Tracing recent ethnographical accounts in IR
James Clifford (1986), among others, has warned scholars that a commitment to ethnography often translates to an academic career lived on the margins, in many disciplines. In his view, ethnography is inherently interdisciplinary in nature, requires a style of writing that may not always be perceived as scholarly, and may come with doubts about the overall contribution of such work in view of an emancipatory research goal (Clifford 1986:7–13). This warning has not resonated much in IR. Whether through the recent scholarship associated with practice-focused research, autoethnography or multi-sited studies, IR’s plural engagement with ethnography is mostly limited to a commitment to bringing representations of everyday life into the study of world politics. It also speaks of a political and ethical commitment to move away from the dominant state-centrist gaze in order to engage more directly with the international experiences of various groups on their own terms, in their structural relations with state and with global processes. This section documents how ethnography has been used recently in IR through three vignettes intended to give a sense of its specificity, while highlighting some parallels with questions present in other fields, especially social anthropology.
In contrast to the vast majority of studies coming out of mainstream IR, critical scholarship in the field has identified, to various degrees, some value in utilising ethnography. In the various studies focusing on international practices, rather than theories or concepts, as a start to an academic inquiry, ethnography provides access to a mode of knowledge that was previously under-appreciated. From the scholarship associated with the practice turn to the scholarship associated with the aesthetic turn, IR’s plural engagement with ethnography speaks to disciplinary disagreements over whether it is better understood as a method, among others, to collect new data or a unique methodology, with its own rules and standards.
The practice turn in IR scholarship, influenced by the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Bruno Latour, has steadily increased in importance since the early 2000s as a starting point for focusing on everyday actions and unquestioned common senses of the international. As such, it advocates for methodological plurality and co-existence in the study of world politics in order for mainstream theoretical approaches to be complemented by studies focused on specific material realities, perceptions and habits; hence, looking at “world politics through the lens of its manifold practices” (Adler and Pouliot 2011:3). The focus is on practices like diplomacy rather than on actors like states, as practices are understood as “competent performances” that are “socially meaningful patterns of action which, in being performed more or less competently, simultaneously embody, act out, and possibly reify background knowledge and discourse in and on the material world” (Adler and Pouliot 2011:6).
In this view, ethnography finds a role in and contribution to the study of IR, as it is seen as a methodology that can help us better understand the unfolding of IR practices, especially when performed by practitioners in the field. For instance, scholarship associated with the Paris School in critical security studies is part of this practice turn in IR, and has demonstrated how the globalisation of insecurity since 2001 can be better conceptualised by starting from the various changes in international practices. These include increased international professional collaborations in various fields relating to international security, such as surveillance, law enforcement and the military, and the ways in which related practitioners have developed new justifications, networks and resources to adapt to what is seen as a new security landscape. As Didier Bigo (2005:2) indicates:
since September 11th, 2001, the Western political world and the world of security ‘experts’ are turned to in a frenetic need to explain the relationships between domestic security and external defence, in a context of global insecurity that is neither discussed nor questioned (author’s translation from French).
In the context of Western liberal democracies, Bigo makes it clear that a better comprehension of the perspectives and practices of these security professionals will help us understand new tendencies in how international security is conceived, planned, implemented and experienced. This approach is in line with other IR scholars associated with the practice turn and for whom greater use of ethnographic accounts, among other research methods, helps redefine IR’s objects of study, realign theory and practice, and open up new avenues for a more inclusive and holistic research agenda (see Cornut 2014; Kuus 2013).
Nonetheless, Adler and Pouliot (2011) limit their understanding of international practices to a criterion of competency, which is meant to help define the field of IR as Alexander Wendt (1992) did in the 1990s when he proposed a social constructivist framework for IR that does not question the existence of states. However, international practices are not limited to practitioners of the international, as many other actors get involved in matters and events with an international dimension, from theatre productions to social movements and global protests. IR scholars associated with the aesthetic turn have also deployed ethnography as a way to document marginalised perspectives and actions towards the international realm. By focusing on key everyday life practices and moments, the aim is to unpack sites of struggle, compliance and production of IR, no matter who the practitioner is. For instance, an edited volume directed by Edkins and Kear (2013) examines the intersection of international politics and performance to go beyond the “performance dynamics of politics” in order “to think them together as modes and practices of aesthetic politics”. Whether it is through how theatrical performances bring visibility to silences in the practice of IR, how the perspective of rioters in 2011 in the United Kingdom inform debates over privacy laws, or how the staging of political speeches and protests work to reproduce international spaces, such a collection raises the question of who is competent enough to add their voice to a more complete understanding of IR practices. It also puts everyday moments, anecdotal events and banal groupings to the radar of those documenting and explaining the various rhythms of international politics.
Besides merely combining interviews and observations, the type of inquiry privileged by scholars of the aesthetic turn involves a vast engagement with ethnographic methods, both in terms of the type of writing used and how one engages fully with the “sensory aspects of perception” (Shapiro 2013:30). As Michael Shapiro (2013:31) notes, such studies put representations and perceptions of various actors front and centre, and are designed to document and analyse these worldviews through techniques that are under-utilised in IR, such as arts-based and event-specific participatory methods. For most IR scholars, this focus requires not only new types of methodological engagement, but also a re-definition of the “writing-inquiry relationships” and “writing as method”, to something closer to the discussions of writing and representing results found in other disciplines (see Clifford 1986; Vrasti 2008). For example, Paul Dwyer documents and explains the role of Australia in the Bougainville civil war through a theatre project. Coined a photoplay, this documentary performance is a way to recoup and tell oral history material about this series of historical events (Dwyer, 2013:119). Where art meets international politics, Dwyer mixes in autoethnographical and autobiographical accounts of his life experiences in Bougainville, as he also revisits parts of his own heritage and the collective memory he can tap into as the basis for knowledge production and transmission about this international conflict. He explains his decision as follows:
My goal has been not so much, or not simply, to ‘collect’ the stories of Bougainvillean people and then to speak for them; rather, by digging up stories from my own family history and exploring just a few points of contact with the stories of Bougainvillean families, I have aimed to ‘speak nearby’ in an act of intimacy and solidarity (Dwyer 2013:114).
When speaking of utilising his own perspective to relate to the ethnographical accounts at hand, Dwyer joins others associated with the aesthetic turn in deploying ethnography for academic purposes, far away from how it is considered by proponents of the practice turn.
As in other disciplines (see, for instance, in sociology: Ellis 2004; Smith 2005; Tavory and Timmermans 2014), one of the main debates arising from its distinct deployment is whether ethnography is just one among other methods for collecting new data, or a unique methodology with its own rules and standards. In IR, a conversation between two doctoral students, Rantacore (2010) and Vrasti (2010), sums up how the debate generally unfolds in the field. Opposing Vrasti’s claim that there is a right way to conduct ethnography, Rantacore, 2010 argues that ethnography is only one “particular mode of access” among others that reinforces IR’s goal “to assemble data, [and] to compose it in a way that is useful to our community of practice”.
Vrasti (2010:85) responds to this critique by highlighting how integrating ethnography as merely a method into IR’s knowledge production machine is to misunderstand what ethnography is and does:
Rancatore’s preoccupation with research design seems to imply that, if only ethnography conformed to the explanatory ambitions of social science research, it would obtain ‘parental approval’ from IR… Ethnography cannot be included in the disciplinary toolbox because it rejects the onto-epistemological assumptions that make IR possible in the first place.
In her view, ethnography is not just a method, and, when properly applied as a methodology, it defies the abstractions on which IR as a field is built. It also includes “language competency, cultural sensibility and social etiquette” (Vrasti 2010:83), all elements of fieldwork that are usually under-valued in IR training (see also Agathangelou and Ling 2004).
For Aradau and Huysmans (2014:606), this confusion about what ethnography is in IR comes from the dominance of ontological and epistemological debates in its recent disciplinary history:
Understanding methods as connecting and assembling of ontology, epistemology, concept development, techniques of data gathering and worlds – rather than simply being the expression of ontological and epistemological choices – is an important step.
