Tag Archives: sidelines

News from Lloyd Park

[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. Continue reading