Dear Riki,

The other night I was telling Jessy how it drives me crazy not to be able to talk to you, share things with you. Jessy, for instance. But especially things related to fieldwork, and how knowledge gets made, and all the stuff we used to talk about. It was Jessy who gave me the idea to write to you.

Last week I happened to see—I don’t know how I’d missed it—that Jan Chipchase has left frog to open his own studio, Studio D Radiodurans. (I know. I know! A bacterium? Maybe he knows something we don’t.) Maybe he knows something we don’t. Anyway. Bill Maurer’s outfit at Irvine, the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion, set them up to do a study of financial inclusion in Myanmar—who has access to what kinds of formal and informal credit instruments, that sort of thing. They did a good job. A really good job.

Ok, it’s undertheorized. They don’t press hard enough—actually, not at all—on the circumstances in which categories like “formal” and “informal” get produced. They don’t ask, per Nordstrom, how the presence of a densely vascularized informal or shadow banking system serves the interests of elites with plenty of access of their own to the formal sector. They don’t comment, more than to note descriptively, that the informal credit system affords lendors a much finer-grained set of rubrics for appraising borrowers’ creditworthiness—local standing, commitment to the sangha—than do formal institutions, which are constrained to rely exclusively on collateralization of land and business title. They don’t probe the registers boundaries where different regimes of currency and exchange—land, livestock, rice, export agricultural commodities, gold, motorcycle registrations, cash remittances from relatives—get knit together, the way Guyer talks about. They don’t address the Zomia hypothesis—that thing James Scott’s been pushing, revisiting Leach and Clastres, I mention this in passing in my article on dialectal tribes—i.e., that in Southeast Asia, Myanmar in particular, the absence of state institutions represents not disenfranchisement or a failure of hydraulic civilization to colonize the dry uplands so much as a self-conscious strategy of withdrawal on the part of hill peoples, a rejection of inclusion in the state in the favor of a more anarchic autonomy that gives less-well-capitalized actors in the interior greater flexibility to form and dissolve economic and political alliances.

(Scott himself cautiously limits the validity of his argument up to about 1950, resting, as it does, in part on the limits to the efficiency of nonmotorized transport of rice out from the center of state power, which constrained the premodern state to a radius of about 120km. Still, I feel like any analysis of differential access to state-authorized credit instruments in this part of the world needs to reckon with the possibility that what we’re looking at is the outcome, in part, of a history of active rejection on the part of the periphery, not failure on the part of the core.)

So that’s five big shortcomings in terms of comparative framing. So this is not brilliant anthropology. But it is very strong ethnography.

What’s really interesting is how they did it: nine fieldworkers, five of whom had no local languages, working in teams of two to eight, using small and midsize towns as nuclei for day trips to villages, doing the whole thing over six weeks at the end of the dry season and getting a solid report out within months. You see where I’m going with this. The future of fieldwork—the future of a big part of knowledge production—looks remarkably like the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits (CAETS).

The CAETS, we need to recall, looked nothing like the work of a confident, self-authorized discipline in full flower. It was the work of a band of ragtag accidental ethnographers—Haddon a frustrated botanist, Rivers a distractable young neurologist, Sidney Ray an out-of-work linguist who was teaching elementary school when Haddon tapped him for the 1898 field trip.

I know what you’re going to say: this is not the story you tell in Personal Equations, about how the method of Malinowski and the later Rivers continues to set the tone for so much present-day ethnography. You know, I was a fan of “Personal Equations” when you were writing it, and it drives me crazy we’ll never get to see the book-length version. And a key part of the story you tell there is solid—about how the ethnographer’s body becomes his or her (mostly his, for that generation) principal instrument of research. That’s an idea I’m working with a lot these days. It’s an idea Chipchase and other like-minded design ethnographers work with too: Hearing about motorbike ownership is different than standing toe-to-toe with a vendor and haggling on price before driving off into the distance with fake license plates. Our principle, wherever possible, was to try, use and explore the boundaries of the products and services that we needed to understand (Afford Two, Eat One, p. 17).

