An Ethnographic Inventory

The ethnographic invention

Ethnography is an act of invention. Anthropological inquiries always demand to invent how to inquire and how to relate to others, this is the central argument upon which xcol-Inventory has been built. But if invention has always been integral to the empirical practice of ethnography, the imperative to care for our knowledge practices should also involve to care for the inventiveness of our modes of inquiry.

Ethnography is an act of invention, this is the central argument upon which the xcol inventory has been built. Unpacking this statement it would say that anthropologists (and ethnographers in general) invent—and have always invented—the relations letting them to inquire with others. A conceptualization of ethnography that is present in many contemporary ethnographic projects. The corollary of this argument is straightforward: If invention has always been integral to the empirical practice of ethnography, the imperative to care for our knowledge practices should also involve to care for the inventiveness of our modes of inquiry.

But, what does it mean the ethnographic invention? Let’s consider for a moment the empirical practice of ethnographers. When doing so we soon realize that any experienced anthropologist knows that this is a situation always abundant in uncertainties and unanticipated situations. 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. There is no script for social life and no method is good enough to guide anthropologists and ethnographers in the empirical situation. Anthropological inquiries always demand to invent how to inquire and how to relate to others.

Anthropological inventions

The idea that the practice of anthropology is infused with inventiveness is not completely novel. Decades ago, Roy Wagner (1975) argued that when anthropologists study other cultures, more than discovering them they are inventing them. The anthropological invention Wagner refers to happens at the conceptual level: in the process of analysis, when anthropologists write. The invention here referred to takes place in a different location: in the empirical situation.

This argument may be contextualized in a wide debate about the current transformation of ethnography in the contemporary. This is the experience of many anthropologists that have acknowledged that ‘Fieldwork is not what it used to be’. This is the felicitous title of a volume edited by George Marcus and James D. Faubion (2009). But perhaps the most challenging issue pushing for the transformation of ethnography comes from the extended acknowledgement that the conventional formulation of ethnography is unable to produce relevant questions for the challenges we have today. This is Paul Rabinow’s diagnosis when lamenting that “[t]he currently reigning modes of research in the human sciences are, it seems to me, deficient in vital respects” (Rabinow, 2003: 2).

This is a relevant climate that opens for critique and revision the way we practice ethnography. A relevant locus of intervention in this debate is the tension between the norm and form of ethnography, between the indications and rules that we receive in our training (the so-called ethnographic method) and the practices and practicalities of the field situation. When we consider how we practice ethnography it always appears much more creative than the method described in our handbooks.

Let us offer an example of an ethnographic project that materializes the invention we are trying to convey. It is called the The Asthma Files, a project developed by Kim Fortun, Mike Fortun and many collaborators. A project, as its name clearly indicates, that investigates how asthma in particular, and more generally environmental public health challenges, are addressed. One way to carry out an ethnography on this topic would be to investigate a pneumology department, and alternative would be to investigate with an organization of asthma patients. The Asthma Files proposes a quite different design (or in our own words: device).

Instead of this naturalist approach in which ethnographers go to the field, they have built a digital infrastructure (The Asthma Files, so is the website called) that gathers many collaborators of the project, including technologists, epidemiologists, and public health advocates, among others. All of them searching to understand the complex comparative features of this condition from the disperse materials of the team members. A central component of this experimental ethnography (and this is the way the Fortuns describe it) is its digital infrastructure, called PECE: Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography. The platform was created by the team to explore new ways of collaborative ethnographic analyses “exposing, testing and extending ethnographic methods and the pedagogical and political promise of ethnographic modes of inquiry” (Fortun et al., 2018).

Fieldwork devices

No manual offers any suggestion to build ‘ethnographic infrastructures’ of this kind. But the demands of ethnography seem to have changed at present, as we have argued. It is not difficult to find these kinds of designs in many ethnographic projects. Cases in which research takes expression by curating activities, archiving documents or devising digital infrastructures. In all these cases, the anthropologist does not assume a naturalistic stance. They do not merely approach the field but take an active role in designing the conditions for inquiring with others. We call these designs ‘fieldwork devices’, a kind of design that is the product of the creative and inventive activity of the fieldwork situation–not necessarily of anthropologists themselves, but also, of their collaborative work with many other companions in the field. In that regard, the concept of fieldwork device sheds light on the emerging forms of fieldwork of the contemporary.

Our conceptualization of fieldwork devices draws inspiration on John Law’s and Evelyn Ruppert proposal to think of methods as devices that “assemble and arrange the world in specific social and material patterns” (2013: 230). Despite its simplicity, this figuration is relevant since it captures the socio-material work that goes into empirical inquiries. The notion of (method as) device therefore evinces the work always entailed in assembling (or in our language: devicing) the social, spatial and material dispositions of the ethnographic situation.

Despite the evidence that fieldwork is infused by creativity and inventiveness, these figures never appear in the descriptions of ethnography. The language of creativity, improvisation and invention is rarely, if ever, present in the conceptualization of ethnography. So there seems to be a mismatch because experienced ethnographers know very well that the ethnographic method is a flexible technical knowledge. But when coming to the instances of training, the so-called method is not so elastic and we are told very often in our period of training: This is the way ethnography must be done.

The hegemony of methods

This rigidity has consequences. The tension between the norm of ethnography and its practice became very clear for us when editing the book Experimental collaborations some years ago. Contributors (junior anthropologists at the time) revealed the anxiety that they suffered in their initial investigations because they thought they were transgressing the norms of the ethnographic method they had learnt. This is vividly expressed by Isaac Marrero-Guillamón when acknowledging: “I had imagined a fieldwork based on some kind of distance with the objects and subjects of study, but I had instead participated in the production of the very things I was studying” (2018: 183).

This tension between the norm and form of ethnography, between what ethnography is said to be and what ethnography actually is in practice, is a topic rarely taken into consideration in the methodological reflections of fieldwork. This is perhaps the reason why we have found so relevant George Marcus’s (2009) gesture when he locates his reflection on fieldwork in the period of initial apprenticeship during the PhD. In the period of training, ethnography is revealed as a culture of method profoundly normative and restrictive. A culture that circulates in exemplary monographs, seminaries and handbooks. In this formulation, ethnography offers inspiration but it establishes restrictions too. It sets what may be done and, more importantly, it molds the ethnographic imagination.

We have found especially problematic this ‘methodological imagination’ that describes the ethnographic method as a set of how-to guides and recipes. Because the technical knowledge we call method is never enough and anthropologists have to resort always to their improvisational capacities and inventive abilities in the field. They have to invent. But what is the object of the ethnographic invention? Here we find inspiration in the British Anthropologist Marilyn Strathern (2020) to propose that what ethnographers invent in their empirical activities are (among other things) relations. Anthropologists invent relations when they are doing ethnography.

Inventing relations

Marilyn Strathern has famously conceptualized the anthropological endeavor as one founded on the notion of relations. Anthropologists, in her parlance, use relations to investigate relations. We have therefore two different kinds of relations in the activity of anthropologists. Anthropologists establish analytical relations in their activity of elaborating arguments. This is one kind of relation. And then anthropologists produce descriptive relations, narrations, that represent their anthropological knowledge.

We would like to add a third type of relation that would be integral to the practice of ethnographers (anthropologists or otherwise): these are the relationships that researchers establish in the field with their counterparts. Following this inflection to Strathern’s proposal we may thus describe ethnography as a practice founded the production of a duplex of relations: relations ‘out of the field’ (narrations expressed in the form and format of a monograph) and relations ‘in the field’, as we would like to call those empirical relations anthropologists establish doing fieldwork.

Anthropologists have long ago acknowledged the creativity and inventiveness that is part of their narrations, that is, their relations out of the field. But what about relations in the field? These relations are pervaded by the creativity and inventiveness of anthropologists too. Anthropologists have to improvise and invent how to relate in the ethnographic situation. The technical knowledge we call ethnographic method is certainly the first and helpful resource to guide anthropologists in the uncertain situations of the field. But the conventions of the method are always insufficient to navigate the complex situations of ethnography.