Besides being idealised in many ways in critical IR scholarship, ethnography is often chosen as a method for expressing a commitment to post-positivist research in the field, which does not give proper consideration of the methodology in the research process (Aradau and Huysmans 2014:597, 608–609).
In other academic disciplines, ethnography is conceived “as method and methodology” (Brewer 2000:28; Lewis and Russell 2011:398), as it involves both the rules and procedures to collect information and the framework through which this type of information is valued (Brewer 2000:7). In contrast to the Vrasti-Rancatore debate, we find accounts of doctoral students trained in this perspective who engage more directly with the importance of fieldwork itself (Lewis and Russell 2011:399). For instance, Teuku Zulfikar (2014) discusses not only experiences of conducting interviews and observations, but also how to gain and sustain access to the group, how to write one’s personal narrative alongside thick descriptions and how struggles with ethical and reflexive questions unfolded. This is reflective of how well-established ethnographers have negotiated their methodological preferences. Clifford Geertz’s (1973) description of anecdotal events and observations of cockfighting and betting in Bali is intertwined with his analysis of key Balinese societal features. In addition, he provides key methodological insights on how to effectively conduct this type of investigation of various cultures. As he states: “The culture of people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong” (Geertz 1973: 452).
In addition to being the subject of IR debates over its method (ological) status, ethnography is perceived in many disciplines, such as social anthropology, as a way to access a particular type of knowledge. Whether conducted through first-hand experiences or through historiographical work (Geertz 1980; Mandelbaum 1973), ethnography refers to an array of methodological approaches with an attitude similar to “‘being there’ sufficient to experience the mundane and sacred, the brash and nuanced aspects of socio-cultural life” (Lewis and Russell 2011:400). In this way, ethnography makes its own contribution to the advancement of knowledge, and social anthropologists themselves are the first ones to distinguish these contributions from other types of contributions; ethnographers “crawl on all fours with a magnifying glass, rather than circling the world in a helicopter looking at societies with a pair of binoculars” (Eriksen 2005:29). Such a perspective on the vast array of ethnographical approaches, along with the role of ethnography in relation to other methodologies and the valuing of fieldwork experience, seem to provide a justification for IR to move beyond theoretical questions on how to deploy it.
In IR, autoethnography stresses in its own way how the personal is co-constitutive of the representation of the international realm for and by IR scholars, and also stresses the ethical implications of considering how one represents the world (Löwenheim 2010:1028–1032). As Neumann (2010:1053) explains: “Autoethnography is a methodological choice for researchers who place their philosophical ontological wager on themselves being an inseparable part of the world.” Emphasising and celebrating their subjectivity, autoethnographers—which in IR are often conflated with autobiographers, narrators and storytellers—commit to an understanding of the social world, and its structures of oppression, through their own travels and experiences (Inayatullah and Dauphinee, 2016; Neumann 2010:1055). Discussions about autoethnography in IR have contributed to debates about the validity of findings gathered by IR researchers using ethnography and the role of scholars in representing world politics.
Needless to say, autoethnography in IR is widely perceived as radical and at odds with mainstream methodological preferences for objectivism, rationalism and positivism: “Research is all about a person’s engagement with an issue. But most approaches to International Relations actively discourage involvement by the researcher” (Brigg and Bleiker 2010:779). For many critical IR scholars, the turn to autoethnography is a way to express frustration and disbelief with the preferred methodological choices of the discipline. As Roxanne L. Doty (2010:1047) expresses:
This interest is a symptom of a profound discontent on the part of some International Relations scholars with the dominant modes of research and writing and with the presumption that the writer must be absent from his/her own work in order to be legitimate.
Autoethnographers contend that “the self can become a more legitimate source of knowledge about International Relations” (Brigg and Bleiker 2010:780) than what is seen as valid knowledge in mainstream IR scholarship. More than a reaction to disciplinary preferences, autoethnography also deconstructs the role of academic expertise based on fieldwork, and highlights the implicit violence of academic representations of the world. Through increased awareness of their actions, autoethnographers shed light on connections between one’s research and subjectivity in order to identify various possibilities for representing the inner workings of international power relations in new, more ethical ways (Dauphinee 2010:802–806; Doty 2010:1048–1049).
