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Overponderabilia: Overcoming Overthinking When Studying "Ourselves"



This article discusses a key methodological difficulty in conducting qualitative research close to home: the issue of overthinking. Whereas MALINOWSKI's concern regarding imponderabilia, i.e., the risk of not thinking about the subtle phenomena of everyday life, has long haunted ethnographers and qualitative researchers, not least those working "at home," we highlight an issue of overponderabilia, i.e., the risk of overthinking seemingly familiar statements and practices of the people studied. How do we, as qualitative researchers, study very well-known phenomena such as science, bureaucracy, management etc. without reading our own ideas and understandings into the deceptively familiar concepts and accounts of our research subjects? Pondering this issue is inevitably a central concern for the increasing number of qualitative researchers who study people who apparently talk, think and work in a way which is similar to their own. While previous answers or solutions to this issue first and foremost emphasize various means of reflexivity, this article presents the method of "mutual participatory observation" as a particular way of overcoming overthinking: a method which in situ invites our research subjects into our thinking. Thus, in the pursuit of an ever enhanced understanding, qualitative research becomes not so much a reflexive deciphering as an active debate; that is, a mutual induction of the differences between the qualitative researcher and the research subjects. URN:
Overcoming Overthinking When Studying "Ourselves"
Kasper Tang Vangkilde & David Brehm Sausdal
Abstract: This article discusses a key methodological difficulty in conducting qualitative research
close to home: the issue of overthinking. Whereas MALINOWSKI's concern regarding
imponderabilia, i.e., the risk of not thinking about the subtle phenomena of everyday life, has long
haunted ethnographers and qualitative researchers, not least those working "at home," we highlight
an issue of overponderabilia, i.e., the risk of overthinking seemingly familiar statements and
practices of the people studied. How do we, as qualitative researchers, study very well-known
phenomena such as science, bureaucracy, management etc. without reading our own ideas and
understandings into the deceptively familiar concepts and accounts of our research subjects?
Pondering this issue is inevitably a central concern for the increasing number of qualitative
researchers who study people who apparently talk, think and work in a way which is similar to their
own. While previous answers or solutions to this issue first and foremost emphasize various means
of reflexivity, this article presents the method of "mutual participatory observation" as a particular
way of overcoming overthinking: a method which in situ invites our research subjects into our
thinking. Thus, in the pursuit of an ever enhanced understanding, qualitative research becomes not
so much a reflexive deciphering as an active debate; that is, a mutual induction of the differences
between the qualitative researcher and the research subjects.
Table of Contents
1. Introduction
2. Issues of Overponderabilia: A Problem of Distance
3. Revisiting the Reflexive Turn: From Intrinsic Reflexivity to Outspoken Debate
4. Mutual Participatory Observation: Moments of Dialogue and Debate
5. Towards Mutual Induction: Overcoming Overthinking
6. Conclusion: Aiming for Instruction Rather Than Construction
1. Introduction
In the introduction to "Argonauts of the Western Pacific," Bronislaw
MALINOWSKI (1932 [1922]) famously argues that ethnographers must pay close
attention to all those phenomena "which cannot possibly be recorded by
questioning or computing documents, but have to be observed in their full
actuality" (p.18). Referring to such everyday aspects as the modes of preparing
food, the routines of a working day, the passing sympathies or dislikes between
people, etc., MALINOWSKI terms these phenomena the imponderabilia of actual
life (ibid.). As has since been emphasized by numerous anthropologists, not least
in debates on "anthropology at home" (e.g., JACKSON, 1987;
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research (ISSN 1438-5627)
Volume 17, No. 2, Art. 28
May 2016
Key words:
research at home;
mutual induction;
ethnography as
debate; reflexivity
FQS 17(2), Art. 28, Kasper Tang Vangkilde & David Brehm Sausdal:
Overponderabilia: Overcoming Overthinking When Studying "Ourselves"
MESSERSCHMIDT, 1981), taking note of and describing in detail such common,
tacit, and embodied matters of life clearly constitutes a key challenge, particularly
when one embarks on research in more homely or well-known surroundings.
"Because," as MALINOWSKI contends, "certain subtle peculiarities, which make
an impression as long as they are novel, cease to be noticed as soon as they
become familiar" (1932 [1922], p.21). These are indeed well-known and well-
rehearsed arguments in qualitative studies in general and ethnography in
particular. [1]
In this article, we are, therefore, not concerned with the challenges of
imponderabilia; instead, we are concerned with the challenges of
overponderabilia, as we propose to call it. Our focus is not on how qualitative
researchers may possibly overcome the challenges of noticing and describing the
imponderable aspects of everyday life, but, on the contrary, how they must also
overcome the challenges of overthinking—or, precisely, "overpondering"—their
observations and descriptions; that is, the overponderabilia of actual life, if you
will. In view of the ever-present risk of ethnocentrism, it is clearly a general
concern in qualitative research that the researcher must not take his own ideas
and understandings for those of the people studied. But today this challenge
seems particularly pronounced in studies conducted among people who "share
some of the same privileges and modest empowerments as those of us who
interview and write about them," as George E. MARCUS puts it (2000, p.2). As
qualitative researchers move into terrains such as bureaucracy, science,
management, etc., issues of overponderabilia become increasingly pertinent
because we will be studying agents who are not very different from ourselves;
agents who may be trained in the human and social sciences, and who are
therefore accustomed to applying and understanding familiar terminologies,
concepts, and theories. In fact, as outlined in a previous FQS article, we may do
cultural research on cultural research (DRESSEL & LANGREITER, 2003); that is,
our research subjects may even be qualitative researchers themselves! [2]
An example may clarify what we mean. In "Flexible Firm. The Design of Culture
at Bang & Olufsen," Danish anthropologist Jakob KRAUSE-JENSEN (2010) faces
a particular problem in his ethnographic exploration of value-based management.
Based in the Human Resources Department of the renowned Danish producer of
high-end home electronics, KRAUSE-JENSEN finds himself to be quite similar to
the employees, sharing a middle-class background, an everyday life in Denmark,
a flexible division between work and home, etc. (pp.34-35). What is more,
organizational life in general and value-based management in particular are
radically reflexive and theorized, not least by means of such (anthropological)
concepts as "culture," "value," and "religion," meaning that KRAUSE-JENSEN's
work represents, in fact, "an ethnography of lay ethnographers" (p.39). This, he
says, poses a particular difficulty:
"the key methodological challenge was not to avoid drowning in 'experience-near'
phenomenological immediacy. Rather, the central methodological task was to
maintain a constant awareness of the differences that underlie the surface similarity
FQS 17(2), Art. 28, Kasper Tang Vangkilde & David Brehm Sausdal:
Overponderabilia: Overcoming Overthinking When Studying "Ourselves"
in the often-identical 'experience-far' concepts used by the ethnographer and the
informants" (p.20; emphasis added). [3]
In other words, in a corporate context where life was "tied up with conceptual
description and self-reflection" (p.39), the challenge for KRAUSE-JENSEN was
how to resist the urge, unconscious and unintentional as it may have been, to
read his own ideas and perceptions, mundane as well as theoretical, into his
informants' concepts and accounts. How could he counteract the risk of assuming
a mutual understanding which would suppress the potential multitude of
differences hiding underneath? That is, in our terms, how was he to overcome
overthinking? [4]
Clearly, this issue of overponderabilia is not an entirely new methodological
concern. Addressing it through the classic question of proximity versus distance,
there has been considerable discussion of how "ethnographers at home" need
specific strategies in order to get out of their far-too-familiar social and cultural
worlds (e.g., AGUILAR, 1981; LÖFGREN, 1987; VAN GINKEL, 1998). Several
such strategies have been proposed: for instance, using a comparative method of
cross-cultural juxtaposition as a strategy of defamiliarization (MARCUS &
FISCHER, 1986, pp.137-141); adopting a position as a "radical other" in the
sense of presupposing a discontinuity between the social space explored and the
particular knowledge project (HASTRUP, 1993, p.157); and, more generally,
acknowledging that qualitative researchers are far from neutral registrants but
positioned agents, which requires a profound degree of reflexivity regarding the
interrelations between the researcher and the informants (KRAUSE-JENSEN,
2010, pp.39-41; see also RUSSELL & KELLY, 2002). Indeed, these strategies
constitute significant attempts to attain a necessary and productive distance to
the field of research. However, making up the essential argument of this article,
we contend that these strategies do not necessarily suffice. In fact, it may be
highly productive to take much more seriously the conditions actually prompting
the concern regarding overponderabilia; namely, that many of our informants
today are fully conversant with and routinely applying the same concepts,
theories and methods as we do. As Douglas R. HOLMES and George E.
MARCUS point out, "we find figures involved in creative practices that assume
intellectual partners, interlocutors with whom a critical conversation can unfold
thus anticipating a collaborative engagement" (2008, p.83; emphasis added). [5]
In this article, we argue that a solution to the issue of overponderabilia is
precisely to be found in this move from "informants" to "intellectual partners."
Overcoming overthinking is not, we claim, an issue to be solved merely through a
heightened reflexivity before, during, and after conducting qualitative field
research, but, crucially, also via this research. Drawing on the analytical acumen
and critical thinking of our intellectual partners in the field, issues of
overponderabilia may be revealed, revised, and resolved by purposely and openly
exposing and discussing our ideas and understandings with our intellectual
partners, thus inviting them into a critical debate rather than side-lining them as
"mere" empirical mediators. Importantly, this is not merely a question of
incorporating receptions and responses into the process of qualitative research
FQS 17(2), Art. 28, Kasper Tang Vangkilde & David Brehm Sausdal:
Overponderabilia: Overcoming Overthinking When Studying "Ourselves"
(see MARCUS, 2012, p.434), but essentially of allowing the research subjects to
actively explore, scrutinize, and question the assumptions, concepts, and theories
of the researcher. Or, in other words, it constitutes not simply a kind of feedback
session—or an observation of the researchers' epistemologies by the researched
—but rather a mutually engaged exchange and critical discussion, in which the
researcher does not merely seek to partake in and explore the perspectives and
lives of the people studied, but also allows them in situ to participate in and
discuss the conceptual and theoretical "world" of the researcher. Hence, we term
this strategy mutual participatory observation. [6]
Our central argument is that this methodological strategy—and its underlying
"mutual induction," as we term it—has the potential to unearth assumptions and
viewpoints of the people studied and those of the qualitative researcher. As such,
serving both as a probe into the former and as a mirror of the latter, the move
towards critical discussion rather than mere delineation is a move towards
establishing a common ground from where the researcher and the researched
can mutually explore and expose their interrelationship, and not least their
differences. In this respect, mutual participatory observation is not to be
understood as a singular method that works independently of other methods;
rather, it is firmly embedded in more conventional participant observation and is,
therefore, a kind of "intensification" of the exchanges and interactions that are
already at the core of this method. We argue, however, that it is precisely this
intensification and the implied move from seeing our research subjects as
mediating informants to perceiving them as mentoring instructors—and, thus, as
debating counterparts—which allow us to overcome the conundrums of
overponderabilia. Ultimately, this contributes to the basic research purpose of
approaching as close and as accurate an understanding of the people studied as
possible. [7]
In what follows, we focus on the issue of overponderabilia when exploring
processes of creativity. Drawing upon two ethnographic studies—one among a
collective of artists in East London, the other among fashion designers in a
fashion company—we show how the notion of creativity is not only essential to, and
often debated by, artists and designers, but also familiar to, and broadly discussed
by, ethnographers like ourselves (e.g., HALLAM & INGOLD, 2007; LAVIE,
NARAYAN & ROSALDO, 1993; LIEP, 2001). In our research, we thus faced the
potential pitfall of reading our own ideas and understandings of creativity into the
descriptions and explanations offered by the artists and designers; and,
admittedly, we fell into this pitfall of overthinking more than once. [8]
We begin, therefore, by exemplifying and further discussing what we mean by
issues of overponderabilia. On this basis, we then revisit the reflexive turn, as we
explain how our argument essentially both builds upon and extends its insights.
Subsequently, we introduce the strategy of mutual participatory observation as a
particular methodological means of overcoming overthinking. Finally, we expand
on this method by outlining the concept of mutual induction, before we conclude
with a few closing thoughts on how this article and its key contribution are to be
understood in what we call a nouveau empiricist spirit. [9]
FQS 17(2), Art. 28, Kasper Tang Vangkilde & David Brehm Sausdal:
Overponderabilia: Overcoming Overthinking When Studying "Ourselves"
2. Issues of Overponderabilia: A Problem of Distance
In the late summer of 2009, David began a four-month period of ethnographic
fieldwork among a collective of artists in East London. Intending to explore the
notion of creativity as a specific Euro-American mode of thought (LEACH, 2004),
he had carefully singled out this group of people, as late-youth artists in
cosmopolitan settings are often portrayed as epitomic representatives of the
contemporary Euro-American focus on creativity (see e.g., FLORIDA, 2005;
LAVIE et al., 1993; LEACH, 2004; LIEP, 2001). Thus, it was his, perhaps naïve,
expectation that fieldwork among young urban artists would bring him closer to an
understanding of the distinctive characteristics of a Euro-American creativity.
However, as most ethnographers know, fieldwork rarely unfolds as expected. [10]
Soon after starting his fieldwork, David began to realize that his conception of
creativity would not become any clearer as his fieldwork progressed. Quite the
opposite, in fact. While his objective was to enclose the notion of creativity into a
conceptual form, the notion of creativity seemed to enclose him within a multitude
of meanings instead. The artists' descriptions and explanations, as well as his
own observations and experiences, were not only remarkably varied but also
vexingly contradictory. For instance, on a Thursday night when David and the
artists had roamed the art galleries of East London exhibiting mostly upcoming
artists, they went for a nightcap. Making an effort to consume not only the drink
but also the impressions of the day, David probed into what the artists thought of
the art. "Was it any good?" he asked. "Fairly good," one of the artists replied.