But what’s happening that that idea of immersive, kinesthetic presence is getting pulled out of the single ethnographer—extended fieldwork model and woven into this other model, fieldwork as a collaborative sprint, that emerges earlier and then gets suppressed—maybe because Malinowski was simply personally ill-suited to it, or lacked the charisma or cultural capital to organize funding for that kind of thing at the London School of Economics. Toward the end of your life you were ruminating about the bizarre circumstances of Rivers’ death—a strangulated hernia that manifested on a Friday evening in June, 1922, just after he’d dismissed his servant for the holiday weekend. If it had happened at any other time he almost certainly would have lived, and the Rockefeller funding that went to Malinowski would have gone to him. (And if Sapir had lived, between the two of them the relationship between anthropology and psychology might look very different. To say nothing of linguistics.)

Maybe Rivers would have pushed the discipline toward a more collaborative style of fieldwork. You can see Radcliffe-Brown moving in this direction just before he leaves Sydney, drawing all his students’ findings together into the kind of survey artifact that demands a lot of feet on the ground in a relatively compressed stretch of time, like that map I found in the Sydney University Archives that I had to struggle to get reproduction rights for. Radcliffe-Brown was doing it after the fact, but it does not take much to imagine the collaborative aspect moving back into the fieldwork itself. In some ways this was the original vision behind the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, and it’s difficult to understand why Stanner did not move in this direction after 1960.

It’s also very close to the Summer Institute of Linguistics’ model from that era, as we talked and I’ve written about ad nauseam, and maybe this provides the key: by 1960, collaborative fieldwork had come to be associated with bottom-feeding and salvage (though SIL saw its own mission as anything but salvage). Serious fieldwork, the kind that formed the basis for something more than a compilation of facts about people in different places and circumstances, the kind that advanced our understanding of culture and its role in mediating human adaptation to the environment, was the province of the lone ethnographer. The Human Relations Area Files might rely on collaborative fieldwork, or SIL’s Ethnologue. But Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954), to take an example relevant to the Proximity / Radiodurans / frog / IMTFI Myanmar study, could only be the product of lone bravado. In the case of Leach, this is cooked into the book’s mythology: written from memory after he’d had his fieldnotes confiscated during the war.

(But of course this was a myth, this idea that great, or at least serious, ethnographers worked alone. A lot of these guys, certainly in Australia, went to the field with their partners. Richard Gould , in Living Archaeology notes in passing (1980, 13) that his wife’s presence was essential—she usually went out foraging with the women while he went out with the men, this was how they were able to get an account of what both groups were doing when they were not in camp. Radcliffe-Brown—then still just Brown—had Daisy Bates with him in the field in the Pilbara in 1910–12, his formative work in Australia (though they were not lovers). Sally and Ken Hale, Catherine and Ronald Berndt—the way “serious” ethnographers used heterosexual intimate relationships to support fieldwork in Australia is pretty close to how SIL assigned language sites to young couples. Aside from the gendered nature of respondent–ethnographer relationships, a couple was more likely to hold up under the isolation, environmental stressors, and culture shock of life in the field in a place like the Western Desert or the New Guinea Highlands. The major difference is that SIL publications alway credit couples as couples, whereas in serious ethnography women tend to get erased. Lyn Schumaker, another of your students, has been on this topic for a long time.)

Actually, the CAETS model doesn’t really disappear, it simply gets pushed into psychology. Sylvan Tomkin kind of revives it in the 1960s, sending his students to New Guinea to conduct experimental fieldwork that is in some ways directly descended from Rivers’ work in the Torres Strait . I talk about this in my Cabinet article on the Basic Color Terms controversy—another one I wish you’d lived to see—how Eleanor Rosch and Paul Ekman, not to mention Kay, Berlin, and Merrifield’s SIL-powered World Color Survey represent the continuation of an intellectual and methodological arc that took form around Rivers’ early fieldwork, though often with considerably less interpretative nuance. There’s something similar going on again today with the introduction of wearable sensing technologies into short-term fieldwork.

So why do I there’s something so unexpected and fascinating about the Myanmar financial inclusion study? What is really new here? Why do I so wish we could talk about it?

Well. Lately I’ve been trading emails with Alex Pang—you remember Alex—who’s working on a follow-up to The Distraction Addiction. We’re both writing books that focus on strategies of rhythmic vigilance management under a dramatic increase in the volume of cues to social synchronization we take in over the course of a day. Alex sent me a draft chapter. I can’t say too much, but basically he’s doing something very smart with a cadre of imperial science actors we know and love, showing how they exemplify many modern templates for knowledge work but diverge from present-day habits in one crucial respect: they knew how to take breaks.

