ask, How can we both understand and challenge the contours of bureaucratic authority? What can bureaucracies tell us about contemporary life? What is at stake in identifying intimacy in bureaucracy?
Ethnography and biography constitute distinct yet overlapping modes of representation and analysis. Despite their differing emphases, however, both share a concern with communicating lived experience by writing, narrating, and representing lives. Across the social sciences and humanities, scholars continue to look for new and better ways to write about, understand, and situate the people they study within specific social, historical, political, and economic contexts. At the same time, these scholars seek to better understand and elucidate their own intentions and positions. If, as Michael Herzfeld has argued, the combination of these two genres as ‘ethnographic biography’ promises to overcome the vexing and ultimately specious divide between individual, socio-cultural and historical domains of experience, how might scholars across diverse fields take advantage of this potential?
Belonging is at once comforting and painful, a process and performance of separation and fusion. Etienne Balibar describes “a sense of belonging” as “both what it is that makes one belong to oneself and also what makes one belong to other fellow human beings.” Pushing further, Veena Das asks about the consequences involved in social belonging: “If societies hide from themselves the pain which is inflicted upon individuals as prices of belonging, then how do social sciences learn to receive this knowledge?” In this conference on States of Belonging, we hope to tend to experiences, structures, and epistemologies of belonging as involving both sense and consequence.
What is the relationship between memory and truth? Why is one rendering of a past event called “memory,” another “history,” and a third “truth?” Far from being consigned to the dustbin of history, memory and truth matter in the present, playing political, social, cultural, historical, and cognitive roles in the human search for a meaningful existence. From Halbwachs on, scholars have argued that memory is as social as it is individual; adding to this, anthropologists contend that expressions and experiences of memory, as well as reckonings of truth, are deeply cultural. What overlap is there, we ask, between historical and social truths, and to whom and in what contexts do such resonances or their absence matter?