Sideways: from who and what to how

[This is a guest post by Garrison Doreck. He is a graduate student in Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine.]

I stumbled upon the sideways issue in some of the readings I will discuss below. Initially, I read laterality and sideways discussions to be the equivalent of the keystone anthropological activity of cutting across social spheres. It is only after hearing about the Sideways conference this past Fall at UC-Irvine that I decided to take a second look and try to think it through a bit more. And, this is a wonderful venue to hopefully hear back from many of you who have been thinking about this issue in more depth and at greater length than I have at this point.

Last year Julian discussed projects of studying up or sideways as hinging on how “ethnographers relate to their interlocutors, as well as different degrees of “identity overlap” between ethnographer and subject.” In another post, Dorien Zandbergen took issue with such “identity overlap,” by claiming that the sideways concept “suggests that there is some kind of plane that is shared by particular kinds of people, who can move ‘sideways’ to have a peek into each other’s affairs.” It is thus by paying careful attention to similarities that Dorien was able to identify issues where “such similarities appeared only superficial,” as differences emerged. However, Julian addressed the issue, as well, by looking at how such research is “differentiated on several axes: of political sympathy, of shared knowledge, of power relations, of informants’ reflexivity, and of socio-cultural belonging, to name a few.” Within these posts the matter of studying sideways, or up, involved drawing a connection between self/other (i.e. who) and similarity/difference (i.e. what).

On a different note, Kerim analyzed Tim Ingold’s articulation of the “sideways glance” as an “anthropological attitude.” This attitude consisted of the “constant awareness of alternative ways of being, and of the ever-present possibility of ‘flipping’ from one to another.” This formulation shares a concern with the axes of self/other and similarity/difference, but intimates the “how” by conceiving of “flipping” as shifting subject positions within anthropological “participatory dialog.” It is for this reason that Kerim contended that Ingold’s title “should have read: Anthropological reasoning is not inductive, but dialectical.” This approach served to “challenge the dichotomy which places ethnographic description on the one side and anthropological theorizing on the other.” What we will encounter below continues along this trajectory.

While there are many insightful sources for thinking about how to conduct sideways research, I have found the work of Tom Boellstorff (2003), Bill Maurer (2005), and Diane Nelson (2009) to be particularly instructive. There are some differences of emphasis in their projects, but for my purposes here (and for the sake of brevity) I will focus on the commonalities between them. Tom Boellstorff was concerned with how a “space for subjectivity appears” through the “holding together of two ostensibly incompatible cultural logics without conflating them” (2003:237). He argued that thinking about culture in terms of dubbing, “sets two elements side by side, blurred yet distinct” (237). The reason they are distinct is that “[t]he authoritative voice is at odds with the visual representation” (237). A “disjuncture” is therefore crucial to the “performative act” of subject formation based on “collage,” in that “there is no “real” version underneath, where everything fits” (237).

Bill Maurer explained this conception of setting “side by side,” or “alongside” in his terminology, as opposing “any synthetic or absorptive metatheoretical rubric to bring them under one sign of law” (2005:19). Instead of attempting to fix meaning, information, money, subjectivity, translation, etc. into a stable set of relations, Maurer is concerned with the “oscillation (alternare) between adequation and other modes of praxis” (17). By adequation, he meant the conjoining of representation and reality. So, he sought to understand how alternative banking and currency practices utilized various “analogies…homologies…analytical moves” that both critiqued and utilized adequation as modes of “conjunction” that are “impossibly linked” (19-20). It is helpful here to think of Maurer’s conjunction as an exmaple of Boellstorff’s “performative act” in which each link is always incomplete, capable of change, as well as maintaining simultaneous differences.

