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In writing ethnographic accounts, we are bound to attribute causal links between events and to attribute agency to collective entities. Yet, ethnographic evidence is constituted by experiences of communication that are grounded in indeterminacy and that remain ultimately underdetermined. In this plenary, we would like to explore how ethnographic doubt is written into the ethnographic narrative. In short, what does the ethnographer have to assume to make ethnography possible?
What are the conditions of possibility of ethnography? Anthropologists have to keep asking this question at regular intervals, as the answer depends on the basic cosmological assumptions that ground the broader scientific enterprise at any particular time, and these are constantly shifting. In the 1950s, Michael Polanyi stated that “we cannot comprehend a whole without seeing its parts, but we cannot see the parts without comprehending the whole.” We must agree with him that ethnographic observation involves an analytical drive that remains ever hypothetical. However, we now realize that behind the opposition that he sets up between seeing (supposedly a passive act) and comprehending (supposedly an analytical assumption) there is an infinite regression, because all parts are also wholes. In ethnography, in particular, we deal centrally with persons (live persons, dead persons and metapersons of all kinds). But, unlike Polanyi, we now know that “the bringing together of many persons is just like the bringing together of one”, as Marilyn Strathern warned us. There is no ultimate material reduction in ethnography; ethnographic evidence is based on experiences and on relations that are grounded in indeterminacy and that, because they involve emergence, remain ultimately underdetermined. The whole has properties that are greater than the sum of the parts but which interact with each of the parts in complex processes of entanglement. In this plenary, we ask once again: how can ethnography respond to the challenges both of determinacy and of emergence, of vagueness and of structure. Doubt and vagueness coexist with the essential need of all scientific accounts to provide narratives that, unlike our everyday endeavours, are both ordered and bound by the laws of logic.
Read the convenor's introduction here: