More Commentary on “Ethnography as Commentary”

Will anthropology find renewed passion and direction with the help of the internet? According to Johannes Fabian, yes it will, and obviously I agree!

Johannes Fabian’s recent book, Ethnography as Commentary, sets the stage for an internet invigorated ethnography. In it he argues that the co-presence of author and reader, text and commentary, will develop into an ethnographic genre. His study, like mine, is based on the idea that internet technologies change the way anthropology is being presented. Specifically, he focuses on the use of internet archives and the ability to have a group of interested people interact with a text.

He provides valuable support to my own attempts to create an “ethnographic text” in a public space to promote collaboration and feedback. I’m not sure how close the discussions on this blog are to the kinds of commentary Fabian seeks, but I think it’s pretty darn close! He also pushes the idea that ethnographic research should be confrontational and engaged. I’ve been playing with a confrontational/engaged style and I’ve found it works to bring out discussion. It also lets me be honest.

I hope this research project will contribute to the “ethnography as commentary” genre. It can build on what Fabian has presented by showing how one can use a blog to develop the kinds of commentary, interactions, and confrontations that Fabian seeks.

When Fabian gave a talk at Concordia, I did my best to write it up and give some critique. Of course, having not read the book I could have been less critical of some of his points for I now have to dedicate a post to correcting my errors!

I said,

“So without having read the book, I am a bit disappointed that his talk was oblivious to so much that is going on online.”

and in the book he says,

“One could also point out that setting up virtual archives can be a step toward meeting not only demands and expectations to “return” our research results to the people we study but to initiate discussion of our work as well as additions to the corpus. That documents created by blogs and chat groups devoted to themes anthropology is interested in deserve our attention is by now widely recognized; Internet based ethnography has become accepted as a legitimate alternative or compliment of, traditional fieldwork…” (p122)

While trying to put together a decent proposal for this research project, it was made clear to me that I needed to defend how the research will be “ethnographic” [I’m in a program where it MUST be ethnography]. Can I just quote Fabian on this one when asked how online research can be ethnographic?

Further, I can critique myself using Fabian’s words:

“… [the] audience may read a commentary such as this one without consulting the text on the internet. All this can put a damper on the enthusiasm for the “new kind of presence” of ethnographic texts that made me conduct this experiment.” (p122)

Or in my case, without consulting the book. At least I’m committed to correcting my errors, and now that I’ve read the book I realize just how well Fabian set the stage for justifying online ethnography to more “traditional” anthropologists. However I didn’t get much out of the online archive… The book’s main purpose is to discuss how such archives can reinvigorate ethnography, and less about the actual ethnographic text he put online. In this way, I found the book wandered a little and the short linguistic discussion really flew by me. Perhaps if I had a stronger linguistics background it would have been more grabbing.

Finally to all my teachers who continue to define anthropology as a science, I will from now on quote Fabian, where he discusses the difference between an archive and a database. He writes

“Databases, conceived and established long before the advent of the computer and the Internet, belong to the conceptual arsenal of a positivist and essentially ahistorical (some would call it “modernist”) view of anthropology as a science, that to put it mildly, is no longer generally accepted.” (p122)

take that science nuts!  [and for those not aware of the debate, it’s not about science being good or bad, but about imposing scientific goals and methods where they aren’t needed and don’t belong. It’s also about using scientific rhetoric to turn opinion into fact, camouflaging bias. And it’s about science bent anthropologists working against/blocking other means of inquiry and presentation. Woops, I need to buff up my answer to this question someday. Possible future blog post…]

7 responses to this post.

  1. Good post, and very interesting quotes, more forceful even that what he said in person.

    Anthropology as science: some people still have, or have inherited, this chip on the shoulder. They feel defensive, insecure, and inferior to scientists. They stress verifiability, measures, reproducible tests, etc., that cannot be played out with ethnography because the experience is highly personalized, situated in a particular context and time, and so forth. There is also the wider issue of the unfortunately narrowed definitions of “science.” If we insist on using this term, maybe we should go back to the origins of the word.

    I personally do not doubt your research is ethnographic, not that I think that ethnography is the zenith of truth-seeking but I understand your concern with being a graduate student in a program that seems to equate anthropology with ethnography. That’s our fault, not yours, and changing these things is next to impossible — which is why the “external” world and its crises will probably be faster in forcing the necessary changes, and then academic anthropologists will do what they have done so well thus far: adjust, accommodate, justify, rationalize, conform.

    One last point about ethnography as commentary — the thing that stands out for me about commentary is that it fixes a silent target, a text. For example, what I am doing here might superficially appear to be commentary…until you respond, and then it becomes dialogue. Even if we toss aside the working relationship we have, you could still argue that is a form of collaboration. So we have on the one hand George Marcus arguing for anthropology as collaboration, and Johannes Fabian arguing for ethnography as commentary, and there seem to be some important distinctions to be made between the two. Fabian’s text doesn’t talk back — and while this is normal for ethnohistory, when it comes to ethnography, especially “virtual” ethnography, it is a really remarkable thing, because the Internet should allow for commentary + dialogue + any other form of interaction that you can think of. What I am saying is that Fabian’s exercise ends up selling his own program short. I don’t disagree with his vision as you outline it above, I just don’t think he has chosen the best approach for achieving it.


