Collaboration Today and the Re-Imagination of the Classic Scene of Fieldwork Encounter
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Collaboration Today and the Re-Imagination of the Classic Scene of Fieldwork Encounter

Refunctioned ethnography has a more complicated cast of characters than the conversations traditional between the ethnographer and native subjects or informants. In contrast to the bilateral encounter over a camp table, ethnography for present situations is normally if not invariably constituted by the ethnographer, multiple subjects in some relation to one another (what relation may be self-evident, or may have to be discovered by the anthropologist) and liaisons. The contours of ethnographic fieldwork are determined by the relations the ethnographer establishes with the liaisons and the subjects who provide the material critical to the construction of her project. Rather than a sequence of interviews, refunctioned ethnography is much more like what in theater would be an ensemble production, which works through synchronization, or perhaps better, a film montage, in which relations among disparate and apparently disconnected items are established.

—David A. Westbrook, Navigators of the Contemporary:Why Ethnography Matters

For us "collaboration" represents not some new or revamped practice to be added to the repertoire of methodological tools available to an ethnographer; rather we view collaboration as central to what we have termed a refunctioning of ethnography (Holmes and Marcus 2005a, 2005b, 2006). Some will see this as merely an argument for the collaborative relations long embedded in the conditions of fieldwork. This view would not be entirely incorrect, but it would also miss the profoundly altered conditions in which relations of fieldwork today must be negotiated and the more dynamic role that a still under-normed collaboration [End Page 81] plays in the concepts, analytics, and imaginary of ethnography. Key to this refunctioning is drawing on the analytical acumen and existential insights of our subjects to recast the intellectual imperatives of our own methodological practices, in short, the para-ethnographic practices of our subjects.

Working amid and on collaborations significantly shifts the purposes of ethnography from description and analysis, inevitably distanced practices for which it has settled, to a deferral to subjects' modes of knowing, a function to which ethnography has long aspired. This act of deferral, as a distinctive methodological premise that we have derived from our relationship with David "Bert" Westbrook, a legal scholar who has written a book on this relationship (Westbrook 2008), is thus generative of different collaborative configurations by which, we believe, the architecture of a refunctioned ethnography gains coherence.

Most contemporary ethnographic projects face in their formative moments a distinctive conundrum. The long-established anthropological archive does little in the way of providing access and, in fact, may frustrate entry to the kind of ethnographic settings that many of us now seek to explore: epistemic communities—in which "research," broadly conceived, is integral to the function of these communities. The science lab serves as the paradigmatic example, but we think that an experimental ethos is now built into the structure of the contemporary and manifest in countless settings, ranging from alternative art spaces to central banks, from communities of climate scientists to communities of Catholic political activists. The expert, and the culture of expertise that he or she inhabits, is a preferred subject and milieu of contemporary ethnographic inquiry, because within them emergent social and cultural forms are being devised and enacted.

In such compelling settings, the methodological preoccupations and theoretical conceits that have both legitimated and enabled the powerfully imagined scene of fieldwork exchange between anthropologist and subject in the past tend to be of diminished value and may even be useless. Yet, at precisely the moment that we find ourselves bereft of a long-established and even beloved professional research apparatus, we learn that within these milieus of contemporary fieldwork operate reflexive subjects whose intellectual practices assume real or figurative interlocutors. We can find a preexisting ethnographic consciousness or curiosity, which we term para-ethnography, nested in alternative art [End Page 82] space in Tokyo or São Paolo, at an environmental nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Costa Rica, the central bank of Chile and the headquarters of the major pharmaceutical firm in Zurich or Mumbai. This kind of communicative relationship is anticipated within the Russian Academy of Sciences...