Christine Labuski and Emily Yates-Doerr
We launched this book in 2015 with a question: what is an ethnographic case? As ethnography is a process and practice of authorship, this question produces another: what can it be made to be?
The contributions to this book explore what cases can generate and our reasons for resisting or embracing them as modes of analysis. There is a rich and variable history to ‘thinking in cases’ (Forrester 1996; Creese and Frisby 2012; Grasswick and Arden McHugh 2021). The expository medical case, attentive to the unusual and particular, has long been used as a tool for both diagnosis and instruction. The psychoanalytic case is built from fragments of remembered details with therapeutic objectives. The legal case establishes a precedent, while the criminal case comes to the detective as a mystery to be solved. In the twenty-seven chapters of this book we show the ethnographic case to be all of these things at once: instructing, dis/proving, establishing, evoking. We also show that it may achieve different ends altogether.
What follows is a series of ‘ethnographic cases’ by scholars whose essays illuminate, even as they unsettle, how we work with this genre.1 In medical, law, and business schools, exemplary cases have long been used as pedagogical tools. Similarly, we hope this collection can serve as a resource for teaching. You might use these cases to encourage your students to consider how to narrate an occurrence or event from the material of the everyday. Along the way, you’ll find that ethnographic cases produce a very different form of expertise than those produced in medicine, law, or business. Often told in the form of a story, the ethnographic case can be an example or an exception. It can also distort distinctions between the micro and macro, demonstrating that what is big can be small, or that significant power resides in that which may be very hard to see. Though explicitly incidental, cases distinguish themselves from other short forms of narrative by way of the expertise they invoke. Solving, learning from, or interpreting the case requires a level of engagement that presumes both knowledge and curiosity, the proficient habitus that makes improvisation possible. Interpretive expertise, in other words, transforms the extemporaneous into the routine, the anecdote into the lesson. Case closed. Or is it?
The book was also a case – an indexical instance – of a collective experiment in digital publishing. The essays themselves began as a web series on Somatosphere that ran biweekly over the course of a year. A year or so after its completion, we worked with Mattering Press to put the essays into digital conversation by publishing a ‘living book’ where readers – including series contributors – could make comments and pose questions as part of a broader conversation. This experiment in public peer review has a unique DOI and lives on as a virtual publication. It was always the plan for the publication with Mattering Press to eventually assume a printed form, a book that could be held, marking both a closure and a new kind of life.
We were scheduled for final editing and publication in 2020. Then the Covid pandemic hit, and we paused all work on the book. Our energy was spread thin as deaths climbed from thousands to hundreds of thousands to millions. It was a time filled with emergency and crisis, and we could not find time for the slow and patient work that books demand.
Yet still, through all the calls of urgency we heard as Covid unfolded, the meticulous, patient methods of ethnography began to seem ever more important. Though the fieldwork in this book all predates the Covid pandemic, the lessons our authors offer about medical knowledge, claims to truth, experiences of illness and engagements with vitality have continued relevance for how we think about – and live through – pandemic times.
The pandemic also ushered in a renewed interest in cases, as r-nought (R0) measurements, daily Covid counts, social distancing, fatality rates, hospital bed counts, community transmission, flattening the curve and contact tracing all became part of everyday vocabulary. ‘How many cases are there today?’ was a question garnering widespread public attention as the broader question of how cases amplify into a prevalence came to have clear policy stakes in our daily lives. During the earliest months of the pandemic, the distinction between cases and stories felt obvious and important: the former a metric tally of ever-growing risk, the latter a way to imagine and personalise the suffering. Both loomed as potential futures, as we struggled to map our realities onto metrics and stories. For months, there were very few cases where Christine lived. A prominent aerosol expert lived in her university town, and knowledge about the dangers led to early and almost universal protocol following. Christine kept saying that she felt like she was in a play about a pandemic – what was this a case of?
Though most of our writing was concluded before the onset of the pandemic, we are publishing in a new context, where the word ‘case’ is now part of the daily lexicon. Much of what we learned from our contributors pertained to the role of interpretation in case work. Regardless of why we were drawn to a case, what made our cases ‘ethnographic cases’ was that we undertook the work of asking questions about meaning and materiality to parse out what the case could say. Though many of our pieces are in dialogue with ‘the medical case’, none of us could have imagined how familiar we would all become with this vernacular and experience over the coming years.
