(E)thnographic Correspondence and Collaborative Improvisation

(E)thnographic Correspondence and Collaborative Improvisation

by Joelle Powe, Thea McRae, Christina Jones and Laith A. Ayogu.

Screenshots from virtual meetings with authors on Google Hangouts and Zoom, taken during quarantine in various locations. Screenshot by the authors, 2020.

This piece emerged from our experiences as a group of four students in an undergraduate anthropology methods course at Bard College, “Doing Ethnography.” In response to changing circumstances that rendered more conventional face-to-face forms of engagement—presumed by our methods curriculum—no longer possible, we undertook a collective reconstitution of our ethnographic projects, launching a (web)site as a platform for improvisation. This platform allowed us, and other contributors, to make sense of our virtual ethnographic inquiries into different impacts of COVID-19 on our communities at different scales—in art, education, culture, community organizing, consumerism, and the quotidian. 

However, as we embraced the flux and ambiguity of the present, we quickly discovered that we were creating something else through our mutual engagement, what we call a collaborative improvisation.

This piece takes the form of an ethnographic correspondence, rather than an analytic account of what it’s like to collaborate online. Each member of the group writes about occurrences in their daily lives, their new modes of ethnography and their engagement with the web/website. The others respond. There are vignettes of home, annotations, and tangents for new ideas—all collaged together. The piece itself is an example of how we comment on each other’s work and think together. We have left the comments to add another meaning to each of our contributions for the reader. 


Photo of Christina Jones, taken in my dormitory building one month *before* the quarantine on Bard’s campus. Photo by the author, 2020. 


As a class this semester, we learned about the assumption that the ethnographer necessarily possesses both the privilege and the socioeconomic means by which to leave the physical places in which one does research in order to return to one’s home. The “home” is separated from the “field.” As Zeng (this series) also points out, “home” is often imagined to be a physical space uncomplicated by the intellectual labor—the questions, the findings and unfindings, the unexpecteds and the happenings that make it onto paper—that are a part of what it means to engage in fieldwork. 

Now, as a Black womxn I myself have known for a long time that this idea of being able to automatically insert oneself into a space—and in so doing to both be accepted into the wallpaper of this environment and to be able to leave as one wishes —is the product of white privilege in the academy. This idea has never felt like one which I could claim, for when one is Black, no amount of money and no name-brand school in the world can change the ways in which one is extended a lack of acceptance, and an Otherness, in the spaces where one exists. As a Black person, I am hyper-aware of how I fit in with my surroundings and how I am perceived by the people around me, which causes me to engage in a kind of native ethnography no matter where I am. In thinking about doing ethnography in quarantine, I have been forced to confront the ugly truth that Black ethnographers are not afforded the option of moving into and out of spaces freely under non-pandemic circumstances, and that our Blackness pushes a kind of reflection and awareness of the self as an unavoidable part of engaging in ethnographic research.

Editorial comment from a collaborative Google Doc, made in response to an earlier draft of this section.


Photo of Joelle Powe, taken on her flight home to Jamaica on March 21, 2020 before the national borders closed.


The ability to research my community has become integral to my continued study of anthropology (and sanity) under the circumstances created by COVID-19. My family members are decision makers whose work affects large sectors of society. Their relationships with each other, their work, fears, and missions encircle me. My submissions to the website we co-convened are diary entries that I hope will share something compelling about the individuals in my life, their commitments during COVID-19 and the toll these take on them. There is no separation between my home and my fieldsite, and I never stop observing or participating. Inspired by Hurston, when I am asked to go anywhere at all, or do anything, I say yes to participating.

One Sunday, I visited some family members whose age does not permit them to understand the need for social distancing. Upstairs on the veranda table, one family member laid out COVID-19 15-minute antibody tests. These were FedEx-ed to him by a friend who works at a private lab in Canada. The tests were not approved by the Canadian government. I was appointed the second guinea pig. It was a challenge to ease the blood out of my finger to test the sample. That family member had to prick me with a sewing needle several times because the puncher the kit came with was too dull. The test was negative.

