Emily Yates-Doerr & Christine Labuski

The BookCase

One day, early on in the series that would eventually become this book, we received two submissions. Their similar anatomy was striking. Each featured a medical waiting room. Someone entered the space with a gift for the clinical personnel, the gift was accepted, and something shifted in the resulting care.

In Aaron Ansell’s case, set within the gardens of an informal clinic in Piauí, Brazil, the gift was a small satchel of milk. Rima Praspaliauskiene’s was set in a Lithuanian public hospital and the gift was a rich chocolate cake. Aaron, who works and teaches on legal orders, analysed the exchange as a challenge to hospital norms of egalitarianism. He helped us to see how the give-and-take of milk interrupts the requirements of a deracinated liberal democracy, offering instead the warm sociality of personal affinity. Rima, who focuses on medical care and valuing, used the object of the chocolate cake to query the social scientist’s impulse to explain why people do what they do. She shows us how this impulse may rest upon the linearity and equivalence of rational calculation, uncomfortably treating sociality as a commodity.

The juxtaposition of these submissions is emblematic – a case, if you will – of something we collectively illustrate: the art of ethnographic writing resides in a relation between what is there and what is done with it. Each of the twenty-seven chapters that follow offers a meditation on how social scientists work with cases.


We might trace the origin of the book to a Science, Technology and Medicine business meeting at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting, when we offered the idea of ‘the ethnographic case’ as a theme for a series to be published on the web journal Somatosphere. We were inspired by Tomas Matza and Harris Solomon’s series, ‘Commonplaces’, which offered a ‘cabinet’ organised as short reflections on how commonplace technologies shape social life (2013). In proposing the theme, we were imagining a bookCase of short fieldwork stories that would showcase the power of anthropological attention to specific, situated stories while also querying the relationship between these stories and generalisations of knowledge. The idea was quickly picked up and moved around by the group. Almost everyone had something to add. Medical cases, detective cases, legal cases, psychiatric cases: the similarities and differences between how ethnographers think with and in cases, and the use of cases in other fields, were intriguing.

We might also trace the origins to fieldwork. Many of the authors in the series noted that there was something – an interaction, encounter, object, or image – from time in the field that had become haunting. Participation in our bookCase series, which would publish a new case every other week on Somatosphere, offered a chance to flesh out how messy interactions over many months of fieldwork become condensed into ethnographic moments, where the already understood folds together with that which is yet to be tamed (Strathern 1999).

From the beginning, Christine knew she would write about Judy – a patient she had encountered in her research on vulvar pain. Judy’s presence shaped Christine’s book, although Christine had not yet had a chance to write specifically about their encounter. Christine titled the case ‘3 millimetres’ – a reference to a closure as much as an opening, for lichen planus, an autoimmune disease, had fused Judy’s labia to this small size, causing embarrassment and pain. The details of Judy’s story are unique, but taken together they crystallised a problem that Christine had grappled with during her months at the Vulvar Health Clinic: people do not know how to talk about genitals, and an inability to verbalise genitalia contributes to their medical neglect. Silence was not a space of nothingness; it was a space where tissue fused and pus accreted as the vulva, an object erased precisely by its hypersexuality, becomes unthinkable, and thereby untreatable, in preventative practices of care. Writing the vulva, speaking the vulva in her case – as with speaking it in the clinic – would help to develop a new linguistic ecology, making vulvas matter in better ways.

Emily didn’t contribute a case herself but used the time of editing the cases as an opportunity to think through challenges of casework that she had encountered while doing research. In her fieldwork on obesity, public health workers had argued that case-based treatment approaches, no matter how personalised, ignored that obesity was an illness of complex systems, built up over generational time. As its causes were not individual, treating patients as if there was anything that they – personally – could do to prevent being sick saddled them with an impossible responsibility that often made things worse. These public health workers instead advocated treating obesity as a problem based on political and economic structures.

