Accepted paper:

Bodily ethnography: some epistemological challenges of participation


Till Förster (University of Basel )

Paper short abstract:

Bodily participation is mostly conceived as a partial aspect of participant observation but seldom studied in its own right. Building on an example from West Africa, this paper examines how the epistemological advantages, insights and potentials of participation affect the ethnographic imagination.

Paper long abstract:

In many situations, bodily participation provides insights that mere observation cannot offer - though everyday language suggests otherwise. Anthropology often ignores this epistemo-logical difference when framing "participant observation" as only one and coherent method. Based on an ethnographic vignette, this paper explores how bodily interactions in ethno-graphic fieldwork raise awareness for non-observational knowledge and practices. It looks at how subtle bodily interactions constitute sociality and eventually a social space that remains invisible to outsiders but where profound intersubjectivity unfolds between those who par-ticipate. This leads into two epistemological problems. The first is related to the professional attitude of anthropologists: while bodily social practice is largely non-predicative, ethnog-raphers are urged to put it in words, which affects their relationship to that practice and how they can engage in it - but it also affects their imagination of the social as a subject of reflec-tion. The second challenge is the habituation of bodily practices. The longer ethnographers engage in such social practices, the more they will develop routines and no longer focus con-sciously on what they do. The initial dislocation caused by bodily experience will give way to inattentive performance that ethnographers may no longer be aware of - and again, this has consequences for the ethnographic imagination. The tension between the two problems can distort the ethnographic account of bodily practices. Nonetheless, bodily ethnography is the only way of accessing the finely spun and often hidden dimensions of social life where neither observation nor interviews will lead very far.

panel Body01
Skills of feeling with the world: affective imagination, embodied memories and materiality in the emergence of sociality