ASA15: Symbiotic anthropologies: theoretical commensalities and methodological mutualisms

Visual anthropology in the New World society
Location Room 8
Date and Start Time 16 April, 2015 at 09:15
Sessions 2


  • Michelangelo Paganopoulos (Goldsmiths, University of London) email

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Short Abstract

This panel invites papers that will investigate the relationship between visual ethnography and visual art in respect to the formation of a new world society.

Long Abstract

The rapid expansion of visual anthropology has evolved through new social networking technologies, which have contributed to the widening of the ethnographic scope, but at the same time, limiting ethnographic film-making to a technique without a substantiated anthropological vision or theoretical aim, raising the question of relevance of contemporary anthropology to the rapid changes in world history. Furthermore, the visual turn inwards, towards subjectivity and self-reflection as the new metaphysics of anthropology, unearthed old methodological issues regarding representation and interpretation, manifested in the widening gap between anthropological theory and ethnographic practice (Asad 1973, Bourdieu 1977, Clifford and Marcus 1986, Grimshaw and Hart 1996, et al). This raises further questions regarding the ethnographic authority in respect to realism and the ethnographer's presence in the field (Foster 1990, Grimshaw 2001, et al). Since visual anthropology has lost its 'objective' claim to reality, which has been traditionally the source of anthropological authority, where does this leave our discipline, particularly in relation to the current changes in world history? Furthermore, how and where are the boundaries of visual anthropology defined in relation to art film-making and the avant-garde, and how can visual anthropologists reclaim their ethnographic authority? This panel invites papers that will contribute to the investigation of the boundaries between visual anthropology and visual arts, on the one hand, by looking at various ways in which the two fields co-emerge in a fruitful manner, and on the other, by re-examining their historical and social relevance to world history.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The disinterested eye: a subjective return to Kant's universal vision

Author: Michelangelo Paganopoulos (Goldsmiths, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses observational cinema in relation to Kant's disinterested perspective in 'high' art and ocular-centrism, using comparatively extracts from Herb di Gioia and Flaherty, Gardner, Mulvey, and the MacDougalls.

Long Abstract

This paper focuses on the pure gaze of observational cinema and the notion of disinterestedness as the higher moral mean of recording and reflecting upon a subjective reconstruction of reality. As an ideal, the pure gaze is rooted to Kant's writings on judgement and the a priori feeling of beauty. However, as Bourdieu has noted, the pure gaze is in itself a product of history, rooted to an 'ethos of elective distance from the necessities of the natural and social world' (1984). In this context, its 'innocence' (as in Grimshaw 2001) and invisibility cover its historical, ideological, and economic condition. This paper argues that the paradoxical perspective of the pure gaze echoes the historical predicament of anthropology and the ethnographic practice in the colonial and post-colonial context. It further raises questions over 'modernity' and 'science', particularly in respect to ocular-centrism as a form of ethnocentrism. By comparing the various appropriations of the Camera Eye in a number of ethnographic films, the paper returns to Kant's Copernican vision (Hart 2003) as the means of re-evaluating observational cinema in respect to the loss of an anthropological vision in a highly professionalized and indifferent academic world.

'My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding' televisual series as ethnocentric appropriation and travesty of anthropology's pioneering Observational Filming

Author: Judith Okely (Oxford University/University of Hull)  email

Short Abstract

The pioneering practice of Observational Filming by anthropologists has been misappropriated and made near travesty by the populist televisual. The mass audience-generating TV series ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ is a case study of the ethnocentric challenge to grounded, ethnographic knowledge.

Long Abstract

Anthropology pioneered 'Observational' filming. Manchester university MA students of Visual Anthropology, in the 1990s, ideally avoided all 'voice over'. 'Showing' took precedent over 'Telling', as noted by this external examiner. Subsequently, populist visual media has appropriated the 'Observational'. Televisual 'reality' has transformed an original ideal of documenting extended sequences, including the inconsequential, with minimum director intervention and no outsider commentary. Instead, participants were free to speak in their own voice, with translated subtitles, if required. The specialist, off screen anthropologist facilitated but never orchestrated events.

Here 'My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding' is confronted. The TV series exemplifies the misappropriation of anthropology's innovations. Initially faced with multiple complaints, the producers of MBFGW defended their pastiche as 'merely observational'. Thus the term is skillfully appropriated.

Many individuals have approached this anthropologist, who lived with the Gypsies, for her judgement of the series. Some viewers had absorbed the defamatory assertions, all dependent on sensationalist editing and authoritative 'voice-overs' fabricating the very opposite to published ethnographies. Consistent with populist stereotypes, participants were encouraged to enact invented 'traditions'. Individuals were directed, if not paid, to perform for a melodrama-seeking, lucrative, mass audience. Shock and awe was guaranteed.

The global term 'Gypsy' was cynically appropriated, although the majority of 'performers' were Catholic Irish Travellers, never called Gypsies. The latter are secular or Protestant English Romanies, rarely appearing in the series.