"Some of the pieces revealed real creativity." The others agreed. "How?," David
then asked. LP1, a 30-year-old French Canadian creative advertiser and
filmmaker who had recently moved to London, responded: "I liked the almost
whispering subtleness of it," he said with reference to a specific painting. "Very
true," Fabrice, a 29-year-old graphic artist from Australia, agreed, "but it was also
the way in which he almost made it scream." Noting the oxymoron between the
creativity of simultaneously whispering and screaming, David asked if their
statements were not somewhat contradictory. "Maybe ..." they replied. "But
listen ... creativity is not about making sense and being harmonious." "You think
too much," they said, "creativity isn't like anthropology." [11]
In another project, Kasper had gained access to a European-based fashion
company in order to explore the processes and conditions involved in creating a
fashion collection. Intrigued by the fact that fashion is by definition creative
(FERNANDEZ, 2001, p.27), because it naturally has to establish a discontinuity
with what exists (DAVIS, 1992, pp.14-15; ENTWISTLE, 2000, pp.41-48), Kasper
reasoned that an ethnography of fashion designers would shed fresh light on how
creativity unfolds in practice. Over the course of eight months, he followed the
efforts of various fashion designers and engaged in conversations about the
imperative to be creative at highly specific time intervals, i.e., in seasons. The
purpose, in other words, was essentially to understand and, thus, demystify
1 All names on our fieldwork subjects throughout the article are pseudonyms in order to ensure
FQS 17(2), Art. 28, Kasper Tang Vangkilde & David Brehm Sausdal:
Overponderabilia: Overcoming Overthinking When Studying "Ourselves"
processes of creativity by explicating how and why fashion designers go about
doing what they do. [12]
At various points, precisely this objective to explicate or articulate creative
practices, and not least the logics underlying them, was indeed complicated, if
not, in fact, an entirely mistaken objective. Faced with the question of how to
determine what to do, going for one particular material, concept, prototype, etc.
rather than others, the designers spontaneously objected that "this is so difficult
to talk about." As Kasper probably looked disappointed with such an evasive and
unarticulated response, the designers often hastened to elaborate: "you have to
know the zeitgeist [the time spirit]. You have to have a feeling for the time,"
Rebecca, a young talented fashion designer from Germany, explained. In the
usual ethnographic style, Kasper then asked for more elaboration, more
articulation. For was it not obvious that the designer was simply paraphrasing a
romantic trope of the creative person as a kind of emissary of the divine, being
able to connect with a certain spiritual impulse and let it speak through oneself
(cf. NEGUS & PICKERING, 2004, pp.3-4)? "Can you describe that feeling?"
Kasper therefore asked. "No," Rebecca insisted. "I think that it is just a feeling [...]
Just a feeling about the time and what is going to happen. I cannot describe it
exactly. It is just a feeling" (see also VANGKILDE 2013, 2015). [13]
We shall get back to these ethnographic cases in due course. For now, it ought
to be clear that they lead us directly to the concern of overponderabilia. David's
inclination to "think too much" was brought about not just by his anthropological
eagerness to analyze and theorize but, more importantly, by his a priori
assumptions, commonsensical as well as anthropological, about the notion of
creativity. While these assumptions led him to think in particular ways about
creativity—for instance, that creativity had something to do with the right
combination of original thinking and practical and material know-how—the fact
that his objective was to explore this notion seemed to fade into the background.
For Kasper, the problem was much the same. By immediately assuming that the
account of a zeitgeist was an articulation of the romantic trope of artistic creation
—and, thus, not to be taken at face value but as something that could be
explained and articulated in more detail—he was in danger of failing to take
seriously what the designers themselves took seriously, relegating their
experiences, perceptions, and beliefs to mere romanticism. Clearly, due to his
knowledge of romantic ideas of creativity, the zeitgeist was "over-pondered." [14]
Such matters of overponderabilia go to the heart of ethnography in that they
concern the issue of how to obtain a certain degree of distance to one's field of
research. "There is clearly something in the idea," Edwin ARDENER notes, "that
distance lends enhancement, if not enchantment, to the anthropological vision"
(1989, p.211). The issue of distance has been much debated in regard to the
aforementioned imponderabilia, which may escape the gaze of the ethnographer
and which may, therefore, have led more than a few ethnographers to search for
research areas considered to be "remote"—not merely in a geographical but in a
conceptual or social sense as well (ARDENER, 1989). It may appear paradoxical,
but we apparently become blind to things if or when, and although, they are right
FQS 17(2), Art. 28, Kasper Tang Vangkilde & David Brehm Sausdal:
Overponderabilia: Overcoming Overthinking When Studying "Ourselves"
in front of our eyes. Thus, while the challenge for ethnographers has traditionally
been to get into a new culture, as Orvar LÔFGREN writes, "European
ethnologists have struggled with the problem of getting out, of distancing
themselves from their far-too-familiar surroundings" (1987, p.76). [15]
Crucially, this distancing is equally pertinent when the quandary shifts from
concerns of imponderabilia to concerns of overponderabilia. If the former
designates a problem of "not seeing the wood for the trees," the latter denotes a
problem of "seeing a wood the trees do not make up." This centrality of distance
appears to be closely linked to the very modality of reflection, which, in the double
sense of the term, refers to a "throwing back" by a given surface and a serious
"thinking through" (see WILLERSLEV, 2007); that is, it is hardly possible to reflect
on things—think them through—if they are too close and throw nothing back.
"Thus, what anthropology is in search of," Rane WILLERSLEV emphasizes, "is
not an experience of truly radical proximity, but a type of experience that puts us
in contact with others and yet separates us from them, keeping us at a distance"
(p.40). This is precisely what the number one method in ethnographic research—
participant observation—is all about; that is, generating knowledge through an
inside, participatory intimacy while upholding an outside, observational distance.
The point remains, however, that no knowledge generating practices take place
on a tabula rasa but always on top of, or in addition to, pre-existing experiences
and perspectives (RUSSELL & KELLY, 2002, §2). [16]
To reiterate our conundrum, then, how were we to impose and uphold a distance
so as to escape issues of overponderabilia when the notion of creativity and the
appurtenant socio-cultural surroundings appeared so familiar to us? Although
significant knowledge may certainly be gained through an inside, participatory
position, we had to obtain an outside, observational position in order to turn the
"inside out," so to speak; being, importantly, the "inside" of both the artists or
designers and ourselves as ethnographers. We had, as such, to become aware
of, and reflect on, our own situatedness in terms of epistemological positioning
and presuppositions. Indeed, the concerns of overponderabilia required just the
same degree of reflexivity as the concerns of imponderabilia. A solution to our
conundrum, then, seemed precisely to lie in a heightened reflexivity as an intrinsic
part of ethnographic research (HASTRUP, 1995; MRUCK, ROTH & BREUER, 2002;
ROTH, BREUER & MRUCK, 2003). And, in a sense, it did; though certainly not in
the common sense of carrying out "reflexive ethnography" (DAVIES, 1999). [17]
We proceed, therefore, by revising the reflexive turn, since our argument
essentially builds upon, but also extends, its insights. In particular, we stress the
potential of a greater insistence on including our fieldwork subjects in our thinking
whilst being in the field. [18]
FQS 17(2), Art. 28, Kasper Tang Vangkilde & David Brehm Sausdal:
Overponderabilia: Overcoming Overthinking When Studying "Ourselves"
3. Revisiting the Reflexive Turn: From Intrinsic Reflexivity to
Outspoken Debate
It is by now a truism that all research is based on an intervention. Even in the
most objective of sciences (for instance, astronomy or physics), the assumption
that the researcher is fundamentally disconnected from the research object can
hardly be upheld. In fact, in these disciplines, the specific effects of the former
upon the latter are a constant concern, which supports the point that "we cannot
research something with which we have no contact" (p.3). Representing and
intervening are, in other words, inextricably entangled, as intervention is a
conditio sine qua non for coming to a robust form of knowledge (HACKING,
1983). It follows, then, that not merely the object of knowledge (i.e., the ontology)
but the particular mode of engaging it (i.e., the epistemology) is of critical
importance, because, as Kirsten HASTRUP puts it, "[t]he relation between the
'knower' and the 'object' of necessity bends back into the perception of the object
itself" (2004, p.456). [19]
Not only in our respective work on creativity but also in ethnographic research in
general, this issue seems particularly pronounced given the fact that our research
object is also our research tool; that is, we explore social relations through social
relations (LEACH, 2010, p.194). Due to our efforts to enter another world by way
of a concrete presence and active participation, ethnographic research is
essentially anchored in this engagement. Ethnographers, James LEACH
therefore stresses, participate in the emergence of events and phenomena in the
field, meaning that this kind of research is by no means a disinterested
observation, being instead a situated intervention eliciting a form of social action
(ibid.). Intervening in social relations, we both act on and are acted upon by our
research objects (who are, of course, reflective and agentive subjects), for which
reason the knowledge derived from such interventions can only be inherently
relational (HASTRUP, 2004) and dialogic (RUSSELL & KELLY, 2002). [20]
The reflexive turn was ignited precisely by a gradual recognition of this
ethnographic fact, as it were. Initially unfolding as a critique of how
anthropologists did not consciously reflect on the power relations involved in
studying and representing the former European colonies, it was strongly argued
that anthropology had been a product and beneficiary of colonialism and, thus,
was deeply enmeshed in these power relations (ASAD, 1973; HYMES, 1972). In
their accounts, however, ethnographers paid virtually no attention to these
relations and were, therefore, critiqued for presenting a distorted view of the
people under study (DAVIES, 1999, p.13). But the critique revolved not merely
around power. With a focus on how gender affected ethnographic research,
feminists argued that this research essentially suffered from an androcentric bias.
