The method of the real: What do we intend with ethnographic infrastructure?

Bill Maurer


What is the source of ethnographic truth? One might just as well ask what is the real economy, for neither has a clear-cut empirical referent. Critical efforts to counter economic abstractions or finance’s fictions often seek a grounding truth in something “real.” In anthropology, this has meant variously the household (oikos) or kinship, or the lived experiences that ethnography supposedly evokes. But none of these concepts are innocent. This essay considers efforts like this special colloquium in Hau and allied projects like the Gens Manifesto, by way of a detour through method acting and the history of other anthropological attempts to theorize the connections among different economic formations. The focus on the real economy falters wherever there are seams or articulations among diverse or plural practices delimited as economic. Ethnography falters when we see it as a representation of a reality rather than as a bridge permitting conversions from one form of action to others. The question, Does capitalism depend on noncapitalist forms, is analogous to the question, Does ethnography depend on an underlying lived experience? This essay suggests that these are the wrong questions. Asking the right ones might mean taking a page from the scripts of the players in ethnographic stories who are always engaged in different games, simultaneously or sequentially, and permitting ourselves the same allowance.


economic anthropology, ethnography, empiricism, feminism, history of anthropological theory

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/698219