There are certainly some challenges to doing fieldwork in the home. I haven’t read any work by an anthropologist who works from home, so I feel insecure about whether I’m doing anthropology at all. My field notes are a hybrid between diary entries and ethnography. I would prefer it if nobody read them, especially my (interlocutors) family members. However, sometimes I am on the phone and I realize something that happened the day before was important. I scribble my field notes on a pad of prescription paper floating on the kitchen counter. Inevitably, my housekeeper would find it one day. It said her name. It is awkward to explain why you are writing about someone if you have never asked for permission. I tell her that I want to write about Jamaica and COVID-19. She is unphased and gives me more information right away. She avoids the bus. After leaving a taxi, she changes her clothes. Upon entering the house, she takes her shoes off. 

In “Two or Three Things I love about Ethnography,” Howell (2017) claims that anthropology will not survive if students aren’t travelling across the world and making new cultures understandable. With Jamaica’s borders closed and a JMD $1,000,000 (USD $7,100) fine threatening me if I walk six feet past my gate, doing native anthropology is survival. 

Laith, responding to Joelle: Joelle, your reflections on working from and within the home prompts me to consider a number of things, particularly the awareness of informants, defamiliarization, and the lack of division between the field and fieldnotes.

What is written into/or taken for granted in domestic-space sociality? Because of their proximity to you, is anonymity possible? Can you leverage your interpersonal relationships to assure your family (of informants) that the relatively high plausibility of their identification is generative rather than a cause for concern? In many ways I find your positionality resonates with the Berry et al.’s pronouncement that “our relationship to our research thus subverts the assumption that the field inhabits an Other/time-space, as well as the masculinist notion that the time-space of the Other is to be instrumentally penetrated and evacuated” (2017, 540). 

This subversion deals with the slippage between self and subject of study—or perhaps breaks the idea of this dichotomy entirely—by closing off the possibility of “evacuation.” The event you describe—of fieldnotes being casually found by an informant who works in the home, because the notes are at home, and the study is at home—subverts the idea that our private home spaces are a secure and separate location, distinct from our research or fieldsites. It brings me to question whether and why it is necessary to close off observations from those we are studying.

Editorial comment from a collaborative Google Doc, made in response to an earlier draft of this section.


Photo of Thea McRae, taken one month into quarantine in Newton, MA. Photo by the author, 2020.


Over the past week, I have used my iPhone about four hours a day. I’m surprised to learn that I’m down 12% from last week’s usage. Overwhelmed by the call to suddenly become a genius, and write a book, I’ve recoiled into my screen with the sinking feeling that I am not doing enough with all this time. Endless choice and open time are far too intimidating. I am paralyzed by today’s emptiness in its opportunity. Thus, I retreat to my phone, and spend hours scrolling and swiping.

Collaborator comment in a collaborative Google Doc, made in response to an early sharing of this section.

In mid-March of this year, a small group of Anthropology students at Bard College came together for what would be their final face-to-face class. Prior to interruptions brought on by the spread of COVID-19, students had been embarking on independent ethnographic research: a test-run for future large-scale projects. Day-to-day life, including our research, would have to be put on hold for an unforeseeable amount of time. In reaction to these interruptions, we have come together to work on this website in an effort to see this moment as an opportunity to document, and to do ethnography. 

The spaces that I inhabit online have become the field. As each of us personally experience the pandemic and the changes that occur in our online dialogue, we, as anthropologists-in-training, document the side-effects of online virality in a project heavily impacted by the medium. The website allows for collaboration at a distance, and provides a platform for ethnographic writing. Of course, online space as a “fieldsite” is still contentious when it comes to ethics and legitimacy. But as our lives move online, so does our work. As much as we feel interruption, we also acknowledge the opportunity for our engagement to change with this moment.

Collaborator comment in a collaborative Google Doc, made in response to an early sharing of this section

Joelle, responding to Thea: What are the spaces you have made into your fieldsite? How do you interact with them differently? What have you noticed? Is it easy to notice?

