Article Comments: “Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography”

Marcus, G. 1995. “Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography”, Annual Reviews in Anthropology, 24:95-117


In 1995, George Marcus wrote about the emergent propensity of scholars to explain and describe local cultural logics in a context of interconnected sites. In essence, local logics that could be explained only with respect to a system of cultural reproduction which extends beyond the specific location designated by other intensive, single-sited ethnographic work. (1995: 96). Marcus’ work has remained significant in modern anthropology, particularly as works regarding human and non-human interaction receives more scrutiny, both in the contexts of ecological anthropology, and more technologically-oriented work in design and material culture.

From a methodological perspective, Marcus reviews contemporary literature on this genre of multi-sited ethnography whose fundamental premise is similar to actor-network theory: a kind of “following” of people, things, metaphors, allegories, lives, and conflicts that breed the connections and associations which constitute this broader system (1995: 97, 105-106). In his review, Marcus points to three “methodological anxieties” concerning this approach to ethnography (1995: 99):

1) That multi-sited ethnography should not be understood as a an attempt at a holistic representation of the world as a system, but rather it should be a description of a kind of system of cultural production which transcends the local-global contrast – one which is made possible by that very transcendence (1995: 99);

2) That multi-sited ethnography requires a kind of translation between knowledges of broader fields, i.e. that ethnographic research where a discourse is produced, versus on the ground where it has a lasting effect, are brought together into the same frame to posit their relationship (1995: 100);

3) that multi-sited ethnography may replace the typically-emphasized perspective of the subaltern for the sake of asking questions more amenable to other domains of cultural production and processes (1995: 101-102).

We can see this kind of perspective in works that look at distinctly trans-regional things (e.g. migration, communication, economics, etc.), but we can also use it to better understand to challenge assumptions about the boundaries of processes and actions. We can see it at work in abstract values like modernity (which is dependent on relationships of “us and them” on an international scale), or in internet subcultures that exist precisely because they are unbound in a geographical sense. In these examples, it is the very fact that we cannot effectively demarcate the geographical and even disciplinary boundaries of actions which makes them possible.

Marcus’ review implicates the work of authors like Harraway, Tsing, Mintz, and others, and can be taken as a methodological comment on how to read those pieces and what they are saying about the systems of cultural reproduction that they make as their objects of analysis. It presents opportunities to muse about other things to follow: ideologies or even silences. Marcus’s work is extremely compatible with actor-network theory as both seek to follow connections, and translate the presences of things into structures of cultural reproduction. Additionally, both perspectives necessitate the reflexivity of the ethnographer.

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