While this made sense, Emily feared that a focus on structures quickly slipped into a domain of knowledge that prioritised metrics, not ethnography. To offer a quick observation: people routinely expressed concern that obesity was a structural problem with numbers, implying that a measurable demographic was suffering or sick. The problem she saw was that metric-based descriptions risked mobilising plans for treating quite dissimilar people and experiences and afflictions, as if this heterogeneity did not matter. Concern for ontological violence – alongside violence that is structural – made Emily cautious about constraining anthropologists to the role of illustrating, with our stories, what the economists or epidemiologists already know.

It was as much out of curiosity for ethnographic structures as for ethnographic cases that Emily began to wonder what would happen to obesity if she uncased it, followed it outside the clinical setting. Listening to this curiosity, she started tracking obesity across kitchens, schools, farms and laboratory science—although tracking is not quite the right word, for it turned out there was no stable object leaving footprints in the sand. Obesity in kitchens, where women struggled to square their expertise in cooking with dietary counselling that treated them as ignorant, was not the same as obesity in grade schools, where children learned not to eat fattening ‘junk food’ but had only candy and soda available at recess. In farms, where people used toxic pesticides to grow healthy vegetables for far-away consumers worried about their weight, obesity was a matter of chemicals and trade. And in scientific centres, where researchers travelled into rural communities and then returned to their urban laboratories with swabs of saliva or vials of blood, it became a problem of ancestral deprivation – yet different again.

The intricacies of the structures Emily was encountering began to turn her understanding of the relation between the particular and the general on its head. She was beginning to see the case not as a part of something larger (a unit to be added together with others). Instead, the very practice of adding things together changed the substance under evaluation, such that there was simply no way to add it up.

Both Christine and Emily were drawn to the intrigue of ‘the ethnographic case’, in part, from conviction gained by living in the mess of anthropological fieldwork that things need not be patterned nor predictable to have efficacy – that particularity is its own form of power. We were also drawn to it because it posed a critical question for a field organised by participant observation: how does one make an analytic intervention that is situated and still expansive enough to address global injustices and violence? (This is an especially troubling question considering that expansion – a colonial practice if there ever was one – so often furthers injustice and violence).

And so we began to assemble a group of ethnographers to think about how the practice of telling stories shapes the worlds we study. An important postcolonial critique of anthropology notes that we too often get our case materials in the peripheries while doing our so-called theory in colonial centres (Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí 1997; Law and Lin 2016). There is a highly gendered dynamic to this division between the particular and the general as well (Behar and Gordon 1996). We began to wonder if a possible way forward might be found in the assertion that the case is the theory. But before making this argument, we thought we’d find out what anthropologists were doing with their cases. ‘What is the ethnographic case?’, we asked in our opening call for contributions. And then, to be more precise about the question, ‘what can it be made to be?’


Every other week, for over a year, our bookCase grew larger by one installation. In fashioning the bookCase, we worked with graphic designers to emphasise texture over pattern. If anthropologists have long sought to make generalities by looking for replications, reproductions and repetitions of culture, this was a chance to try out something else. The design we settled on was one where the cases were each connected but also stood apart. While they shared a basic design, they also varied in their thinness and thickness. The texture chosen to illustrate the cover of each case was selected by the author to offer a hint at something that would lie within the case, encouraging, from the outset, what Anna Tsing has called an ‘art of noticing’ (2015). In emphasising specificity over pattern, we wanted to stress a practice of noticing how we notice: what do we keep in the frame of the stories we tell; what do we set aside; what travels between cases and what stays put? The push, from the outset, was to think of ethnography as the study of the techniques by which cultures are made to materialise, rather than the study of culture as if such a thing could ever stand by itself (see Landecker 2007, 2016).


The twenty-seven contributors to this volume related stories about cases that immediately drew them in and haunted them long after the fact; about people or events that both indexed and interrupted broader patterns, and about places and contexts where being a case of something was either routine or exceptional. Several authors use their stories to make a case for something: a compelling idea or a perspectival shift, for example. Others understand their cases to be points of departure, an episode or figure that appeared to be one thing but turned out to be another, and that left them thinking as much or more about the source and routes of their ethnographic curiosity as about what questions their cases did or did not answer. If our initial interest lay in the question of what the case can be made to be, we quickly learned that the answer was wide and unsteady: with every entry, ‘the case’ shifted from what it was the week before.

