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Moments, Movements, Scores: Reflections on Workshopping Ethnography

Yelena Gluzman

26 April, 2016

Ethnography, while once a radical proposition for the social studies of science, is now a standard STS methodology. The more radical proposition these days is not that ethnography can tell us something important about scientific practice, but rather that ethnography is itself a type of practice, and as such, it can be otherwise.

Precisely what sort of otherwise ethnography can be has been a matter of concern for a growing number of groups and projects that explore alternatives for teaching and doing ethnography. One of these is the UC Collaboratory for Ethnographic Design (CoLED), a group I have been involved with since its inception in 2015. CoLED is an “interdisciplinary hub for innovative ethnographic theory and methodology,” linking initiatives, faculty, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students across the University of California system. Because CoLED is organized around the language of design, there is much vigorous discussion among members about the relationship between ethnography and design. What values does the idiom of design introduce, what alternatives might design processes offer, is design the right paradigm to rethink how ethnography is done? Indeed, in October 2016, CoLED will host a three-day public symposium to consider such questions.

Leading up to the October symposium, CoLED has organized a series of exploratory workshops. The first two workshops (at UCSD and UCI, respectively) featured quite a lot of the material culture of design: post-it notes, mind maps, and Adobe software mediated our discussions and collaborations. I was therefore immensely surprised when, in the third CoLED workshop hosted at UC Davis last month, I found myself rolling around on the floor, exploring my fascia, dancing expressively and meditating. This was not the material culture of design, but that of theater.

The debt to theater was explicit. In fact, the first session, led by Cristiana Giordano (UC Davis, Anthropology) in collaboration with Alvaro Hernández and Regina Gutiérrez, (UC Davis, Performance Studies) was titled “Theatrical Devising.” In it, Giordano introduced us to the idea of “moments”—bounded, meaningful units of theatrical time and action. This concept of  "moments" is derived from the documentary theater methods developed by Tectonic Theater Project (best known for their play The Laramie Project). Moments are made, though it would be incorrect to say that are made by one person. Rather, a moment is enacted through interaction among all the elements of the performance space: objects, architecture, people, textures, sound, duration. We began making moments by staging a relation with a chair. We went on to push the moment work by using field notes and research objects we had brought with us. Working in small groups, we contemplated each object or text in turn, and collaboratively made moments around, through, and with those objects. The moments that interested us most we repeated, titled, and analyzed. In this way, the moment work, similar to aleatory and improvisational strategies in early post-modern dance, functioned to defamiliarize our material, to open up new ways of experiencing it and ourselves in relation to it.

In the second session, Joe Dumit (UC Davis, Anthropology and Performance Studies) and Kevin O’Connor (UC Davis, Performance Studies) were interested in reading texts of cultural anthropology and handbooks of theater and improvisation through each other. Taking the group through a series of exercises, Dumit and O’Connor presented us with various scores for ethnographic work. Like a score for music or movement, a score for ethnography, in this usage, functions as a notation for possible play, production, movement, or action. It was through the structure implemented by the scores, they proposed, that improvisation could occur.


Image courtesy of Christina Aushana


In one exercise (pictured above), each of us was instructed to secretly select two people in the group. Without revealing who they were, we had to keep the first person to our right, and the second person to our left. Following these rules instantly put the entire group into movement, first at a walk, and then accelerating (despite ourselves) to a run, with group members veering as they tried to maintain their position in relation to their chosen two.

In another exercise, the groups received a different score. Small groups were sent outside with the instruction to find an object and bring it back to present to everyone. Upon returning, workshop organizers prompted participants to write down everything we recalled about the expedition other than the object we chose.

In both cases, the scores were ways to attune to the process of observation without separating ourselves as observers from the emergent action in which we were embedded. Instead of bracketing the embodied and situated condition of participant-observation, these scores highlighted ways in which embodied experience could be available as part of a research object.

The final session of the workshop took up the contingency of embodied experience by asking us to sit down and meditate. The session, led by Alan Klima (UC Davis, Anthropology), began with Klima asking one workshop participant how they were doing.

“Fine, a little tired,” she replied.

“How do you know?” countered Klima.

The participant mentioned the feeling of her eyelids; they felt heavy. “But how do you know they feel heavy?” Klima gently challenged. His question, repeated a number of times, refused the apparent transparency of knowing. As he led us in meditation, he asked us to direct our attention, first to a distant sound, then to the sound of our pulse, then to a part of our body. This act of attunement, of shifting conscious experience, Klima proposed, was a primary medium through which we work. Like the other kinds of attunement evoked by previous sessions, this play of consciousness was available for exploration, but never outside of embodied experience.

The “D” in CoLED stands for design. In one sense, design may emphasize that ethnography is not given but made, a collection of practices open to reconfigurations. In another sense, the term design invokes the sorts of creative collaborations undertaken by professional designers of various kinds in response to particular problems or briefs; here, instead of the image of a lone ethnographer seeing what her subjects cannot, the organizing image is of a collaborative and heterogeneous team working on a shared project.  The shift from design to theater that occurred in the UC Davis workshop did not counter these implications, but also introduced new strategies to explore a capacity for responsiveness, always foregrounding the embeddedness of the ethnographer in the social and material environment she wants to know. 

Of course, for all the revelations that both design and theater methods brought, they also raised concerns. In previous workshops, participants were anxious about the implications of production and control that accompany the language and methods of design. At UC Davis, there were concerns that theater strategies used to focus on embodied knowing slipped into problematic assumptions of homogenous and normatively-abled bodies. Also worrying was the effect of borrowing methods from a discipline that is increasingly marginalized and under threat in the U.S. academy; what was our responsibility to theater practices and practitioners from whom we drew inspiration? These remained open questions as the workshop drew to a close, and I expect they will be engaged once again at the Ethnography and Design: Mutual Provocations symposium in October.

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