Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Attaining Humanity


Cite this article:

Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference 2013.

Thank you very much, indeed. I’m really delighted to be here and to meet this community. I hope that this will be the start of an engagement.

As I think it’s sort of clear, I am a pretty academic anthropologist. That makes me a bit anxious, because I do remember going to something a bit like this a long time ago, and the keynote was this kind of academic anthropologist. It was very much this sense of they were standing there and it was like what they had done was so important and so kind of profound. Yes, there were these people doing this kind of more applied work. Well, I suppose you’ve got to do something for a living, but with all of these theories, you know, we can help you do this kind of thing.And when you actually look, I think these days the work of the kind of people who stand up and say that, I would actually say that they’re the kind of theoretical academic work going on in the social sciences today—it is actually increasingly problematic. I think an awful lot of it is very pretentious; it’s very obfuscating. It has an overblown respect for philosophy, which is not the same as anthropology. I think when you do try and translate it into kind of ordinary prose, it’s actually often very repetitive and actually pretty superficial.


I would say that it’s actually the academic anthropology that could possibly do with a little bit of refreshing, and I would then suggest that one of the reasons is that it has become so disengaged. It should follow that the people who are engaged and grounded may well be the root by which we can actually bring this back to something that is genuinely going to progress the discipline.What I want to do now is try and suggest that basically through an extended example. Now, even people who know me quite well may not know that I have actually for a very long time been a frustrated applied anthropologist. I admit that I’ve never done work for commercial organizations. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is my salary is from the States. I’ve always felt that it’s great that commercial organizations sponsor work, but they tend to sponsor work on things that are going to make money. And then what about research on things that aren’t going to make any money? Somebody else needs to be doing that. I work for the States; therefore, I’ve tended to more welfare-orientated work that is not actually going to make anybody any money.

The second reason is I suppose that I do have a fairly conservative view about this term ethnography , in that when I talk to commercial bodies, it’s tended to be that we’re interested in you doing ethnography—okay, but a quick one. The problem is for me, because I do believe in that holistic nature of ethnography—and that does take time—it is a bit like somebody coming and saying, “I want you to run a marathon, but just a short one.” It’s like but it’s a marathon, right? It’s not my fault that that’s kind of what it is.On the other hand, I’ve always wanted to do things that were fairly useful and applied. I have put in many grant proposals in applied anthropology. A long time ago I put in a proposal for something where we’re going to work with the computer department and look at things that could digitize body shape to help the elderly, because apparently the body shape changes. It’s not ideal, and they were becoming immobile. We thought that this could help in catalog, et cetera. Later on when I had done work in Jamaica on poverty and mobile phones, I wanted to do some work on kite marking 067 in search engines to do with things like medical information and educational information, which came out of that research. More recently, I put in an application in relation to the possibilities of sustainability in the blue jean industry.The point is that I never ever got one of those grants. It’s like I’m sitting there waving and saying, “I actually would quite like to do something useful for a change.” It always comes back to nah, you’re just, you know, not qualified. We don’t see any track record that you’ve ever done anything useful. Just be quiet and be an academic; that’s you. That has been frustrating.Now, two years ago something happened that changed my life forever. Yes, it was that much money. I got a huge grant. My benefactors, as Dickens would say, was actually something called the European Research Council (ERC). This is allowing me to do something that I always would have wanted to do—not on the applied side, but actually bringing out several possibilities of anthropology that I think are actually quite rare, because what we have in this five-year project is the possibility of carrying out nine simultaneous, full-length ethnographies, which for me means like 15 months plus. Right now, you have nine different people in nine places. There are two in China and the other countries are up there, which are all carrying out an ethnography. Now, the way this works is that at the kind of top end of it, we’re interested in looking at the uses and consequences of new media, of social media. But I developed a concept called polymedia, which is trying to suggest that you can’t study one media, unless you see it in the context of all the other media that the same people are using. And that then flows into the logic of ethnography which is that you can’t understand all the media, unless you understand everything else that’s going on in that society which might be an impertinent factor in seeing what’s going on in media usage. So with this team what we’re doing is that each month we’re actually able to say, “This month you’re carrying on your ethnography, but say think about issues of privacy or think about what happens in relation to politics, or think about kind of intimacy.” Each month everybody on the team, they write about it and we get to speak about it. It is highly collaborative ethnographic work. It means that anthropologists have always said that they were going to do comparative work, but actually it is pretty rare to be able to accomplish that.I also think that this is intended, or hoped, to fulfill certain aspirations in anthropology, because we have more and more ambiguous plans about the dissemination of this material.

