Developed as a tool for colonial empire-building at the close of the 19thcentury, the ethnographic method has emerged in the late 20th and early 21st centuries as an important practice for telling the stories of the oppressed and demanding social change. British and American anthropologists were initially concerned with understanding the discrete cultures of “savage” tribes in faraway places subject to conquest by European powers. Contemporary anthropologists, however, have turned their attention to understanding how identities, economies, and ontologies emerge in ongoing cultural encounters, leaving none of the parties involved unchanged. Today, ethnographers navigate tensions between the local and the global, the material and the symbolic, and similarity and difference in formerly black-boxed sites of human activity, including scientific laboratories, urban metropolitan centers, and multi-sited global networks of high-tech experts. How did this transformation take place, and what does it mean for the future of how human societies study and understand themselves?
To anchor class discussion, the course is organized around several themes, including the life, death, and afterlife of “the culture concept”; the evolving and intertwined understanding of kinship, gift exchange, and economies; and the challenge of adapting a methodology designed to study the local to examine the problems of global trade, migration, and connection in the decades to come. Sections of old classics – Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Marcel Mauss’s The Gift, and Geertz’s canonical essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” – will be read alongside feminist interventions by Marilyn Strathern, Donna Haraway, and Lila Abu-Lughod, methodological innovations from science studies ethnographers like Bruno Latour and Charis Thompson, and Marxian challenges from Arjun Appadurai and Elizabeth Chin. Throughout the course, we will pay close attention to the interplay between ethnographic theories of human social life and the methods (including new approaches like autoethnography and multi-sited ethnography) used to produce them.