Going full frontal, or, the elision of lateral comparison in anthropology

In September 2015, I gave at the Sawyer Seminar The History of Cross-Cultural Comparatism: Modern doubts and new beginnings organised at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. It focuses on the heuristic distinction between 'frontal' and 'lateral' modalities of comparison in anthropology. A french translation of the original paper, by Franck Lemonde, is forthcoming in L'Homme, issue 218. Read the pre-print (in English) here

A related piece entitled 'We have never been pluralist', which takes up parts of this discussion, but focuses specifically on the ontological turn, is forthcoming in an edited volume by Gildas Salmon, Pierre Charbonnier and Peter Skafish.


[Picture credit: Goldsmiths tools, Pforzheim Jewellery Museum, from  'Things Organised Neatly' http://thingsorganizedneatly.tumblr.com/image/43989943323 ]


The detachment volume is out. Read the introduction here.

Candea M., J. Cook, C. Trundle & T. Yarrow (ed.) 2015.Detachment: Essays on the Limits of Relational Thinking. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

This volume urges a reconsideration of the productive potential of disconnection, distance and detachment, as ethical, methodological and philosophical commitments. In so doing, we write against the grain of a strong tendency in contemporary social theory and public life.

Engagement has, in a wide range of contexts, become a definitive and unquestionable social good, one that encompasses or abuts with a number of other seductive cultural tropes, such as participation, democracy, voice, equality, diversity and empowerment. Conversely, detachment has come to symbolise a range of social harms: authoritarianism and hierarchy, being out of touch, bureaucratic coldness and unresponsiveness, a lack of empathy, and passivity and inaction. Yet as this book argues, in a wide range of settings detachment is still socially, ethically and politically valued, and the relationship between detachment and engagement is not simple or singular.


Source: http://www.mateicandea.net/wp-content/uplo...

Multi-Sited Ethnography

Below is the pre-print text of my entry on Multi-Sited Ethnography, in Barnard and Spencer's Routledge Encyclopaedia of Social and cultural anthropology. Multi-sited Ethnography

Multi-sited ethnography is commonly used to designate (and amalgamate) two things which we will here attempt to distinguish:

the first is the practice of  pursuing ethnographic fieldwork in more than one geographical location. The second is the complex – and ongoing – methodological discussion which has coalesced around George Marcus’ coinage of the phrase in 1995.



The practice of ethnographic work in more than one place long pre-existed Marcus’s intervention. Even Malinowski’s foundational Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1992) is written partly as a narrative of voyage and movement, following a complex economic practice from location to location, with asides on different cultural and social arrangements encountered ‘along the way’ (The Amphletts, Dobu, etc…). Evans Pritchard’s The Nuer (1940), another incontrovertible classic, makes clear from the outset the multiple and indeed patchy nature of the author’s ethnographic encounters with Nuer in different locations.

At the level of practice, then, the picture of ‘traditional’ anthropology as unthinkingly single-sited is a rather facile retrospective projection. Proponents of multi-sitedness were correct, however, in identifying the single site as a key element of the discipline’s ‘research imaginary’ (Marcus, 1999a, p. 10): throughout much of the 20th century, anthropological ethnography had arguably come with a sense that the ‘the field’ should be a single place to which the ethnographer went and from which they returned. This single-sited research imaginary can in part be traced to the rejection of the late-19th century sampling model of research by early theorists such as Rivers, whose call for holistic single-locale research was popularised (and appropriated) with such success by Malinowski (Stocking, 1983). One notable exception, which prefigures many of the later concerns of multisitedness, was the ‘extended case’ methodology developed by Max Gluckman and the ‘Manchester School’ (Gluckman, 1958; Van Velsen, 1967).

By the late 80s, arguments about the rhetorical artificiality of single-sited holism on the one hand (Thornton, 1988), and on the other, an increasing concern with global interconnectedness – be it in the form of an engouement with flow, movement and ‘globalisation’ (Appadurai, 1991), or in the worries of Neo-Marxist critics for whom only an understanding of the ‘world system’ or ‘global political economy’ could give meaning and political relevance to the local (Wallerstein, 1979; Wolf, 1983; Mintz, 1985) – had chipped away at the bases of ethnographic authority and the relevance of anthropological knowledge, ‘traditionally’ construed.



In response, Marcus’ 1995 article proposed ‘multi-sited ethnography’ as a name for modes of research which collapse the distinction between the local site and the global system, thereby challenging the division of labour separating the ‘fieldsite’ as province of the ethnographer from the more abstract ‘context’ which requires the different tools of the economist or the political scientist. The multi-sited ethnographer should identify ‘systemic’ realities in ‘local’ places, studying the world system directly on the ground; this requires a willlingness to leave behind the bounded fieldsite and follow people, stories, metaphors, or objects, as they themselves travel from place to place, and move between different media (In this Marcus was himself explicitly following the lead of contemporary work in science and technology studies Latour, 1987).

The promise of multisitedness then, was, far beyond the simple multiplication of fieldsites, a new language of relevance and a new form of authority for ethnographic knowledge. At its best, such as in Petryna’s account of the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster (2002), multi-sited ethnography allowed an ethographic engagement with seemingly large-scale entities such as ‘bioethics’ and ‘international scientific debate’, without jeopardising the intimate portrayal of people’s lives. By opening up the term ‘site’ to a range of meanings beyond that of a mere geographical location (a ‘site’ could be an archive, ‘the media’, or a geographically dispersed population of practitioners), multi-sitedness also allowed those who engaged fully with the experimental potential of the method to craft self-consciously innovative and unconventional anthropological projects (Matsutake Worlds Research Group, 2009).

More common, unfortunately, as critic Hage noted (2005), was a mechanical application of the principle of extending ethnography over more than one site, associated with the somewhat fuzzy sense that this is an evident response to ‘(post-)modernity’, a state in which people move more and things are more connected. The ubiquity of such unreflexive appeals to multi-stedness, led to a range of critical responses to Marcus’s coinage.



The most common concern has been that multi-sitedness, by spreading the ethnographer too thinly across space, jeopardises anthropology’s commitment to depth and thick description (see for instancePedelty & Hannerz, 2004), or more pointedly, that multi-sited anthropology’s new aspirations might undermine its regard for subjects’ own understandings of context and emplacement (Englund et al., 2000). While this is an important corrective, there may also be cases in which the kind of ‘thickness’ and emplacement associated with traditional ethnographic accounts is not unproblematically a feature of the life and knowledge of people who are themselves mobile or multi-sited, such as international migrants: “understanding the shallow may itself be a form of depth” (Falzon, 2009a, p. 9; see also Candea, n.d.). Recent discussions also explore the complex effect of time (and not just space) on the ‘thickness’ of multi-sited ethnographic projects (Falzon, 2009b).

A related concern emerged that multi-sitedness would lead to an ethical disengagement, severing the roaming anthropologist from his or her ‘constituency’. This charge, like the former, was predicted by Marcus who, in subsequent redefinitions of multi-sitedness, devoted increasing attention to questions of engagement, complicity and collaboration (Marcus, 1999b; Marcus, 2009).

Other critiques took issue with conceptual rather than practical or ethical implications, focusing in particular on the relation between parts and wholes in multi-sitedness. Hage (2005) dismisses multi-sited research as an actual impossibility, proposing instead the concept of a single discontinuous site. Candea (2007) argues that the ‘research imaginary’ of multi-sitedness remains holistic in its suggestion that the local site is unsatisfactorily ‘incomplete’, and calls as a corrective, for a methodological attention to productive ways of cutting (and not just expanding) ethnographic vistas. The broader problem was succintly summarised by Michael Herzfeld: ‘The term “multi-sited ethnography […] suffers from the same oversimplifiation of the notion of fieldwork location as does the term “globalization”. When are sites separate, different, or otherwise distinguishable?’ (2004 n58, p216; For a sophisticated engagement with this problem which distinguishes between space, place and field, see Cook, Laidlaw, & Mair, 2009).


Despite, or indeed because of these various critiques, the main achievement of Marcus’ coinage has been to expand, not our ‘carbon footprint’ (Falzon, 2009a, p. 2), but rather the scope of anthropological debates on the methodological, ethical and philosophical implications of fieldwork location.


Published as: Candea, M. (2009) Multi-sited Ethnography. In Routledge encyclopedia of social and cultural anthropology, (Eds, Barnard, A. & Spencer, J.) Routledge, London ; New York, pp. 485-486.







Appadurai, A. 1991. Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology. In R. G. Fox (Ed.). Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present. Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research Press, 191-209.

Candea, M. 2007. Arbitrary Locations: In defence of the bounded field-site. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 13, 167-184.

Candea, M. n.d. Fragments of Corsica: Difference, belonging and the intimacies of fieldwork. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Englund, H., Leach, J., Davies, C. A., Gupta, A., Meyer, B., Robbins, J. et al. 2000. Ethnography and the Meta-Narratives of Modernity 1. Current Anthropology. 41(2), 225-248.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1940. The Nuer: A description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people.