In the work of Diane Nelson (2009) we find an attempt to trace a genealogy of a sideways approach. She noted Russian constructivists (Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov), Surrealists,  Situationists, as well as Walter Benjamin and Michael Taussig as contributing predecessors to sideways work (73). While Boellstorff (2003:237) and Maurer (2005:17) cited Gilles Deleuze in connection with their lateral and sideways approaches, Nelson drew more from Slavoj Zizek’s reading of Levi-Strauss (2009:xxxi). Nonetheless, they all share inspiration from Marcel Mauss’ (1924) usage of similar phrasing and methodological positioning (Maurer, personal communication). Nelson depicted her “methodology of dialectical montage” as “[l]aying two unlikely things like two faces beside each other” (73). Again, note the beside, alongside, and side by side correspondences between these three works. Like Boellstorff, Nelson identified a gap, what she called a “cut” taken from film theory, as the space in which the subject constitutes herself (73). Much like Ingold’s “flipping,” Nelson attempted to “play them against each other” by interpreting “one with the help of the other” (xxxi).

It is this interplay between disjunctive/conjunctive practices and processes that seems to be one of the most crucial dimensions of sideways projects. As such, it enables us to identify and track the spaces and crossings where the maintenance and construction of much of that stuff called culture occurs. Boellstorff summed the approach up well in the following passage: “the more-than-juxtaposition and less-than-unification of pasts, presents, and futures” (2003:239).

Perhaps in my next post or two I will outline some examples from these works, and/or attempt to identify some of the stakes involved in sideways projects. In the meantime, what aspects of lateral/sideways projects have resonated with you? Are there some worthwhile distinctions awaiting articulation since I have merely sketched some similarities? Do you perceive other modalities at work? I look forward to reading about your considerations of the topic.

(I want to thank Adam Fish for the invite to guest blog here on SM. I am also very appreciative of the engaging conversations with Bill Maurer and my fellow students at UCI on this subject.)

Works Cited
Boellstorff, Tom
2003 Dubbing Culture: Indonesian Gay and Lesbi Subjectivities and Ethnography in
an Already Globalized World. American Ethnologist 30(2):225–242.
Maurer, Bill
2005 Mutual Life, Limited. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mauss, Marcel
1967 [1924] The Gift. New York: W.W. Norton.
Nelson, Diane
2009 Reckoning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


Garrison is a doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine. He studies religious and national identity formation through media practices among American Muslims.

2 thoughts on “Sideways: from who and what to how

  1. @Garrison

    Thanks for this post and the review of current takes on what “sideways” might mean for anthropology. I wonder, could you say a bit more about the difference between what I will call for the moment “sideways 1,” a structural relationship in which the anthropologist works with people of similar status to him or herself, and “sideways 2,” a communicative stance in which the anthropologist interacts with the other peer-to-peer.

    When I think of sideways 2, I find myself recalling Eric Berne’s Games People Play , in which Berne describes three types of interaction, parent to child, child to parent, and adult to adult. From this perspective, the image of the anthropologist talking down to the informant and imposing theories on them involves the assertion of a parent to child relationship. All fair-minded people reject this approach. Some, it seems to me, would put the anthropologist in a child to parent relationship, leaving nothing for us to do but try to understand what the other is saying and acting as they tell us to. Other things being equal, we all might prefer to approach the other in adult-to-adult terms.

    But is this always possible in practice? And are things ever as simple as our models suggest that they are? Consider a case in point.

    During my first fieldwork, in Taiwan, I worked with a Daoist master who had invited me to become his disciple. We were not only in a master-disciple relationship. He was also old enough to be my father and a man with a lot more worldly experience (Japanese military police during WWII, founder of a wholesale vegetable market after the war, father of four sons, certified Daoist Grand Master). Yes, I was an American. My grant made me well off. But back then, in my early twenties on my first extended trip outside the United States, it didn’t occur to me to assert an impertinent equality. To imagine myself his superior would have been ludicrous. I was extremely fortunate that he was both empathic and often amazingly candid and took me under his wing.

  2. Thanks for the comment, John. I think it is more of a self-reflexive/post-reflexive issue and less a structuralist/post-structuralist one. It seems to me that a lot of sideways work is really concerned with the relation between anthropologist/informant along self/other lines. The work I outlined seemed to be shifting into more of a mode of taking into consideration the embedded self of the anthropologist and anthropological knowledge work, in relation to how cultural stuff (people, objects, media, etc.) assembles and circulates. I don’t have it fully pegged down yet, but that is the gist of my current understanding. I think this approach is very much concerned with your comment about how actual practices are more complex than the models we use to describe them, which would bolster the legitimacy of empirical research.

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