Happy International Anthropology Day!

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  • posted byAnne
  • dateFebruary 19, 2015
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AAA National Anthropology Day Logo

We thought that February 19th—National Anthropology Day—should be a day for thinking about not just what anthropology has been but what it might become. And so we invited the Centre for Imaginative Ethnography (CIE) to talk a little about who they are and what they do in supporting a more creative ethnographic practice. Because we can all stand to be more imaginative about the work we do.

Happy International Anthropology Day!

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) has declared February 19th National Anthropology Day. We Canadian Anthropologists assume they meant International Anthropology Day and so we thought we’d celebrate with them and use the opportunity to reflect on what inspires our work, our thinking, and our futures.

Who Are “We”?

“We” are Denielle Elliott and Dara Culhane, both trained as social/cultural anthropologists. And, we are two of four co-founders and co-curators at the Centre for Imaginative Ethnography (CIE). The CIE is a transnational cyber-collective (we exist as an entity only in cyber-space) with over 40 members including graduate students, artists, postdoctoral fellows, independent scholars, and faculty from a range of disciplines. We dream of fostering a critical and creative ethnographic practice that transgresses boundaries between theory and method, anthropology and arts, publics and universities, and artists and scholars. Our work encourages experimental and creative practices in ethnography through bridging anthropology and the literary, film and digital media, theatre and performance, installation and exhibit, public events and interventions, publications and pedagogy. At the core of our passion lies a commitment to socially and politically engaged practices of ethnography that may contribute to making a difference in the world.

Dara Culhane, for instance, works with improvisation as theory and method, experimenting with methodologies where collaborators/co-creators devise storytelling performances about colonial dislocation, marginalization, and illness through working with recalled and imagined experiences, analyses of present conditions, and visions of possible futures (see Stories and Plays). Alex Boudreault-Fournier explores the political potential of fusing sensorial and imaginary when she and Cuban musicians experiment with sound and the acoustic. Magda Kazubowski-Houston and a collaborator shift between fiction and nonfiction, and between researcher and researched positions in a collaborative playwriting project about migration and intergenerational obligations as experientially imagined by Roma women in Poland. Cristina Moretti’s ethnography of Milan and Trudi Lynn Smith’s visual narratives of space are attentive to the visual and shifting character of attachments to public spaces and cultural landscapes imaginatively experienced by “citizens” and “immigrants” in Italy, and Indigenous peoples and settlers in Canada, respectively, who coexist within relations of radical political inequality.

Why a Centre for IMAGINATIVE Ethnography?

At CIE we consider imagination as social practice, integral to relationships among people(s), and between people(s) and the cultural, political, and ecological environments we live with. Imagination infuses how we come to know ourselves in relation to others, informs how we communicate with each other, inspires us to interpret what was and to analyse what is, and incites us to imagine possible futures. Imagination is something we all know, and do, and experience all the time. Yet, when asked, “what is imagination?” a simple answer is hard to formulate. Where can you find your imagination? Does your imagination know where it is? How can you represent and communicate imaginative practice and experience? Can imagination find its way back to anthropology? What is the relationship between “the real” and “the imagined”?

What if we consider working within the tensions produced by imagination’s resistance to fixed or final definition rather than struggling against this resistance? What if we take uncertainty and contingency and possibility as real conditions of the world we live in? What if we accept this challenge as a productive and exciting invitation to stay true to lived experience, to resist our own impulses to impose totalizing explanations that privilege abstract theorizing? What if we insist instead on actively and perpetually moving with theory and practice as always already in constant conversation in the living of everyday life?

As we use it, the term “imaginative” refers to: taking seriously imagination and creativity as central in social relations, a commitment to collaborative, open-ended inquiries, embracing risk and unexpected outcomes, an engagement with transdisciplinary conversations among scholars and artists, and attention to embodied and affective knowledge.

We take imaginative ethnography as our point of departure—an invitation to live differently, to animate spaces, classrooms, and stages, to listen carefully to the lives of others, to use humour and imagination to write, picture, and perform the world alive. We embrace the imaginative as a guiding principle—one that opens, unsettles, merges, breaks, blurs, and politicizes.

“Reality,” as John Lennon said, “leaves a lot to the imagination.”

Why a Centre for Imaginative ETHNOGRAPHY?

We understand ethnography as methodology, as processes of inquiry into ways of doing, sensing, engaging, analysing, representing, and communicating and recirculating knowledge. We believe knowledge is most radical, dynamic, and powerful when it emerges through research intertwined in collaborative and co-creative processes including the frictions such work necessarily generates. Ethnographic methodologies are attentive to the possibilities, particularly, of methodology as productive of new theoretical insights into multiple challenges presented by contemporary conditions such as transnational migration, environmental change, colonial/postcolonial movements, precarious labour, sexuality, and race/minority relations.

Considering imagination as always at work, we focus on research processes as much if not more than products. Questions an imaginative ethnographic design might include are: What is the role of imagination in ethnography when conceiving a research topic, creating research relationships, designing a project, conducting fieldwork, collaborating with participants, analysing, and communicating findings? If we are attentive to the imaginative in social life, how might we locate it in space and time? How do we account for something so elusive and intangible yet so infused in everyday life? How do we make it visible? Where does it hide (in plain sight)? How does it shape our ethnographic practice?

In honour of International Anthropology Day, we asked CIE members to tell us who inspires their imaginations as anthropologists. Check out our blog to see the list of minds, books, and films that our members reported inspires their ethnographic work, and to read, watch, and listen to more about members’ work.

We encourage you—wherever you are—to open up your anthropological/ethnographic practice to creativity, art, collaboration, and co-creation. Imagine! What we might do!

Dara Culhane
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Simon Fraser University

Denielle Elliott
Department of Social Science
York University

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