Alex, I said, this is great—but where are your eclipse guys? When you talk about bouts of intensive intellectual work, you’re talking basically about desk work. But work and rest are functions not of immobilized nervous systems but of moving bodies. I think you’ve got to have a chapter on rhythms of work and rest in the field. That’s what’s going to make this book relevant to the design community.

Funny you should mention the eclipse guys, Alex writes back, I was just sketching out something on expeditions … Eclipse expeditions feel like a bit of an outlier because they have such tightly-compressed schedules.

No, I write back. The compressed timeframe is exactly what makes eclipse expeditions so relevant for contemporary patterns of work. The future of ethnographic fieldwork looks a lot more like Haddon and Rivers than Malinowski. Or Boas for that matter, or Geertz, or Leach, or to get us back to shadow economies, Carolyn Nordstrom hanging out with diamond traders on the Angolan border or stowing away in a shipping container.

The future of fieldwork looks a lot like the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits—team-based, crossdisciplinary, compressed timeframe, experimental as much as observational, leaning heavily on local fixers and truncated repertoires of English and less on the kind of trust and local networks that come from coming back to the same place over and over. This is especially true of the kind of fieldwork that, for better and worse, matters economically, the kind that highly capitalized institutions are interested in paying ethnographers to do. The rise of design as a salient way of knowing, a salient way of bearing witness to the world, is keyed to its appropriation of a style of knowledge making that found its signal expression in the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition of 1898.

You miss things if you only work this way—the register boundaries, the historical context over the longue durée, the power plays that only come to light once you’ve spent enough time in a place that the bush pilots start to open up to you. These things matter. Maybe we can find a way to work this kind of sensitivity back into short-form fieldwork. Maybe that’s a key methodological challenge for anthropology for the next twenty years. To me it feels way more urgent than, say, figuring out how to make mobile sensing play nice with participant-observation.

Riki, I wish you were here to tell me I’m full of shit. It’s 6pm on a Sunday afternoon in July. I’m sitting outside Bonanza Coffee Heroes in Oderberger Straße in Berlin. Fifty meters to my left is the entrance to the Mauerpark, where the Sunday flea market is winding down. The sky is overcast—it’s been raining the past week, monsoon-style. Babies are getting their first taste of ice cream. People are getting ready for the World Cup final, Deutschland gegen Argentinien—young women have schwarz-rot-gold hearts painted on their cheeks. From the park, across Eberswalder Straße, I can hear drumming, and over that, birdsong, and the fss-taptaptap of the barista working the espresso machine to my back. Dogs lope by, sniffing discerningly. You would like it here.

Stuff mentioned above

Berson, Josh 2013 Registers of Movement, Registers of Animacy. SemiotiX XN-11.

Berson, Josh 2014 Color Primitive. Cabinet no. 52: 41–49.

Berson, Josh 2014 Forced Desynchrony. Grain Vapor Ray, ed Katrin Klingan et al. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Berson, Josh expected 2015 Computable Bodies: Surveillance, Selfhood, and the Human Somatic Niche. London: Bloomsbury.

Blommaert, Jan 2010 The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dobrin, Lise, ed 2009 SIL International and the Disciplinary Culture of Linguistics. Language 85: 618–658.

Dobrin, Lise, and Josh Berson 2011 Speakers and Language Documentation. The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages, ed Peter Austin and Julia Sallabank, 187–211. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gould, Richard 1980 Living Archaeology Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Guyer, Jane 2004 Marginal Gains: Monetary Transactions in Atlantic Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Konvalinka, Ivana, et al 2011 Synchronized arousal between performers and related spectators in a fire-walking ritual. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108: 8514–8519.

Kuklick, Henrika 2011 Personal Equations. Isis 102: 1–33.

Kuklick, Henrika, ed 2008 A New History of Anthropology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Leach, Edmund 1954 Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nordstrom, Carolyn 2004 Shadows of War: Violence, Power, and International Profiteering in the Twenty-first Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pang, Alex 2002 Empire and the Sun: Victorian Solar Eclipse Expeditions. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Pang, Alex 2013 The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul. Boston: Little, Brown.

Proximity Designs, Studio D Radiodurans, frog Design, and the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion 2014 Afford Two, Eat One: Financial Inclusion in Rural Myanmar.

Rosch, Eleanor 1973 Natural Categories. Cognitive Psychology 4: 328–350.

Scott, James 2009 The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.