IR scholars use autoethnography to celebrate storytelling and accessible language, as distinct from a conventional “academic posture”, to show how their background and experiences of the international have affected and are actively part of their scholarship (Inayatullah and Dauphinee 2016:2). It is important to note that many IR scholars have utilised autoethnography only once or twice in their writing, often as a way of connecting the dots between their professional objectives and personal lives. Oded Löwenheim (2010:1025) makes this objective clear: “to connect with as many readers as possible and make them, through their emotional response to my personal story, reflect upon their own experience as human beings and the constitution of their own subjectivity”. For instance, Persaud (2016) explains his immigrant journey from the Caribbean in the 1970s and his integration into Canadian society: “The village man must learn to manage his eyes, to smile always, walk thusly, and learn to function like a self-contained moving part in a gigantic machine of production and consumption in an economy of fabricated, transient desires”. Sharing lessons he has learned in how to act in this new country, Persaud demonstrates how this journey has given him a different perspective on researching racial, immigration and cultural issues in the field.
Similarly, Pin-Fat (2016) and Picq (2016) discuss their first encounters with what is considered the international realm in their personal lives, and how everyday life choices have influenced their political and academic commitments. Whereas Pin-Fat (2016) is sceptical of this exercise of recollection, noting that “the phenomenon of a self as ‘sometimes here, sometimes not’ raises a question for me about the ‘solidity’ – the ontological hardness – of a self with which one may identify at certain moments”, Picq (2016) establishes clear connections between her personal passion for flying and her academic interests in IR:
The other things that I learned in Brazil was to look up. Rio was not only a surfing spot, it also had beautiful flying conditions… My goal was to fly. Academia became the path of least resistance because it offered free time and fellowships [and] flying gave me unique insights into the international.
Using autoethnography allows increased awareness of and reflexivity on the abstraction that defines the field—the international—to better grasp how it is shaped by the academics’ own decisions and experiences, their evolving sense of what makes an international issue worth of studying and what shapes this understanding.
This deployment of ethnography is opposite to the uses of ethnography by many proponents of the practice turn and related understandings of what makes for valid studies. In IR, the role of the research in representing findings had been discussed before ethnography was thought of as a methodology associated with the field’s critical scholarship. Coined as the “third debate” and opposing rationalist methodological preferences for post-positivist and reflexive perspectives, the epistemological difference between seeing the IR scholar either as an objective researcher collecting data in a disinterested manner or as a subjective presence involved in representing findings has led to distinctive types of privileged methodologies (see Keohane 1988; Navon 2001; Wendt 1998). Questions about the validity of the representations that IR academics create when they use ethnography have built on this literature but can also be seen in a different light when situated in relation to similar questions and debates in social anthropology.
This automatic association between ethnography and reflexive perspectives is less pronounced in other disciplines, especially in social anthropology, where autoethnographical accounts have integrated the discipline’s knowledge production and representation in different ways. For instance, Mandelbaum’s (1973:178) study of life history as an ethnographical methodology highlights the importance of “researchers’ own life experiences” in selecting the approach, as it aims at uncovering a type of knowledge that could be considered true and real but that does not have specific scientific pretensions. The intent here is to discover social facts and realities by shedding light on the commonality of the human condition and the emotional structures at play. In blurring IR’s disciplinary lines between objectivist and subjectivist research commitments, even Geertz (1973:453) utilises autoethnographical accounts as a way to connect to his object of study, to effectively frame the writing of his formal descriptions, and to commit more deeply to resolving the methodological struggle of “‘saying something of something’ and saying it to somebody”.