The series began with Annemarie Mol’s case, which recounts the story of a country doctor who injected turpentine into the leg of a dying farmer to activate his immune system, thereby saving his life. She uses the story to suggest that cases, be they medical or ethnographic, serve to evoke and inspire, generating resources in one place that might be used elsewhere – though there are never guarantees about how these resources will travel.

Anna Harris’ case addresses the condition of autophony, in which patients cannot screen out sounds that most people do not notice, hearing, for example, their eyeballs moving left to right. She counterposes medical cases, which aim to normalise that which is bizarre, with ethnographic cases, which turn something as mundane as a tapping finger into a point of fascination. She asks about the strangely familiar place of the ethnographer’s body in the generation of our stories: ‘How do we listen in? And when we do, what does it do to our stories of the world when we use our own sensing, moving, living bodies as a case for others?’

Nick Copeland also focuses on an atypical condition: that of facial paralysis accompanying an epidemic of Bell’s Palsy in Guatemala’s Western highlands. At least medical doctors might call it Bell’s Palsy, and calling it this might stabilise it enough to offer some prescriptive treatments. But whereas clinical understandings and prescriptions of bodily disorder allowed the diagnosis to travel far, he found they also failed to characterise the suffering of people who experienced momentary intensities and systematic violence. He reads the case of paralysis through a patterned failure of human and planetary systems. But if the case hints at something larger, there is also something tellingly nervous about the very possibility of ‘the system’.

Systems thinking forms the basis of Atsuro Morita’s case which takes up the relation between holist and partial systems through a story of sailing along the Noi River in Thailand with a firm of Japanese engineers who are studying Dutch irrigation canals. If this sounds complex, the point is rather that the trip has been carefully arranged. Intricate, yes, but not here wild, although this binary becomes a point of departure for the essay since the nature they are studying has been designed to be transformed. Through a series of deft ethnographic manoeuvres that bring together the field and its representation, Morita illustrates (or to turn from visual-based language toward action-based language – he does) the field site as an always-experimental space.


Questions of representation loomed large throughout the series. While representation may, in some academic corners, still be taken as a reflection of a stable truth, we drew upon numerous cases of political, legal or activist representation in which representation took a different form. Here representation rather connotes advocating for – an idea, a political position, a group of women and so on – entailing a stance, an engagement and an assailable commitment.

What’s in a name?, Ruth Goldstein asks, facing us with the long-neglected representational problem of choosing pseudonyms. One solution might be to work with people to select the names they want to use. But in Goldstein’s research on mining and sex work in the Peruvian Amazon, she found that in some cases it was not safe to use the names people wanted, and in others, the names they wanted were not theirs to give. Eschewing an ethics based in prefigured rules Goldstein takes naming to be an active, negotiated process of labour, fraught with asymmetry. We may work to perfect it – to express ourselves better – but if we are to fashion a goal for ourselves, it might lie in attending to the labour of naming and not in the ideal of coming up with a perfect name.

Teresa Velásquez further explores relations of collaboration with and between anthropological interlocutors to address a situation in which Ecuadorian anti-mining activists refused to be represented in her writing. They were worried, Velásquez explains, about extractivism in ethnographic practice and wanted to maintain their own words, even as they were learning how to speak from others. Everyone in this case is in drag, referent indistinguishable from sign – and yet claims to the power of ‘the real’ continue to have efficacy. One ends this essay with a clearer sense than ever of how the powers of the spoken word are in awkward (read: productive) relation with the material powers of earth, violence and gold.

That representation reinforces certain kinds of power is a worry that animates Anna Wilking’s case. She entered fieldwork wanting to make a film that would celebrate the motherhood of Ecuadorian sex workers, whom she knew to be using sex work to be ‘good’ mothers in many of motherhood’s most romantic terms. But the medium of film, though highly editable, could not be predetermined, and the story that found Wilking was a story of a ‘good father’ who filled an absent mother’s place. The case was unusual – it was, as Wilking writes – a misrepresentation of most sex workers who choose sex work to stay active in their children’s lives. And yet, letting go of the sociological mandate that a case must stand in for a majority allowed Wilking to focus on the vulnerable, nurturing masculinities that are surely there but so often left out of stories of sex workers’ lives. She represented the story of fatherhood not because it was broadly representative but because it was a future that deserved to be made visible.

Jenna Grant’s case similarly positions representation as a technique for fixing things, in a double-meaning of the term that implies giving ontological stability to fluid objects – not because there is one real underlying truth to the form of these objects, but because this can sometimes help to improve (fix) the matters of concern. Lest you worry that this is difficult to grasp, the argument – as with the arguments in each of the twenty-seven cases – is made accessible through fieldwork. The aunt of Puthea, a woman in Phnom Penh, sees a small cat in an ultrasound image of Puthea’s fetus. The image hints at a porousness between humans, images, animals and machines while also giving biological shape to the being-in-formation. The ethnographer, she makes clear, is part of the mess and the mix:

Exceptional stories fix ethnographers, too. I did not hear about another cat-like scan, yet after talking to Puthea and Ming, I listened more closely for image stories. I asked different questions. I worked to make this story into an exemplary ethnographic case. Can it bear this weight? Perhaps. If representations fix—whether with words, images, or as cases—that fixing is a process, impermanent yet consequential. Fixing the image fixes the fate. Fixing the case shifts what is possible.

Her case ends by shifting what is possible and, indeed, with many of the cases, ‘the future’ is at stake. Yet also apparent in our series is that by writing cases we do not only author other, future, conditions of possibility; in the practice of authoring we make evident ‘other’ conditions that are already t/here.

This point is made clearly in Sameena Mulla’s consideration of different ways prosecutors and defendants depict the skin around the vagina in rape trial testimony. Court outcomes may be swayed by the use of hair scrunchies or timing belts or by the presence of blood or its absence. But regardless of what jurors see and how they see it, there can be violence even when there are no visible wounds. Things can be real (‘really real’) without being apparent – and still the practice of making-evidence through expert intervention must be drawn upon to make them so.

Also taking up the question of laws and borders, Zoe Todd’s case bends established Euro-Western legal statutes to not just recognise but reciprocate the implicit Indigenous legal orders ‘all around’. She draws attention to the micro-sites where human-fish transspecies collaborations are actively resisting and reshaping colonial logics and Inuvialuit territories. Her goal is not simply to raise awareness – produce knowledge – of these sites for an academic community. This is a case that seeks to change the ongoing violence of academic ‘iterations and interpretations of Indigenous philosophy’.

The essay by André Menard and Constanza Tizzoni further troubles the role of anthropological knowledge through a comparison between legal and ethnographic case work. Their essay unfolds through the following puzzling situation: A Mapuche defendant is accused of killing his wife. The language of culture is drawn upon, for exoneration requires linguistic and cultural sleights of hand that perform the man as insane, and, with this, perform the techniques of anthropology as insane as well. This is a case that questions the very project of ever having a case stand in for – speak for – a totality.

Carole McGranahan’s case also marks the shifting horizons between factual and legal representation. This is the scene she sets: Tashi, a Tibetan man, must prove that he is the father of his children upon moving to Canada as a refugee. A DNA test suggests to Canadian officials that he is not the father, so the anthropologist is called upon to show that kinship – and not genetics – make fatherhood in Tibet. It is clear that this defies Canada’s existing legal parameters of family, which ask that fatherhood fit into a genetic ‘yes’ or ‘no’. What is less clear is how much ethnography can make courts bend; how much can our differences make a difference?

The cases thus far in the collection had taught us not to expect that this question could be answered in general terms. In some of the cases, anthropological interventions sought to illustrate the value of materially recognising human difference. Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp’s ‘No judgments’ narrates events that took place during a day of fieldwork with the autism theatre initiative, a group that works to make Broadway theatre accessible to people with disabilities, along with their families and allies. For these performances, the theatre space is modified to account for particular sensory issues involving light and sound, fidget toys, safe spaces and a high tolerance for diverse behaviour. Ginsburg and Rapp’s contribution makes a case for upholding the aspirations, rights and accommodations of people with disabilities, articulating ‘life with a difference’ as an aspect of human variation too long neglected in anthropology.