Everybody is interested in social new media. It’s probably replaced the weather as the thing that we most talk about. If you are getting what we hope will be the best insights—the deepest insights that you are ever going to get on a topic like that—then why not tell people about it, as many people as possible. And then not only that, but the contacts are amazingly interesting. It’s also a snapshot of the transformations of the modern world. You’ve got people working in what is probably the biggest migration in the history of the world, the movement of the 120 rural Chinese workers to the factory system. You’ve got somebody looking at what happens when you put on these huge IT sectors in a site in India. You’ve got somebody looking at the rise of the new middle class in Brazil.Put these together, and it brings out the possibility of anthropology that I don’t understand, because what we do is just so interesting; yet, in a way it’s gotten less and less popular. It goes back partly I think to that obfuscation. I think that there is a possibility in this of trying to also reengage with the public when we think about new ways of dissemination; new ways of bringing out material to audiences who are not even necessarily academic audiences in the form of using, whether it’s TV or websites, et cetera. This is the kind of ambition behind that project, but I am not going to talk about that project, because it’s a five-year project.And when I realized that it was a five-year project, I suddenly thought to myself that I have never had this chance to do applied anthropology. If I took five months off at the beginning of this, would anyone even notice. Nah, I decided what the hell.A friend of mine is the director of a hospice a bit north of London. For a long time she had said, you know, if there was any possibility that I could come and do some work with her. At this point I said, “Sure, why not.” I’m useless at PowerPoints. I was actually supposed to point out that if you’re interested in the thing that I just talked about, it’s up there. Anyway, so Rose said to do some work. I said, “Well, obviously to fit into this, it needed to be work on how could hospice incorporate the true dynamics and transformations in the development of new social media. How could this change hospice, and how could it make it more effective.I wanted it to be absolutely a practical piece of work and just come up with some concrete suggestions that they could really do, or feasible suggestions. They paired me with somebody called Kimberley McLaughlin who is the senior manager at the hospice. We started working and we worked with about sixty people. Now, I really am a big fan of the hospice movement generally. It was something that was developed in the U.K. and has spread more generally. It’s about rethinking the relationship to people who have had to acknowledge that they are dying, and so it’s not medical. You’re not trying to cure people. You acknowledge that you are terminal, and the question is what then and what environment can there be for people in that situation.What I’m doing is mainly talking to people in their homes, because a few people actually in hospice, mainly hospices work within their own homes—and many are working with people with mainly cancer. It’s people who know that they have terminal cancer. It is also working to some degree with the hospice staff, but also obviously bringing to this, I hoped, a lot of previous ethnography on these various new media.We did the work and I came up with in the end, eleven proposals that I thought might be practical and could work for the hospice. I put them out simply on this report, Hospices: The Potential For New Media, which is on my staff page at UCL. I presented it to the hospice. That went well, and so then they’ve asked us to present actually next month in Bournemouth to the national Help the Hospices movements. They have a national conference, and then also we are to publish in an international ehospice journal.

I must admit at one level I’m just going “Yay, I can be useful!” They kind of like it. They think it could do things, and that’s kind of great because I had never kind of felt that before. And the kinds of things that I was suggesting, I can’t go through all eleven but I will just to give a couple of examples. Up to now it had seemed that in health services you tend to get a lot of attempts to create huge bespoke IT things that are usually taken out to corporations and brought in, which often then turn out to be inappropriate anyway. Whereas I think that we know that today the creativity, the action that is going on in IT, is with users and it is with implementations that are changing every few months. The suggestion here was that if people are going to do something exciting, it’s probably the grandkid of the patient who has found that people are losing their voice or they are losing other capabilities. There is an app, or there is another device that may be helpful.

The suggestion is why don’t the nurses who actually go out into the homes and see these things happening form a kind of national Facebook page or website where they can tell about the things that they have discovered, and so on a peer-to-peer basis that can be read by other nurses. If they see patients with similar conditions, then they can suggest a similar solution using whatever the technologies are at that moment because they’re always going to be changing. Another suggestion came from I’ve been doing a lot of work on webcam. We were looking at how does a webcam work between phone calls and visits; how can it be used visually for diagnostic purposes; how can it be used to save money and time by telling people whether, for example, they actually need to have a visit and so forth. They are trying to be just practical suggestions that I think the hospices could actually do—hopefully save money rather than cost money, et cetera.

However, when we go to that meeting next month and present, actually this is only going to be about a third of what we present. Where do the other two-thirds come from? The other two-thirds actually does take me back to this larger project, because I’m one of the nine ethnographers. Basically, my job is to do the ethnography, and in a small ordinary place just north of London. We tend to try and pick in all the sites, sites that are not particularly conspicuous themselves. They’re sort of large village-small town kinds of places. We call this place The Glades. It is actually twenty minutes outside of London. Something that I didn’t expect actually until I started working there was that although London is one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the world, twenty minutes out it is 1.5% migrant. I find that I’m doing an ethnography of the English. I wasn’t kind of into that, but fine; you do what you do. Its own town, Berkhamsted which is where the hospice is, is quite similar. It’s a pretty English place in terms of the makeup of the population, and so it also again is related to the issues that were coming up with the hospice work.

The question was could the larger ethnography, which is what I think usually delivers the goods, help with understanding the narrower issues that were coming up for the hospice work. In particular, the issue that really did shock us as we started to do this work—well, I’ll give you from actually the last person on the project that I went to see a week ago which was an 89-year-old. This 89-year-old, his grandmother is of the village, right? He had these wonderful stories about how his grandfather used to take the hay cart to London to sell the hay and would get blind drunk, but the horses knew their way home—or the pub where the poachers would sell their rabbits and all their vegetables—very much of the village, born there, educated there, lived there, et cetera. Most of his family dispersed, but he had several grandkids still in the village.

