This month’s theme is about the relationships between ethnography and fiction. It is not necessarily something that we explored a lot here at Ethnography Matters, which is why it seemed an interesting topic for this September edition. Another reason to address this now is because of recent experimental ways of “doing ethnography” (e.g. the work by Ellis & Bochner or Denzin), as well as curious interdisciplinary work at the cross-roads of design, science-fiction and ethnography (e.g. design fiction).
Of course, in Anthropology, the border between ethnography and fiction has always been very thin. Consider how ethnographers have written fictional novels or made speculative films, more or less based on field research. Also think about “docufictions” by Jean Rouch, a blend of documentary and fictional film in the area of visual anthropology. There are lots of reasons for using fictional methods, but there’s a general interest in going beyond scientific format/language by making ethnographic accounts more “engaging, palatable, and effective“.
For that matter, Tobias Hecht gives a rather good definition of what we will address in this month’s edition:
Ethnographic fiction is a form that blends the fact-gathering research of an anthropologist with the storytelling imagination of a fiction writer. It is not a true story, but it aims to depict a world that could be as it is told and that was discovered through anthropological research.
What’s interesting here is that “storytelling” can take many narrative forms. Of course, a great deal of ethnographic fiction corresponds to short stories, novels, films and documentary. However, there are plenty of other possibilities. People interested in fantasy role-playing games are used to thick bestiaries of fictional creatures. In such documents, animals or monsters are described with drawings, a fictional background, statistics (frequency, magic resistance, armor class…) and a profusion of material concerning their habitat, their rituals and their behavior. The level of details provided by the authors is generally tremendous. Another interesting example here is the “Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual” by Franz Joseph. This book, presented as a collection of factual documents, presents the spacecraft of Start Trek, with uniforms, weapons, devices and military protocols. To some extent, it describes the author’s take on this fictional universe, and it’s sometimes inaccurate according to Trekkies. However, for an ethnographer like me, this manual is incredibly intriguing as it shows a peculiar way to present fieldwork, and makes me wonder about the most convincing and engaging formats.
Both role-playing game bestiaries and SciFi tech manuals are interesting because they have a certain format and use particular conventions: technical diagrams and schematics, zoological-like classification, etc. By making things appear factual they attempt to suspend the reader’s disbelief. However, they are still textual, which leads us to wonder whether other artifacts might have the same power of attraction. Obviously, there are plenty of good examples of designed objects that can count as “fictional ethnographies”: maps of fictional universes (e.g. Lord of the Rings), and museum exhibits presenting props from science fiction films can be seen as similar vehicles.
In design circles, the current interest in “design fiction” is geared towards exploring how prototyping and storytelling can benefit from each other. Design fiction use standard objects and media conventions as a way to express ideas about the future: a fake product catalogue, a map of a fictional area, a journal, a short video showing a day in the life of a person, etc. One can see design fiction as similar to science fiction in that the stories bring into focus certain matters-of-concern, such as how life is lived, questioning how technology is used and its implications, as well as speculating about the course of events… which is obviously close to what a certain kind of ethnography is interested in. This ability to flesh out the details of alternative futures can be seen as an intriguing form of speculative ethnography with a specific focus on original format.
In this edition, we’ll address ethnography and fiction with the following contributors:
- Anne Galloway, an ethnographer interested in material, visual and discursive aspects of technology, will give her perspective on design ethnography and speculative fiction.
- Laura Forlano, from the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, will address what ethnographers can learn from science fiction and speculative design. Based on examples from design and popular culture, she will explore the generative and analytic potential of “design fiction”.
- Jan-Hendrik Passoth, sociologist at TU Berlin and Nicholas Rowland, Associate Professor at PSU, will address post-ironic ethnography, reportage style and David Foster Wallace.