By Leonore van den Ende I recently took part in a workshop on ‘Multisited Ethnography’ at the VU given by Professor Nina Glick Schiller, a prominent anthropologist in the branch of migrant studies. I took part in this workshop because for the past two years I have been uncertain about the ‘ethnographicness’ of my PhD research. My research, in organizational anthropology, is about the practice and meaning of transition rituals in project-based organizations. Specifically, I studied six momentous transition rituals in three different projects in the Netherlands, where I have ‘zoomed in’ on each ritual followed by a process of ‘zooming out’ to relate the ritual observations back to each project and its unique history, prospect and context. Though I engaged in participant-observation during each transition ritual, I could not do so to the same extent at each project as they are large-scale, multi-sited organizational constructs. I had to accept that I could not be everywhere at once and therefore had to make conscious decisions concerning my research sites and sources of data.
The rest of my research entailed conducting interviews with a wide variety of ritual organizers, actors and attendees, and obtaining sufficient information about each project via a desk study and by visiting information centers, open days and project excursions. In other words, I have not conducted ethnographic research in the traditional sense as my research was temporally and spatially diverse and interspersed. This raised questions and doubts concerning the legitimacy of my ethnographic method. Some might call it ‘hit-and-run ethnography’ whereas others claim this form of multisited research is a development of ethnography that better suites our contemporary, globalizing societies and more complex research sites. This led me to question; what is it that makes a research ‘ethnographic’ as such?
Other questions raised during the workshop included: ‘What is a research site?’ ‘Are sites territories or social constructions?’ ‘What is the difference or relationship between site and sight?’ ‘What is the local?’ ‘What about multi-local or ‘translocal’?’ ‘Can one study local practices in conjunction with global, structural processes?’ These queries were interesting to discuss because it is the case that the single-site ethnographic method still has dominance in anthropology. Single-site supporters argue that this long-term, situated method is the most fundamental quality that sets anthropology apart from other disciplines and which legitimates an ethnographic research. However, others have suggested that societies and soci0-cultural processes worldwide are changing and becoming more complex and that the ethnographic method must adapt itself respectively.
For example, Hannerz (2003) observes “it is fairly clear that a great many anthropologists, especially those no longer in the first phase of their careers, have long, but perhaps a bit more discretely, been engaging in a greater variety of spatial and temporal practices as they have gone about in their research” (202). Or as Markus (1995) argues, rather than focusing on single sites and locales, researchers should focus on “multiple sites of observation and participation that cross-cut dichotomies such as the global and the local, the lifeworld and the system” (95). Common research areas that do these arguments justice are ethnographic studies on migration, networks or networking, virtual space, media and telecommunication, to name a few examples. But what about research areas that are less obviously suited for multisited ethnographic research? Can they still be multisited?
Some authors contend that all ethnographic research is multisited to some extent, depending on how one defines ‘site.’ For example, Wogan (2004) conveys that the question should be whether a researcher or an author can provide interesting (new) insights into a culture and that insights are not only gained from one site per se. He also argues that traditional long-term ethnography may not be restricted to just one site and that “some ethnography may not move around literally but may nonetheless embed itself in a multisited context” (133). Further, Massey (1991) adheres that there is no single sense of place as people can occupy different positions within one community. Thus, “instead of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings” (6). These arguments suggest that our understanding of ‘site’ needs to be reconsidered. Particularly, sites are not necessarily fixed or stable entities but may comprise complex and multi-sited social and cultural time-spaces (Marcus, 1995). This must not be overlooked when conducting ethnographic research at any place and any time.
To end this article I leave you with the following questions: Is single-site ethnography the only or main contribution anthropology can make? And, is anthropology at risk as a discipline because of the emergence of multisited ethnographic research?
Wogan, Peter 2004 “Deep Hanging Out: Reflections on Fieldwork and Multisited Andean Ethnography” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, 11: 129–139.
Marcus, George 1995 Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography Annual Review of Anthropology, 24: 95-117
Hannerz, Ulf 2003 “Being there . . . and there . . . and there! Reflections on multi-site ethnography” 4(2): 201– Ethnography 4(2): 201–216.
Leonore van den Ende is a PhD candidate at the VU in the department of Organization Science and an editor of StandplaatsWereld.