Susan Reynolds Whyte’s polygraphic casebook describes a process of collective and transnational authorship to tell stories of unexpectedly living through Uganda’s AIDS epidemic. The many authors involved seek to document the individual and diverse experiences of people whose lives were extended by ARVs. In writing ethnography through cases they seek to ‘capture’ readers and not only the lives of the people whose stories they tell. These are representations that aim to grab attention and make an impact.

Meanwhile, Ken MacLeish’s case emphasises a call to pause over (or perhaps as) a call to action. He focuses on the production of violence through a ‘non-event’ – here, a soldier who might have fired on a harmless vehicle but did not. The tension made material in the account he re-scribes is that the distribution of agency into an ‘actor network’ may impede the very sorts of response-abilities that ANT’s critique of the liberal subject sought to encourage. What emerges is a challenge to both the sovereignty of the individual and the displacement of this sovereignty into the mess of bureaucratic orders. This is a case, as with many of our cases, that raises far more questions than it answers; in doing so, the tactic of relentless questioning emerges as a possible way forward.

Social lives of cases and concepts

That cases have social lives is a truth that emerges from our bookCase. And another truth: it is not simply ‘the case’ for which this is the case, but all concepts that we deploy and study –sociality here being a case in point. A few decades ago Bruno Latour critiqued ‘the social’ for its celebration of the human (Latour 1992). That argument had its place then and there, but if the sociality that our cases highlight today is human, it is ‘not only’ (de la Cadena et al. 2015) this. Anthropologists have long argued that nature is social. Complementing this, many of our cases demonstrate that the social, too, is natural—an argument sustained by ethnographic consideration of nature as a swamping, smelly, ugly, active and unpredictable thing.

Ildikó Zonga Plájás, for example, writes of how life within the Danube Delta Biosphere is infused with fog and rays of light. This swamp-nature, with its incongruous refuge and wonder, produces ways of knowing and living. The weight of the camera she holds accompanies the gravity of the documentary task, giving shape to stories that in turn shape this landscape. This is representation that is after something in the world.

In Janelle Lamoreaux’s case of the DeTox Lab in Nanjing, China, the synthetic pesticides and pollutants that settle into earth and bodies have been rendered, by both scientists and activists, as ‘the environment’. Narrative and statistical accounts alike strategically naturalise the effects of industrialisation to make the case that ugly sperm make ugly futures. Accounting for nature in this way, Lamoreaux shows, may not be a general but an inspirational project.

Christy Spackman’s case unpacks the chemistry of sociality through discussion of a sweet, liquorice-like smell that permeates the lives of residents of Charleston, West Virginia. A spill of 4-methylchycloheanemethanol damaged the region’s water supply. Instruments designed to measure the ghostly toxin could not detect it; and still the contaminant persisted, if unevenly, in people’s sensorial experiences. Spackman describes how nature becomes domesticated in a laboratory while the impurities of domestic activities – cooking, seeing, smelling tasting – are held at bay. In this case, scientific purification comes with a price, as contingency’s mess would yield better knowledge about the presence of chemicals than lab technologies. Or perhaps we should consider this as producing a price, since the inequalities in who bears the burden of toxicity sustain inequalities of industrial production.

In Jennifer Carlson’s discussion of energy transition in Germany, ‘nature’ also pertains as much to financial as to biological futures. Her case, set amid a rapidly transitioning solar panel installation project in the hamlet of Dobbe, examines the psychosomatic afterlives of green energy to illustrate the entanglement of ecology with capitalist speculation. Life that was supposed to be made good is instead filled with fibreglass, rust and plastic ruins; anxiety and stress emerge from the wreckage of now abandoned glasshouses. As does so much else: compassion, friendship, family meals. Consumers (or are they citizens? or mothers? or lovers? or friends?) struggle to make sense of their condition through the categories of social analysis, but even as they do so, life, like weeds, takes shape outside these bounds.

