Accepted paper:

Fleeting moments and ethnographic insights: is it the ethnographer or the informant who's stuck in an ethnographic present?


Timothy Pilbrow (First Nations Legal & Research Services )

Paper short abstract:

Ethnographers rely on moments of insight in fieldwork encounters, but risk turning fleeting moments into overdetermined and atemporal cultural descriptions. Finding ways to bring the informant's temporality into that of the ethnographic text will enhance the value of ethnographic writing.

Paper long abstract:

A surface reading of a typical ethnographic text could easily suggest that anthropological research owes as much to serendipity as to deliberate method. There is, of course, much method behind the framing of fleeting encounters as ethnographically significant. Nevertheless, it is the chance encounter, often involving a fleeting phrase that sticks in the ethnographer's mind, but that may not even be remembered by the informant, that catalyses a theoretical insight or a way of conceptualising community. Long after such an event, I as ethnographer am often still mulling over it, seeking to understand what made it seem so significant to me, exploring its possible meanings, and uncovering the rich context that will make it come to life for my audience. This entails a series of temporal shifts from the time of the encounter to the time of the writing to the longer-term 'structural time' that lives on in ethnographic texts. In this paper, which draws from my ethnographic research in Bulgaria and Australia, I show how these temporal shifts, through displacing or erasing the informant's own temporality, may contribute to overdetermined accounts of our informants and their worlds. I explore ways in which we might recover our informants' temporality in our ethnographic writing and thereby enhance the wider value of our work and its value to our informants and their cultural peers.

panel Ethn03
Intimacy & information: dilemmas of power, trust and property in the informant encounter