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Mateo Candea’s intriguing defence of the bounded field site

December 15, 2009

It is not often that I come across a defence of boundedness as an operating principle of anthropological field research – one notable exception being Boellstorff’s (2008) ethnography of the 3D virtual world Second Life as a bounded domain.  This is what Tessa Valo over at antropologi.info has to say about Mateo Candea’s chapter “Arbitrary Locations: In Defense of the Bounded Field-Site” in the 2009 volume Multi-Sited Ethnography: Theory, Praxis and Locality in Contemporary Research, edited by Mark-Anthony Falzon:

Candea targets in his critique what he sees as a latter-day implicit holism. This is to be found in “a suggestion that bursting out of our field-sites will enable us to provide an account of totality ‘out there’” (ibid: 27). He challenges this implicit holistic idea through his proposal to reconsider the value of the delimited field-sites. He argues that ethnography is about setting up ‘arbitrary locations’, he urges us to opt for ‘self-imposed restrictions’ and to take the path of ‘self-limitation’; to be reflexive and self-critical in our methodological decisions, to take responsibility for those decisions and to take responsibility for what we include and what we exclude.

He believes that being “explicit about the necessity of leaving certain things ‘out of bounds’” would turn “what feels like an illicit incompleteness into an actual methodological decision, one which the ethnographer reflects upon and takes responsibility for” (ibid:34). Arbitrary location for Candea is “not an object to be explained, but a contingent window into complexity” (ibid: 37).

Even though the title might mislead some, Candea’s article should not be read as an attack on multi-sited ethnography, rather, it views ‘multi-sited’ as a positive development, a development which brought a new wave of methodological reflexivity. And it is on this wave of methodological reflexivity that Candea’s article is sailing and challenging the imagined totality of ‘cultural formations’.

Candea’s article is one of those that push you to think further, and whatever your opinion might be, it definitely makes you sit down and rethink your own approach to multi-sited ethnography, though maybe in a different direction than his.

I am reminded here of the Manchester School of anthropology and their position about the limits of ‘social fields’ being invariably arbitrary and tied to the researcher’s aims, see the 1966 volume Political Anthropology. For his part, Bourdieu is more ambiguous about the ontology of field boundaries, see his conversation with Wacquant in An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology.  (NB – in both these cases we’re dealing with ‘fields’ as both specialist domains of practice  AND research settings.)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2009 5:23 pm

    I’m just thinking that this seems to be yet another example of the current anthropological paradigm when it comes to boundedness, namely that boundaries are always arbitrary constructions. The trouble with this paradigmatic assumption is that it does not allow us to place the social domains we study along a continuum that runs from tightly bounded domains at one end to highly loose domains at the other end, with most social domains lying somewhere in between. By this mean I mean to suggest that not all social domains are equal in their (un)boundedness. For instance, cinema audiences are far more physically bounded than YouTube audiences, at least while they are viewing the film.

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