Male ethnographers relied mainly on male informants, and insofar as females
were discussed at all, this was done from a male perspective (BEHAR &
GORDON, 1995; MOORE, 1988). For some critics, ethnographic research thus
amounted to nothing more than mere projections of the ethnographer's cultural or
gendered preconceptions and imaginings (DAVIES, 1999, p.13); a kind of
ethnocentric "orientalism" (SAID, 1978) on a broad scale. [21]
FQS 17(2), Art. 28, Kasper Tang Vangkilde & David Brehm Sausdal:
Overponderabilia: Overcoming Overthinking When Studying "Ourselves"
In general, these discussions concerned the issue of positioning and the
importance of continuously reflecting upon "the situatedness and partiality of all
claims to knowledge," as MARCUS had it (1998, p.198). Together with James
(MARCUS & FISCHER, 1986), MARCUS instigated the well-known "writing
culture" debate, calling for more reflection on, and a rethinking of, the rhetorical
strategies by which people's lives were represented in ethnographic writing.
Focusing not only on an a priori reflexivity, i.e., how power, gender, age, etc. may
or may not influence the research process, but also on an a posteriori reflexivity,
i.e., how various styles of writing may or may not constitute productive modes of
representation, Marcus and others made it clear that ethnographers are not
"recording machine[s]" (NASH & WINTROB, 1972, p.527) but actual agents in
the field and, hence, in the fieldwork that we conduct. To account for the partiality
of any claims to knowledge, then, we must reflect on our epistemological
positioning, as it has also been thoroughly discussed in two thematic issues of
FQS (MRUCK et al., 2002; ROTH et al., 2003). [22]
These matters have certainly not become less significant as ethnographers have
turned home to explore not-so-remote, or deceptively familiar (KRAUSE-
JENSEN, 2013, p.43), activities, agents, and locations. In our studies of creativity
among artists and designers, we employed various strategies to impose a
distance that would allow us to explore our research subjects' perspectives as
well as to reflect on our underlying epistemological assumptions. In an effort not
to overthink familiar notions such as the zeitgeist, Kasper pursued a
methodological strategy of purposeful naïveté (HENARE, HOLBRAAD &
WASTELL, 2007a, p.2; see also LATOUR, 2005, pp.47-49), seeking to uphold a
sense of wonderment and hold these notions in a state of suspension by being
deliberately, sometimes even exaggeratedly, ignorant or naïve. Thus, by
presupposing and emphasizing a discontinuity between his own ideas, concepts,
theories, etc. and those of the designers (cf. HASTRUP, 1993, p.157), he sought
to overcome overthinking whilst conducting his fieldwork. For David, another
strategy took on particular significance, though not so much during as after his
fieldwork. By discussing the Euro-American notion of creativity on a par with the
Melanesian/Polynesian notion of mana (see e.g., LÉVI-STRAUSS, 1987 [1950];
MAUSS, 1972 [1950]), he applied a strategy of defamiliarization by cross-cultural
juxtaposition (MARCUS & FISCHER, 1986). Using "the substantive facts about
another culture as a probe into the specific facts about a subject of criticism at
home" (ibid. 138), David proposed that creativity, just like mana, is a "fluid
semantic notion" whose fluidity, i.e., its ability to mean a multitude of things, is
precisely what makes it so socially potent—again, just like mana (cf. MAUSS,
1972 [1950]). [23]
While these reflexive strategies were surely productive in making the familiar
strange and addressing the close relations between the knower, i.e., us, and the
object, i.e., creativity (cf. HASTRUP, 2004, p.456), the fact that artists and
designers are themselves reflexive subjects prompted another and, we shall argue,
highly fruitful strategy. In the words of Jay RUBY, being reflexive means that:
FQS 17(2), Art. 28, Kasper Tang Vangkilde & David Brehm Sausdal:
Overponderabilia: Overcoming Overthinking When Studying "Ourselves"
"the producer deliberately, intentionally reveals to his audience the underlying
epistemological assumptions which caused him to formulate a set of questions in a
particular way, to seek answers to those questions in a particular way, and finally to
present his findings in a particular way" (1980, p.157). [24]
But if this is so, then we are still left with the central issue of how, in fact, to
disclose these assumptions and deal with overponderabilia. Is it not the case,
particularly in contexts of deceptive familiarity, that such assumptions are too
close to be exposed and reflected upon through either subtraction or abstraction;
that is, by physical or philosophical removal from the field or oneself? Are we
really able to do this by ourselves? Or might we, perhaps, need some assistance
from a distant outside? [25]
Our reflexive partners in the field constitute an overlooked and untapped potential
in this respect. In their work towards a refunctioning of ethnography, HOLMES
and MARCUS (e.g., 2005, 2006, 2008; see also VANGKILDE & ROD,
forthcoming) argue that, within many contemporary fieldwork contexts, "operate
reflexive subjects whose intellectual practices assume real or figurative
interlocutors. We can find a preexisting ethnographic consciousness or curiosity,
which we term para-ethnography" (HOLMES & MARCUS, 2008, p.82).