This has always been the case. Historian of anthropology George Stocking Jr. has narrated how Malinowski realized that shared experience in fieldwork was a source of anthropological knowledge. Being unable to embark on a group trip (as was his desire), Malinowski discovered that villagers believed his house to be ghost-ridden. His ignorance of such affairs led to a productive conversation with his counterparts resulting in the revelation that the best way to approach a topic happens when anthropologists and his counterparts have a shared concern and experience (Stocking, 1992: 106). As Stocking relates: “The gap between the specific methodological prescriptions of fieldwork and the vaguely defined goals of ethnographic knowledge had thus to be filled by what Malinowski himself had called ‘the ethnographer’s magic’ (1922:6)” (Stocking, 1992: 112).

Stocking poetically calls it the ethnographer’s magic. We conceptualize it as the ethnographic invention. Invoking the figure of the ethnographic invention we mean two things: first, that the ethnographic situation always exceeds the prescriptions (and descriptions) of the technical knowledge we call method, and second, that under these circumstances anthropologists always have to creatively devise (or even better to ‘device’) the appropriate conditions for their inquiries. This was the case for Malinowski’s, and this is the case of Fortuns’ creative devising of their digital infrastructure. The idea that shared experience is a source of ethnographic knowledge has become a standard component of contemporary ethnography. However, most of the time, other creative inventions emerging in ethnographic situations and allowing anthropologists to inquire are ignored and lost. They never become incorporated into the modes of inquiry of ethnography.

The repertoire of standardized traditional techniques anthropologists use is certainly limited, from interviews to observation, including archival research, surveys… It is shocking though that beyond these traditional techniques so many other modes of inquiry, common among anthropologists, have nonetheless been excluded from the canonized versions of the ethnographic method. We contend that empirical practices of anthropologists have always been much more diverse than what we have tended to tell in the conventional versions of ethnography.

Acknowledging the inventive condition of ethnography is though the first step to cultivate a different care for knowledge. One that should look after the inventiveness of our modes of inquiry. This is important because the invention of today is the condition of possibility for the novel questions that might be raised tomorrow.


Faubion, J. D., & Marcus, G. (Eds.). (2009). Fieldwork is not what it used to be. Learning Anthropology’s Method in a Time of Transition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kim Fortun, Brian Callahan, Brandon Costelloe-Kuehn, Brad Fidler, Alison Kenner, Aalok
Khandekar, Alli Morgan, Lindsay Poirier, Mike Fortun. (2018). Hosting the Platform for Experimental, Collaborative Ethnography. PECE.

Law, J., & Ruppert, E. (2013). The Social Life of Methods: Devices. Journal of Cultural Economy, 6(3), 229-240.

Marcus, G. (2009). Introduction: Notes toward an Ethnographic Memoir of Supervising Graduate Research through Anthropology’s Decades of Transformation. In Faubion, J. D., & Marcus, G. (Eds.). (2009). Fieldwork is not what it used to be. Learning Anthropology’s Method in a Time of Transition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Marrero-Guillamón, Isaac. (2018). Making Fieldwork Public: Repurposing Ethnography as a Hosting Platform in Hackney Wick, London. In: Adolfo Estalella and Tomás S. Criado, eds. Experimental Collaborations: Ethnography through Fieldwork Devices. New York: Berghahn.

Rabinow, P. (2003). Anthropos Today: reflections on modern equipment. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Stocking Jr., G. W. (1992). The ethnographer’s magic and other essays in the history of anthropology. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Strathern, M. (2020). Relations. An Anthropological Account. Durham, London: Duke University Press.

Wagner, R. (1975). The Invention of Culture. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.


TOP IMAGE: Bronislaw Malinowski, scenes on the beach of Silosilo, in Argonauts of the western Pacific (1922).