Plastic boundaries

How do you know a case when you see one? Elizabeth Lewis writes of a single encounter, well before she began extensive fieldwork that would become a ‘flashpoint’ for later analysis of disability care in Texas. At first the encounter seemed to be an outlier. The blind and non-verbal woman, locked in a cage in a Central American institution, was anything but typical. Over time, however, the woman edged ever-closer to the centre of Lewis’ analysis. The woman may remain enclosed in a wooden box in a far-away place – but this was not all that happened. Absent was made present; what was locked away was also leaking out. This is not an arena where cases lie waiting to be known and seen; it is one where they are done through narrative relations.

‘Cases set boundaries; cases draw you in’, note Biggs and Bodinger de Uriarte. They use the constantly mirrored reflections of a Native American casino to make their point. The Casino is a mimetic world, interiors containing a complicated mix of referents, exteriors gesturing outward while embracing their own design as part of the sign. So too might we understand the halls of anthropology to be mimetic. We ‘reveal’ – but less because there is one possible truth to be known and more because this act of demonstration is part of the performance. A practice of mirrors, whose reflection also changes how we see.

Every other week, we collectively participated in remaking ‘the case’. We could not make cases out of nothing – we could not make things that didn’t matter. Nevertheless, the condition of being material in no way suggested that cases could freeze their form. Case by case, to borrow from Jason Danely’s entry, the case was adjusted and transformed. Stomach tubes are Danely’s entry into this argument. Decisions about whether to use tubes in elderly care homes, fraught with uncertainty by all involved, must be negotiated case-by-case. Cases are specific, unique, grounded in the variable textures of the everyday – what he refers to as a ‘constellation of contingencies’. Here, however, Danely intervenes to shift the implications of contingency. For if cases are exceptional, that they are exceptional is commonplace. It is this connection that serves as a point through which to begin a conversation. Here, becoming a case facilitated processes of sharing without aspirations of becoming identical. Mutuality without replication.

‘Are the truths of the case’s contingency and plasticity ontological truths?’ you might wonder. ‘Let’s try out different answers and follow what happens’, we might respond.

Alternatives and author-ities

Sharing across different sorts of differences turns us toward matters of politics, which is to say, matters of relating. Through his study of earthworms, Filippo Bertoni asks us to consider what happens to relating if we think not through the mode of argumentation but through metabolic pathways of incorporation, digestion and excretion. What arises from this exploration is that ‘the purpose of making a case may not be to be right, but to offer resources that we can use to metabolize and live with the world in alternative ways’.

It is worth pausing to consider Bertoni’s emphasis on living in ‘alternative ways’ given the focus on the plasticity of nature made above. Many readers will have heard of claims to ‘alternative facts’ made by conservative pundits who reproduce a longstanding tactic of fascist politics by claiming that assumed truths are not what they seem. Some may wonder if this isn’t somehow uncomfortably resonant with what we are doing here, with our unstable ontologies and our futures and actualities that are worlded through representational practices. Let us point to a difference.

Alternative facts – war is peace; freedom is slavery – are still rooted in ontological claims upon a one-world world in which there is one, and only one, correct reflection of that world. These so-called facts are not giving up their singular authority – the authority that comes from locking things up. The science of this series meanwhile asks how things come to be bounded and then sets out to understand the effects of binding things one way or another or another yet again. We ask this not because there is just one answer to be known, but because some questions, and some answers, are better than others – better not in general terms but in specific cases.

Bertoni notes that through ethnographising earthworms he learned about how they are already engaged in politics otherwise, which gave him ideas for how he might do this as well.

The living together of worms can serve as a reminder to Euro-American social scientists that there are no guidelines out there on how to live together well. Instead, politics, when understood as living together, calls for makeshift arrangements that are both radical and specific, as well as for experimenting with alternatives. If composting might work through certain standard passages, composting guides never give any final word, but rather suggest some possible alternatives to tinker with. This is a togetherness that is not constrained by the limits of closed systems and of the categories that Euro-Americans commonly use to think about the world. It is instead a togetherness enlarged by the imaginative openings that worms, like anthropology, can offer us.

