An Ethnographic Inventory

How to do ethnography through (epistemic) love letters

Alberto Corsín Jiménez says “we fall” (2017). We fall in what? In anthropological traps, just like we fall in love. We are ‘companion experiments’, he says (quoting Battaglia in the same volume), and asks: “How do companion experiments fall in love? (…) We fall. We just fall. We get trapped and fall” (ibid: 294). The analogy between anthropology (or in my case, ethnography) and love is also what I attempted to explore through my experiment with ‘epistemic love letters’ in the first Colleex meeting (Lisbon, July 2017). I wondered if love could work as a vocabulary to talk about ethnographic relationships.

After working about prototypes, Alberto Corsín Jiménez turned his attention to traps more lately.His point is that anthropological traps, as he put it, “are good to fall in (love with)” (ibid: 295). But what is a trap? Alfred Gell’s classic interest in traps (1996) is well known: a trap is an automaton, an extension of the creator and simultaneously a (working) model of the creator and the victim: it anticipates and subverts the behaviour of the victim. In the use of Corsín Jiménez, a trap is an onto-dispositif, a concept invoked by Battaglia and Antunes Almeida (2014), that “allies with Law and Evelyn’s (2013) notion of devices that create their own heterogeneous arrangements for relating, with the difference that it is a sensibility-engendering rather than an analytic device.” The onto-dispositif, they say, “creates its own heterogeneous exchange protensions—prospecting for its own possible worlds (…)”.

Part of the interest in traps is that they are designed. So did I imagined what we could consider a sort of ‘infrastructure’ albeit basic and rudimentary, composed by a call, letter box for love letters, wire and clips and a poem of Fernando Pessoa (“All love letters are ridiculous”) and during the conference there was also a moment for the presentation of the idea. The call was meant to act as an invitation/provocationopening the possibility to think ethnography in analogy to love and explicitly asking the experimental ethnographers in the venue to write about their fieldwork relations as ‘epistemic love letters’ rather than papers. I provided a letter box with the inscription “love letters” only: having “epistemic love letters” would be too long as an inscription, and the intention (failed) was also to open the possibility that any people passing by in the garden could would feel curious and perhaps could leave love letters: the event was organized in the sui generis Jardim Botânico Tropical, a former ‘Colonial Garden’ that once worked as pedagogic show of the botanical diversity of the colonies and which is now a museum/botanical park open to the public. My intention was to exhibit the letters received, which would be hung with clips, and eventually see if they could be used to generate discussion about ethnographic issues that are related to the more personal and relational aspects of fieldwork.

I did what I planed, and I received four letters, but the first problem was that they were very different in form to the point that I didn’t know if they could work as ‘epistemic love letters’ or not: one of them was a photograph (and the author explained me later by e-mail what it referred to), and another one was an e-mail, so I guess this leaves only two letters-really-handwritten-letters (although they very interesting and creative in their own right, and certainly worth attention – seee transcriptions). The second problem was that the purpose of the exercise wasn’t clear and people interpreted it about love/sex issues in the field. This unpredictable effect of my rudimentary plan made me so embarrassed to the point of leaving me in an impasse about what to do next. I didn’t intend to do more than to open the idea as a provocation (a provocation is a sort of trap in a way) and leave it open and inconclusive, but in order do avoid the misinterpretation I should have invested more on the design of it: on the material, mechanic onto-potential aspects of my infrastructure, on its affordances and predicted effects: it would have been important to think more carefully in advance on what it was supposed to do, to care about its design: design as a way of drawing things together (Latour 2008: 7), depends on “modesty, care, precautions, skills, crafts, meanings, attention to details, careful conservations, redesign, artificiality, and ever shifting transitory fashions”. The box indicated ‘love letters’ and it was positioned in a strategic point of the conference venue. What was it meant for? Was it for love letters? Love letters in general, or ethnographic love letters? What a precarious and fragile infrastructure. “Interesting, but I wanted to ask you, why do you call it ‘epistemic?'”, was how one colleague expressed me her puzzlement. And to whom should they be addressed? For ‘informants’? For other anthropologists? For lovers in the field? I did not know. I ended up in an impasse.I only had a vague idea. I was left it in suspension. I was the one ended caught in the perils of trying to design an object – an infrastructure, a trap of some sort – without knowing how to. “It is hard work – at times playful, often treacherous, sometimes uncontrollable and overwhelming too – to trap a feeling”, says Alberto, who could be my epistemic-sentimental advisor. I ended up with very mixed feelings about this object and for that reason I didn’t invest as much as I should on it. But such exercise relates to an important debate in anthropology: how to do anthropology through design? It is a whole matter of pragmatics: to engage in the design of an object for ethnography is not only to be exposed to the perils of traps: the quest is to design them as onto-dispositifs, that is, devices that create its own heterogeneous arrangements for relating. What did I want my trap to put in relation in first place?