Thea, responding to Joelle: During these past few months, I have been more open to indulge in anthropological optimism. Improvisation enables the anthropologist to give into this ever-changing fieldsite; when the realities of quarantine interrupt video calls online, when attempting to plan anything in the face of constant uncertainty. Over the past few months I have been especially interested in interaction on social media platforms, and the responsibility that these platforms have in what happens online. Now, when I enter these apps, the relationship between user and admin seems more significant. By positioning themselves as the gatekeepers of information, these admins have assumed a role of great responsibility; in a moment their indifference and shirking of blame for being “disinformation-profit machines” disappears. 


“My screen on your screen on my screen…” Virtual Droste Effect on Google Hangouts, screenshot by the author, 2020.


In the face of our digital ethnographic project, we found ourselves troubled with a world abstracted. Suddenly our interactions took place through our computer screens, where we were primed with a webcam-eye view of seemed to be other totalities. And as the despair, depressions, illness, and unrest of COVID-19 developed in our own lives, what had previously been subjects of our online observations became personal. Whatever degree of access we had to others became the object of new forms of observation. Whether in our daily lives or group conference calls, our inscriptions became the substance of one another’s comparative work, creating a sort of textual Droste Effect. 

From these cascades, we sought to create something distinct and new. It proved a difficult task, as through our days in quarantine, our affects converged. Our work shifted from the production and management of an observational-, optic-, and media-based ethnographic (web)site to an interdependent appreciation of one another “looking” (Simpson 2014, 30). I am reminded of Miller (2014), who writes that humility is crucial to fieldwork. For me, this meant learning that a digital vantage point cannot be presumed as immediately available. Rather, our commentary and the consistency of our engagement with one another formed its own sort of mutual-aid network. 

During our most recent call, we reflected on the ways in which a student’s lifeway is heavily marked by the production and upkeep of work; holding one another through the breakdown in our work became an essential form of care, a new resource that we could cultivate alongside one another before learning about and engaging with what this construction meant for the other people atomized into squares on video call platforms. 


As we’ve learned firsthand, online collaboration is not clear-cut. Beyond the technical concerns—Wi-Fi, hardware, and software—the ethnographic production involves taking what are active, individual experiences across varied spatio-temporal contexts and flattening them into a more selective relation. Coalescence is not always possible, or even desirable. In this work, we have maintained—that is, we have textually represented—the effect of our collaboration in terms of this very disjuncture. Created through a dense network of media, platforms, and interactions—email threads with the series editor, Josh Babcock; a Google Drive shared with fellow contributors; and in our own document, where a variety of little bubbles, highlights, and addenda proliferate out from the body text—this in an effort to show: we are here, and we are reading and engaging alongside one another.

Berry, Maya J.; Argüelles, Claudia Chavez; Cordis, Shanya; Ihmoud, Sarah; Estrada, Elizabeth Velásquez. 2017. “Toward a Fugitive Anthropology: Gender, Race, and Violence in the Field.” Cultural Anthropology 32(4): 537–565.

Gupta, Akhil and Ferguson, James. 1997. “Discipline and Practice: ‘The Field’ as Site, Method, and Location in Anthropology.” In Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science, edited by Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, pp 1-40. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Miller, Daniel. 2017. “Anthropology is the Discipline but the Goal is Ethnography.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7(1): 27–31.

Howell, S., 2017. “Two or Three Things I Love About Ethnography.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7(1): 15–20.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press.


Joelle Powe B.A.’22, is in her second year at Bard College, from Jamaica, studying Anthropology. Thea McRae B.A.’21 follows the interdisciplinary trend and is studying Anthropology and Studio Arts. Christina Jones B.A.’21 is in her third year at Bard College Conservatory of Music, where she is pursuing a dual degree in Anthropology and Cello Performance. Laith A. Ayogu B.A.’21 is a South African transnational student studying Anthropology with a multimodal approach through poetry, film, and electronic arts.

One Reply to “(E)thnographic Correspondence and Collaborative Improvisation”

  1. Dear Gang of Four, good initiative. I am an elderly anthropologist from Canada living in Norway. I have used the pandemic to fictionalize some of the anti colonial work I did on my historical anth doctorate many years ago. I wonder if any others are interested in taking ethnography into the arts in such a manner? Also, any discussion of using fiction in teaching would be interesting. I am, of course, unpublished…