Significantly, for HOLMES and MARCUS, this essentially alters the conditions of
ethnographic research, as it places collaboration at the very center, although not
merely in the old sense of collaborative fieldwork relationships understood as
informants "responding to, cooperating with, and tolerating the ethnographer's
more or less overt agendas" (p.85). Rather, the key point is "to integrate fully our
subjects' analytical acumen and insights to define the issues at stake in our
projects as well as the means by which we explore them" (p.86). In other words,
as the circumstances of ethnographic fieldwork have changed radically,
ethnographers can no longer rely solely on a Malinowskian aesthetic of fieldwork
which favors such distanced practices as description and analysis (p.82; see also
MARCUS, 2010). Not least due to the fact that fieldwork today largely hinges on
negotiations and expectations of the meanings of ethnography, ethnographers
need to engage actively with their dialogic, epistemic partners in the field, who,
accordingly, turn into counterparts and co-producers of interpretations and
knowledge (HOLMES & MARCUS, 2005, 2008). [26]
For us, this rethinking of ethnography constitutes not only a response to the
altered conditions of fieldwork but also a way of actually taking the fact of
intervention in research seriously. Ethnographers' actual presence in the
everyday lives of their research subjects clearly makes reflexivity an intrinsic part
of ethnography; but our argument is that to fully realize the potential of reflexive
ethnography and, thus, to overcome overthinking, it is simply not enough to
include people in our research and then reflect upon the epistemological
positioning—of and by ourselves. The reflexive turn, we argue, needs to be taken
a step further, in that we must "make ourselves experimental subjects," as
Michael JACKSON (1989, p.4) has it; or, to paraphrase Marianne GULLESTAD,
"[w]e have not only to look at 'us' in the same way as we look at 'them', but also to
see 'us' through 'their' eyes" (1989, p.71). What we propose, then, is a move
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towards a more generative, active and outward sense of reflexivity, which focuses
on the potential in openly exposing and debating our reflections, concepts, and
theories with our partners in the field; that is, allowing them to explore and
scrutinize our "worlds" as much as we explore and scrutinize theirs. This
constitutes a way of bringing reflexive exchange and critical debate to the fore of
the intervening and collaborative nature of ethnography. And, as we shall now
argue, it provides the grounds for dealing with overponderabilia through a
strategy of what we call "mutual participatory observation." [27]
4. Mutual Participatory Observation: Moments of Dialogue and Debate
Having spent several evenings at his desk, reading and scrutinizing his fieldnotes
and other ethnographic studies, David decided to invite five artists over for dinner;
a delightful dish of so-called krebinetter, which is a special kind of Danish
meatballs. Of course, his hope was that the dinner would turn into a productive
ethnographic event that would give rise to a sort of "cultural exchange," with him
providing the artists with kitsch Danish food and the artists providing him with
distinctive perspectives on creativity—food for thought, indeed! As it turned out,
however, the idea of serving food and then simply observing and listening in on
the artists' conversations and discussions was basically untenable. David could
not just sit there, observe, ask questions, and reflect, as most ethnographic
approaches will have it. [28]
At one point during the dinner, Fabrice, one of the artists, began to talk about an
art piece which he was doing for a notorious British singer, one of his most highly
profiled clients. The other artists asked about the project, and soon they were all
excitedly discussing how Fabrice ought to go about it. How was he to give it "a
creative twist," as one of them put it? Then, rather out of the blue, David was
dragged into the discussion. What did he think? As an anthropologist delving into
creativity, he surely had an opinion, the artists reasoned. Being, in this sense,
caught on his distanced, observational feet, as it were, David mulled things over.
How was he to respond? Clearly, he could play the old ethnographic trick and
claim that he had really no opinion, that he was conducting fieldwork precisely in
order to learn from them, and that he would accordingly compromise his research
by intervening in their discussion. But this seemed both untrustworthy and
counterproductive. Of course, he had a viewpoint, and it seemed downright
disrespectful not to share it. [29]
After some pondering, David decided to recount an argument by anthropologist
Tim INGOLD, who has suggested that a certain kind of novelty or creativity is
often thought to come about through the dual interplay of chance and necessity
(see LEACH, 2004, p.161). Although he did not remember INGOLD's exact
words, he explained the ideas and thoughts underlying this statement,
emphasizing INGOLD's focus on the improvisational processes of creativity in
fields of forces and materials (see e.g., INGOLD, 2010a, 2010b; INGOLD &
HALLAM, 2007). While this sounded rather unclear in David's own ears, the
artists responded with pure curiosity and urged him to fetch this "Tim Ingold."
This he did—and then some. On his desk, David found a number of
FQS 17(2), Art. 28, Kasper Tang Vangkilde & David Brehm Sausdal:
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anthropological books and theories, which he literally brought to the table. The
artists became instantly intrigued but, importantly, not convinced. Having flicked
through the pages of the books and debated the various takes on creativity, they
all agreed that the theories contained some elements of truth but that the analysis
was too simplistic. "There is more to it," Fabrice said. And one of the others
added: "Creativity is just not something that you can clearly grasp by putting it on
formula." Indeed, David's thoughts on creativity, as well as those of his fellow
anthropologists, were critically challenged. [30]
In the fashion company, Kasper faced similar discussions, though usually in more
formal settings. About two weeks into his fieldwork, he was asked to present his
project to the employees in a special unit called The Innovation Lab. Under the
title "Creativity and Innovation in Fashion: From an Anthropological Perspective,"
he gave a brief introduction to the field of anthropology before proceeding to a
discussion of how creativity, as well as innovation, are typically conceptualized
and approached anthropologically; that is, as social phenomena rather than mere
individual dispositions (e.g., FRIEDMAN, 2001; HASTRUP, 2007; INGOLD &
HALLAM, 2007). However, Kasper did not get very far in his presentation, as he
was soon interrupted with various questions and objections. In addition to the
more or less expected doubt regarding the concrete "value" and "use" of the
project, the inquiries and debate concerned, first and foremost, the concepts of
creativity and innovation. [31]
When constructing his project, Kasper had strategically zoomed in on fashion due
to the essentially creative and innovative nature of this phenomenon. However,
far from being convinced, the employees in The Innovation Lab explicitly
questioned why, in fact, he had chosen fashion to explore innovation. "There are
so many other industries which are far more innovative than the fashion industry,"
they objected. For Kasper, this not only came as a surprise in the light of several
definitions of fashion, according to which fashion rests on its continuous breaks
with the preceding years' canons (BOURDIEU & DELSAUT, 1975, p.17; DAVIS,
1992, pp.14-15; ENTWISTLE, 2000, pp.41-48). In addition, it pushed him to
explicate his conceptual distinction between creativity and innovation. Drawing on
various sources of literature, he argued that it is common to differentiate between
creativity as the generation of new ideas and innovation as the realization of
those new ideas in practice (e.g., ANDERSON, DE DREU & NIJSTAD, 2004,
p.148; WEST, 2001, p.2895). Thus, for him, the point would not be to rank
innovation into "more or less," but to explore the concrete processes from idea to
collection, i.e., from creativity to innovation. Thomas, a guy responsible for
identifying new developments in fabrics, then said: "Okay, that makes more
sense. But I really do think that innovation only happens rarely in fashion. It is
more a matter of recombining existing elements than of creating something
entirely new." When Kasper looked around, the other employees nodded in
agreement. [32]
What characterizes these ethnographic moments of dialogue and debate? While
it is surely common for many ethnographers today to engage in some sort of
reflexive exchange with their partners in fieldwork, the debates above are
FQS 17(2), Art. 28, Kasper Tang Vangkilde & David Brehm Sausdal:
Overponderabilia: Overcoming Overthinking When Studying "Ourselves"
nonetheless distinctive, we believe, in two ways. First, the research subjects are
