The Sideways Glance

Tim Ingold’s 2008 Radcliff-Brown lecture “Anthropology is Not Ethnography” has been mentioned on this blog several times since John Postill posted links to both the full text [PDF] and edited versions of the talk. I finally had a chance to sit down and read it and found it thought provoking enough to deserve its own post. In what follows I will first summarize his arguments as I understand them, and then raise some questions which I hope will provoke further discussion in the comments.

First off, the title is somewhat misleading. Ingold’s purpose is not to distinguish anthropology from ethnography, but to criticize the “the idea of a one-way progression from ethnography to anthropology” in which methodological rigor precedes theoretical generalization. The title really should read: “Anthropological reasoning is not inductive, but dialectical.” He wants to challenge the dichotomy which places ethnographic description on the one side and anthropological theorizing on the other.

We can still recognise today the figure of the ‘social theorist’, sunk in his armchair or more likely peering from behind his computer screen, who presumes to be qualified, by virtue of his standing as an intellectual, to pronounce upon the ways of a world with which he involves himself as little as possible, preferring to interrogate the works of others of his kind. At the other extreme is the lowly ‘ethnographic researcher’, tasked with undertaking structured and semi-structured interviews with a selected sample of informants and analysing their contents with an appropriate software package, who is convinced that the data he collects are ethnographic simply because they are qualitative. These figures are the fossils of an outmoded distinction between empirical data collection and abstract theoretical speculation, and I hope we can all agree that there is no room for either in anthropology.

Against this he juxtaposes a view of anthropology as a craft (a view which Rex has elaborated in a series of posts on this blog).

For it is characteristic of craft that both the practitioner’s knowledge of things, and what he does to them, are grounded in intensive, respectful and intimate relations with the tools and materials of his trade. Indeed, anthropologists have long liked to see themselves as craftsmen among social scientists, priding themselves on the quality of their handiwork by contrast to the mass-produced goods of industrial data-processing turned out by sociologists and others.

As I understand it, the emphasis on craftsmanship is an effort to shift the focus from the tools of the trade — qualitative data collection techniques — to the ethnographer herself. The ethnographer is a researcher who has cultivated in herself an “anthropological attitude”:

The endeavour is essentially comparative, but what it compares are not bounded objects or entities but ways of being. It is the constant awareness of alternative ways of being, and of the ever-present possibility of ‘flipping’ from one to another, that defines the anthropological attitude. It lies in what I would call the ‘sideways glance’.

He defines this “sideways glance” as “a practice of observation grounded in participatory dialog.” Through the course of this dialog anthropologists swing back and forth like a pendulum between anthropological theorizing and ethnographic description.


But I have started this discussion at the conclusion, and Ingold’s own process of getting there is as important as where he ends up. Much of the essay is, in fact, a dialog with Radcliffe-Brown, and the kind of anthropology he proposed. It both seeks to defend R-B from his critics, as well as to correct some of his contradictions and excesses. I am not particularly concerned about defending or attacking R-B’s place in the anthropological cannon, but I do find the shifting framework of Ingold’s discussion to be quite fascinating. He starts with Kroeber’s critique of R-B’s approach as a form of ahistorical classification, to which Kroeber opposed a form of “descriptive integration.” Just as the artist does not see a landscape as a “multitude of particulars” so too does Kroeber’s anthropologist seek to render the particulars into a coherent whole rather than viewing them as an incoherent jigsaw puzzle of unconnected parts.

This integrative approach leads to an interesting question: “the anthropologist describes the social world as the artist paints a landscape, then what becomes of time?”

Kroeber came to the conclusion that time, in the chronological sense, is inessential to history. Presented as a kind of ‘descriptive cross-section’ or as the characterisation of a moment,a historical account can just as well be synchronic as diachronic.

E. E. Evans-Pritchard was to take up Kroeber’s view of time, juxtaposing it to that of R-B “for whom history was nothing more than ‘a record of a succession of unique events’ and social anthropology nothing less than ‘a set of general propositions.’”


It was left to Edmund Leach to defend R-B, although his defense was at best a backhanded one. Leach complained that his colleagues had “given up in the attempt to make comparative generalizations” for “butterfly collecting” (by which he meant “impeccably detailed historical ethnographies of particular peoples”). However, he felt that R-B’s approach to comparative generalization overemphasized the “generalization” part rather than the “comparison” part which Leach felt was more important.

A generalisation, then, would take the form not of a typological specification that would enable us to distinguish societies of one kind from those of another, but of a statement of the relationships between variables that may operate in societies of any kind.

