Multimodal Anthropology? Photo by Janine Prins; drawing by Cécile Flipo

Multimodal Anthropology?

In his blog series, visual anthropologist Mark Westmoreland sets out to explore the new vibrant mode of scholarship called multimodal anthropology, and what it means for (visual) anthropology. This is part one.

‘A vibrant mode of scholarship’

Practice-based research has emerged as a vibrant mode of scholarship at the intersection of scientific methodologies and aesthetic experience. While bolstered by the emergence of numerous doctoral programs in artistic research (doing research through art rather than research on art) such as PhDArts, the valuation of research through non-textual means echoes concerns at the core of visual anthropology.

Both the Society for Visual Anthropology and the Commission on Visual Anthropology have published statements on the evaluation of ethnographic visual media. While these positions have largely been restricted to the legacy of ethnographic cinema and photography, there is good reason to expand these frameworks in order to be more aware and inclusive of a range of practice-based research approaches.

Need for broader frameworks

While different modes of enquiry from drawing to soundscapes have enabled anthropologists to grasp and communicate the individuality, collectivity, and alterity of human experience in dynamic and multifaceted ways, the accessibility and ubiquity of new networked technologies have simultaneously altered the way anthropologists conduct and share their research.

Furthermore, the expanded ways in which ethnographic research enters into public discussions and debates is also responding to the professional imperative for both public relevancy and scholarly impact. The array of textual and extra-textual modalities thus require broader frameworks for evaluating these more expansive modes of knowledge production.

Recognizing how these shifting media ecologies have begun to radically transform the context of anthropological research, as well as the relationships between anthropologists, their collaborators, and broader publics, the American Anthropologist recently relaunched its Visual Anthropology section as Multimodal Anthropologies. Neither blindly championing new technology nor dismissing its potential for generating unique insights, multimodal anthropologies should compel us to critically evaluate and experimentally engage such trends.

360° video

The rising popularity and accessibility of 360° video, for instance, makes immersive and virtual reality experiences a new frontier for educational and research interfaces, but this nascent field carries assumptions that echo the positivistic ideologies that accompanied the advent of photographic technologies in earlier eras. 360° video assumes a comprehensive vision of the world from an unembodied and unfocalized vantage point. The claim to see in every direction presumes a machine-based objectivity. We should thus be dubious of the promises for immersive and empathetic experiences before jumping on the latest bandwagon.

Not unlike the categorization of “silent cinema” and “black and white film” that only make sense after the coming of sound and color, the proponents of immersive video qualify conventional moving images as “flat video,” thus subordinating it to an antiquated form of audiovisual mediation. By sustaining the interface between these parallel media histories, multimodal methodologies gain greater currency when deployed together and have the potential to reveal both complementary synergies and conceptual inconsistencies. For example, by combining existing “flat” media within a 360° environment, the normative process of “stitching” images together as a form of montage can be highlighted, which visual anthropolists argue is a precondition for transcending social and cultural categories.

Digital files, open access and blogs

Even if we consider the rather mundane world of academic publishing, we are immediately confronted by the way digital interfaces have been radically changing the social relations between authors, publishers, and readers. The shift in the materiality of books to digital files is matched by the diversification of creative and communicative outputs, which requires the reader to become more versatile in her ability to consume and digest different forms of knowledge. On a pragmatic level, this means knowing how to best access this content.

Open access publishing facilitates this accessibility, but in the face of ever-higher pay walls, accessibility for many may mean finding ways to acquire “pirated” (aka “liberated”) content. Accessibility also relates to the unevenness of the technological landscape when navigating the terrain of digital publishing as many parts of the world face a “digital divide.” In locations where cellular infrastructures provide superior access to online content compared to landlines, readers are more likely to access academic scholarship on handheld devices.

These problems are not limited to the “developing world.” In the face of declining subscription rates, publishers are turning to the allure of use easy-to-share social media content to draw readers to their sites. This trend also reflects the increasing burden on scholars. The grueling regime of “publish or perish” means that scholars are not only facing increasing pressures to provide impact statistics on peer reviewed articles, but are also expected to publish in more publicly accessible formats like this blog post for the benefit of these institutions.

Practice-based research challenges

For those employing practice-based research approaches, they face both structural and conceptual challenges. On the one hand, financial constraints discourage most academic publishers from bearing the cost of developing infrastructures to support alternative formats. On the other hand, seemingly restricted to thinking inside the PDF box, most publishers have been slow to respond to the innovative potential of nonlinear and non-textual scholarship. In spite of these constraints, we are nevertheless witnessing the proliferation of experimental formats (Writing with Light photo-essays, Cultural Anthropology’s Sound + Vision, Sensate, Anthrovision, Journal of Video Ethnography, etc.).

And yet, one’s ability to “read” in this context also means developing the conceptual tools to analyze and theorize emergent forms of scholarship. Whereas SVA and CVA have issued statements that endorse the scholarly value of ethnographic visual media, peer review of unconventional forms remains underdeveloped and of vital importance. While expertise in all these facets of multimodal scholarship would be an unreasonable expectation, anthropologists should be attentive to the way they are already integrating multimodal practices into their scholarly practices.

Multimodal scholarship and the role of visual anthropologists

Today, surely the majority of anthropologists go to the field with a multimodal recording tool in their pocket, capable of making photos, videos, audio recordings, GPS trackings, voice memos, text notes, and more. These devices are able to dynamically edit these materials together with existing media quickly accessible through touchscreen technology. These remixes are then archivable on a variety of networked media platforms that could reach diverse and variable publics around the globe.

Versed in non-textual methodologies and scholarship, visual anthropologists can play a crucial role in experimenting with these expanded modalities and evaluating the kind of work they actually do.

The next part of this blog will give a particular perspective on how we are engaging multimodal teaching and research within the Insitute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University.


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