Battaglia, Debboraand Almeida, Rafael Antunes. 2014.”“Otherwise Anthropology” Otherwise: The View From Technology.” Dispatches, Cultural Anthropology website, February 24, 2014. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/493-otherwise-anthropology-otherwise-the-view-from-technology

Collins, Samuel, Dumit, Joseph, et al. 2017. Gaming anthropology: a sourcebook from #Anthropologycon. Booklet available at anthropologycon.org (accessed May 2018).

Corsín Jiménez, Alberto. 2017. “We fall”. History and Anthropology, 28:3, 293-296.
Gell, Alfred. 1996. “Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps”: Journal of Material Culture, Vol 1, Issue 1: 15-38.

Latour, Bruno. 2008. “A cautious Prometheus? A few steps toward a philosophy of design (with special attention to Peter Sloterdijk)”. In Fiona Hackne, Jonathn Glynne and Viv Minto (editors) Proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference of the Design History Society – Falmouth, 3-6 September 2009, e-books, Universal Publishers, pp. 2-10.

Law, John, and Evelyn Ruppert. 2013. “The Social Life of Methods: Devices.” Journal of Cultural Economy 6, no. 3: 229–40.

Roberts, Peter. 2018. “Love, attention and teaching: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov”, Open Review of Educational Research, 5:1, 1-15, DOI: 10.1080/23265507.2017.1404434

Sanjek, R. (Ed.). (1990). Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology. New York: Cornel University.

Scheld, Suzanne. 2009: “Letter writing and learning in anthropology”. The Journal of Effective Teaching, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2009, 59-69.

About ‘Consultorio Elena Francis’: https://smoda.elpais.com/placeres/elena-francis-consejos-para-la-mujer-sumisa/



“Querida Doña Elena” – ‘Epistemic love letters’ 2.0

“And in love, in the middle, in between, in the interim and the impasse, we keep falling, we remain trapped”
Corsín Jiménez, ibid, 295

In an attempt to redefine the design of my little ‘technical’ infrastructure after this experience (after all, to design is always to redesign – Latour 2008), I now ask how to build an infrastructure for eliciting issues related to ethnography’s capacity for ‘epistemic love’. What if epistemic love letters are used as a device for an educational context? This is what my infrastructure would put into relation: the practice and experiences of ethnography, teaching anthropology, and love. Considering that teaching can be considered a form of active (that is, concrete) love (Roberts 2018: 8), my idea is that letters can be used as a resource for teaching ethnography and a means for inviting students to reflect about the relational aspects of fieldwork. Roberts’ point is that we learn through acts of attention, and “Acts of attention demand of us a willingness to wait, to look, to listen. They require patience and humility” Active love, he proceeds, based on careful and patient attention, “is not concerned with grand gestures but small moments of giving and receiving. It is (…) a form of work that is never complete” (ibid.). I wonder if ‘Epistemic love’ letters, if understood as a device for active love and teaching in those terms can be used for specifically writing about relational aspects of the field and providing the sort of learning opportunities that become scarce in neoliberalized academic contexts: the neoliberal universities’ obsession with measurement, assessment and efficiency, according to Roberts, works against the unpredictable, often unknowable forms of learning, leading him to conclude that “contemporary educational institutions provide unfriendly soil for the cultivation of attention and active love”, and therefore, “Love, has no place in such systems” (ibid: 9-10). So we need devices for educational falling. Can letters do that for anthropology?