For Mary Louise Pratt (1986), the difference from IR is that there is a disciplinary need in social anthropology to strike a balance between offering impersonal descriptions of an object of study and revealing the role of the researcher’s personal experiences in representations. Speaking of the 1982 controversy around Florinda Donner’s account of the Yanomamo, she says: “What was at issue was not ethnographic accuracy, but a set of problematic links between ethnographic authority, personal experience, scientism, and originality of expression” (Pratt 1986:29). Donner’s more reflexive stance in presenting her fieldwork was questioned not because of empirical inaccuracies but because of her choice to explicitly acknowledge her personal involvement in the representations made. For Pratt, this type of debate is part “disciplining” and part “un-disciplining”, as it allows an academic community to navigate between “personal and scientific authority, a contradiction that has become especially acute since the advent of fieldwork as a methodological norm” (Pratt 1986:32). With the increasing interest in ethnography in IR, disciplinary debates may lead also to new perspectives on methodological norms, especially norms for fieldwork, and to a recognition of how different ethnographic findings from distinct epistemological standpoints may be productive, particularly when these standpoints are in conversation with one another.
As previously mentioned, feminist IR scholars like Carol Cohn (2006) have turned to Marcus’ (1986) multi-sited ethnography as an alternative methodology for their inquiries, in belief “that the continuities across sites are telling, and significant” (Cohn 2006: 107). In the 1980s, ethnography was identified as a reputable and reliable methodology for critical IR scholarship interested in making linkages between everyday life and global processes. Even if Marcus’ approach is contested within social anthropology and is far from a classical approach (see Falzon 2009; Hage 2005), it has been privileged in IR in the form of multi-sited studies with ethnographic sensibilities. The reason is that the emphasis on connections between different territorial sites and distinct perspectives of selected groups in their everyday lives allows scholars to justify their inquiries as part of IR’s main contribution to knowledge, while opening up the field to new subjugated knowledges. Nonetheless, methodological questions arise in other fields on the ways in which a priori case selection can occur.
In IR, bottom-up approaches to the world are limited by a disciplinary need for a pre-empirical understanding of world politics and its main processes and structures. Even in critical scholarship, Kai Koddenbrock (2015:245) argues that in “the academic field tasked with studying world politics… systemic logics cannot be grasped by focusing exclusively on the minute details and their unstable assemblages”. Although helpful to understand “the ‘mess’ that is social life”, methodologies such as ethnography tend to limit IR scholarship in their necessity to “think big, to assert stability, totality and structure” (Koddenbrock 2015: 246). Privileging himself a Marxist understanding of world politics through a clear pre-empirical assertion of global capitalism, Koddenbrock joins other critical IR scholars for whom some limitations to ethnography can be found in the necessity to posit the structure(s) at play prior to investigating social life (see Muppidi 2013; Shani 2008; Withworth 1994).
It is in this disciplinary context that the logic behind multi-sited studies has been taken on, in different ways, by critical IR scholarship. As Marcus mentions Marcus (1995), multi-sited ethnography takes shape “around chains, paths, threads, conjunctions, or juxtapositions of locations in which the ethnographer establishes some form of literal, physical presence, with an explicit, posited logic of association or connection among sites”. In contrast to traditional ethnographic methods, what the author proposes is an object of study that is most appropriate for IR scholars interested in new emancipatory ways to conduct research away from state-centrist methodological assumptions, at a time when the importance of globalisation emphasises the need for new ontological avenues (Marcus 1995:101–102). As with the disciplinary instincts of IR, this methodology requires one “to start with some prior view of a system and to provide an ethnographic account of it, by showing the forms of local life that the system encompasses”, or “to construct the text around a strategic selected locale, treating the system as background” (Marcus 1986:171–72).
Such a strategy is notably popular in edited collections of critical IR scholarship, where ethnographical accounts of world politics can be combined with structural analyses. For instance, a key figure in IR’s ethnographic turn, (Beier, 2005:10) explains the relevance of such accounts in an edited collection focused on the militarisation of childhood beyond the Global South. His explanation is as follows:
of particular interest through the chapters that follow, then, are the multifarious ways that childhood is militarised beyond the global south through enactments of militarism that have drawn much less in the way of critical inquiry. Confronting such enactments and exploring their relatively more subtle and oft times surprising circulations is a principal aim of the volume, and one which brings into relief the under-interrogated and everyday ways in which children’s lives are militarised in less scrutinised contexts and settings.
Beier’s collection offers a way of bringing the messiness and complexity of everyday experiences back to the forefront of studies of international processes, while justifying itself structurally and disciplinarily to IR’s goals.