It is here that Ingold leaps to R-B’s defense, arguing that R-B did not see social life as a collection of static, ahistorical taxonomic specimens, but rather as “a process.” Ingold argues that Leach’s criticism could much better be applied to his beloved Levi-Strauss than R-B. But Ingold is nonetheless critical of R-B’s view of “social life” as being dichotomous with the internal (psychological) life of the mind. Such an approach “implies the closure and completion of a system of relations that has been fully joined up” as opposed to a processual view of social life as “open ended and never complete.” It is here that Ingolds discussion of R-B and his view of anthropology as a craft dovetail, for:

It follows that any endeavour of so-called descriptive integration, if it is to do justice to the implicate order of social life, can be neither descriptive nor theoretical in the specific senses constituted by their opposition. It must rather do away with the opposition itself.

If social life is a process, then our method for investigating it must itself eschew the opposition between lived experience and theoretical generalization, and must emphasize instead the shared experience of the anthropologist and her subjects with whom knowledge is collaboratively generated through dialog.


Having concluded my summary of Ingold’s argument, I have some questions:

  • Does our epistemology necessarily need to reflect our ontology? I’m not convinced it does… In any case, it seems that the case for this needs to be made rather than simply assumed.
  • How much of this is boundary maintenance? Real anthropologists are those who have an undefinable savoir faire, as opposed to those pesky applied folks, or ethnographers in other disciplines, who have only learned our methodological tools.
  • What is left, after this discussion, of generalizing theory? I’m not really clear. My sense is that Ingold ends up collapsing theory into ethnography, undermining his own argument. But I’m not sure about that. I have the feeling I need to read Ingold’s other work to get a better grip on where he is coming from.
  • I think one of the things I like most here is the critique of the postmodern “assemblage” view which revels in complexity. It seems that Ingold is staking out a middle ground, but again, I’m left a little uncertain where this might be?

I look forward to hearing what our readers have to say!

8 thoughts on “The Sideways Glance

  1. I do have to wonder why my comment, which used to appear here, has disappeared. But, anyway, I have now read through to the end of Ingold’s speech, and while I approved very much of his opening, his last remark strikes me as a totally wrong-headed misreading of Levi-Strauss’s project.

    bq. Levi-Strauss’s plan for drawing up an inventory of all human societies, past and present, with a view to establishing their complementarities and differences, is surely the closest thing to butterfly collecting ever encountered in the annals of anthropology. Unsurprisingly, the plan came to nothing.

    Levi-Strauss’s objective was not “an inventory of all human societies” but rather what he calls, in _Tristes Tropiques_, a Mendelevian table of the mind, a set of elements from which all myths, symbols, and other cultural artifacts are constructed. Drawing on the model of Jacobson’s phonology, L-S proposed, moreover, that these elements would be identified through the use of binary contrasts, a method like that used by linguists to identify phonemes and allophones.

    The weakness in L-S’s approach lay not in the objective, to identify a set of basic elements, but rather in the chemistry by which those elements were supposed to interact. Here L-S turned too quickly to the Hegelian dialectic of his French philosophical education, which produced an analysis consisting, at the end of the day, of little more than an endless stream of thesis-antithesis-synthesis=image-opposite-mediator triads. These were too easily constructed and unconstrained by considerations of detail and sequence in the materials he examined. Instead of science he produced an illustrated metaphysics.

    Where Ingold fails in his swinging back and forth between theorizing and observation lies in failing to look beyond the mass of material assembled in the _Mythologiques_ and the unconvincing method used to organize it to the goal toward which it represents a failed attempt–a goal that, in light of George Lakoff’s work in, for example, _Philosophy in the Flesh_, is a grand project, indeed.

  2. Thanks John. I mostly agree with you, although I’ve always thought that L-S owes his approach more to Roman Jakobson’s semiotics than to Hegel’s dialectics…

  3. Kerim, could you tell us more about Jakobson’s semiotics? I learned about the phonology, which remains to the best of my knowledge, the most successful application of the method of minimal contrasts, in this case to dig below phonemics to the universals encoded in the international phonetic alphabet. Somehow whatever, if anything, I was taught about the semiotics has totally slipped my mind.

  4. I’m still digesting Tim Ingold’s full lecture – which I may be using for a debate on media anthropology that we’re about to have through the journal Social Anthropology – but can I say for now that I find unhelpful Ingold’s rejection of chronology as a supposedly ‘positivist’ way of going about history and his favouring instead of a phenomenological, open-ended ‘being in the world’ approach to history.

    In my view chronology has its place in the anthropological toolbox. How else would we be able to understand the unfolding of events in our neck of the woods – or in a broader geographical region, say Southeast Asia in the crucial 1997-1998 period – over a period of time? To put it colloquially, anthropologists should date more, not less.

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