philo carpenter title image.jpeg.001Ethnography, especially as an anthropological method, has borrowed much from philosophy. Clifford Geertz started his career in philosophy but later switched to anthropology. His concept of thick description explicitly owes much to the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s work in the essay “The Thinking of Thoughts What Is ‘Le Penseur’ Doing?” . It is difficult today to read a paper or monograph in the social sciences without references to notable philosophers such as Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Karen Barad, Martin Heidegger and so on. However, such a cross-pollenation from anthropology into philosophy is less commonly seen. I suspect this is because as practitioners, philosophers spend most of their time analyzing arguments as logical structures. They tend to start from ‘intuitions’ that is to say, their own experience, and then argue and deconstruct the language they use to convey those ideas. This is not to say that all philosophy does is identify contradictions in arguments. But it does suggest that other sources of propositions might be valuable to identify live philosophical questions. One example is Joshua Knobe’s work on experimental philosophical (X-Phil) which builds on studies drawn from the social science discipline of psychology.

Cultural anthropology derives much of its results from ethnographic research. Typically, ethnographers define a site (an area, a community, or a practice for example) then they embed themselves, writing as deeply as possible about their observations. These observations must include their own reactions and responses while in the field. This self-reflexivity is similar to the use of ‘intuitions’ in philosophical research.

I’m going argue that both first and second hand ethnographic accounts would be a good source for philosophical propositions. This is because these are live accounts. There is no possibility of unbelievable or abstract accounts in a well-done ethnography. It is possible that a germane point is missed, or even mis-interpreted. But properly done, an ethnography resides in the lived world. This ‘live’ character lends itself to believability, which some examples, such as Philippa Foote’s infamous Trolley Problem seem perhaps less than likely. I hasten to add, that this is not to denigrate the sharp logic to be found in philosophy’s use of sentential logic, but rather, use of live, real-world data  drawn from other fields of study offers additional depth to the discipline.

The concept of “liveness” is drawn from Henry James’ lecture “The Will to Believe”. He argued that hypothesis can be accounted as:

  • Live–meaning a hypothesis is believable. This places the quality of liveness in the viewer, not the phenomena.
  • Forced–meaning a hypothesis is a logical disjunction. It is not possible for the hypothesis or its negation to both be true, nor is it possible for both the hypothesis and its negation to be false.
  • Momentous–meaning the decision resulting would be unique(“Once in a lifetime), of great significance(“life changing”, and/or irreversible (“life or death”)

The college professor, Gerry Lavallee, who taught the first philosophy course I ever took, argued these could be defining characteristics for a philosophical problem. While I am not certain these are exhaustive or exclusionary, I’m willing to accept them as sufficient to define a hypothesis as a philosophical problem, at least for now. Let us consider ‘liveness’ in relation to philosophy and ethnography.

Ethnographic research should provide information that is intrinsically ‘live’, following from this definition. Indeed, that is the whole point of ethnography: to provide deep, thoughtful interpretation of how people live. This accounts must be believable stories of people and their communities. This clearly provides fecund ground for research into ethics, but I would suggest that epistemology and hence ontology and metaphysics are also suggested. The reason is that if human behaviour is part of the world, then any ontology or metaphysics should be able to account for it.

If a phenomena exists, that is to say, it has at least objective recognition, then any argument that argues for its non-existence can be challenged strongly on the grounds that it is ‘forced’, as it exists. Conversely, we can observe that if it has other possibilities than a simple disjunction, then the hypothesis must be abandoned or revised. James illustrates this with the negative example “Choose between going out with your umbrella or staying in” is not a forced choice as you could leave without the umbrella. His positive example is “Accept this truth or do not accept this truth”. Anything but acceptance is ‘not accept’. Such a hypothesis is forced. It is also perhaps the most technically philosophical of the three criteria. A hypothesis that doesn’t form a logical disjunction would require refinement or restatement if not out-right rejection.

A momentous hypothesis would require that it describes something of great significance in life. Thus it would well be revealed in the lived experience of those involved as participants in ethnographic research.  Most ethnographic accounts attempt to discover patterns that are momentous in the lives of their participants. Generally, birth, marriage and death rituals, as well as how work and play are performed are of great import to those involved. Other specific activities may be great relevance to one’s place in a community. Unique events may be described, but also ones that are mark a significant change and irreversible change is one’s life. To be sure, not all accounts in ethnographies are entirely momentous. Much of such account may describe distinctions that are trivial. The choice of colour of a car isn’t likely to make a significant difference in one’s life. On the other hand, when one is considered an adult in the eyes of their community is an example of a significant and irreversible change in a life. The privileges that accrue with that entail new responsibilities. Take for example the granting of a driver’s permit in Canada. This allows a range of new freedom’s but also responsibilities to drive safely, follow the rules of the road and so on. One may take a job farther away, or explore sexual relationships away from parental surveillance. On the other hand, the suspension of these privileges can curtail job opportunities, create a huge social gap due to shame, or initiate other strife within families, for example.

We can easily believe an Canadian man whose driver’s permit is suspended for DUI may lose his job, as he can’t get to work. He may be humiliated by his transgression. His partner and family may be extremely angry or upset with him, leading to family break up. Such reactions are entirely believable, are built around a forced decision(being intoxicated, one decided to drive rather than deciding not to drive while intoxicated). The care required with stating the hypothesis so that it is a true disjunction is perhaps  the most critical argument for considering this a philosophical problem. But this question “Should you decide to drive while intoxicated, or not?” can be discussed in terms of the live and momentous characteristics which are conveyed in ethnographies. Thus a philosophical problem can benefit from ethnographic accounts.


Pamela Tudge ” What we waste: Subverting domestic food practices with experimental creation-based methodologies” Workshop at COLLEEX 16 July 2017


This blog post arose from my reflection on the first COLLEEX workshop on experimental ethnography, which I attended last week in Lisbon. I benefitted from the responses to a specifically philosophical presentation I gave on the relationship between making objects and the philosophical possibilities that this offered, and to a joint presentaion I did with a colleague from our group who are studying Canadian women who drive long-haul trucks. The breadth of issues being examined gave me much food for thought


Aryana Soliz presenting The Vibrant Gallery: An Experiment in Remaking Ethnographic Praxis “Elizabeth White and Aryana Soliz” . One of two that Aryana gave over the duration of the workshop.

and inspired me to begin to make a broader argument for philosopher’s benefitting from ethnographic studies, or indeed, making their own.