Issue Number Zero: Prototyping Prototyping

If I were the ethnographer…

To what might an anthropologist wish to attach the term prototype?

Prompted by Christopher Kelty’s reference to a conference publication preceding the conference, I recall a slim volume I brought out before a short seminar series held in 2004.[1] The volume does not really count as a prototype since it was not meant to prefigure the seminars; the programme notes refer to it as ‘background’.  It simply laid out some of the thoughts that had prompted the series.

The seminar itself was another matter.  This consisted of four half-day colloquia (each with two panels of four presenters and discussants) followed by a one-day Interdisciplinary Design Workshop intended to treat each colloquium as raw material for modelling process and output.[2] The seminar was deliberately set up as a kind of prototype, although that term was not used: the series (dubbed ‘Social property and new social forms’) was presented as an ‘experiment’ in interdisciplinarity, and a paper written just after it got under way[3] talked of the anthropologist’s ‘indirection’ and at one point of a ‘rehearsal’.

Indirection can be quickly explained. About to make an ethnographic object of an institution promoted as interdisciplinary, the question to myself as anthropologist was how to create a position or context from which to launch the study.  The question came from two imperatives: to avoid simply reproducing the institution’s own organisation of knowledge; to acquire some training in interdisciplinary practice.  Through a specific social form, the seminar was intended as a prototype of sorts for the ethnographic study. But that phrase needs unpacking. It was prototype neither for the long-suffering participants since they wouldn’t be further involved, nor for me a ‘pilot study’ to anticipate the research approach. Indeed it was in a register somewhat removed from what the ethnographer would subsequently encounter, and doubly removed from me since I could not take on that role myself.[4] It was, perhaps, an ‘imitative’ effort on my part in order to think what it would be like to have such encounters, to give me a little experience with which to respond to the ethnographer’s findings. In no more than indirect relation with the ethnographic object ahead (though the themes were chosen with it very broadly in mind[5]), this was an exercise in accessing interdisciplinary debate.  A prototype not of the research process, then, but of what might be encountered in interdisciplinary conversation. It gets close to the condition of the – typically archchair — anthropologist accused of trying to imagine inhabiting the minds of others: the ‘if I were a horse’ syndrome.[6] If I were the ethnographer …  A question hangs in the air — how far might such an act of imagination serve as a prototype for engagement?

Rehearsal?  At the first colloquium one of the speakers sought me out in advance to discuss his contribution. Our conversation, which he recounted, turned out to be a rehearsal for his paper. One could almost say it was his paper!  Leave aside the somewhat artificial circumstances created by my desire to feel what it might be like to be among interdisciplinary conversations, if that conversation qualifies as a prototype then it was created during the course of a very ordinary prelude to presentations.  I suggested that this was an example of a phenomenon probably rather common in research communities.

Has this happened to you, I asked when I first gave the paper.  You think you are sketching out preliminaries for research, offering material to be addressed as the work proceeds, then suddenly reach a temporal moment when that is in the past, and that was the research. And why?  I laid some emphasis on the effect of working in company with others (and my experience of the phenomenon has been in anthropological team work). ‘The first attempts at formulating a position in company, where everything seems in the future, a working paper perhaps, … suddenly appears to have been a rehearsal for what is to come, suddenly becomes in retrospect the output or product.  From looking forward one finds one has swivelled round and is looking back’ (Strathern 2004b: 41, original emphasis).  I wondered if the presence of other people[7] speeds up the process of objectification. Reflecting now, I wonder further if the provisional nature of the first sketch becomes shifted from the original author onto the uncertain relations among the company present. That becomes the uncertainty to be addressed: what will be the prototype of the joint conversation?

These remarks relate to the experience of anthropologists who are often rather new to collaborative work.  If prototypes seem on the increase, I throw into the ring the suggestion that one spotlight is shone where uncertainty is encountered in collaborative relations, and probably between relative strangers.  I would include collaborations not just between researchers but between researchers and administrators as knowledge managers (the latter a species certainly on the increase).  The speaker I referred to was in his day job a knowledge manager, but on this occasion he was the researcher and I was the manager.


[1] Strathern, Marilyn, 2004a, Commons and borderlands: Working papers on interdisciplinarity, accountability and the flow of knowledge, facilitated by the then new academic publisher, Sean Kingston (Sean Kingston Publishing, Wantage, Oxford), and print-on-demand technology. It was provided at registration for all participants. My comments focus here on the colloquia.
[2] These were led by James Leach and Alan Blackwell, with additional invitees. Acknowledgement should be made to the ESRC-funded project (RES-151-25-0042), ‘Interdisciplinarity and society: A crucial comparative study’, with Georgina Born and Andrew Barry, and to the Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Processes, Goldsmiths College London, as well as to CRASSH, Cambridge. I record here my profound thanks to all the participants who made the occasions so stimulating in themselves.
[3] Strathern, Marilyn, 2004b, Social property: an interdisciplinary experiment, PoLAR vol 27 (1): 23-50, first presented in April 2004.
[4] I had no alternative but to be at arm’s length from the study, the recipient of information from the ethnographer [who was to be appointed shortly].
[5] At my invitation, there was a presence from the institution at the colloquia.
[6] After E. E. Evans-Pritchard, 1965, Theories of primitive religion, Oxford University Press, pp. 24,43.
[7] ‘Otherness’ is created afresh at each collaborative encounter self-styled as such.