If (epistemic) love is mediated, we need a whole education on how to care for these interfaces. Letters can be one of those mediators or interfaces. The use of letters in anthropology is not new: letter writing is part of an on-going tradition in anthropology: for example, both Malinowski and Margaret Mead used letters in their fieldwork, but mainly as a tool for analysing culture. In particular for Malinowski, letter writing was a tool for teaching the novice anthropologist how to do fieldwork: he made his student, Camilla Wedgwood, write to him from the field. This was his way of ensuring that “headnotes” were converted into fieldnotes (Sanjeck, 1990: 111-112).Letter writing has also been explored as a pedagogic device for anthropology courses (Scheld 2009): some anthropologists are experimenting with letter writing as pedagogy in anthropology , among other devices – for example games (Collins, Dumit et al 2017). Suzanne Scheld (2009) in particular, experimented with letter writing for pedagogic purposes by asking students to write formal letters to senior anthropologists, prompting responses from them and therefore turning the letter writing into a dynamic pedagogy.

Inspired by that tradition and those experiments, my reframing of the exercise is as following: the proposal is to use letters not as ‘love letters’ but as letters that are used to express dilemmas and concerns about the relational craft of the field and ask advice and orientation to the person (a character) receiving the letters. This, I imagine, can be a pedagogical device useful for seminars with PhD or master students in anthropology, for example, as a way of bringing up those issues for discussion.

Letter from Margaret Mead to Ruth Benedict, January 1926 (Library of Congress)



Instrucctions – Epistemic love letters

1) The first step is performative: set the stage, design a character. My suggestion is to build a sort of sentimental advisory service and put yourself in the position of someone who receives and reads the letters for advising the people who send the letters. This is a fictional role where you will be playing a character.One source of inspiration that I recommend to build the character is the Consultorio de Elena Francis: it was a Spanish radio programme,active between the 1940s and the 1960s,whose structure consisted on a sentimental ‘expert’ (Doña Francis) giving advice to an audience of housewives based on the issues and topics raised by their letters.”Se ponían canciones dedicadas, se leían autobiografías o vidas de santos, como modelos a imitar, pero el cuerpo principal del programa consistía en leer las preguntas de las oyentes y darles consejo. Algunas cartas, si así se solicitaba, eran contestadas por correo, lo que servía como confirmación de que doña Francis existía y no era una mera leyenda.” (wikipedia) Doña Francis, however, revealed to be a fictional character sustained by a whole team: the whole project was an artifice, a trap of some sort: “se trataba de un montaje que el “Instituto de Belleza Francis” de Barcelona se había inventado para publicitar sus productos”. It can’t be ignored that in content, this is highly criticisable: the program promoted a very moralist model of submissive woman because it was part of the conservative ideology of franquismo. However,it is an admirable edifice in form, a whole exercise of construction, which I see as an interesting inspiration towards a moredesigned anthropology.

2) Think about the setting or format: Consultorio de Elena Francis was a radio programme. Depending on the situation and the resources available, what would be the best medium? A radio programme? A dramatic session? A blog? A lecture room? A television show? A book, or a booklet?

3) Invite students to hand write their letters and send them to the Consultorio- for a better effect, it is important to keep the old-fashioned handwritten document as the medium, as a material object. Letters are used to ask questions to someone who is (or pretends to be) an ‘expert’ in dealing with the emotional/personal sides of ethnography.

4) Send those letters to the person (or network of people) performing the role of ‘sentimental advisor’.

5) The ‘sentimental advisor’ writes back to the students, keeping the conversations about the craft of ethnography going.

6) Define the time and rhythm of the Consultorio or the questions/answers sessions: is there regularity for feedback sessions or is it a single session?

7) Use ambience ingredients for the reading and commenting session, such as, for example, music or dedicated songs, or reading the biographies of exemplary anthropologists working as inspirational models for the ethnographic craft.

8) Finally, it is important to clarify that this is intended as a way of building epistemic-pedagogic relations, therefore ‘love’ is not the content of the letters, but rather theaim of setting up the whole building: love is its effect.



Letter 1:

Lisbon, 13-07-2017

Dear object of my desire,

You lay there lecherously coilled (sic) on the sky in the abscissa of the “Field”. We are playing together this slippery slope. Yes, that’s the playground you chose to gamble with me and to put my love to the test. Sweet desire, this the appealing gown that mold (sic) your forms to invite me to a passionate dance of passion. Fieldwork! You are the game that makes our romance possible. It’s you that allows the fabulous encounter with the complex beauty of humanity, teasing everyday more my sensual curiosity and my intellectual appetite. Sometimes frustrating, but always fullfilling (sic). Beloved fieldwork, you are not the end in itself, but the fantastic facilitator, skillfully (sic) concerning ad hoc creative libidinal constraints, traps you fomented to hunt the intensity of my insatiable poetics of resistance, accepting my trivial humanity as a award of bravery, permanently gently redefining my person, in your arms, finally; between your hips, fatally.