given an explicit opportunity to actively explore and question the ethnographers'
underlying theoretical assumptions and viewpoints. Rather than relying
exclusively on our own ability to turn back on ourselves, i.e., reflexivity (DAVIES,
1999, p.4), our views and understandings are explicitly disclosed and openly
discussed with our partners in the field. In this way, we purposely seek to make
ourselves experimental subjects, allowing our epistemic partners to uncover our
predispositions whilst we uncover theirs. Second, it follows that our customary
ideas of empirical material as a near-perfect inductive ground for in-depth
analysis—that is, "as the basic building block in research," to quote Mats
ALVESSON (2011, p.146)—are radically rethought. The critical discussion with
our research subjects clearly exposes discrepancies in understanding, not least
with respect to the seemingly shared concept of creativity, for which reason it is
worthwhile to also "see empirical material (like interview statements) as a critical
dialogue or analytical partner for the researcher [...] as a 'mini-seminar' offering
ideas and analytical help" (ibid.). Thus, drawing on the analytical acumen and
critical thinking of our partners in the field essentially changes their status, not
only from "informants" to "interlocutors," but from "empirical sources" to
"epistemic partners." [33]
The artists and designers, as well as other agents in our fieldwork, clearly figured
as such epistemic partners offering analytical help. In debates such as the above,
the reflexive exchanges established a common ground, or a third space, where
we not only probed into their notions, assumptions, and viewpoints (i.e., the first
space of the researcher's view of the research subjects), and where they, in turn,
not only delved into ours (i.e., the second space of the research subjects' view of
the researcher). Rather, we mutually observed and took part in each other's
perspectives, reciprocally engaging in and exploring our interrelationship (i.e., the
third space of the interplay between the researcher and the research subjects)
(see also FISCHER, 2003). This is what we term a strategy of mutual
participatory observation. With this strategy, it is not the researcher alone who
explores and partakes in another perspective, as a joint venture emerges in
moments of dialogue and debate where the research subjects concurrently
explore and participate in the perspective of the researcher. While this prompted
David to rethink and revise his conception of creativity as a more fluid and
multifarious phenomenon (cf. his comparison with mana), it led Kasper to de-
emphasize his focus on innovation and zoom in specifically on creativity. In both
cases, this seemed more in line with the ethnographic contexts and was, as such,
a distinctive style of alignment and collaboration with the critical perspectives of
our partners in the field (see also MARCUS in MOERAN et al., 2012, p.270). This
is, however, not to be confused with "pure participation" and the associated
hitches of "going native" in the sense that the ethnographer suffers "a loss of
analytical interest" (DeWALT & DeWALT, 2002, p.18). Indeed, our point is the
reverse: mutual participatory observation constitutes a strategy of distanciation
which counteracts instances of deceptive familiarity by encouraging a reciprocal
exchange of perspectives that allows our research subjects to disclose and
dispute our preconceptions. As a new and more generative sense of the use of
reflexivity, it thus constitutes a particularly serviceable method of dealing with
FQS 17(2), Art. 28, Kasper Tang Vangkilde & David Brehm Sausdal:
Overponderabilia: Overcoming Overthinking When Studying "Ourselves"
overponderabilia, based as it is on a principle of "mutual induction" by which
viewpoints and assumptions of the people studied and the ethnographer are
disclosed; that is, a mutual exploration and exposition of their interrelationship. [34]
5. Towards Mutual Induction: Overcoming Overthinking
In a nutshell, the central argument in the above paragraphs is that a methodology
of mutual participatory observation entails a wish not only to explore the
perspectives of the people studied, but also to actively and constantly challenge
our own. This is, indeed, crucial in contemporary ethnographic research, which is
often conducted among people fairly similar to ourselves. In this respect, a
heightened reflexivity is hardly enough as a means of disclosing our underlying
epistemological positioning; but importantly, it can be achieved by openly
discussing with our reflexive and critical partners in fieldwork. Even though
pointing to the analytical and theoretical capacities of those previously described
as mere informants is no longer uncommon in anthropology (see e.g., HENARE,
these capacities are still largely left untouched and seen to belong mainly to the
ethnographer. However, Bruno LATOUR argues: "As anthropologists have
tirelessly shown, actors incessantly engage in the most abstruse metaphysical
constructions by redefining all the elements of the world" (2005, p.51). And, he
continues, "the metaphysical innovations proposed by ordinary actors [...] often
go beyond those of professional philosophers" (ibid.). While we shall not go into
detail with this claim, it highlights the inherent reflexivity of so-called "ordinary
actors," which, we assert, ought to be brought more to the fore in qualitative
research and ethnography, not least in regard to our efforts at overcoming
overthinking. [35]
The underlying principle of this proposition is what we term "mutual induction." In
his outline of a "radical empiricism," Michael JACKSON argues strongly for
making lived experience and the interplay of things the starting point of an
ethnographic inquiry. In particular, this includes the concrete interaction between
observer and observed, method and object, which traditional empiricism has
struggled to keep apart (1989, p.3). While the reciprocal and interexperiential
nature of ethnography is thus emphasized, making the ethnographer an
experimental subject too (pp.3-4), Michael JACKSON furthermore contends:
"In ethnography, this means abandoning induction and actively debating and
exchanging points of view with our informants. It means placing our ideas on a par
with theirs, testing them not against predetermined standards of rationality but
against the immediate exigencies of life" (p.14). [36]
As ethnographers, in this sense, we can no longer make do with observing and
participating in the lives of our partners in fieldwork, but must let them discern
and take part in ours as well, meaning that we need to become articulated
subjects, because, as Bruno LATOUR remarks, "an articulate subject is someone
who learns to be affected by others—not by itself" (2004, p.210). [37]
FQS 17(2), Art. 28, Kasper Tang Vangkilde & David Brehm Sausdal:
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Indeed, this amounts to stressing that qualitative research and ethnography are
not studies of but studies with people. While Tim INGOLD suggests that it is
precisely this fact that distinguishes anthropology from other disciplines studying
people, in that anthropologists learn other ways of perceiving the world by
working and studying with people, not merely by gaining knowledge about them
(2008, p.82), we contend that there is more to our proposed method of mutual
participatory observation than this acknowledgment of how "the world and its
inhabitants, human and non-human, are our teachers, mentors and interlocutors"
(p.83). Our point is that the inherent mutuality in qualitative and ethnographic
research ought to be made more equal in the sense that the world of the
researcher, and not only of the people in the field, should be opened up to
scrutiny and debate. We need to place our ideas on a par with theirs, so that a
common ground is established where the researcher and the epistemic partners
can reciprocally and communally induce meanings and conduct analysis through
open dialogue and debate. This, we argue, is a true move from individual
induction to mutual induction. It is a move from a one-way probing into the world
of the informants to a two-way engagement with critical, epistemic partners,
which allows the ethnographer to uphold the acts of probing while, at the same
time, urging the fieldwork partners to "counter-probe." Qualitative material, in this
way, becomes a kind of "matter of concern" (cf. LATOUR, 2005, pp.114-115),
arising from an engaged mutual interaction and induction. [38]
The key contribution of this method is precisely that it constitutes a way of dealing
with overponderabilia in that our fieldwork partners are allowed to take part in our
perspectives and to disclose and dispute our biases and preconceptions. For
Michael JACKSON, this leads to a distinct research situation: "In this process we
put ourselves on the line; we run the risk of having our sense of ourselves as
different and distanced from the people we study dissolve" (1989, p.4). For us,
the point is rather the reverse: it is true that we put ourselves on the line, but what
dissolves is not so much our sense of ourselves as being different and distanced