If Bertoni’s case has a lesson for Euro-American sciences, we hope that our series might have a lesson for Euro-American politics. We could respond to the fascist claim of alternative facts by saying that, no, ‘facts are facts’, thereby initiating a fight over whose facts are right. Yet to replace the myriad truths of ethnography with the single truth of ‘truth’ would be a short-sighted tactic that undermines both scientific and political possibilities. In Bertoni’s case the facts of science are facts that are open to, even welcoming of, alternatives (note the multiplicity). Not just anything can become a fact. After all, methods matter. Here, a precondition to becoming a fact was that you were not closed to other possibilities. To be science is to be challengeable, not certain. We might wish something similar for politics, creating systems designed to be both contested and recursively transformed.

Rather than concede that our alternatives were misdirected to those who abuse this term, this book suggests that it is especially crucial to stay close to the study of how truth-making proceeds and truth-telling gains power. That something is, is merely a starting point for asking how something is – a starting point, in other words, for thinking about how we are acting and how we might act otherwise. In the face of toxic lies that intend to close down the project of enquiry, the project of engaging alternatives becomes more necessary than ever.

Stephanie Krehbiel’s case is a good one on which to wrap up. In her entry, case-making facilitated the production of violence. She writes of being transformed into a case, her analytic capacities and professional qualifications stripped from her. This is not an accidental metaphor; producing persons as cases – and cases as woman, as body – can privilege ways of knowing that facilitate abuse – and do so very often in the name of furthering good. The cultivation of intimacy, long taken as a hallmark of anthropological legitimacy, in her site becomes a means for the twisted, suppressed eroticism of power to take hold, subverting what is known in the name of more stable knowledge.

Krehbiel makes a point about authority and power that has been with us throughout the series. The man she writes about deploys his authority to subvert the power that she holds and does so through terms and ideas that resonate with her own. He speaks to her of examining how knowledge is gained and legitimised; he emphasises the importance of discerning what is good. But he does this, she shows, to bolster his authority over her. He is not interested in a flourishing of possibilities but in using his truth (in the singular) against her. She realises that she cannot talk back to him because he will take up and twist her words. Eventually, she begins to ignore him, putting her energies elsewhere. He engages power in the name of finding truth; she finds power, making space for her authorities, by cutting the relation.

This book attempts to respond to critiques of ethnography, whether these come from positivist scientists who find the methods too disorganised and lacking in both rigor and replicability, or decolonial scientists who question anthropology’s extractivist legacies (and with whom we see ourselves aligned). Instead of arguing against these critiques, we adopt the tactic of celebrating ethnography by doing it well. In twenty-seven installations, we show ethnography to be vibrant, curious and committed. But this does not mean that ethnography is always vibrant, curious and committed. For we’ve also given it space to be none of these: to be focused on mundane details that call into question a need to be vibrant; to ask how curiosity may activate and further the exploitation of capitalism; to consider when we might lessen and not strengthen our commitments.

What we learn from the ethnographic case is a way to practise authoring, and authority, with care for the situation and the story. We attempt to neither ask nor answer the question of what ‘the case’ is in general terms. Instead, we take up the challenging truth that it is not only the objects we study that have social lives: so do our theories about them. This, then, sets us on a path of caring not only for what is inside our cases. It compels us to also care for what their walls are made of and to ask how these structures can be done differently and moved.


Behar, R., and D. A. Gordon, Women Writing Culture (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996).

de la Cadena, M., et al., ‘Anthropology and STS: Generative Interfaces, Multiple Locations’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 5.1 (2015), 437–75.

Landecker, H., Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

——, ‘It Is What It Eats: Chemically Defined Media and the History of Surrounds’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. Part C. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 6.57 (2007), 148–69.

Latour, B., One More Turn after the Social Turn (Notre Dame, IN.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992).

Law, J., and W. Lin, The Stickiness of Knowing: Translation, Postcoloniality and STS, 2016. http://heterogeneities.net/publications/LawLin2016TheStickinessOfKnowing.pdf.

Matza, T., and H. Solomon, ‘Commonplaces: Itemizing the Technological Present’, Somatosphere, 2013. http://somatosphere.net/commonplaces/.

Oyèrónké, O., The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

Strathern, M., Property, Substance, and Effect: Anthropological Essays on Persons and Things (London: Athlone Press, 1999).

Tsing, A. L., The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).