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Towards a current understanding of multisited ethnography

Andrs Espinoza
Since its inception, multisited ethnography, (Marcus 1995), has become a crucial aspect of
social researchers and the ethnological disciplines. The concept has caught on rather quickly because of
its potency as well as its adaptability. The concept at its core is simple; moving away from the
Malinowskian single site based ethnographic research, (Marcus 2005), towards a methodological shift
that proposes a set of different sites and connections between them as a central complex of
ethnography.
Primarily, this paradigm presented by Marcus in 1995 pointed to a shift in the perspectives of
ethnographic practice and the current understanding of anthropology. This shift is clearly congruent
with the movement of social sciences towards postmodernist tendencies, particularly following the
impact of the 'writing culture' critique, (Clifford and Marcus 1986), and the phenomenon of
globalization. (e.g: Ahmed 1994, Appadurai 1991, 1995, Auge 1995, Featherstone 1990, Gupta and
Ferguson 1992, Kearney 1995, Lomnitz 1994, Milton 1993) There was a clear discontent for the rigid
boundaries imposed by the social methodologies, (Marcus 1999), as well as dissatisfaction with the
issues such as the dichotomy of locality in a globalized world that had been the norm up to this point.
Appadurai pointed toward a clear questioning of the moment.
What is the place of locality in schemes about global cultural flow? Does anthropology retain any special
privilege in a world where locality seems to have lost its ontological moorings? Can the mutually constitutive
relationship between anthropology and locality survive in a dramatically delocalized world? (1996, 178)

Marcus approached a solution of the current issue by asserting multi-sited ethnography as a new
mode of ethnographic research that moves out from single sites and local situations of
conventional ethnographic research designs to examine the circulation of cultural meanings, objects
and identities in diffuse time space This mobile ethnography takes unexpected trajectories in tracing

a cultural formation across and within multiple sites of activity. (1995, 96) The methodological
implications of the tool placed the focus of the work on the connections achieved by the subjects above
the reigning implications of the single sited localized work. As Falzon explains, The essence of multisited research is to follow people, connections, associations, and relationships across space (because
they are substantially continuous but spatially non-contiguous). (2009,2) Marcus presented the goal of
the methodology as a tool to pursue the more open-ended and speculative course of constructing
subjects by simultaneously constructing the discontinuous contexts in which they act and are acted
upon. (1995, 98) Regarding the methodology, Candea points out that Marcus 1995 article was less a
programmatic piece than a review of already existing research strategies. Candea also points out that
Marcus and Fischer had already called for this trend a decade earlier in their book, Anthropology as
cultural critique, under the designation of multi-locale ethnography. (Marcus & Fischer 1986: 90-5 in
Candea 2007, 168)
The shift in focus proposed by Marcus, while it was already a latent part of methodological
anxieties in globalization, became widely accepted and proposed a theoretical framework for
researchers to concentrate in the more complex cultural processes tied to migration, diaspora and exile
that thus far had not been assessed to a large extent. The first generation of ethnographers to assimilate
the methodology, (e.g.: Garcia 2001, Gosden 2001, Mazzucato 2001, Vertovec 1999, Wittel 2000,
Wood 2000), came on the heels of Marcus' initial push and tied the concept to the more clear-cut cases
that called for such a methodological approach as tracking movements of migrants transnationally in
diaspora and exile, or, the history of the circulation of objects and techniques, or, studying the
relationships of dispersed communities and networks. (Marcus 1999, 6)
The current generation of ethnographers, (e.g: Candea 2007, Coleman 2011, Falzon 2009, Hage
2005, Hine 2007, Nadai 2005), have adapted and abstracted the methodology to new scopes of research
towards non-obvious paradigms and ideas where the metaphors of tracking or following as a material
project ... and where the relationships or connections between sites are indeed not clear. (Marcus