That bratingly (sic – bracingly?) yours,



Letter 2

Picture, with a hand inscription “Ohiboka jeddans”

Comment to the picture (as a response to my question if “Ohiboka jeddans” was a singer):

“Ohiboka jeddan is not a singer, it means “I love you” in moroccan arabic. I choose to write it in arabic, becuase in the Residential Centre my co-researchers, sometimes, use arabic to speak about the things they don´t want to share with the social workers or educators. I don’t know if you were in my presentation. I research with Unaccompanied Foreign Minors that come from Morocco.

The picture is the photo on my thesis cover. I took the picture and the boy that appears in the pic is one of my co-researcher. He dicided to look to that landscape, that it is a ficticious landscape. Is Bilbao, where he is set, and Tanger, where his family live. It does not represent a person. Nor me, nor my co-researcher. It represents the resarch as something we need to care for.

With this declaration of love to my co-researchers and declaring it in a language that social workers do not dominate I wanteda also to parody the idea of when you are seen you with your co-researchers years after the fieldwork ended, the social workers who worked with these children they imagine that we have a relationship of love/sex. This makes us feel very uncomfortable and attack. So, with this lover letter we want to represent that love overflows the imaginary of social workers.”

(Karmele Mendonza Pérez, e-mail 17-07-2017).

Later, the author also attached this text:

Las investigaciones cuando son construidos a partir de una metodología de investigación que permite una colaboración intensa y extensa en el propio proceso investigador a veces generan resultados y relaciones inesperadas. Al hablar de relaciones, y como nos recuerdan constantemente colectivos como Colaborabora (2017), o autores como Sánchez-Criado (2013), Lafuente y Lara (2013), Kulman (2012) en este tipo de investigaciones las emociones, los afectos, los sentimientos, como en el arte, forman parte del propio proceso. No es que las emociones, los afectos y sentimientos no hayan tenido importancia en la práctica investigadora en el pasado, sino que en otras formas de investigar no se han reconocido ni se les ha dado espacio. Sin embargo, para comprender los derroteros de mi propia tesis es necesario tener en cuenta los afectos y relaciones (Mendoza, 2017). Así, en este proceso de investigación nos hemos llegado a sentirnos amigos, confidentes e, incluso, hermanos. A veces tejimos lazos y hermandades inesperados.

Lazos y hermandades inesperada que he querido agradecer, cuidar y recordar con esta ̈foto de amor ̈. Esta foto es la portada de mi tesis y habla de afectar y ser afectados; de lazos tejidos durante la investigación no acabaron cuando se agotó el tiempo del taller, sino que continuaron en la construcción del relato, en el diseño de la porta de la tesis y por supuesto en nuestra vida. Esta ̈foto de amor ̈ es la portada de mi tesis y no solo nos habla de un paisaje ficticio soñado como Bilbao con Tánger de fondo, sino también habla de lo invisible de esa necesidad de cuidarnos y querernos. Cuidar y querer no solo a la familia que está lejos, sino cuidarnos y querernos mientras investigamos.

Pero hablar que querer cuando se investiga con menores es algo peligroso, incluso vergonzoso, y que puede ser malinterpretado, hasta tal extremo que donde una dice amor otros imaginan sexo. Por eso, para cuidarnos en salud hemos aprendido que las cosas hay que decirlas, y más cuando es un te quiero, pero quizás sea más seguro decirlo en otras lenguas. Por eso: ̈Ohiboka jeddan ̈ que en árabe, la lengua materna de mis co-investigadores, significa te quiero.


Colaborabora (2017). Si te vas a hacer un traje, mejor estate. Disponible: https://www.colaborabora.org/2017/07/10/si-te-van-a-hacer-un-traje-mejor-estate/

Kullman, K. (2012). Experiments with moving children and digital cameras. Children’s Geographies, 10(1), 1-16. Lafuente, A., y Lara, T. (2013). Aprendizajes situados y prácticas procomunales. Revista de la Asociación de

Sociología de la Educación (RASE), 6(2), 168-177.
Mendoza, K. (2017). Adolescentes y jóvenes migrantes: Prácticas de vida y socialidad. Tesis Doctoral. Universidad

Autónoma de Madrid.