What we’re doing when we’re talking to people is we are going through each of the media and trying to see whom they connect with sequentially through the different media that they use. What is emerging from this is actually just how isolated and how lonely individuals are—even when they live in a village, a small little village. In fact, I guess as it turns out, his wife had just gone to hospital two days before. She had an accident in the garden when she had been out, and the only reason it was discovered was the neighbor was watching football and at the halftime went out to have a smoke and heard her in the garden. Otherwise, people don’t come around. One of the most extraordinary things is that kin are also being like this, like his grandkids visit him. I actually think it may be as little as once in every three months—same village.

What about all the people that he went to the pub with? What happens to all of them? Well, this degree of isolation and loneliness is something that we were coming upon again and again. The question is what are we learning here? Why is this happening? I think the first paper that I’ll probably write for this project will be called something like The Tragic Dénouement of English Sociality . Actually, I think that it is something that we can understand. One of the issues is that it is not, I will argue, to do with the things we would think it would be—urbanism, capitalism, industrialization—all of these kinds of things that are supposed to make people fragmented individuals.

It is actually to do with the age-old tradition of Englishness. Let me explain it. What I am discovering in this work is that everybody says that this village is a very, very friendly village. They are not exactly exaggerating, because it is. You go out there and people chat in the shops. They chat over the fence. They chat in the pub. You greet each other. Okay, it still has that. Also, the people are very generous. They are very philanthropic. The hospice where I’m working has a thousand volunteers and it is only one in the region. The amount of volunteering is incredible—very generous, very friendly.

But the same people that do that are also very respectful of people’s privacy, and particularly domestic privacy. You don’t actually go into somebody’s house unless you both have got young kids, and you don’t intrude, et cetera. What happened again and again is we would say to him, “Do you get support in the village?” I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard the same words. “Oh, yeah, if you ask anyone around here for help, they would give it to you.” And then we say, “Have you asked anybody for help ever?” Never, okay? They are also reticent. They don’t ask and people don’t proactively give, and that turns out to be not of the problem. You can get people in a village who for traditional reasons turn out to be extremely isolated, and indeed lonely.

Now, that turns out to be really important when it came to the interpretation of what was going on in relation to the hospice research. Again, I’ll just give you a couple of examples. One, there is a debate at the moment based around the work of somebody called Tony Walter, who developed the Center for Death and Society in Bath, one of the best sociologists who works in this area. One of the things he is suggesting is that hospice has done fantastic work, but they need to start limiting themselves, because we need to respect the way that people should be supported, as it were, organically in communities. If you just over-institutionalize, you would actually damage that kind of support. What my work is showing is that that is utterly a mistake. There isn’t a community that functions in that way. You cannot assume it, and actually again and again, you can see it’s the hospice that is creating conditions of the community, for example, like for careers who can get together because they’re talking about the same kind of thing. It sounds right, but it’s wrong.

Another area, which again completely confused me, because also in looking at the impact of new media we also tried to look at the barriers to the adoption of these media inside the organization itself—inside the hospice and the health service. I found the relationship to media in some ways strange. I mean, particularly strange, because I remember going to somebody and basically explaining that all of the communication between the hospice and the health service is actually by fax. And then he said, “I spend about ten percent of each day on the fax.” You’re listening to this and thinking the fax? What the hell? And then you go deep, and this is not like some time ago; this is now. I just heard this. As you go into it, you realize that this is all part of a whole structure that is within the health services generally.

It’s to do with issues of confidentiality. There were ideas about confidentiality such that there is a real prohibition in allowing medical information to be transferred even to other medics. The doctors don’t know the results of things that they are supposed to be treating, because it is done in a different section. The information is not being passed, and people are terrified of passing it on. I’ve got lots of different kinds of information on that, but one thing I would say is that patients themselves said, “This is really what causes harm to patients in the moment in this kind of situation, in that they say that nobody seems to know what I’ve told the other person.” I was talking to somebody last night, and they were saying just how different the situation is in the U.S. Now, I suspect, I don’t know how you would demonstrate this, but I suspect that this is actually also this sort of fetishism around respect for privacy. It actually is also coming out of that same issue around Englishness.

One of the points that I hope will be clear from that, is that there has been a tendency for some to think that this 15-month ethnography sort of thing—well, yes, if you’re going to Amazonia or Melanesia, I suppose that you need that. But the English studying the English and the Americans studying the Americans—whatever—surely we know. Anthropologists always said, and I hope that this helps to confirm that we really don’t. This is a pretty bizarre population, this English, and I am only just starting to understand them. It wasn’t just them. The last thing that I was doing before this project was two books on blue jeans. It’s the same point. Who doesn’t wear blue jeans, right?

It was realizing that actually I couldn’t find anybody that had a plausible explanation for why we wear blue jeans. The nearer it is to you, the less we seem to understand what is going on—which is why it took an ethnography to try and answer that question about blue jeans. That in a sense is the premise behind what we keep insisting on doing, the why of why we do this kind of ethnography. The main results would only be understandable in terms of that much larger context and engagement. The intention today was to show how you could go from that kind of engagement out towards wider and larger issues. At one level, what you’ve got is a strange position. I’m actually working with the most incredible developments of new technological capacities, but I am doing it in the context of people who are dying; people who are losing all sorts of capacities; that know that sooner rather than later that is going to end up being an object, a body that we burn or we bury. What do we learn from that very radical position?