from the people we study, but our sense of being similar and close to them. This
is the key point of the principle of mutual induction: by entering into a reciprocal
exchange with our research subjects, thus allowing them to also explore and
debate our ideas and concepts, we may overcome overthinking and, hence, aim
for a closer and more accurate understanding of the people studied. By way of
closing this article, we shall give this aim a few final thoughts. [39]
6. Conclusion: Aiming for Instruction Rather Than Construction
It ought to be emphasized that our argument is not to be read as yet another
contribution to the realm of post-modernist methodologies proposing more
collaboration and co-construction with fieldwork subjects. While our argument
may seem to point in that direction given our emphasis on mutuality, interaction,
dialogue, and debate, the ontological premise underlying our methodological
concern is not that the social worlds studied should be understood as a whirlpool
of whimsical socio-cultural (co-)construction, making the notion of "reality"
virtually insignificant. In such a post-modernist approach, an interview, for
instance, represents not an epistemological exploration of the interviewee's
FQS 17(2), Art. 28, Kasper Tang Vangkilde & David Brehm Sausdal:
Overponderabilia: Overcoming Overthinking When Studying "Ourselves"
reality, but a kind of "construction site" where the interviewer and the interviewee
as equal and active partners co-construct meanings anew (see e.g., HOLSTEIN
& GUBRIUM, 1995). As argued by Glenda M. RUSSELL and Nancy H. KELLY,
"the dialogic interplay enacted as part of the interview process serves to join and
integrate the two independent voices into a seamless co-creation of a newly
formed reality" (2002, §14). In this light, our proposed method is based more on a
particular kind of empiricist endeavor, as we still consider the ethnographic
project to be essentially concerned with respectfully understanding and conveying
our research subjects' ways of acting and perceiving in the best possible way,
without thwarting the understanding through ethnocentric concepts and biased
interpretations. Although we realize, of course, that this is, in principle, an
impossible endeavor (as the reflexive turn and other post-modernist turns have
showed us), it remains worthwhile, we insist, to approach the most precise
understanding of their lives possible. [40]
It is in this, so to speak, nouveau empiricist spirit that we propose the method of
mutual participatory observation as a means of coming closer to an
understanding of our subjects' lives by decreasing the risk of overthinking. The
point, however, is not to resurrect a methodological approach based on the often
proposed conception that our fieldwork subjects inhabit a kind of "fragile
ontology," which the ethnographer should do everything possible not to
contaminate with his/her presence. Such an approach is, for instance, advanced
by James P. SPRADLEY, who, in his renowned books on "The Ethnographic
Interview" (1979) and "Participant Observation" (1980), is preoccupied with
understanding the culture of the people studied without, in any way, tainting this
understanding with the ethnographer's own cultural practices and perceptions.
SPRADLEY, in this way, is on a par with ethnographers of the reflexive turn; but
while the latter are pessimistic about this endeavor and find it to be impossible,
SPRADLEY is optimistic and regards it as difficult yet doable. The key challenge,
he argues, is to practice an approach where one does not ask conceptual
questions as this forces the informants into possible first-time conceptual
ponderings or, more alarmingly, forces them to take on the ethnographer's own
conceptual framework (see e.g., 1979). Underlying this approach is the idea that
our research subjects inhabit delicate and fragile socio-cultural worlds, which can
easily, but should not, be disturbed by the not-so-elegant ethnographer. For us,
however, this is an anxiety that we do not share. Stated somewhat polemically,
the ethnographer who truly believes that his/her mere presence and participation
in the field radically alters the given socio-cultural world gives way too much
credence to him/herself and way too little to the subjects in the field. As Pierre
BOURDIEU contends, ethnographic research has seen "an explosion of
narcissism sometimes verging on exhibitionism, which came in the wake of, and
in reaction to, long years of positivist repression" (2003, p.282). In particular,
when studying up (NADER, 1972) or studying sideways (HANNERZ, 1998), our
fieldwork partners are not, we believe, that easily swayed. [41]
Bearing the above-mentioned points in mind, the method of mutual participatory
observation constitutes a balance between these approaches to ethnographic
research. In contemporary ethnography, as we have argued, many agents such
FQS 17(2), Art. 28, Kasper Tang Vangkilde & David Brehm Sausdal:
Overponderabilia: Overcoming Overthinking When Studying "Ourselves"
as artists and designers possess quite resilient practices and perceptions, which
seem neither to prompt a more or less whimsical co-construction nor to be
radically altered by the ethnographer's mere presence. Put differently, they have
relatively stable ideas about their world and lives, and the task for the
ethnographer is, as always, to get closer to an understanding of these ideas.
Clearly, this can only be achieved through the interactions and interrelations
between the ethnographer and the research subjects, which may surely have
effects on both of them. But it is precisely the resilience of the latter, we contend,
that allows and invites a kind of third space from where the ethnographer's basic
endeavor to understand the research subjects may unfold as a reciprocal and
interactive process with these subjects. Through open dialogue and critical
debate, this is a strategy of overcoming overthinking—of counteracting the
impulse to trust the signified while, in fact, only the signifiers can be trusted
(HASTRUP, 1987, p.104)—as the people studied are allowed into and urged to
unearth our world of assumptions, concepts, and theories; that is, to modify,
align, and dispute the thoughts we think and the conclusions we draw. This is
what we consider to be the key contribution of the method of mutual participatory
observation. Entering into a reciprocal exchange with our research subjects,
understood not as constructors but as instructors, the latter are given the means
of guiding our thinking so that it comes as close to their thinking as possible. In a
nutshell, the central epistemological aim is thus to approach a deeper or closer
mutual understanding, evidently benefiting the research purpose but also, and not
least, the research subjects by providing them with a (hitherto rather rare)
opportunity to thoroughly comprehend the particular research endeavors in which
they take part. [42]
We wish to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful and critical
comments on earlier versions of this article. Indeed, their comments have both
challenged our thinking and helped us sharpen our argument.
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Kasper Tang VANGKILDE, PhD, is associate
professor of anthropology at Aarhus University,
Denmark. His main research interests are within
the fields of business, organizational and design
anthropology, with particular focus on processes
of creativity, future-making, branding,
management and organization. Kasper is
coordinating the thematic specialization in
"Innovation, Organization and Work" on the
Master's Programme in Anthropology at Aarhus
Kasper Tang Vangkilde
Department of Anthropology, School of Culture
and Society, Aarhus University
Moesgaard Allé 20
8270 Hojbjerg, Denmark
Tel.: +45 51 94 27 67
E-mail: etnkvangkilde @
FQS 17(2), Art. 28, Kasper Tang Vangkilde & David Brehm Sausdal:
Overponderabilia: Overcoming Overthinking When Studying "Ourselves"
David Brehm SAUSDAL is a Ph.D. fellow in
criminology at Stockholm University, Sweden.
David has a background in anthropology and a
general interest in anthropological theory and
methodology. His current research focuses on
transnational crime and policing based on long-
term ethnographic fieldwork in the Danish police.
David is currently a visiting scholar at Princeton
University, USA.
David Brehm Sausdal
Department of Criminology, Stockholm
Universitetsvägen 10 C
106 91 Stockholm, Sweden
Tel.: +46 72 315 2711
Vangkilde, Kasper Tang & Sausdal, David Brehm (2016). Overponderabilia: Overcoming
Overthinking When Studying "Ourselves" [42 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung /
Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 17(2), Art. 28,
... This does not mean that I shy away from ambivalences, idiosyncrasies or (ethically) awkward situations -this is no paean -but it does mean that I write about them with all the respect and nuance that I can muster. One way of achieving this, I think, was to stretch the active co-rumination or 'mutual induction' (Vangkilde & Sausdal 2016) from the ethnographic inquiry into the writing process. Accordingly, I let protagonists read and comment on portrayals and episodes in which their voice or figure featured substantially. ...