What role did interpretation now play with respect to cases of Covid? Those of us trained to think with medical anthropology likely maintained that mode of attention; that is, we paid attention to the differences in experience – racialised, gendered, geopolitical – that emerged from and gave shape to the pandemic. As the cases mounted, we were joined by many non-anthropologists in parsing and piecing together what there was to learn about structural inequalities from these case patterns. But this time, our role as interpreters was discouraged, often quite vociferously, by state and professional actors: listen to us, they urged, as we have the answers. This isn’t/wasn’t the time for interpretation, no matter how much expertise on the topic we brought to bear.
For some of us, Covid was quite personal. People that we knew and loved fell ill, and some died, adding to the numeric spectacle of cases that shaped our days. Our lives were circumscribed in new ways. Covid accentuated social hierarchies and inequalities, but it also generated some broadly shared experiences. In the language of our contributors, it inspired, took the shape of, mapped on to, or helped us to access a sense of a connected reality. This is still what cases do.
Both Copeland and Grant caution that, once attuned, the anthropologist might begin to see cases everywhere – and that observation and description persistently become sites for intervention. How does this provocation shift when cases are, literally, everywhere? What is the ethnographic case of Covid cases? This is not just word play but, rather, a question about how to leverage the power of cases. Back to our original question: what can a case be made to be and what are cases of Covid made of? What is the ethnography of isolation?
For many, Covid slowed us down. There have, of course, been many phases to the pandemic, from dark experiences of intense isolation and quarantine, to the opening up of new possibilities for world-building, to staving off a return of complacency. Through illness and fear, rising Covid cases confronted us with questions about how we want to live. What should our days include? What do we need and who needs us? What matters today, this week, next month and how can I participate in these actions? The press’s name of Mattering Press couldn’t feel more resonant with the moment: do these stories matter?
We would argue yes. We have followed through with the publication of this book, many years after the project first began, as a statement about the endurance of knowledge gained through ethnography. Ethnographic casework is a slow process, with the knowledge that developed about its case frequently taking years to develop. Covid did not so much change the relevance of ethnography as show ethnography’s slow, temporal commitments to be as vital as ever. Although Covid was transformative and life altering, the cases in this book did not need to be radically rewritten as a response. The lessons offered already anticipated and illuminated many of Covid’s lessons about how systems reproduce themselves, and also about how people can intervene in and transform these cycles of reproduction. Ultimately, the ethnographic case teaches its readers how to simultaneously cultivate attention to particularities and to the knotted interconnections of world-systems. Our cases illuminate deep connections, but also how particular stories can diverge. They draw reader attention to something different and unexpected, something which does not fit the common stories so far told. They teach us that you do not have to be large, loud or reproducible to matter.
In many ways, ‘the case’ and ethnography may seem antithetical: the former a short reflection, the latter based on a commitment over time. What we show, however, is that the skill of the ethnographic case lies in its ability to situate the narration of any one event within other narratives, many of which have been listened to and attended to over a long period of time. Ultimately the particularities of ethnographic cases do not aspire to generalised knowledge, but they may nonetheless change the practice of and possibilities for generalities. They teach us how to ask questions that do not need definitive answers but lead on to other questions. They help us to open up and turn the situations we have encountered around, and around again. It is by changing the arc of the questions we ask, and the stories we can tell, that the ethnographic case acts upon the worlds in which we live.
1 To pay homage to the traditional ethnographic monograph, the pieces were initially assembled as an expanding bookCASE on Somatosphere (Yates-Doerr and Labuski 2015). The digital Mattering Press book, composed from this series, was later published with Mattering Press (Yates-Doerr and Labuski 2018).
Creese, G., and W. Frisby, Feminist Community Research: Case Studies and Methodologies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
Forrester, J. ‘If p, Then What? Thinking in Cases’, History of the Human Sciences, 9.1 (1996), 1–25.
Grasswick, H., and N. Arden McHugh, Making the Case: Feminist and Critical Race Philosophers Engage Case Studies (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2021).
Yates-Doerr, E., and C. Labuski, eds., ‘The Ethnographic Case’, Somatosphere, 2015. http://somatosphere.net/ethnographiccase/.
——, eds., The Ethnographic Case (Manchester: Mattering Press, 2018). https://processing.matteringpress.org/ethnographiccase/.