Methods as Unusual

How do we make concepts? How do we use them as methodological tools?

Extending the conversations that began in the Mellon Sawyer Seminar Indigenous Cosmopolitics: Dialogues about the Reconstitution of Worlds, UC Davis Professor of Anthropology Marisol de la Cadena has organized a workshop series to explore concepts as methods.

“Methods as Unusual” is a workshop series led by visiting distinguished scholars Hugh Raffles, Annemarie Mol, Anand Pandian, and Kathleen Stewart to generate questions and analysis on the relationship between the objects we study, the concepts we use to study them, and how that constitutes a method. de la Cadena explains, “The Sawyer Seminar yielded the idea that the concepts we use to think with are very important – I think of this as method.”

In her introduction to the series on March 2nd, de la Cadena noted that graduate students in anthropology complete a course on writing methods, but that the “methods you write about in those proposals are not the methods that allow you to think—they allow you collect information, not to think about how your collection and the information make each other, and implicitly—i.e. without your consent (!!)—shape your thought.” It is time to question and challenge any assumption that methods are merely tools to collect data, she continued.

“What would ethnography end up being if the methods get ‘scratched’?” de la Cadena said. What if “‘methods as usual’ get wounded, deleted, and eventually used as tools to think?”

“Methods as Unusual” is an opportunity to replace the simple practice of data collection with the idea that it is a practice of generating concepts—it is a practice of thinking through/with what we are “collecting.” Each workshop session is intended to produce conversation between the invited speaker and the workshop participants, each of whom is encouraged to bring their own data/concepts for discussion.

At the first workshop event, Hugh Raffles, professor of anthropology at the New School, shared with the group a set of stones he is thinking and working with. He explained that his book project began with a “question/problem/insight” about the “liveliness of stones” even though, paradoxically, they are notably lifeless objects. By starting with the question and the object as an “orienting device” Raffles explored what stones tell us about landscapes, alternative realities, and value through a set of case studies, or, specific stones.

Raffles summarized his project and how he conceptualized the structure and boundaries of his research, and workshop participants asked him specifically about his writing process, method, and problematics in the research process.

de la Cadena intends for the “Methods as Unusual” events to engage deeply with its participants, who are not just audience, but also authors. During Raffles’ visit to campus, he also delivered a guest lecture in an undergraduate course, met with graduate students, and joined UC Davis professors Tim Choy and Joseph Dumit in a roundtable discussion titled, “Stone/Image, Air/Suspension, Body/Improvisation: Experiments in Contact and Composition.”

“Methods as Unusual” continues in the spring quarter with visits from Annemarie Mol (April 20), Anand Pandian (April 27), and Kathleen Stewart (May 4). Consider attending the workshop series – in the Andrews Conference Room from 4-6pm – or any other related events with these guests. Workshop papers are pre-circulated, so please RSVP to Marie McDonald if you plan on attending.

– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies