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Social Anthropology

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.







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