The person that I’m using as part of the inspiration for this is not an anthropologist, but he did write a book called An Anthropologist on Mars and the other one there. I think that a lot of you will know the work of Oliver Sacks. He is very popular. I found Oliver Sacks very useful here, because if you read books like that, you find that there is a kind of pattern to the way that he writes. Each of these cases starts where you are introduced to somebody who is really interesting and a really interesting personality where you get to sort of know them a bit. And then either because of a birth issue or a disease or an accident, something goes tragically wrong. What becomes astonishing is to realize how we depend upon technology, like the nervous system. Things that we think of as quintessentially human—emotion, love, empathy—get turned on or get turned off if these technologies are on or off.

And then what Oliver Sacks does is that he shows that technological dependency which we all have but don’t like to come across until we have to, but then brings it back into the wider context. And then usually the last third is about beauty and the soul. The idea is that we get back to an acknowledgement of humanity, but also with a double acknowledgement of that role of technology. Now, Sacks can write like that because the technology he is talking about is biological. Nobody is going to deny that that is integral to who we are. The problem is that the technologies we are tending to deal with are external and they change. But from the point of view of anthropology they are surely just as integral. We define humanity in terms of things like relationships. We are looking at things like communication. We will be looking at the relationship to these external forms of technology. But then when you look at the way that academics tend to write about that relationship between humanity and technology, it’s very different.

I would say that gross characterization or whatever—it’s a short paper—there are two flavors that this comes in: conservative and futuristic. Conservative tends to be books like Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. Once upon a time we all had nice and proper social communications, et cetera. Now, because of the rise of various technologies which have gotten in the way and mediated—made it less authentic, less social, less real, et cetera—it’s a very popular view that somehow we are losing it because of the rise of new technologies. Every technology that comes up—Facebook or whatever—we hear this all the time. The other tends to be the sort of futuristic which says that again, it’s something that challenges what we think of as humanity, but this time it is okay, because we are all going to become posthuman, transhuman, or cyborgian or some other rubbish—and that is what technology is going to do. If it hasn’t already done it, it’s going to do it. Both of these positions I would argue are deluded. The delusion consists of thinking that human beings get more or less mediated in things like communication.

One of the things that we tried to do in the introduction to this book, Digital Anthropology, is really to challenge a lot of those kinds of assumptions. We are basically saying that actually, no, they seem to think that you have two tribal people sitting in a field talking. That is kind of the authentic and unmediated communication. The whole of anthropology says that it is not. It is two people—mother, brother, talking to sisters with complex etiquettes and conventions and rules and all of the rest of it—which really constrain what can be said. They are no less mediated than two people on Facebook. It is a different kind of mediation. We need to kind of pull back and realize that we need to understand technology communications and technology, again as this kind of more integral relationship and not like that. I think the problem is basically that they are working with the wrong idea of what it even is to be a human being when they’re working with this human-to-external, as opposed to Sacks’ human-to-internal.

Maybe you need to rethink what we mean by people, by humanity. A start towards trying to rethink this in a way that we don’t end up with those kinds of two flavors, but something else. It is attempted in this book Webcam, which I did with Jolynna Sinanan and should be coming out hopefully in February. We’re proofreading, which means that it’s going to have lots of mistakes. The conclusion to that book, we produced something we called A Theory of Attainment. What we want to argue I suppose is best illustrated—if I get you some of the content of the book, right?

The first chapter in that book, it’s a book about people that you are Skyping, FaceTime or whatever. We’re looking at people through the screen. You would think that the first chapter would be about their relationship to other people, but it isn’t. What we find is that when people are on Skype there is a little box in the corner. That little box in the corner has got them in it. It turns out that that is a pretty interesting relationship, a particularly interesting relationship. Why? It is because as we started to investigate we realized something, I think a bit astonishing really, which is we are all pretty obsessed with how we’re going to look to other people. I studied clothing, right? Nobody can deny the self-obsession about “how do I look” in front of other people.

Up until now what have we got? We have got photographs of ourselves. We have got mirrors. Somebody can video you. You see yourself, but you tend to see yourself as posed to or performing to a particular medium. The thing about going on Skype, so you have an hour’s conversation. It’s hard to keep that up for more than ten minutes. After a while you actually relax into how you normally would be—and always have been in the past—in fact in front of other people. It’s the first time that you’ve ever seen it, right? Usually, it’s embarrassing because it’s not what we thought that it was.

Now, that is the first time in human history I would argue that we routinely see how we routinely are to other people. But then think about what that means in terms of this theorization. Are we going to say what is a human being? Is a human being the frustrated being who would like to have seen that, but just didn’t previously have the technology in order to see it? Are we going to say that not only do we want to see that, but now that we can see that, how does that change what it means to be a human being? I think that all of the chapters in this book try in different ways—looking at intimacy and looking at location—to make the same basic point.

The problem is that our understanding of what being a human being is has tended to be conservative. It’s just what we all happen to have been in the past, or happen to be now. But if you are studying the dynamics of these technologies and you don’t want to end up talking about wretched post-human or whatever, you want to understand that integrity in the same way as Sacks. Then actually you need a theory of humanity, but that feels like a theory of latency. We could be like that if we had this technology. One day 200 years from now when we invent that, we will become different again, but that doesn’t mean that we are not human because we are simply not what we were before.

