The ethnographic case: In-conclusion

Anna Dowrick, Julien McHardy, Joe Deville

This collection offers lessons from cases of all kinds. What they have in common is that they represent experiences considered exceptional by the authors. They defied expectation in some important way, creating a tangible moment of intrigue. Unpacking this intrigue and bringing it to light enables us to share a feeling about it – maybe it unnerves, thrills, saddens, enrages or enlivens us – and from there to examine what holds it in place as the exception rather than the rule.

This book is itself an exception. It is a case of experimental publishing. We wanted to see what might happen if we imagined a book as a dialogue rather than a speech. What if readers engaging in the book wanted to say something? What if authors changed their minds about the text after others read it? What if a book was not finished simply because it had been published? Unlike other publishers, we viewed the publication of the digital first edition of Ethnographic Case as a starting rather than end point.

Creating a space of democratic peer review was exciting as a process. Readers considered the essays and offered their thoughts. Authors were free to choose how to revise. The real lesson from this case, however, was about the broader collective work of enacting curiosity.

Mattering Press is able to imagine alternative forms to those presented by for-profit publishers because of the commitment of its editors, authors, typesetters, proof-readers, printers, illustrators and reviewers to forgo profit in the pursuit of different values. The work of producing a book like this is done around the edges of other important practices, such as maintaining a livelihood and fulfilling caring responsibilities. At the best of times these practices push at the edges of experimental work. For instance, our ambition to publish a second edition soon after the first was slowed by the demands of new parenthood. During the pandemic, however, these practices threatened to overwhelm our endeavour. This was both with regard to how to find the time and space for contributors to revise and editors to edit, but also in relation to the larger experimental purpose of the book. What good does the experiment do at this moment in time? What is the value of enacting curiosity embodied by this book during a global crisis?

We were not the first to ask these questions. Donna Haraway has explored how to ‘stay with the trouble’ despite the pressures to turn away. She elaborated on what she meant by this in a talk she gave during the pandemic in 20211:

I think we need to cultivate in each other a sense of time. This is something that Deborah Bird Rose learned from her Yarralin teachers in Aboriginal Australia. That sense of what it is to be and what Westerners call ‘the present’ has to look different. It has to be thicker, more engaged with what has been and what is to come. That is the present. And that the work of a serious person is living and dying and working and playing in this thickness. So as to make the world less deadly, more flourishing. Not in some future time, but now. The work really is now. That’s what staying with the trouble means. And ‘now’ is not some vanishing point that now disappears so fast you’re never in it. Quite the opposite. We’re in now. And things keep resurging.

For us, committing to this ongoing experiment was a way of attending to what remains precious in a time of remarkable uncertainty: making space for alternative ideas and ways of expressing them, and helping these forms and ideas to reach others who might be moved by them. This is our contribution to a flourishing present. Moreover, it remains important for us to actualise these ideas in print. This materially manifests the thickness, the trouble of the work contained within the pages.

That said, the experiment was radically reimagined in light of the pandemic. When we first planned the book, we anticipated a second edition to have moved significantly from the first in light of reader’s comments. Instead we encouraged contributors not to revise their work during the pandemic. This brought into view a different quality of published work, namely that it represents a specific moment in time that authors might have moved on from, or that is impossible to re-visit at the time of revision. We recognised how the pandemic exacerbated academic precarity, and that while pursuing a second edition offered something potentially valuable to authors, revision might have asked more than they had available to give. What we are left with is a collection that reflects the thickness of the present for our contributors: some pieces revised significantly, some simply brought up to date, some untouched.

We have drawn our greatest learning from the inconclusiveness of this experiment. The Ethnographic Case teaches us that each book is unfinished business. Our purpose is not to produce books that are closed cases, but rather to generate literary spaces that fully reflect the troubling, messy, uncertain present, and hopefully begin something good within it.


Haraway, D., Transcript of event celebrating the fifth anniversary of the journal Catalyst (2021). https://catalystjournal.org/index.php/catalyst/announcement/view/829.