Chatting While Waterskiing, Part 2

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  • posted byErika Hoffmann-Dilloway
  • dateNovember 2, 2016
  • commentsNo comments
CategoryMain Story

In this three-part blog series, Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway of Oberlin College reflects on the challenges she has encountered in trying to incorporate drawing into her work as a linguistic anthropologist. In this particular post, she describes her experiences during a two-week drawing workshop, including how the group of workshop attendees learned to shift their conversational practices as they adjusted to drawing while doing other things. The blog series precedes the November publication of Andrew Causey’s new book, Drawn to See: Drawing as an Ethnographic Method. We hope that you will join us at the AAA Annual Meeting in Minneapolis to put some of Erika and Andrew’s suggestions into practice! Follow us @TeachingCulture and share your sketches (#sketchAAA).

In my previous post, I explained that while participating in a graphic methods workshop in Malta, I initially found it difficult to engage in conversation and other forms of social activity while absorbed in sketching. As I was not alone in this experience, the workshop’s leader asked the group to commit to continuously drawing throughout dinner each evening (while also eating and socializing) in order to help us incorporate drawing into a broader range of communicative practices.

HDblog2image1The first few nights were very quiet. We were having trouble coordinating turns at talk: often speaking over one another, laughing, and then falling silent. Bids at telling stories often faltered and then puttered out. Aside from the general challenges of paying simultaneous attention to what we experienced as multiple domains of activity and of getting to know a new group of people, these problems may have in part arisen from the fact that we weren’t using eye gaze to manage talk in our usual ways. Though norms for the use of eye gaze vary widely within and across cultural contexts, we participants were all accustomed to attending to gaze in order to “monitor one another’s mutual perceivings”(Goffman 1964: 95). However, at these dinners our gaze was alternately unavailable (when looking down at a drawing in progress) or fixed on another participant’s face (when studying the subject of a sketch) for unusually long periods of time. This caused disruption to our habitual practices for initiating talk or displaying our engagement in dinnertime conversation (Goodwin 1981; Rossano 2013).

But even as we were having trouble tracking one another’s gaze for evidence of attention in real time, our sketching activities were producing materialized “evidence” of our “visual perception” (Causey, in press: 13). This too caused some initial awkwardness. Though we occasionally sketched the contents of the dining room’s open pantry or the objects arrayed on the dinner table, we spent most of these evenings drawing one another. I, for one, was initially inclined to try to minimize signs that I was sketching a particular person, guiltily darting my eyes away when they caught me studying them. I also often tried to shield my sketchbook with my arm, because I was worried that my rendering of a subject might cause some offense. Even in this low stakes exercise, the potential repercussions involved in depicting another person (a fundamental concern in anthropological projects more broadly) felt quite salient.

However, as the two-week workshop progressed, we became more comfortable with allowing the other participants to observe and comment on our depictions of them, and with observing and commenting on their depictions of us. These practices both reflected and affected an emerging sense of intimacy within the group. As we became more comfortable discussing our sketches in progress, what initially felt like multiple domains of activity began to feel more integrated (just as anthropological methods for recording interactions cannot be framed as a separate activity from the events we aim to study, but must be treated as a component of the social interactions we analyze). Similarly, many anthropologists who have incorporated graphic methods into their fieldwork have noted that their drawings became a means of generating new forms of social engagement with research partners and an opportunity to elicit interesting information as participants commented on or corrected sketches (Alfonso and Ramos 2004; Causey, in press).

HDblog2image2Additionally, over the course of the workshop some aspects of our conversational practices began to shift, leading to less difficulty coordinating talk (e.g., it seemed to me that we increasingly attended to vocal rather than visual indications of an addressee’s attention). It’s unsurprising that we were able to adjust in this way: human communicative repertoires are highly flexible. For example, research has shown that eye gaze can be utilized differently depending on the particular goals of talk (Rossano 2013), in response to short-term changes in available communicative channels (e.g., when speaking on the phone to a non-visible partner), or in response to more enduring changes in sensory capacities (e.g., when Deaf-Blind signers adapt to gradual reduction in sightedness (Edwards 2014)). Indeed, as someone whose research has engaged networks of deaf signers, I’ve always attended to the multimodal flexibility of human semiosis in my work. In my next post, in fact, I will write and draw about how my efforts to incorporate an exercise from the graphic methods workshop into my broader ongoing research in Malta helped me notice some of the ways in which local signers integrated writing and drawing into their broader communicative practices.


Causey, Andrew (in press). Drawn to See: Drawing as an Ethnographic Method. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Edwards, Terra, 2014. From compensation to integration: Effects of the pro-tactile movement on the sublexical structure of Tactile American Sign Language. Journal of Pragmatics 69, 22-41.

Goffman, Erving, 1964. Behavior in Public Places. Glencoe: The Free Press.

Goodwin, Charles, 1981. Conversational Organization: Interaction Between Speakers and Hearers. New York: Academic Press.

Rossano, Federico, 2013. Gaze in conversation. In The Handbook of Conversation Analysis (Sidnell and Stivers eds.), 308-329. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

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