[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Lane DeNicola. It is the second in a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Lane's previous post here.]
In his late 19th Century sci-fi classic News from Nowhere, Arts & Crafts figurehead William Morris posited an agrarian utopia in which private property, centralized government, money, prisons and many other modern institutions were non-existent. The work was intended to respond to a common criticism of socialist projects: the “innately human” lack of incentive to work in communitarian societies. While some socialist advocates sought to deal with this issue by reducing the menial labor of humans via technology and industrialization, Morris’ work is predicated on the idea that most if not all work could and should be creative and pleasurable, with the introduction of machinery being reserved only for those rarer instances where not just labor but painis to be reduced. For all its romantic pastoralism, Morris’ works (and this idea in particular) seem compelling to me in the context of ethnographic work “on the sidelines.”
The erosion (in the Digital Era) of the Industrial Era segregation of play and labor has been a regular theme in UCL’s Digital Anthropology programme, but even more immanently I’ve been thinking about the ways that fieldwork, writing, and all the other activities comprising the best ethnography are as much play as they are work. Take the advantages of long-term participant-observation as an example. The likelihood of experiencing events or observing patterns impossible to plan for or foresee is increased, and all those “artificially-induced formalisms” that can plague interviews or other highly-structured modes of data-gathering are gradually relaxed with the passage of time and greater familiarity between researchers and informants. The ethnographer relies, that is, on contingency–the unforeseen and serendipitous, the “possibility that things might have been otherwise” (Malaby 2007)–and informality. Both conceptually underpin play. The outcome of games, for example, must be indeterminate, and some of the most important aspects of gameplay come not in the form of rules but in what we learn or negotiate around the rules. Obviously ethnography entails bothlabor (or maybe more appropriately “struggle”) as well as pleasure and creativity, but for a variety of good and bad reasons we talk about it principally as a work activity.
My reflection on William Morris isn’t just a passing theoretical musing though, it’s been a regular and quite concrete presence for me over the last three years. A three-minute walk down the street from my flat in Walthamstow is the William Morris Gallery, a public gallery and museum devoted to the English initiation of the Arts and Crafts movement (and Morris’ family home during the late 1840s and early 1850s). Recently the surrounding grounds have been torn up in the process of refurbishment in an effort to tap into the Olympic crowds forming as I write.
The odds would’ve had us finding accommodations somewhere south of the river since I was staying at a friend’s flat down near Crystal Palace while flat-hunting in the summer of 2009, but we were attracted to the north Walthamstow area in part because of the William Morris Gallery and especially the adjacent Lloyd Park. A sprawling mosaic of planted flowerbeds, ivy-covered paths, tennis courts, an aviary, a central performance space with surrounding moat, and a broad, multi-acre expanse of open field, the park was an unparalleled attraction for one reason in particular: we own a dog.
I’d argue that I came to know more about where I’ve lived and worked over the last three years (and possibly British culture in general) because I own a dog than for any other single reason. Though they’re especially challenging to bring “into the field,” I’d argue that in an important sense dogs are nearly as effective as cigarettes as foils for initiating social interaction. Most dogs not only demand regular walks in one’s local vicinity, the dog-owning reader will know that they introduce considerable contingency (e.g. sudden bolts into the midst of picnicers) and enforce a high degree of informality (dealing with fecal matter involves some rules, but at least as much negotiation). Dog care involves an often public display of nurturing behavior but is also usually much less gender-segregated than childcare (though on the other hand many cultures see dogs almost as vermin and to be avoided as potential disease-carriers).
The first 18 months of twice-daily walks around the expansive perimeter of Lloyd Park introduced us to many of our neighbors, who we first knew only as “Poppy’s owner” or “the bald guy who walks the husky.” They opened up countless conversations, not just on the best places to find pet supplies and veterinary care but eventually on, say, the differences between American and British television and politics, or everyday and sometimes much more intimate aspects of people’s lives. They also eventually brought thorny or sensitive issues–gang activity and ethnicity in the park, or the appropriate way to broach the death of a friend or companion–right to the front-and-center. On more than one occasion someone within our group of 10-15 dog owners mused that we should have “Lloyd Park Dog Club” t-shirts made up, and when my partner relocated back to the US (dog in tow), she was presented with a moving and beautifully composed bound volume of photos taken of our group and their dogs at the park.
Now, true enough, I never wrote anything up about this aspect of life in the UK (this post aside). I’ve yet to go through the more laborious project of attempting the difficult translation of meaning-making from one culture to another, and in fact I’d rarely (if ever) thought of this dog-owning community or Lloyd Park as a “fieldsite,” at least not formally. They were undoubtedly “sidelines.” But the deep, long-term cross-cultural exchange and self-interrogation they provoked–wholly outside my formal research program–seems likely at this point to have as potent an effect on future ethnographic projects and thinking as any activity I engaged in within my department or institution. This was an especially crucial recognition, it should be said, in those moments when any realistic opportunity for formal fieldwork seemed remote.
This leaves me wondering, finally, about the constraints of framing “ethnography” as principally or exclusively our “work.” I understand, of course, that to suggest otherwise is to invite those tired critiques of participant-observation as simply “hanging out,” cultural anthropology as more a leisure activity than a vocation, etc. This may even encroach on the recent controversy over whether anthropology can or should be labeled a science. But we’re talking in the sidelines right now, and I have little interest in debating whether my dog-walking can legitimately be labeled an “ethnographic activity.” All I can say is that the dogs enjoyed it and learned quite a bit about each other over those three years despite the effort and challenges it often involved. So did the humans.
Lane DeNicola is a Lecturer in Anthropology at University College London and the inaugural convener of UCL’s masters program in Digital Anthropology. His PhD in Science & Technology Studies was completed at RPI in 2007.