Individual IR scholars working on emerging topics that deconstruct and complement state-centrist approaches to world politics also have committed to multi-sited studies. For instance, Heather Johnson (2014b:363-364) appropriated Marcus’ approach to the study of migration regimes in Australia, Spain/Morocco and Tanzania, as this method focuses on “associations and connections between sites”. By looking at sites where migration regimes reveal themselves, such as refugee camps, border zones and detention centres, she collects and presents peoples’ narratives to highlight a common experience she characterises as a condition of irregular migration. Johnson’s (2014a:16) choice of these “sites of intervention” allows for exploring “the interconnectedness of local sites at the global level,” gives room for participants to express subtleties of daily life and for her to connect them through the conceptual lens of migration processes.
Similarly, Marianne Franklin (2004) offers ethnographical vignettes of the Internet communities and online practices of South Pacific Islanders starting in the second half of the 1990s in order to explore the intersections and interactions between online market forces, and Tongan and Samoan societies. As she notes:
It involves the movement of financial and in-kind remittances between countries and within dispersed family and social networks; conflicting sociocultural expectations for second and third generations growing up in the West, albeit often as disadvantaged groups therein; urbanised versions of ‘ancient rivalries’; and political contestation or support of sociopolitical establishments ‘back home’ (Franklin 2004:7–8).
With a clear political commitment to documenting the practices of online community members in their daily lives, Franklin collects the stories of participants in these communities and makes linkages to transnational processes and global structures she sees at play, including questions of gender ordering, diasporic identity-formation, ethnic change and democratisation. In this view, the author not only pluralises IR’s understanding of the international ramifications of new technologies in inter-state relations but also contributes to different interdisciplinary discussions about contemporary and deterritorialised Pacific Islander societies.
Some methodological questions remain in IR towards multi-sited studies, similar to how the deployment of ethnography to examine boundless, deterritorialised communities and related transnational processes have been discussed in social anthropology (see Candea 2009; Hage 2005). To what extent is Johnson (2014a, b) examination of irregular migration really found in the selected sites of intervention, if this ontological category and innovative concept is created prior to fieldwork? How are these sites of intervention chosen, if not due to an a priori understanding of world politics? It is important to note that Marcus (1986, 1995) struggled with such questions during the elaboration of his multi-sited strategy. One of his initial problems was that, methodologically, “the narrative complexity is considerable” and it becomes difficult, in his view, to select the right sites of interventions and voices, without falling into anecdotal knowledge (Marcus 1986:172).
Marcus’ approach is developed in conversation with a rich body of literature dealing with such methodological questions—a disciplinary history and cannon with which IR scholars are less familiar and engaged. As previously mentioned, studies by Geertz (1980) and Mandelbaum (1973) have shown how to deploy historiography and life history as ethnographical methodologies that bring the importance of temporality and moments back into any multi-sited analysis, often bridging various physical locations and political communities in order to highlight key features of a society or place in time. More to the point, ethnographical work, such as Mauss (2002) on gifting, shows how this system of interactions commonly exists in various North American and Asian societies as an ordering factor of domestic and inter-societal relations. Mauss’s work also presents their cultural, historical, institutional and geographical differences. Through an analysis of these systems of reciprocal obligations, Mauss offers both clear comparative insights and an overall explanation of the social function of this interaction in and between various societies.
In contrast to Marcus’ multi-sited strategy, social anthropologists, such as Pederson and Holbraad (2013), as well as Abélès (2011), have recently offered another strategy, closer to such classical influence. For instance, Pederson and Holbraad (2013:2) conceive of comparative ethnography as a more productive approach, allowing for a simple but effective overall finding: “(in) security can be simultaneously enacted within and across multiple temporal logics, whose complex imbrications may be studied ethnographically and compared with other times of security”. In the authors’ view, such an approach is more revealing than the methods normally privileged in IR, if for no reason other than that the researcher is not conceptually characterising experiences as insecurities, at least not in a way that goes beyond what participants express (Pederson and Holbraad 2013:8–11).