My argument would then be that we need to rethink both what we think about humanity and what we think about technology, if we are going to allow what we as anthropologists need, which is an understanding of these external technologies, to be congruent with what people like Sacks are trying to say. You can understand that dependency, but actually it doesn’t mean you are kind of less human. It is those ideas that I think are really powerful when going back to this situation, of the Juxt position between this incredible proliferation of new possibilities of media in the context of people that are actually dying, and that are actually losing those capacities.

Just to give you two brief examples of the kind of work that we’re looking at—Cowell. Cowell was a nurse and always liked to educate people about medical issues, et cetera. The day that she was confirmed as terminal, her son put her on Facebook which she had never been on before. She took to it. She transformed Facebook really into something more like an almost daily blog in which she started to put both about the terrible things—the tubes that are forced down your throat and the pain—but also the doctors told her not to go on holiday. Hell, she had a holiday in Spain. I saw her ten days before she died. One thing she was very clear about was that what Facebook had done was enabled her to transform this experience into something that actually she felt could educate people on a topic that they don’t like normally to talk about, which is “what is it like to be dying?” And then also brought family together and had all sorts of positives. There were other examples. I can think of a 90-year-old, I mean, like giddy as a teenager with her new iPad—you know, a thousand photos within a few weeks terrorizing her relatives using FaceTime, et cetera.

There is also the negative. I see more people in this work who would probably say that one of the few saving graces of the fact that they are going to die, is that finally people will stop trying to get them to take on these wretched new technologies that they really, really have never wanted to use, right? Finally, it’s recognized that I am never going to have to use these things. Even they recognize that their lack of that capacity exacerbates the sense that yes, this is a stage in which you lose certain capacities that were otherwise part of what you were.

This brings us back I think to the context of hospice and what one learns from doing a) long-term ethnography, but also in this case, applied anthropology. The promise was that applied anthropology could be the root to rethinking major issues and concepts, which is what I am trying to do. We have got a) the development of A Theory of Attainment that tries to think through what we mean by being human in relation to this technology. We also I think in the title try to attain humanity. Because if you are in this context you cannot be engaged hopefully without an empathetic and sympathetic relationship to the tragedy of your informants in that situation, which again is part and parcel of what anthropology has always tried to strive for.

But I think that there is a third element. That third element comes really from learning from the hospice itself. I think that what the hospice is, the hospice is not any kind of new technology. In a way, the hospice is a bit closer to what we might hope anthropology would do. It is a transformation in perspective. Before the hospice the tendency was to, as it were, write off people during that stage. We talk about, you know, oh we should invest in our children. They are going to live a long time, but do you invest in somebody who is dying? The hospice turned around and said, “We need to break out of this. We need to stop the delusion that people are going to get better. We take them out of medicine.” One thing in all of the work I’ve ever done with the hospice patients—this would be interesting for U.S. people in that nobody has ever mentioned money. It’s all free. We create an environment which respects this particular period of life and makes it the best we can. Ros Taylor, who is my kind of heroine in this, who is the director of the hospice, if you listen to her and the things she does, she specializes in things like very late marriages or the exhibition that you always wanted to have but never did. It is that kind of attitude as to what is going on here.

I think that what that encapsulates really is how it is possible through whether it’s an ethnographic, but I would say an anthropological engagement, trying empathetically to think about conditions of life, both theoretically and in practice, that it is possible to radically changes things that are going on—and understand them a good deal better. I think that it is really above all, this applied research with the hospice that I hope allows for the project to match the title which is of attaining humanity.

[Moderator]: I’m just going to open it straight up to the floor, other than to say, “Thank you so much.” That was a very powerful way to end the day. Even though you’re not aware, it actually tapped into a lot of what has been discussed over the last couple of days, and so wonderfully done. Questions? Comments?

Q. I just wanted to add—sorry. I just wanted to say that thinking about hospices and being an anthropologist, I think the great thing about hospices is that they think of the patients as not just one person, but a network of friends and family and people who are affected beyond that one person.

[Danny Miller]: Yes, I think the way that our anthropology has migrated, it goes back to my last point about learning from the hospice. When I started going in, I was thinking that oh, I’m just looking at the communication between the hospice to patients. And then I realized, as you’ve just said, actually the hospice was way ahead of me. It does think in terms of this wide network, which is why when I finished that initial piece of work, I decided that I would continue. I am now still working with the hospice where I do a day a week with them. The work that we are doing now is actually in relation to the hospice itself; it is in relation to patients’ other relationships.

That is where I say that we go through each media and try and understand whom they are connected with, and how those people do or do not help, which also turns out to be in a sense right. If you think about the logic of what I was saying, you don’t really want to be with somebody who is dying and sort of imply that they are lonelier; that they are more isolated; less loved by their family than you otherwise might think. How then would you actually do such work sensitively? The answer is almost fortuitously, because we have this approach which simply takes it where we ask face-to-face; we ask about letters; we ask about landlines and we ask about emails,—we can get this information without actually being aware that those are the kinds of conclusions that you might draw, but it is very much about this wider sociality.

