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Ethnographic Monographs – or now for something else?

By Herbert Ploegman; Didi Boldewijn, Maya Roettger and Lorenzo Horwitz; Alice Riva, Claudia Rapisarda, Elisabeth Jongmans and Jasper Schotte; Ashley Prather and Maira van Emden

Two crumpled up sheets of paper: the only traces left of the course Ethnographic Monographs that I took about a decade ago at our department of anthropology. Retrieved from a pile of old documents, I find on them forty-five book titles divided into two categories: “Classic monographs (from before 1970)”, and “Contemporary monographs (after 1970)”. As a student, I had to pick and read one from each, although I can’t remember if we were told why the 1970 cut. Interestingly, if at that time the “contemporary” started about four decades earlier, today it would stretch even half a century back. 

 Over the past years, while teaching Ethnographic Monographs in the first-year Bachelor’s myself, I’ve grown increasingly unsatisfied with having students read one or two monographs in full without sufficient context. That particular assignment remained even if much of the course gradually changed.

This year, however, I decided to dedicate the available reading time to an analytical exercise: tracing the conditions of existence of ethnographic monographs. For example, we explored processes of canonization that privilege some forms of knowledge over others, while obscuring others. As a result, students indeed started seeing patterns of canons far beyond academia! Furthermore, by tuning in with the criticism of the ‘crisis of representation’ in the 1980s, we started developing an eye for other modes of anthropology, such as anthro-performance and post-ethnography.

In this context, the students were challenged to bring the thematics of the course into conversation with the possibilities of alternative modes of knowledge production and distribution. The results were exciting! Below, three groups of students briefly pitch their work.

Herbert Ploegman

Figure 1: Film: A Story of Anthropological Enlightenment (Video still)

Making a video, we felt, was working with a medium capable of expressing the emotional layers of our experience and our understanding: Those within the Ethnographic Monographs course as well as those regarding the theme of the classics as a whole. The idea was to show, through short scenes, the educational enlightenment we went through as students from the beginning of the course to the end. This is represented through a move from confined spaces at the beginning of the video, progressing into more open and unobstructed spaces. The motif returns in the color progression from dark, grey tones, to color, and the enhancing mood of the actor. Water, subsequently, reflects the limited lens of an ethnographer through which all ethnographic reality gets filtered.

Didi, Maya, Lorenzo

Figure 2: Webpage ‘Ethnographic Monographs

We aimed to make anthropological knowledge and debates easily accessible on an interactive website. Books and articles still dominate the output of scientific work. However, media like internet and film, present us with many more opportunities to publish than ever before. This variety of options is not only convenient for the researcher but a step in the direction of making scientific work public.

We believe that this publishing method has qualities to it that fit perfectly within today’s technosociety. Multimodality is such a method: the combination of different types of media. With the internet being omnipresent, it is possible and only natural to combine scientific writing with media like film and make use of hyperlinks. On our site, we have experimented with this.

Still, our website is just one example of what can be done as technological advancements and new ways of producing scientific work follow each other up at a rapid pace. Creating and publishing with novel media offers advantages over traditional methods and are quickly heading to become a worthy counterpart of the printed word.

Alice, Claudia, Elisabeth, and Jasper

Figure 3: Movement and Motion – by Thomas Hawk – June 4, 2016 – CC BY_NC 4.0 –

We chose to use poetry as our primary medium to explore ideas around representation, embodiment, performance, gender, and viewing/being viewed. We were particularly inspired by discussions and texts that showed alternative ways of practicing and doing anthropology, rather than the standard classic written monograph. The first poem, written by Ashley, was an exploration of ideas that storytelling, embodiment, and the black female experience are united. Maira’s poem addressed broader themes of the course and is more concrete. We felt it was important to have a balance between the general and the specific so that they could work together to provide context. Maira’s poem is also hopeful and looks forward to a changed anthropological practice, one that is diverse, inclusive, and dynamic. As the theme of bodies and embodiment was so strong in our work, we decided to pair the poems with videos of bodies in motion. We hope the pairing of sound, image, and poetry manifests a poignant sensory experience.

Ashley and Maira

Herbert Ploegman is a lecturer and Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology (VU). Didi Boldewijn, Maya Roettger, Lorenzo Horwitz, Alice Riva, Claudia Rapisarda, Elisabeth Jongmans, Jasper Schotte, Ashley Prather, and Maira van Emden are students at the same Department.

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