Falzon, M.-A. 2009a. Introduction: Multi-sited Ethnography: Theory, Praxis and Locality in Contemporary Research. In M.-A. Falzon (Ed.). Multi-sited ethnography : theory, praxis and locality in contemporary research. Aldershot, Hants, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 1-24.

Falzon, M.-A. (Ed.). 2009b. Multi-sited ethnography : theory, praxis and locality in contemporary research. Aldershot, Hants, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Gluckman, M. 1958. Analysis of a social situation in modern Zululand. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Hage, G. 2005. A not so multi-sited ethnography of a not so imagined community. Anthropological Theory. 5(4), 463.

Herzfeld, M. 2004. The body impolitic : artisans and artifice in the global hierarchy of value. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cook, J., Laidlaw, J., & Mair, J. 2009. What if there is no elephant?: towards a Conception of an un-sited Field. In M.-A. Falzon (Ed.). Multi-sited ethnography : theory, praxis and locality in contemporary research. Aldershot, Hants, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 47-72.

Latour, B. 1987. Science in action : how to follow scientists and engineers through society. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Malinowski, B. 1992. The Argonauts of the Western Pacific: an Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Marcus, G. 1995. Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology. 24, 95-117.

Marcus, G. 1999a. Introduction: Anthropology on the Move. In G. Marcus (Ed.). Ethnography through Thick and Thin. Princeton: Princeton University Press,

Marcus, G. 1999b. The Uses of Complicity in the Changing Mise-en-Scene of Anthropological Fieldwork (1997). In G. Marcus (Ed.). Ethnography through thick and thin(59). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 105-131.

Marcus, G. 2009. Multi-sited Ethnography: Notes and Queries. In M.-A. Falzon (Ed.). Multi-sited ethnography : theory, praxis and locality in contemporary research. Aldershot, Hants, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 181-196.

Matsutake Worlds Research Group. 2009. strong Collaboration as a Method for Multi-sited ethnography: on Mycorrhizal relations. In M.-A. Falzon (Ed.). Multi-sited ethnography : theory, praxis and locality in contemporary research. Aldershot, Hants, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 197-214.

Mintz, S. W. 1985. Sweetness and power : the place of sugar in modern history. New York: Viking Penguin.

Pedelty, M. & Hannerz, U. 2004. Review: Parachute Anthropology? Anthropological Quarterly. 77(2), 339-348.

Petryna, A. 2002. Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Stocking, G. W. 1983. The Ethnographer's Magic: Fieldwork in British Anthropology from Tylor to Malinowski. In G. W. Stocking (Ed.). Observers Observed: Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press,

Thornton, R. 1988. The Rhetoric of Ethnographic Holism. Cultural Anthropology. 3(3), 285-303.

Van Velsen, J. 1967. The Extended-Case Method and Situational Analysis. In A. L. Epstein (Ed.). The Craft of Social Anthropology. London: Tavistock, 129-149.

Wallerstein, I. M. 1979. The capitalist world-economy : essays. Cambridge Paris: Cambridge University Press Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme.

Wolf, E. 1983. Europe and the people without history. Berkeley: University of California Press.


A review of Latour & Lépinay on Tarde

Published as Candea 2012. “Review: Latour, B. and V. A. Lépinay (2009) The science of passionate interests : an introduction to Gabriel Tarde's economic anthropology.” IN JRAI 18(12) 506-507 Gabriel Tarde was an unflinching adept of what Everett Hughes has termed ‘theoretical fantasy’ (1961:556). In the fourth chapter of his massive opus Psychologie Économique (1902:26-29), Tarde pauses briefly to consider quite seriously the potential long-term trends in international political economy... if the earth were flat! His surprising conclusions I leave to the interested reader. In The science of Passionate interests, Bruno Latour and Vincent Antonin Lépinay consider a slightly less implausible counterfactual: what if Tarde’s Psychologie Economique had been taken up by practical and theoretical followers and had shaped the history of political economy, while Karl Marx’s Das Kapital fell into oblivion, only to be rediscovered today by sceptical or amazed readers? This “little essay in historical fiction” (1) gives an inkling of how Tarde’s forgotten opus might be read today if – as has in fact happened with Das Kapital – it had benefitted from generations of admiring commentators to smooth out its rough edges, extend its concepts through new theoretical language, and retrospectively highlight its prescience. In the process, Latour and Lépinay have succeeded in that most anthropological of tasks, namely to make strange what we thought we knew: about “political economy” first of all, and more generally about “everything that has happened to us in the past two hundred years and that we have far too hastily summarized under the name of “capitalism’” (5).

