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Experimental Ethnography

In the aftermath of the "writing culture" critique of the 1980s, which were feed by the poststructuralist, feminist and Marxist assessments of the historical relativism and construction of Western sciences, “experimental ethnography” emerged as a general movement in anthropology that focused on issues of representation in ethnographic writing. The primary meaning of experimental ethnography was the experimentation of writing ethnographies and the representation of cultural worlds, traditions, and things. In the middle of the 1990s, Castaneda founded the Field School in Experimental Ethnography as a means by which to develop a theory and practice of experimental fieldwork. This mode of ethnography was also transcultural in scope, research design, and conceptualization of research problems. This ethnography is grounded in the analysis of the performativity, intertextuality, and interdisciplinarity of ethnography, that is fieldwork. In this context, experimental ethnography began to be used to refer to the theory and practice of fieldwork that it was developing in Pisté, Yucatán.

As a new theoretical framework of ethnography, i.e., of methodology and practices, there are many concepts and ideas that require extensive discussion. For brevity, this section seeks to define experimental ethnography in contrastive similarity to both applied and basic models of social science. Experimental ethnography is a paradigmatic mode of fieldwork in which given, prior and assumed knowledges are used and recirculated in fieldwork activities, dynamics, and practices. The goal is to a) has relevance to and for the communities with which research is conducted and b) experiments with the very practices of fieldwork itself with the aim of theorizing, and reconfiguring alternative forms of, ethnography.

On the one hand, experimental ethnography then has an affinity to applied anthropology. Research in this model, however, is teleologically governed by tangible objectives that can be generalized as having three forms: a) effecting a “social change” in a (“traditional”) community’s relationship to modernity/modernization; b) producing knowledge for use in the creation of (governmental) policy or to inform political action (of non-state collectivities); and, c) aiding communities or collectivities to rediscover and revitalize one or more aspects of their “cultural traditions” in the face of globalization, Western hegemony, or national modernities. Experimental ethnography locates the value of the anthropological intervention, however, not in the teleology of the objectified results (e.g., social change, policy/political action, or cultural revitalization), but in the process and, thus, valorizes the actual dynamics of fieldwork as the primary locus where the “real-world” relevance and significance are to be measured, evaluated, and appreciated. In this regard, experimental ethnography is less like applied anthropology and much more like the phenomenologically oriented ethnographies of certain dialogical approaches, theatre anthropology, and strands of feminist scholarship.

On the other hand, experimental ethnography has an affinity to “pure/basic” models of research because of its positive view of, exploration of, and contribution to theory and theoretical issues. Yet, the primacy given to on the ground relevance of fieldwork in its very conduct and processes, makes this quite clearly distinct from positivist and neopositivist social sciences. Further, the conception of experimentation is dramatically different and, with a little heuristic exaggeration, can be clearly expressed: In this third emergent paradigm of experimental ethnography, “knowledge” is not being “tested” for truth to produce facts by a determined structure of fieldwork procedures that processes these knowledge-facts (verifies, accumulates, and stockpiles); instead, “fieldwork practices” are being “recombined” to explore their utility in the recirculation of given knowledge in a relevant manner by the very activity of the exploratory bricolage. This exploration for utility is where a different notion of experimentality enters into play. Based on the etymological meaning of “putting out” (exo-) into danger or risk (peril), fieldwork itself is at peril and is perilous locus of “failure,” i.e., shortcomings, inadequacies, partial results, etc. Since, the subject and criteria of “failure” in (all kinds of) ethnography is a huge topic that must be reserved for a different occasion, note here that the experimentality of this emergent kind of ethnography is a kind of bricolage of fieldwork in which concepts, methods, techniques from various fields of art (scenography, museumography, art installation, performance arts) are recombined with the inherited methodologies of anthropology.

Basic publications and further readings on Experimental Ethnography

Invisible Theatre of Ethnography: Performative Principles of Fieldwork

The Past as Transcultural Space: Using Ethnographic Installation in the Study of Archaeology

Ethnography in the Forest: An Analysis of Ethics in the Morals of Anthropology

Between Pure and Applied Research: Experimental Ethnography in a Transcultural Tourist Art World

Art-writing in the modern Maya art world of Chichén Itzá: Transcultural ethnography and experimental fieldwork

Community Collaboration and Ethnographic Intervention

SELT Publications and Writings
See also the publications and writings based on research conducted in SELT, School of Experimental Language Training, between 1997-1999 and from 2011 to present




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