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An Ethnographic Inventory

What is an ethnographic inventory?

[EN ESPAÑOL: ¿Qué es un inventario etnográfico?]

xcol inventory is many different things at the same time. It is first and foremost an inventory of the endless invention that is integral to any ethnographic inquiry. It documents and curates four types of inventions: the relational inventions produced in the field by anthropologists and their companions (field devices), pedagogical methodologies and venues for the apprenticeship of ethnography (open formats), interventions into the inside of the discipline drawing inspiration from our fields of study (intraventions) and experiments in ethnographic practice (prototypes). 

Ethnography is an act of invention. The xcol inventory takes as its departing point the idea that ethnography is an act of invention: by that we mean that anthropologists invent the relations allowing them to inquire with others. Sadly, these forms of inventiveness are rarely accounted for and shared. xcol inventory seeks to document and inventory the acts of invention that are integral to the practices of ethnography. Anthropologists and close companions are invited to join this inventorying endeavour.

xcol is a collective inquiry. We know very well that archives are always much more than what they appear at first sight. The xcol inventory is therefore not merely a repository. On the contrary, it is a collective inquiry into the modes of inquiry of anthropology, both present and past (and why not: future too). In line with this goal, the xcol inventory is an infrastructure aiming (1) to promote ethnographic invention, (2) to care for the invention that has occurred, and (3) to look after the one that could happen.

Inquiries always demand improvisation. Any anthropologist has faced in their fieldwork the challenging circumstance of forging out of nothing relations with complete strangers in an unknown situation. Anthropologists draw on the forms of relationality they already know and the guides and norms of the ethnographic method they have learnt. But this knowledge is never enough. As any experienced anthropologist very well knows from their own field experience, there is no script for the social life and no sufficient method to guide the construction of relations in the field. Hence, anthropological inquiries always demand inventing the modes of relationality allowing anthropologists to investigate with others (whoever they are). 

Ethnography beyond the idea of ‘method’. The starting point of the inventory assumes that besides, or rather beyond, the conventional conceptualization of ethnography as a ‘method’ we may conceive it as an act of invention. The language of creativity, improvisation and invention is seldom, if ever, present in the anthropological accounts of ethnography. The argument we advance here goes against this state of affairs. In contrast to the conceptualization we posit here a different conception that signals out the always creative and improvisational nature of ethnography. 

Ethnography has historically been inventive. The inventiveness we are signalling here does not merely refer to the creation of something new (as the notion of invention is sometimes understood). Also, we don’t necessarily demand to reinvent ethnography by innovating on its practices. On the contrary, our core assumption is that the empirical practice of ethnography has always been an inventive activity. In this sense, fieldwork is not just the reproduction of the learnt norms or the application of methodological forms. Much on the contrary, fieldwork is, and has always been, pervaded with creative gestures and inventive interventions. This is the reason xcol seeks to document both present and past inventions. 

Drawing inspiration from Roy Wagner. Acknowledging the invention integral to anthropological practice is not completely novel for the discipline. Roy Wagner proposed decades ago that more than discovering the cultures they were studying, anthropologists instead ‘invent’ them. Wagner’s anthropological invention takes place though at the conceptual level, in the process of analysis. Our field experience, and those of many others, have offered us insights that expand this vision of the anthropological endeavour. Besides the invention entailed in the relations (narrations) that are written out of the field, the empirical field situation is always imbued by the inventiveness needed to relate to our companions in the field.

Ethnography is always an act of invention. Building on the previous argument, the inventory advances a conception of ethnography that acknowledges the creative dimension required in devising the conditions for anthropological inquiries. Ethnography is always an act of relational invention that takes place in the empirical milieu anthropologists are engaged. The invention here signalled refers to the resourcefulness that anthropologists always mobilize in their empirical activity of inquiry.

The ethnographic inventiveness has been relegated to oblivion. Sadly, the invention that is integral to the field situation has rarely been acknowledged and, more importantly, accounted for by anthropologists and ethnographers. It is today more relevant than ever to acknowledge this condition as a way to renovate our anthropological equipment. The inventory seeks to document and curate in a public and open inventory the creative devices and creations of anthropologist and fellow ethnographers.

A curated inventory of the endless inventiveness of ethnography. In close proximity to the notion of archive, the inventory is a more mundane mode of archiving and taking stock. We draw here inspiration from our colleague Jara Rocha who, together with Femke Snelting, has desribed the practice of inventorying as one based on collectively taking stock, a hands-on practice that demands to curate the inventory at any time for further use. Summoning the concept of ethnographic inventory, we aim now at envisioning an alternative conception of ethnography as an inventory: an archive of endless inventiveness that anthropologists, and other ethnographers, have unfolded in their encounters and investigations with others. 

It is time to invent(ory) again! Illuminating the historical lineage of creativity that has always been part of ethnography xcol inventory seeks to conceptualize anew this empirical practice and, at the same time, highlight the future orientation of the activity of taking inventory. Obviated by anthropology for a long time, we think it is time to take inventory of the ethnographic inventiveness! 

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