This orientation explains why, while the book offers a thought-provoking introduction to the substance and concerns of the century-old treatise in economic sociology, its aim is not primarily to give a critical contextualisation of the book nor of Tarde’s work more generally. While the authors contrast Tarde to Polanyi, Bourdieu, Marx or Adam Smith, and connect him to Darwin, Leibniz, Sahlins or Deleuze, their introduction is not seeking to ‘situate’ and thereby tame the majestic weirdness of Tarde’s Psychologie Économique, but on the contrary, to highlight the “strangeness of a book which will allow [the reader] to gain a new grasp on economics.” (67).


And Tarde’s ‘economic psychology’ certainly proves to be productively strange. Part I of Latour and Lépinay's book, entitled “It is because the economy is subjective that it is quantifiable”, outlines the Tardean challenge to the economic science of his day, and in particular his heretical proposal to decouple quantification from objectivity and distance. Tarde sees economic notions of value as metonymic of the more general phenomenon of ‘interpsychological’ give and take of ‘passionate interests’ (7-13, 24). In this respect, the authors argue, Tarde went much further than later attempts to ‘embed’ the economy in the social, or to add ‘extra-economic’ factors as modifiers upon the rational, calculating individual: everything in Tarde’s economy is ‘extra-economic’ (24), passionate, irrational, (inter-)subjective. And economics must, paradoxically, become more quantitative and more scientific by getting closer to, not further away from, these passionate interests (20-32).

Having disposed of the ‘discipline’ (32) of economics, the second part of the book traces Tarde’s substantive re-theorisation of the economy itself. In elucidating his counterintuitive account of capital and labour (for Tarde, ‘conversation’ is an essential production factor, and the essence of capital lies in the ‘inventions’ of which material objects are but an auxiliary, albeit useful, outcome - 46-56), the authors show convincingly that what looks like a strange ‘idealism’ when read through the old dichotomy of infrastructure and superstructure, seems strikingly prescient in the redistributed material-semiotic world of hardware and software, biotechnology and viral marketing. The authors trace Tarde’s similarly counterintuitive way of ‘naturalising’ the economy, while ‘socialising’ nature (42-46): in Tarde’s political economy as in his version of Darwinism, the immanent hope of symbiosis replaces the transcendent law of improvement through ‘vital conflict’.

This theme forms the center-piece of the third part of the book, “Economics without providence”, in which the authors contrast Tarde’s approach to political economy with the providentialism inherent in both liberal ‘laissez faire’ – with its crypto-religious belief in the Invisible Hand (71-74) – and in the all-too-visible hand of state socialism (74-79). By contrast to both of these beliefs in a transcendent harmonization, Tarde is presented here as an “agnostic” (5, 81). Not a post-modern apostle of chaos, but a cautious proponent of the immanent powers of harmonization present in every entity’s artifices and interventions. The book’s final sentence sums up the simultaneously methodological, ontological and ethical/political import of Tarde’s economic anthropology, as rendered by Latour and Lépinay: “[I]t is from the free play of passionate interests that [Tarde] expects more quantification, which is to say more social connections, to “‘card chaos into a world’” (87).

The formulation also gives a sense of how much the Tarde we encounter today owes to the current of thought characterized as Actor Network Theory – just as anthropology students in the 90s encountered Marx through practice theory. “No one seems to have chosen Tarde as his sociological ancestor” wrote Everett Hughes, adding “I recommend him as at least an uncle who is generous with his ideas” (1961:559). Four decades later, Bruno Latour claimed Tarde as the grandfather of ANT (2002). It will fall to readers to decide, in the light of this captivating and provocative little book, whether the real, spherical world would have been a better place, and political economy a better science, had Tarde’s unbroken lineage, rather than Marx’s, presided over the 20th century. Either way, the great merit of Latour and Lépinay’s introduction is to give us a glimpse of that conceptual generosity, at a time when anthropology, and the social sciences more generally, are greatly in need of new ‘theoretical fantasies’ to help unsettle the vocabulary of contemporary political economy, from ‘global capitalism’ through to ‘neoliberalism’.


Hughes, E.C. (1961) 'Tarde's Psychologie Economique: An Unknown Classic by a Forgotten Sociologist'. The American Journal of Sociology, 66(6), 553-559.

Latour, B. (2002) 'Gabriel Tarde and the end of the social'. In The Social in Question: New bearings in history and the social sciences, (Ed, Joyce, P.) Routledge, London, pp. 117-132.

Tarde, G. (1902) Psychologie économique. F. Alcan, Paris.

Tarde, G. (2007) 'Economic psychology'. Economy and Society, 36(4), 614-643