Classic anthropological ethnography, especially in its development in the apprentice project/dissertation form, was designed to provide answers, or at least data, for questions that anthropology had for it. Nowadays, anthropology itself does not pose these questions. Other domains of discussion and analysis do—some academic or interdisciplinary in the conventional sense; others not—and thus it is a contemporary burden of projects of anthropological research—and especially apprentice ones—to identify these question-asking domains—also, domains of reception for particular projects of research — as part of learning the techniques of research itself.
So, particular policy or development program arenas with many players—NGOs, governments, international organizations, indigenous and social movements –define the terms of anthropological research more powerfully than does any discipline-derived paradigm or center of debate. The very parties who are the primary audiences of such research are also its subjects. Thus ethnography in its most classic inclination to make ‘subjects’ of all of its interlocutors must develop the methodological practice today of making colleagues, fellow experts, frames of analytic discourse ethnographic subjects themselves in designing the multi-sited terrains of its research projects. Much ethnography shifts today from the study of culture or cultures to the study of knowledge-making processes, broadly conceived and diversely located, and in which its own expertise participates.
In this development, the function of the research project is not simply descriptive-analytic, to provide a contribution to an archive or debate that has been constructed by the discipline—it hasn’t. At best, contemporary anthropology provides a license and an authority to engage, not a reception itself. Ethnographic research out of anthropology thus becomes a mediation in some sense;it takes on agency. It is an experiment and a potential intervention that depends on the response of its subjects for any critical effect it might have. It sutures communities and contexts together in addressing those communities, in presenting its results in constructed contexts of collaboration as a key issue in the increasingly broader design of research beyond mere fieldwork .
Indeed students are pursuing questions that fieldwork itself in its conventional Malinowskian aesthetics (intensive participant observation in communities of usually subaltern subjects) can’t answer. And it is in the process of apprentice research –in dissertation making—that an anthropologist is most subject to these aesthetics and regulative ideals of research practice as they are imposed, not by rules of method, but by the psychodynamics of professional culture. Here the process on its own is not at all stuck, but in transition. What is missing is an articulation of these changes.
At present, as a halfway measure, what prevails is a renewed experimental ethos for the conduct of ethnographic research which makes a virtue of the contingencies deep within its traditional aesthetics, and which works very well for the exceptional talents who enter anthropological careers by embracing this experimental ethos. In producing standard work,however, the experimental ethos serves far less well—it produces more often rhetorically driven repetitive versions of singular arguments and insights. A fuller account is needed of what kinds of questions contemporary ethnography answers, with and in relation to whom, what results it might be expected to produce on the basis of what data. This is where our discussions of prototyping cultures might help.