Q. [John Kohn], and I am also an anthropologist based in London. I am interested a little bit about what you mentioned around your role as an academic and the interface between academia and the state, and then the commercial world. I did a Ph.D. at Goldsmiths in anthropology, but probably about 10-12 years ago had issues working within the commercial world as an anthropologist. Do you think that around collaboration there could be more space where you could see an interface between commercial companies and academic institutions? I know that they happen already at Goldsmiths, but not necessarily within anthropology.

[Danny Miller]: EPIC as I understand it, that is what it’s about—right? This is the place where basically you try and precisely foster that interface. Now, if I had a problem with that in principle, I wouldn’t be speaking here. Actually, what I would argue is that anthropology should be more engaged. The problem that I have is with a bunch of academics who have kind of lost it in terms of knowing in a sense in some ways what is going on in areas like commerce and in the States. Having said that, I would never be somebody who just had this generalization that oh, it’s fine to work with commerce, or it’s fine or not fine to work with the States. I would have thought that any form of anthropological engagement is subject to the same issues, and is subject to the same criteria that would be the case in whatever you are engaged, which include ethical criteria.

In other words, most of the commercial side that I’m interested in is around new media. I actually really have a pretty positive view about the impact of new media. I work mainly on things like poverty, et cetera—hell, this stuff does people good in the main with problems, but I am dealing with that kind of thing. It is an area of commerce that I am actually very comfortable with. I have never done any work for any of the companies, because they have never been interested in the kind of work that I would do—long-term fieldwork. But if it had transpired I would have done it.

There is a whole lot of companies that I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole and a lot more—would not have anything to do with and I’m not particularly wanting to meet the people that are working with them—because I think they stink, you know? I think that is a judgment on any kind of area of life that you might otherwise be engaged in. The same could be true of state institutions. There are state institutions that I would feel comfortable with, and there are state institutions that again I would steer clear of. The same with anthropology, the same with anything.

I think that yes, there should be more engagement in general. Yes, anthropology has a huge amount to offer, which I think is what EPIC is about. The more that it can be channeled into what anthropology I think does best, which is this full-on long-term ethnographic engagement to my mind the better. The more that it is released from kind of simplistic notions of method to actually being sensitive to the different ways in which you have to engage the populations the better. I am an academic anthropologist in that sense. I think that there is a better way in which the academic and nonacademic can be engaged. Having said that, I hope people stand by the judgments—if they don’t, their peers will certainly tell them—with regard to whom they do, what they do, whom they help, what they help, why they do, et cetera.

Q. I wanted to take you back to the issue that you mentioned of isolation not being a function of them becoming isolated; that it is they always have been isolated. Well, okay, let me clarify when I say this, right? You were suggesting that there is no sudden crisis of their isolation and loneliness due to say the Internet arriving and now they are all isolated. But it does imply, and I don’t think that this is what you intend, but it does imply that perhaps they had always been isolated—which I don’t think is true, nor do I think you would argue that. Is there something else going on? Is there a concomitant variable that we should consider that you have discovered? Perhaps, for example, the shrinking of the family size, or some other issue around the urbanization of youth, etc.?

[Danny Miller]: The complexity of the question, I didn’t want to do it in such a small paper. Of course, the answer to that cannot just be ethnographic, because it’s also historical. It has to be an investigation into how English sociality was a century ago and two centuries ago—not just now. Fortunately, there is a lot of material on precisely that issue. Now, what I am arguing is obviously not things like the diminishment of the family. Actually, we now have grandparents where in the old days we largely didn’t. The family has expanded; although, there has been more mobility certainly in terms of people leaving, et cetera. I would argue, did agree that it is not that people were isolated for most of their life. This isolation really occurs because of what I’m talking about and when you could go to the pub. When people could be on the outside, they were absolutely not isolated. It is a very friendly village. It is still a very friendly village.

The isolation comes when you are based only in your own home. It comes out of this issue around domestic space. And it comes out of an issue also about what you might call a respectfulness for the individual. Now, it turns out that actually this has been a difference between Englishness and a lot of other countries for a very long time. Think about the fact that the English, for example, are free to inherit any way they like. You can’t do that in continental Europe. There is a whole history of family relations. The historical work started with a guy called Lee Owen Stone and then an anthropologist called Allen McFarlane who wrote a book called The Origins of English Individualism, which was a very important intervention. He was the first person who really said that there is nothing new about this. This particular form of individualism and privacy goes back centuries. Since then there have been more, I would say, nuanced discussions about it.

In general, from what I can see from the combination of ethnography and history, I reaffirm what I said. I think that the key to this is not as most social science—social science in some ways is a very one track narrative. Read Durkheim, Simmel, Weber, Marx and it’s all about once upon a time we had these communities and genuine kinds of social interactions, and then comes urbanism and capitalism and all the rest of it. We kind of lost it into fragmented divisions. It is a very repeated kind of set of arguments. At one level I am deliberately being provocative, as it were, because I am actually saying, “Well, what if actually no? What if the key to this is something that actually goes back a very long way and it’s quite specific to Englishness? I am going to follow that. I’m sure that that will provoke arguments, but that is the line—yes, it was what you heard.

