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Tim Ingold: ‘Anthropology is not ethnography’

August 12, 2008

Professor Tim Ingold FBA gave the 2007 Radcliffe-Brown Lecture in Social Anthropology at the British Academy.

THE OBJECTIVE of anthropology, I believe is to seek a generous, comparative but nevertheless critical understanding of human being and knowing in the one world we all inhabit. The objective of ethnography is to describe the lives of people other than ourselves, with an accuracy and sensitivity honed by detailed observation and prolonged first-hand experience. My thesis is that anthropology and ethnography are endeavours of quite different kinds.

Update 19 May 2009

Full text freely available here (PDF)

Update 8 Jan 2009

Read edited extracts…

Read edited extracts

(with many thanks to Daniel Lende for spotting the broken link!)

18 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2008 2:54 pm

    No good ethnography is
    self-contained. Implicitly or explicitly ethnography
    is an act of comparison. By virtue of comparison
    ethnographic description becomes objective. Not in
    the naive positivist sense of an unmediated perception—
    just the opposite: it becomes a universal
    understanding to the extent it brings to bear on the
    perception of any society the conceptions of all the
    others. Some Cultural Studies types—Cult Studs, in
    Tom Frank’s description—seem to think that
    Anthropology is nothing but ethnography. Better
    the other way around: ethnography is Anthropology,
    or it is nothing.

  2. angela permalink
    August 12, 2008 3:43 pm

    sounds like the opening of a grand debate in the UK. hope you keep track with the follow ups. however, i guess it might be causing quite a brain itch to write an ethnography without getting involved with anthropological features.

  3. August 13, 2008 5:44 pm

    I omitted on purpose the author of that statement: Marshall Sahlins

  4. August 14, 2008 10:30 am

    Hi angela, not sure how much of a debate there will be, we hardly ever have any debates unfortunately.

    Hi kuja why did you leave out the name of the author? you fooled me alright!
    I disagree with Sahlins, there are some excellent ethnographers out there who are not anthropologists, eg the sociologist Don Slater has done some great work on the online trade in sexpics (pornographic images).

    Further I agree with Ingold on this one – in anthropology (not least in media anthropology) we tend to conflate the terms anthropology and ethnography, and yet many of us also do historical and other forms of research in addition to ethnography.

  5. Anonjohn permalink
    August 28, 2008 4:17 am

    I always get this confused. I thought ethnology was the aspect of comparing cultures, while ethnography was the act of gathering data about them (although I also use the term to refer to a genre of writing…).

    I also thought the problem became that defining “people other than ourselves” can be very problematic, since everyone else is “other” in some sense, and then you are left with problematic classifications… I would just stick to “the lives of people…”,

  6. December 25, 2008 10:27 pm

    For me division on ethnography / anthropology is off target. The only argument which really support for this distinction is historicaly (history of discipline). I know that is tradition (Levi Strauss explanation of this term for example), but today after postmodern critic, all we know that any gathering data/collecting/description is also at once interpretation! So, there is no real qualitative difference beetwen ethnography (ethnology) and anthropology. I think we shoul stay by term of anthropology, because this last one is including understanding of the rest (there isn’t anthropology without gathering data, description and (in real) interpretation at last!).

  7. September 13, 2009 2:23 pm

    Rather belated response I know, but for anyone likely to pick this up, here’s a provocative thought: It occurred to me in retrospect that the first ethnography that I read, at least in terms of research conducted by participant observation, was Hunter S Thompson’s Hells Angels. It would seem that the only thing depriving it from legitimate recognition as Ethnography is its lack of any explicit engagement with anthropological discourse and explanatory concern. Was this then just ‘ethnographic journalism’? (and on this point I would note the rise of pseudo-ethnographic television, in which presenters attempt to ‘experience’ other people’s lifeworlds, almost always for their exotic appeal to the typical television-viewing demographic).

    And no, I have no particular desire to rehearse the Writing Culture debate of the late 1980s. What I think Ingold is really getting at is the retreat from explicit comparison (ethnology in Levi-Strauss’ scheme), and the reluctance to engage in genuine anthropological theorising (perhaps as a result of the embrace of flimsy forms of reflexivity that seem like little more than an excuse for navel-gazing. But one must not forget market pressure – I myself am writing a book that the university press is only willing to publish if it can promise to reach beyond an academic market that will not yield profit. And so I find myself writing more than a report of my research, but also an account of the odyssey of conducting it (and in a way that must be more appealing to a general public than Rabinow’s experiment in ‘Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco’). Can one have the best of both worlds? I would like to believe you can, and would suggest that Piers Vitebsky’s ‘Reindeer People: Living With Animals and Spirits in Siberia’ exemplifies this possibility – appealing to the general public without sacrificing its academic credibility.

    Returning to Ingold’s argument, I would like to add that for me at least, it was most revealing to hear Chris Hann argue against the hegemony of cognitivism as an explanatory approach at the recent meeting of the ASA in Bristol. I think he did so because he (and we?) feels threatened by the anthropological contributions being made by disciplines not historically constituted as anthropology.

    • September 13, 2009 5:06 pm

      Many thanks for that comment, Piers. I’m caught up in various things at the moment but will respond asap. Your timing is perfect as I’ve been thinking of late that my next book should, as you put it, ‘[appeal] to the general public without sacrificing its academic credibility’.

  8. Helen permalink
    September 6, 2012 12:52 pm

    I realise this post has been dead for a while, and so perhaps there is no interest in answering this question, but I shall ask it anyway as a form of catharsis for myself: If anthropology is as Tim describes this broad comparison… then what makes anthropology definably different from any other social science discipline? I had staked my pursuit of a career in anthropology on the partial truthes described through ethnographic experience as being the defining feature of what makes anthropology anthropology. However, now being involved in research in interdisciplinary teams where ethnographic methods are employed by a multitude of disciplines as however they see fit… I start to feel the need to ask well what is an anthropologist anyway – maybe we’re all just social scientists and disciplines are meaningless categories that no one wants to be branded by…


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