The bookCASE: Introduction

This post is an introduction to our new series, The Ethnographic Case.

We launch this series 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? 

This series explores 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). 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. The ethnographic case may be all of these things at once: instructing, dis/proving, establishing, evoking. It may achieve different ends altogether.

We make a case for our field and our fieldsites through the use of ethnographic cases. Often told in the form of a story, the case can be an illustrative representation. It can also be an exception that draws attention to a rule. It can bring into exquisite detail a micro that is situated, like the tiniest of matryoshka dolls, within a macro. At other times it destabilizes these nested hierarchies, showing that what is big is (also) small, or that significant power resides in that which may be very hard to see. The ethnographic case can interrupt the networked connections of any cybernetic system by attending not to a whole (and not even to its capillary endpoints) but to the details of a situation that is at once expansive and immediate. 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?

Over the next year we will bring you a series of “ethnographic cases.” This project has been inspired by Tomas Matza and Harris Solomon’s Commonplaces. As with that series, we will feature entries by scholars whose cases illuminate, even as they unsettle, how we work with cases. To pay homage to the traditional ethnographic monograph, the pieces will be collected in an expanding bookCASE. The virtual format of this bookCASE makes evident that changes are underway in the practice of ethnography. Clicking the cases may link to straight-forward text, but you may also find yourself amidst audio or video files, photographs, artwork, and more. Above, we referred to ethnography as a technique of authorship in order to highlight relations of power (author-ity) that accompany the assembly of cases. But the method of this authorship – writing, drawing, filming, illustrating – is not given, any more than an author’s singularity.

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 them to encourage your students to consider how to narrate an occurrence or event from the material of the everyday. (If your students write compelling cases, please have them submit these for publication as part of our student bookcase by sending their case to and Along the way, we might find that ethnographic cases produce a very different form of expertise than those produced in medicine, law, or business.

This bookCASE might be taken as a response to a recent challenge that the term ethnography is too vague and too overused to be useful (Ingold 2014). Rather than displace the term, the bookCASE seeks to shore it up— to invigorate it with the insights and interferences offered by attentive fieldwork. In many ways, “the case” and ethnography may seem antithetical: the former a short reflection, the latter based on a commitment over time. However, we suspect that a case becomes ethnographic in the way that it situates the narration of any given event within other narratives. The particulars of ethnographic cases may not aspire to generality, but may instead change the practice of and possibility for generality. The questions we began with are not ones we seek to answer definitively, but to open up and turn around— ones that we hope will lead to other questions and help us to narrate other conditions of possibility.

The pieces in this series focus on the worlds that materialize through research. Taken together, they offer reflection on our craft of description. We hope they make you want to author cases.


A note on Further Reading:

Above we have cited: Forrester, John (1996), If p, then what? Thinking in cases. History of the Human Sciences 9(3):1-25; from the terrific book, Science Without Laws (2007), edited by Angela Creager, Elizabeth Lunbeck, and Norton Wise. (The book is dedicated to Clifford Geertz, who, in the company of many involved in Writing Culture, gave sustained, critical attention to the practice of telling stories. See this 2012 issue in Cultural Anthropology for an update). We have also cited a recent piece Hau piece by Tim Ingold (2015) That’s Enough About Ethnography 4:(1), as a point of departure.     

Since first conceptualizing this series at the STM business meeting of the 2013 AAAs we have come across many other writings concerned with opening up “the case.” There is too much; we simply cannot provide a comprehensive list and to cite further here would likely exclude more than pay tribute to the scholars who have inspired the series and shaped our thinking on the case. Rather than provide further reading here, we hope that you will seek out additional citations by reading the cases of the growing bookCase.

Emily Yates-Doerr is assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. She is carrying out a study of the UN’s efforts to improve human capital through maternal nutrition. She is author of The Weight of Obesity: Hunger and Global Health in Postwar Guatemala.

Christine Labuski is an anthropologist and assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Virginia Tech, where she also directs the Gender, Bodies & Technology initiative. Her book It Hurts Down There: The Bodily Imaginaries of Female Genital Pain, tracks the emergence and physiological realization of vulvar pain conditions in the contemporary United States.

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