... Engrossed in a monstrous exercise of midwifery, I found the whole thing personally disturbing. As an ethnographer, however, the moment seemed ripe for the kind of 'mutual induction' that, in Vangkilde and Sausdal's terms, is central for preventing 'overthinking' on the part of the anthropologist (Vangkilde & Sausdal 2016). ...
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This thesis examines the work and lives of a community of biodiversity-centered, rubber-boot oriented biology students and researchers at the Department of Bioscience at Aarhus University in Denmark. Based on long-term immersive fieldwork, it depicts practices and animations that are attuned to the earthly vulnerabilities of our time and at the same time permissive of lived enchantment and hopes for the future. It charts, in other words, how a love of the living turns into a quest for a world that is not just biodiverse, but where the bios as a whole, not the Anthropos alone, becomes the gravitational center of everything that humanity does and does not do. This vision is for the world is what I refer to in this thesis as the Biocene. The first part of the thesis concentrates on central elements of biological practice at the Aarhus University to explore how such practices implicate passions and condition relationships to the living world. The latter part shifts beyond the institutional con-fines of the university to focus on the ways that biology – at least of the rubber-booted sort – emerges as something like a calling. Chapter 1 examines taxonomic practices of classification and identification of species. It queries how such presumably detached approaches may bespeak care, and argues that classificatory exercises, apart from providing a grip on a diverse natural world, augment the lives of my interlocutors. Identifying a species by a name, I suggest, is not like putting a label on a container of rice. Nor is it only a constitutive operation of power. Rather, it makes particular species of bees, ants, or grasses pre-sent and manifest to biologists, thus enabling certain care-full relationships to the living world. The second chapter exposes the ethicalities involved as biologists forfeit nonhuman life both in- and outside laboratories. It demonstrates how biologists try on various legitimizing institutional logics, highlighting how such frameworks fail to address the full gamut of ethical becoming that is at stake. Ultimately, I suggest, violence and killing executed by biologists is realized in an ethically engaged mode of apolo-gy whereby biologists accede to the complexity of entangled multispecies relationships and take on responsibility for their actions in order to nurture the care-full po-tentials of responsivity. Chapter 3 tackles the doing of biodiversity through a turning toward wild(er) nature in general and rewilding in particular. Taking the rewilding experiment at the Mols field laboratory as its point of departure, it argues that rewilding among biologists is ar-ticulated as an effective biodiversity management tool but also, importantly, that it presents a vision for the natural world that revolves around a decentering of Homo sapiens. This decentering, I argue, constitutes a condition of possibility for a detachment from pecuniary human interests which, biologists contend, ought to structure human relations to the rest of the living world if earthly flourishing is to be dis-tributed more evenly across species – and if we are to properly appreciate the diversity of the bios on its own terms. Chapter 4 reveals how such experiences of decentering are inhabited and lived by my biologist interlocutors. It depicts various encounters with life – with evolutionary theory, with sei whales and wolves – that leave biologists infatuated and ‘wonder’ed,’ and it suggests that such infatuation hinges crucially on the skills and wherewithal of rubber-boot biology. The fifth and final chapter focuses on the flipside of such infatuation and begins with the grief and mourning that comes with the realization that one’s object of love is hurting and may soon cease to exist. I propose that these diverging affective responses coalesce in an incipient mobilization of biologists into various kinds of concerted interventions in favor of biodiversity. Zooming in on instances of conspicuously excited public biodiversity dissemination, I illustrate how my interlocutors seek to instill in the general public greater attention to and appreciation of the (often unloved parts of the) living world. I suggest that as they do this – as they become what I call machines of wonder and enchantment – enchantment is turned from a potential source of ethics to a form that ethics or politics might take. The five chapters present distinct thematic loci and they demonstrate how biodi-versity comes to matter to my interlocutors in ways that are 1) experientially aug-menting, 2) ethically absorbing, 3) cosmologically unsettling, and 4) wonder-full. Indeed, I make the case that such forms of mattering fuel my interlocutors’ quest for a Biocene. Given our ecologically perilous times, vernacularized among other things as the sixth mass extinction, we might want to take notice.
Denne artikel diskuterer modsætninger og muligheder i kvalitativ forskning med forskning om ulighed i skolen som eksempel. På baggrund af en begrebsmæssig diskussion af hverdagslivets historiske dimensioner udforskes skolen som en social praksis hvor mange deltagere i situeret samspil med hinanden lever hverdagsliv og udgør betingelser for hinandens livsførelse. Artiklen vil pege på muligheden for gennem kvalitativ udforskning af skolens sociale situationer at fremanalysere sammenhænge mellem politiske konflikter i og om skolen, personlige konflikter i hverdagslivet og ulige betingelser for at deltage i skolelivet – det er netop sådanne sammenhænge kvalitativ metode kan bidrage til at forstå. Herigennem vil artiklen diskutere metodologiske udfordringer for kvalitativ psykologi særlig forholdet mellem forskere, og dem de forsker med - og både i relation til begrebsudvikling, situeret generalisering og mere praktiske guidelines for forskningssamarbejde og feltarbejde. Formålet er at bidrage til udviklingen af sprog, begreber og metodologi for kvalitativ psykologi.
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This article is a study of how class is produced in research encounters as matters of morality. I engage various class perspectives, arguing that class today occurs in subtle ways, being lived as judgments and struggles around moral authorization. I draw on my experiences during six months of ethnographic fieldwork among ethnic Danish middle- and working-class parents when involved in their six-year-old children's start in the final preschool class. In light of my methodological problems with establishing trustful relations with the participants, I argue that I was being interpreted as a judge with a mandate to pass moral judgments on the parents. While this interpretation was common among the participants, they positioned themselves in three radically different ways towards the researcher and "judge": "eager to get a positive judgment," "in the same boat" and "refusing to get judged." This, I argue, reflects contours of class relations in contemporary, neoliberal societies. I also call for acknowledgment of how the power relations embedded in social, qualitative research are often matters of class. Further, I argue that in a broader methodological perspective, we also need to recognize and investigate the classed dimensions of social research to enhance our understanding of the processes involved in qualitative studies.
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My essay, which appears on pages 273-277, is one of many in a special Journal of Business Anthropology section that includes perspectives on the definition, central issues, and future of business anthropology. My essay focuses on the following topics: (1) Anthropology and Ethnography; (2) Strategic Engagement; (3); Business Immersion; (4) Hybrid Approaches; and (5) Business Anthropology as a Voice for Public Anthropology.
The ability to foretell the future―and, as such, to conquer and determine it―is an essential preoccupation of contemporary business, which supposedly distinguishes the winners from the losers. The business of fashion is perhaps the case in point, being inherently concerned with continually staking out new paths into the future. In this article, I explore how fashion designers deal with this imperative through processes of seeking inspiration, constituting a distinctive “technology of prefiguration” by which the designers come to enter a prophetic condition. Rooted in an animistic mode of being, this attests to a shamanic practice, which entails the designers becoming possessed by a zeitgeist and, hence, turning into prophetic agents with particular visions of the future. The world of fashion is, in this sense, populated by entities and processes not commonly associated with modern business, in that animistic tendencies, jumping things, spiritual beings and shamanic efforts enable the designers to attain otherwise unattainable prophetic viewpoints. Underlying this argument is a more general ambition to open up our conception of business, as I suggest that business anthropologists may do well to uphold a profound naïveté in their methodology, which may essentially challenge and revise our assessment of modern capitalism.