Q. Thank you very much for your talk. I have never heard you speak before, and it was a great pleasure. I wanted to go back to the prior conversation about applied work. I am wondering about the tremendous value that you attribute to applied work, and how you talked about it in such a funny and eloquent way; yet, the distinction that you are making between that and something that you call “my work.” I am wondering whether or not you can sustain such a degree of value in such separate spaces, and why they don’t need to come together more directly and more actively in your career and agenda.

[Danny Miller]: Yes, I am happy with the question, because I think it does help me to clarify it. Really, what I was trying to do at the beginning was if you like, stereotype. I think there is a tendency for people to talk in that very dualistic way. Yes, I was joking about it at the beginning, but it was implying essentially that academic work never does anything useful. I kind of would like to think that the other work that I have done for the rest of my life might possibly actually have some kind of application to something somewhere. I’m probably wrong, but it would be nice to think that. But then it is also the other way round. People giving papers here are obviously dealing with theory. They are dealing with analysis. They are highly academic, and they have PhDs in anthropology, et cetera. The stereotype and dualism is not a good not, and it is not helping us any.

Actually, the intention of this talk was precisely to help dissolve it. That is why in a sense the beginning was parodying the dualism, and by the end I was trying to argue something in which I don’t think at the end of it you could have said whether this is applied, is this academic, or is there any sense in such a distinction by the end of this paper. Surely not. I was trying to do it by example, in that I don’t think the distinction has served us very well. I think that a more kind of relaxed and equal relationship between anthropologists in whatever they happen to be surely would be beneficial.

Q. Just quickly, but it is a real distinction. It is one that is institutionalized. It is one that influences work that happens in both contexts very much today, and whether or not relationships can be forged, where they can be forged and under what conditions.

[Danny Miller]: Yes, in the context that presumably is trying in different ways—this is EPIC. As I understand it, this is the kind of format, the forum that is trying to look for that engagement. I am just here to try and support that. I don’t deny that it is a problem. I can see that it exists. It is not going to change overnight. I think that there are—how should I put it—other differences that are occluded by making it just one.

For example, people will use the term ethnography here in a way that anthropologists wouldn’t. Am I saying that that is okay for an anthropologist, and that we would accept that as anthropology, or even for that matter as anthropological ethnography? No, we wouldn’t. In a sense, to me that is actually a slightly more profound issue as to what we regard as the benefits of what anthropology has to offer and how you retain that. After a bit, I don’t know if you noticed, but I started using the term engaged work . To me that is a better term, not applied but engaged. In a sense, it was a bit of a kind of critique of why I’m describing sometimes theoretical work as increasingly disengaged. No, there are plenty of things to argue about. I assure you that even if people work together in this one space, there are a million different things that we will happily disagree about that are incompatible; that will represent different ends of the spectrum and are relevant to the context in which people work—whether it’s institutional, whether it is corporate, academic, et cetera. What I think that we are agreed on is simply some kind of academic where it is applied, that we can get beyond.


[Danny Miller]: Well, it is an interesting question, because I think that several things follow from it. It is not at all simple. Would I work in a country that I didn’t like and I thought had a problematic political system? Would I work with people I couldn’t stand? Now, the funny thing is at one level anthropology was set up to do exactly that. The idea in anthropology is about empathy. We should be working with the people we loathe, the systems we detest and in those areas, because we couldn’t imagine somebody like that. Why would a person be that awful, right? Actually, we need to know. It is a very important part of anthropology. If we just worked with people we kind of felt a natural empathy with that we were sympathetic towards and that were our kind of people, we really wouldn’t be pushing any kind of boundaries here. Yes, I actually do encourage students quite specifically to work with people they cannot stand. In other words, they can’t understand how it is that that is like that and that people would do that.

The reason is a complex question. I think on the one hand, you do want to stay by that notion of an empathetic understanding of people you really can’t understand at all. Their values are so different from your own. It is a really important part of what anthropology I think offers, because most people will never do that. They will simply tell you how horrible these people are—this institution is—but they won’t help you to understand how people believe because these people usually do believe that they are actually in the right; that they are doing good things, and this is how the world should be. That is what we are set up to understand, is that empathy is the foundation of anthropological engagement.

The reason that it is complex in this context, I would have thought, is that if you are engaged with that state or that company or those people in a way that facilitates the thing that they are doing that you despise—that presumably is the boundary you want to draw. I want to understand them better. I want to work out how they can be like that and do that, but I don’t actually want to help do it. I think it is possible to retain that sense of distinction. I said that I wouldn’t work on companies that stink; I just wouldn’t work for companies that stink. Actually, I love to work on companies that stink, and I think that we should all. To me that is the distinction that would have to be made in terms of what you do.

Q. First of all, I am a researcher for Skype. You are welcome to come and talk to us anytime. Did you notice any change in people’s attitudes towards adopting technology when they come into the hospice? Did they perhaps lose some inhibitions about taking on new things?

[Danny Miller]: I think that I wouldn’t want to generalize about it. Coming into the hospice is not just coming into the hospice. It is around a whole lot of changes in your life that are to do with the acceptance that you are terminal, and you are not going to survive this disease. That is the wider context for any changes in people’s outlook on what they will and will not do. If I were to sort of generalize, I would say that it is probably more common in that situation that people take the stance that I mentioned earlier in the paper, which is that the one saving grace of this is that I don’t have to pretend anymore that I want some flaming computer or smartphone or any other technology. It is certainly for a lot of people who really didn’t want to do this anyway, it kind of tends to confirm that now I just don’t have to. There isn’t a point.

