CONCEPTUAL Challenges of Multi-Sited Ethnography

(Thanks again to Lorenz Khazaleh and his blog for notification of the release of the current issue of Anthropology News.)

In a short commentary titled, “Practical Challenges of Multi-Sited Ethnography“, written by Ulla Berg in Anthropology News (May, 2008), there is one basic limitation that I want to highlight, and some of my commentary might remind readers of George Marcus’ “no new ideas” argument (parts of which I agree with, and parts of which apply to his own argument).

Ulla Berg is not mistaken in observing that, “a real challenge with multi-sited fieldwork is that the researcher has less time at each individual site and with each localized population, thus having fewer opportunities to ‘get to know’ people and their social worlds, and to establish more profound social relationships in ways that allow us access to more existential fields of experience”. The problem comes with conflating physical spaces with the meaning of experience–the former is fixed, and the latter is communicable. Interestingly, Berg states that her research interests focus on communicative practices, and this is where the familiar blind spot presents itself, as I argued in “Another Revolution Missed” (also from Anthropology News).

Anthropologists are not well suited to studying new transformations if they are not willing to consider new ways of doing so. The multi-sited Malinowski who follows a positivist notion of “sites” definitely hamstrings any attempt on our part to break out of the little boxes we have inherited.

The challenge to studying transnationalism and globalization is, first, a conceptual one, and only second, and as a result of the first, a methodological one. While calling for new analytical categories and research strategies, Berg never raises the possibility of following “informants” online as they communicate across places. Her article is very well intentioned and constructive, and I only raise the question as to why, if one is interested in communication and transnationalism, working with people who span communities in the U.S. and Peru, there would be no mention of cyberspace…especially when dealing with U.S. based informants. Facebook “Español”, as one example, exists I imagine to serve an audience that does not consist of Spain alone.