Sánchez-Criado, T. (2016). “Hacer cuerpo” & “¿Poner el cuerpo en común?“, Blog Fuera de clase, Periódico Diagonal.

(2013). “Ese conocimiento que la razón tecnocrática ignora” 1: “¿Del doctor como el mejor gobernador?”, 2: “¿El estallido de comunidades epistémicas experimentales?”,3: “Vulnerabilidad y mimo de la experimentación del cualquiera”), Blog Fuera de clase, Periódico Diagonal.


Letter 3

Dear A, (A, for Academy)

I’m leaving. It has been wonderful years, but it is my time to leave for a new vital horizon.

I am really disappointed. You always find somebody that is more clever, more articulated, younger… It is as if you had never enough my company, generosity and affect.

I am sorry, A., but I think you are lost, getting older and losing your enthusiasm. I am really sorry for you.



Letter 4 (sent through e-mail):

On the third day…

You’ve caught more sleep than one would expect at a conference. You even do some yoga in the morning, while listening to electronic summer music. You have a lot of coffee and choose to leave your laptop at the apartment. When you enter the room, many others are already there, so you silently join into the rhythm of the morning session that has become familiar so quickly. You sit down on the wooden floor. It is colder than before – the soft breeze almost gives you goosebumps. The stories you listening to intermingle with dogs howling. You are picking up thoughts, think with them. You are noting down a few words and draw the plants and animals of the garden. With western eyes (*) all the books stare at you through their cage. You can smell how they are slowly yellowing. You think of the cat sitting on the massive tree roots. And then you dissolve in the continuing choreography of voices and noises. You want to hold on to that feeling, but you know that you can’t.

(*) Portishead (1997) Western Eyes. In: Portishead: Portishead, 11.


The original call – In the mood for epistemic love

Love, the common-place goes, is something that happens: something that is made of chance, that is out of our control (we fall in love); and at the same time it is a practice: it is made of an encounter, just like ethnography; and ethnography is totally a relational affair, just like love. (Romantic) love is probably as much a discourse, idealized and ‘imagined’ (like in Xavier Dolan’s film Les amours imaginaires), as it is something that escapes or overflows discourse: it is also lived, performed, embodied, corporeal. It is excessive. It is mysteriously creative, generative: it is magic (Pignarre & Stengers 2011). Love is perhaps even experimental (Rheinberger 1997): it is open-ended and at the same time it is something for which we need to create the conditions for it to happen: it is something we need to care for. Can ‘love’ be useful as a vocabulary to describe and think about what we ethnographers do, how we make our knowledge and the kind of relationships we create in the field? What kinds of things love and ethnography have in common?

Ethnography is often romanticized and idealized: its process is mystified. Considering that we live in a time of ‘fast’ research, a time when the ‘projectification’ of academic knowledge production (Ylijoki 2014) threatens to colonize our research life and sanity, can ethnography-as-epistemic-love work as some sort of resistance (or therapy) to this process? Can (epistemic) love save us?

Aiming at opening up possibilities of thinking about ethnography as a mode of epistemic love, ‘In the mood for epistemic love’ invites Colleex to experiment with a different frame for narrating their ethnographic experiences: tell us your epistemic love stories, through epistemic love letters.

Tell your colleex about your epistemic love stories: the stories about how you make your epistemic magic happens; or the troubled relationships in the field, the unsaid things: your love with the field, your love in the field, the frictions, the unconscious issues; or, be pro-active and, for example, declare your epistemic love to the discipline or area of expertise of your collaborators in the field, or even propose your fieldwork colleex to be your epistemic lovers.

The letters would be collected during the workshop days in a letter box and will be exhibited in the last day.


SOURCE: This open format was originally published as part of the Colleex Open Formats, August 8, 2018


TOP IMAGE: A letter from Franz Boas adressed to Ruth Benedict in 16 July 1925. It is located in the personal archive of Ruth Benedict, an open repository in the Ruth Fulton Benedict Papers.