  2. Thanks for the great feedback.

    The difference between commentary and discussion to me, would be that Fabian’s model uses the online archive to bolster a conventional publication that can no longer be edited. I thought that if the book was really based on the dialog he put online, it could have been included in the book, or vice versa. Especially since it’s not that big a document to include, the argument that formal print publication would have limited it doesn’t really hold for this particular example.

    The text-talking-back part might involve a complete abandonment of traditional publishing, ie: instead of writing a thesis and handing it in, I would simply continue to blog.

    But at some point I would want to move on to new things, and at that point it would stop talking back… It might demand a stronger commitment to the topic?

    formal publication -> commentary
    continuing publication -> discussion

    and both are collaboration…


    Will think about this and come back with more…


  3. Hmm going through his book again, he also discusses purely online publications, so that distinction i made doesn’t really fit.


  4. […] Wiltshire, More Commentary on “Ethnography as Commentary” Can ethnography make the transition to the Internet? Will it find renewed life there? Reflections […]


  5. Responses to Ethnography as Commentary on this and other blogs (Google shows 110 hits) surprised me. I found them gratifying, at first; now I am having second thoughts. Perhaps the title is to blame but something went seriously wrong. From the comments and reflections (even statements by one or two who have read the book I talked about) no one could guess that, apart from discussing matters of epistemology, literary form, and “ethics,” the central theme of the project has been to report the results – knowledge gained — of a conversation and confrontation about “classic” anthropological themes such as ritual, magic, healing, tradition and modernity; nothing about the language in which this exchange occurred; nothing about insights and experiences it reports concerning the making of ethnographic texts; nothing about the contribution it makes to language-centered anthropology. And not a single statement on the text itself, let alone on whether the commentary does justice to the (this) text. That would be the way to “come at me” I wish for. But that, I suspect, is hopelessly out of tune with blogging “culture.”


  6. Dear Dr. Fabian,

    Thanks again for the great feedback and engagement. I understand exactly what you are saying, and perhaps the answer lies in getting more people familiar with the blogs so that “blogging culture” can provide the kinds of perspectives you were looking for. From the sounds of it, there simply aren’t enough interested bloggers with linguistics backgrounds to provide that part of the commentary. [I was only privilege to one “ethnolinguistics” class, but it was not enough to have any clue what contributions the book made to the field!].

    As you said, there is no cannon in anthropology to reflect on or form ones opinions from. Cultural anthropology is such a vast subject with so many different “specializations” that it is hard for one anthropologist to speak meaningfully (contribute) to another. Ie: disciplinary divides exist within subfields of anthropology just as much as other subjects.

    But have faith. I think the real key is getting more people involved. ESR, in his essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” discusses what he calls “Linus’s law”, “given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow”.

    The idea here is that a project can develop with small contributions from a larger group of people. Traditional project flows involved a small elite group producing the majority of the work, but in this model each person contributes less, and since more people get involved it ends up accomplishing more.

    Heres the link to ESR’s book, which has been “evolving” online.


  7. Going open access is another important step for getting readers. If we are to depend on commentary, then its essential people read the work! If thats the case, why not print the original transcript in the book and work off it in there, or make the book open access so it can be presented in the archive?

    Accessibility might be an issue with the way your site and book are separated, and the book isn’t really being pushed much. (this blog is #1 for “ethnography as commentary, revealing how little work the publisher does in terms of marketing…)

    The few responses in the blogsphere shows either that not enough linguistic anthros blog, or not enough linguistic anthros read the book… or both…

    When you ask for people to come at you in a particular way, that perhaps is “out of tune” with “blogging culture”, do you mean that somewhere outside of blogging culture you are receiving the right kind of commentary?

    I ask because I see a strong association with accessibilty, readership, and commentary. Traditional academic publishing seems to have trouble with the readership part, since in my interviews I’ve been told numerous times that academic books don’t sell much (where a good book might sell 1000 copies). Hard to get comments from that! [although obviously more readers != better comments]

    (this blog has a larger readership than your average academic book, and has no publisher… Blogs like Lorenz’s, Max’s, or group blogs like Culture matters and Savage minds absolutely dwarf the standard academic readership).

    Could that be part of the issue as well? That the results are not being reported broadly enough? Is it beneficial to confine ones results in such a way, when it can easily be shared online?

    Lastly, I felt the book emphasized the possibilities for ethnography more than the online text itself. Was that just my reading I wonder? I read it focusing on the possibilities for online commentary, and filtered what I wanted obviously. But even so, I didn’t feel the book was about the text as much as it was on the process of moving ethnography into an online archive.

    Pardon the provocative questions, but I’m just trying to get the most out of your visits! Thanks again.


    just got back from a cafe and realized that even though a book might only sell 1000 copies, those copies go to libraries and each copy gets read multiple times. So judging readership is tricky!

    Big question here: is there any benefit to engaging conversation with those outside the discipline -> especially when its a rather specialized field like linguistic anthropology.


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