Presenting misleading insights for multiple viewers, MBFGW made millions, though not for the participants. With very different aims, anthropological films provide grounded knowledge, countering ethnocentric misconstructions.

Possibilities and challenges in conducting multi-sited visual ethnography

Author: Fangfang Li (University of Amsterdam / University of Barcelona)  email

Short Abstract

This paper aims to explore the possibilities and challenges in conducting virtual ethnography to gather qualitative evidence of youth’s dietary habit formation and how that is affected by the social environment in rural Malaysia.

Long Abstract

This paper aims to explore the possibilities and challenges of using social media as a virtual ethnography tool in forging empirical investigation with rural-to-urban Chinese Malaysian migrant youth. Ethnography, consisting of close observation and key informant interviewing, is the most widely accepted methodology to obtain cultural knowledge of the natives. Its significance to the discipline of anthropology and social sciences in general is of no doubt. However, as that social media are increasingly central to contemporary everyday life, its intervention has dramatically changed the way of information being circulated. Dwelling on the traditional face-to-face ethnography can no longer fully address our scholarship inquiry in understanding the complexity of human interaction, behaviour formation and cultural transformation.

Based on my nine-month fieldwork on youth's food habits in rural Malaysia, this paper aims to further this discussion by exploring the possibilities and the challenges of using social media as an experimental virtual ethnography method to understand the complexity of dietary environment around adolescents. It will justify, in what situations is social media a particularly good method to use? What are the ethical issues we need to be concerned? How to conduct data collection and analysis in reality? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this method and how it can be improved in future research? I engaged myself in several popular virtual spaces such as Facebook and online forums to observe how informative materials about food is circulated and perceived among the young and how their discussion is formed and developed.

Fancy smart phones, comfortable unemployment and endless grousing about the life “here”: notes on visual anthropology in-the-making

Author: Marta Kucza  email

Short Abstract

This paper addresses the points of tension in the relationship between the representations of modernity and realities of a migrant's life. It aims to share the challenges of filmmaking and ethnography made “at home” as tools to negotiate global representations and personal expectations.

Long Abstract

Visual anthropology offers performative techniques which, aptly and explicitly used, allow to create links between images and historical situations, “the imaginary realized and the real imagined” (Mbembe 2001: 242). More than how to prove its legitimacy as a knowledge-producing discipline, either how to distinguish it from art filmmaking, my questions focus on how to keep reinventing its tools and explaining their implications while addressing theoretical and empirical concerns.

With this paper I will share the experience of tracing the cartography of paradoxes (Latour 2005) and points of tension in the relationship between representations of modernity and realities of a migrant's life. I argue that these representations, as related to commodities, have visual dimensions. Therefore, with the means of visual anthropology, I am tracing the materiality of my family's first encounters with the Western world in Poland in the 90s; the work of Polish truck drivers who spend three weeks in the transitory space of highways in Western Europe and who reconnect to their family life for a fixed time of one week; as well as the dilemmas of a Guinean friend who settles down in UK after 10 years of exile in Poland. I am also filming my own conflicts and reconciliations between cosmopolitan habits, the comfortable affiliation to the Belgian social benefits’ system, and dreams of settlement back in Poland.

Sharing my textual and visual findings, I will also discuss methodological challenges of experimental filmmaking and ethnography “at home” as tools to negotiate global representations and personal expectations.

Installation art and participatory ethnographic enquiry

Authors: Pauline Oosterhoff (Institute of Development Studies)  email
Arno Peeters  email
Iris Honderdos (Art on Location)  email

Short Abstract

Collaborative installation art can interweave disparate indigenous community voices and concerns into a coherent three-dimensional whole. But their complex narratives, a result of local participation, can render them difficult for outsiders to understand without local interpretation.

Long Abstract

The ethical perils and moral burdens that face outsiders who try to represent diversity and change within marginalized indigenous cultures through art have been extensively debated, in particular by critical visual anthropologists. Representatives of indigenous communities, it is hoped, can provide a more complicated and realistic insider's portrayal of their community. The benefits and disadvantages of participatory video are well known. This paper discusses two participatory community installation art projects exploring aspirations and fears regarding identity and development with representatives of indigenous Benet peoples in Uganda and Khasi peoples in India implemented in collaboration with Dutch artists as well as anthropologists development and museum experts. Both installations interweave disparate community voices and concerns regarding identity and development into a coherent whole, and discuss this narrative with both insiders and outsiders. But their complexity, a result of local participation, also renders them very difficult for outsiders to understand without local interpretation. The participatory work method motivated large audiences of young and old indigenous people, in communities that do not normally visit art galleries or ethnographic museums, to attend the presentations. The value of these art projects might therefore best be seen in terms of relational aesthetics: the capacity to involve citizens in studying and representing themselves, to reflect on the right to development with identity in a globalizing economy, and to provide new opportunities and modes of engagement for artists and anthropologists to work with indigenous people and help them visualize their aspirations and concerns.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.