However remember the example of the nurse whose life was transformed by adopting a new technology, or the 90-year-old. I think that in respect to the question, it is certainly possible that something that is so traumatic in terms of rethinking who you are and what life is, it is going to have repercussions for the way that you think about the various technologies around you. It is not a case of either you accept them all, or you reject them all. You would find cases of both, and both would be entirely comprehensive within the context of that change in how you see life.

Q. I also want to thank you. It was great to hear your talk. I think that you have opened up so many elements, maybe pulling from some of the things that Maria was asking and all these combinations that infuse the tensions in the work that we do as applied anthropologists, and applied ethnographers in these very complicit and challenging worlds that we operate.

I wanted to go back to a question that actually I was thinking that Sam might have asked this, because I know this is something that she is interested in, too, in that I thought there was a second and sort of another text to your talk—in the context of what you were talking about the hospice area where you focused on connectivity questions and people’s relationships. I thought that there was also an element of temporality and in recognizing, because part of what the hospices do is that they recognize the trajectories of life. They honor that one enters new phases, and that we can honor that rather than trying to resist it and do other things.

This, of course, then mirrors what anthropologists have historically done, which is that we time our work so that we follow the flows and the times—that need to be there for the seasons and these sorts of things. This then leads back to the question and the tensions around what would count as the work that we can do effectively when we are accountable in business circumstances to inform them and to do things for them. The specific question is when you said that you supported, but you would also like to see it go towards the full-on ethnography—what is the threshold? How does one know when that full-on ethnography is? I’m thinking that your answer is partly because of time, and then how do we deal with the constraints when we don’t have time, so to speak, or we’re working under different time regimes?

[Danny Miller]: I recognize that that is kind of fundamental, I imagine, to a lot of the discussion here. What you have at one level is what sounds like an ideal, and the other is the constraints. The first point that I would make—I’m talking about this tomorrow I think in the session that [Mr. Farner] is running about education—is that if you are training people in anthropology, you want people to understand why there is such an ideal that is characterized by this full-on, this 15 months. Why it is that again and again you find people living in a community trying to engage that community, and discovering only in the last three months having been there for a year that things are totally different from what they previously thought; that it just takes a long time. And then why it is they discover towards the end of that period that factors that they never would have thought were relevant—you know, that they are working in some kind of economic structure and they discover that actually it’s to do with processism or something else that turns out to be critical. It is not something that they ever would have encountered if they had been narrowly focused.

The understanding of anthropology ethnography I would say is certainly not just time. It is time, but it also breadth, that holism. The time allows you to engage with such a wide parameter of potentially important aspects of life that you wouldn’t otherwise normally be able to do. The time gives you the breadth. It is also I would think, if you like, the theory. I said that I didn’t like a lot of what is going on in theory at the moment, but there was an awful lot that has gone on in the past that I do like.

Now, all of those things represent what you would want to do. I think that there is a loss if you can’t do them. That is why I am very happy at the moment to be doing nine simultaneous full-on. But what if you can’t? Then the answer obviously is that everybody, or a lot of people here, are engaged in different kinds of compromise. They may have those ideals, but people aren’t going to pay them for that kind of length of time or they have other constraints, et cetera. I think that the issue in part is that one, and I don‘t like semantics at all. I usually try and avoid it, but there is something about this term ethnography . I suppose what I have tended to feel coming out of academic anthropology is that yes, I would like to be able to compromise and be just sort of prissy about oh, unless you’re really pure and wonderful and doing exactly the ideal—I wouldn’t want to be like that. I would want to respect the different ways that people do those compromises. For example, you may do a long period of work, and then later on you can do much shorter periods of work on the same community. There are lots of ways that you might engage in shorter term things.

Having said that, I also do feel that a point is reached at which this is so far from anything that we understood in anthropology as actually the benefits of that kind of perspective on social life that merely using the term is a problem. It may actually devalue it, you know, where if people offer that they can do this in three weeks, and so then why the hell is anybody going to support anybody doing it for 15 months? There is actually a point at which you want to say that no, that is not what we are talking about here. That is not anthropological. It is not what we mean by ethnography. It is not going to produce, or we think that it is very unlikely that it is going to produce what you want out of it—when you have been told that there is this thing called ethnography that has value for that reason.

In the end, yes, we have issues that are going to be fought over and discussed, I imagine, indeterminately in a context like this and over where you see those kinds of boundaries. I would just hope that that is sympathetically drawn to where you respect people’s constraints. On the other hand you also say, you know, come off it. That is just not what we said it would be. If you just go around hawking this as though it is, it does nobody any good. Let’s kind of use other terms for some of these other kinds of forms of inquiry for which they have their own validity. They do what they do, but they ain’t what we meant by ethnography.

[Moderator]: I unfortunately sort of need to bring it to a close, because we haven’t done a half marathon today; we have done a whole marathon. It just leads me to say that I was profoundly happy to have you. I am doubly profoundly happy that we got you. Thank you so much. [APPLAUSE] And a reminder that Danny will be here for Stefana Broadbent’s panel, which will probably touch on many of these issues tomorrow afternoon.