Intro to the EthnoBlab: Homage to an Ethnographic Table
Ethnography is world-making and labs are where we experiment world-making methods. Covid-19 challenges us to rethink the infrastructure of these methods.
by Kregg Hetherington
If you’ve ever been to the Concordia Ethnography Lab, then you’ll know the large, sturdy, and decidedly amateur hunk of a table that lends the room much of its character. The table was the brainchild of Adam Van Sertima, a philosopher-carpenter who tasked himself with furnishing the Lab in the month it opened. It was composed of reclaimed wood from Montreal’s post-industrial ruins and the labour of untrained students. And its poetic presence, I like to think, undergirds everything that we do in the lab.
Of course, I haven’t seen that table, much less sat at it feverishly ethnographizing, in over seven months, and I miss it.
We’d conceived the lab in a sense as a response to a kind of effervescence in ethnographic practice occurring in disciplines all around us. As an Anthropologist, who’s always thought of ethnography as the cornerstone of my métier, it was a bit unsettling to see people in Design, English, Public Health, Political Science, Management, Urban Planning, Engineering the Theatre describing what they did as ethnography but without the ritual nods of the head toward the methodological cannon I had learned. The Lab would be the place where we could try to understand what this new, multiple ethnography was.
It was also about trying to not take things too seriously, at least as a starting point. In any other context, the idea of starting ethnography by building a table would seem absurd – here its absurdity was part of its charm. What I’ve learned over the years of thinking and doing in and around that table, is that Labs like ours potentiate a quality of ethnographic practice that was always there, but rarely gets to shine.
Ethnography is world-making. If, as Science and Technology Studies has always maintained, along with designers and proponents of action research, method enacts the realities that it studies, then ethnography is one way in which social scientists, artists, and people can experiment with, make and heal the social world around them. Figuring out how to do that, tinkering with method and reporting on what comes out of it, is what labs are all about.
In a recent conversation with other lab directors at the (virtual) American Anthropology Association meetings, we all found we had this quality in common. Ethnography Labs are born of collaborations in interstices between departments and centers. Like anything else that lives in an institution, they fight for recognition, financing and infrastructure, and that politics always brings with it the danger of calcifying into something less creative. But in their nascent stage, ethnography labs everywhere seem to exist almost in opposition to the conservative tendencies of anthropology and sociology. They have the luxury of not running training programs and they don’t offer credentials. What they offer is a chance to play with the techniques we love outside of the performative pressures of supervised, graded research. Ethnography without Anthropology.
Over the years we’ve developed a mode of being and researching in the Lab that is endlessly productive. We focus on small projects, experiments in craft that are creative and low-stakes, and therefore sit adjacent to the thesis and book projects that overwhelm us. We focus on collaboration, non-textual forms of representation, and disrupting the relationship between office and field. The best projects to come out of the lab have started from simple, untheorized ideas, and, after some incubation, have gone on to produce unexpected worlds. A project on indigenous displacement from a local square became a travelling photo-voice exhibit; a hair-brained attempt to figure out, above-ground, where a sewer led, became an interactive digital map of the city’s submerged history; a podcast about anthropological anxieties begat a claymation short that circulated through virtual conferences. One of our projects, which began with nothing but a curiosity about urban water, has ballooned into a multi-disciplinary engaged project on green infrastructure involving researchers and practitioners from all over Montreal.
When the University closed last March, we were in the middle of planning a conference, and immediately had to pull the plug. I didn’t think the Lab would be able to function at all without its members being able to meet, to sit at that table together.
An early failed attempt transpose our research to Zoom also gave us pause. A few of us attended public consultations for a green infrastructure project being built at a local community center. We had wanted to understand how the consultations fit into infrastructure planning, and also to figure out what these would look like on Zoom. But when we tried to do follow-up interviews, we found very few people willing to speak to us. It turned out that the situation was tenser and more complex than we had seen on Zoom, and we had failed to gain participants’ trust. All of this was incredibly hard to navigate virtually. We hadn’t been able to weave the kind of personal contacts that emerge next to the coffee pot or the coatrack, and we also couldn’t easily create an environment that would repair relations once we had started badly. In short, failed to make a world in which research was possible.
The episode taught us two things that pushed us in very different directions. On the one hand, it would be very hard to do the sort of casual, short-term ethnographic projects that the Lab had become good at. Perhaps a pause was in order. But on the other hand, it was a vital reminder of the often unacknowledged labour that always goes on under the staid technical terms of “building rapport” or “getting access.” Those are integral to research into social relationships not because they open doors, but because they create the field within which research takes place.
This brings us back to the table, which was never really furniture for a room but an exercise in creating the conditions of research. That table was part of the river map, part of the Claymation and the photovoice. It’s the table, and things like it, that kept people coming to the lab: both the medium for, and the product of, a novel form of sociality that produced ethnographic worlds.
I’ve always been a partisan of John Law and Annemarie Mol’s understanding of ontological openness, their appreciation for how method enacts its objects, and how methodological multiplicity can therefore make worlds otherwise. But Covid brings out more forcefully the point made by Karen Barad, that in meeting the universe halfway, our methods are as remade by our intra-actions as they are generative of anything outside themselves. This is what excites me about ourLab: that in its humble way it’s become a generator of worlds in which it can exist.
Throughout the summer students associated with the lab emailed me telling me their thesis research had become impossible, that they were changing their projects or abandoning them altogether. Some found excellent ways to reimagine what they were doing, but others seemed to be facing school on Zoom, stripped down to its canonical, performative elements.
And so our challenge during Covid has been to figure out how do you re-create the work done by that table now that we can’t get anywhere near it? This year our projects have been more humble, inward turning, ethnographic experiments focused on building relations as much as studying. But our virtual lab is as vibrant as ever, and trying out new ways of reaching out, like this, our brand new Ethnoblab. Over the coming months we look forward to reporting on what we’ve been up to, and hearing from you about how ethnography continues in the time of Covid.