1999,6) Today, the methodology has begun to reach towards a new set of configurations and what
Marcus calls the research imaginary of the discipline, namely 'a sense of the changing
presuppositions, or sensibilities ... that informs the way research ideas are formulated and actual
fieldwork projects are conceived. (Marcus 1999,10 in Candea 2007)
Multisited ethnography has certainly not been free of criticism. It has even been dismissed as
nothing new. (Falzon 2009, 2) Hage, for example, points that with respect to studying, say, migration,
the concept of a single geographically discontinuous site is much more useful than that of multisitedness, (2005, 466 in Falzon 2009, 2), and that its signification and ramifications are (not)
explored by many of its users ... (who) use it mechanically. (ibid., 464 in Falzon 2009, 2) While this is
certainly a possible approach, I disagree with Hage's thought since multisited approaches allow for
abstractions without necessarily a tied geographical notion, and even though this might be one of the
characteristics of migration studies, it is not the only aspect that can be tied to it especially when placed
in the larger context of social studies.
Another common critique is the minimal development of relationships allowed in multisite
ethnography. Berg, as an example of this, argued for the shortened time spent in multiple sites as a
disadvantage over single site work since there were fewer opportunities to get to know people and
their social worlds, and to establish more profound social relationships in ways that allow us access to
more existential fields of experience. (2008)
Another very relevant critique is how to approach the selection of sites that are actually relevant
to the ethnography. Hannerz indicates, I wonder if it is not a recurrent characteristic of multisited
ethnography that site selections are to an extent made gradually and cumulatively, as new insights
develop, as opportunities come into sight, and to some extent by chance. (2003, 207) While this is
certainly one of the complexities of doing a multisited ethnography, here the instinct of the
ethnographer is key to the success of the project. This should be nothing new to the ethnographer, even
in single site fieldwork. Experiences can point to different directions that the ethnographer might or

might not choose to take. The case for multisited ethnography is actually quite similar. Candea, (2007),
expands on the thought of the complexity of multisite research versus single site by placing the web of
networks that a multisited ethnography can produce as exponentially larger than those of a single site
ethnography.
Whereas these formulations were extremely productive in straining against certain methodological
rigidities,their very success in breaking down boundaries has given rise to new problems in the doing and
writing of ethnography. (167) He continues the strength of the multi-sited imaginary lies in its enabling
anthropologists to expand their horizons in an unprecedented way, its weakness lies in its lack of attention to
processes of bounding, selection, and choice processes which any ethnographer has to undergo to reduce the
initial indeterminacy of field experience into a meaningful account. (169)

Following Candea's thought, the structures of networks placed within a multisited ethnography
can be perhaps more complex than those of a single site experience. However, if we are to analyze
single site fieldwork at a level not exclusively geographical but as a series of connections,
associations, and relationships across space, (Falzon 2009, 2), we would find a myriad of directions
upon which to construct a series of interconnected arteries. These arteries can easily compare to the
composite of linkages that would stem from a multisite type situation, thus making the work not
transnational as in multisited ethnography, but translocal or glocalized. (Robertson 1995)
Here in lies what peeks my interest in the world of multisited ethnography; the definition of the
site. This idea is one that has only currently begun to be contested, and at least in multisited
ethnography, the definition is often pointed exclusively to a geographical space. Falzon explains:
I take multi-sited ethnography necessarily to imply some form of (geographical) spatial de-centredness. I say
this because, under pressure, the advocates of multi-sitedness sometimes defend themselves by saying that
site does not necessarily mean location or place, but also perspective. As I see it, however, multisitedness is not synonymous with perspectivism. That would be a sleight, too easy and in any case counterproductive. (2009, 2)

It is interesting to note that in this thought Falzon only sees connections between geographical
spatial locations as truly multisited. I argue that the concept of multisited ethnography can be taken
further as its conceptualization and application allow for adaptability and processes that can go beyond
geography into particular methodological designs that can be the best possible, if different, fit for a
given project. I do agree with his notion of perspectivism, but support the expansion of the idea of

space and site. A proposition that also aims at somewhat similar points is the conceptualization of the
ethnographic field as detached from space and place, or un-sited field. (Cook Laidlaw and Mair in
Falzon 2009, 48) This is a very interesting proposition and clearly takes advantage of what multisited
ethnography has to offer further than what has already been established.
The thought that I point at however is the idea of hybridity in the definition of site, where the
ethnographer navigates through a web of interconnected, but not necessarily geographical, locations.
Thoughts such as online communities as part of a larger global process are a first. (e.g: Constable 2003,
Escobar 1994, Forte 2002, Hine 2000, Lysloff, 2003, Shaw 2010, Wittel 2000, Schaap 2002) In
reassessing the fieldworker's toolkit, Faubion and Marcus call for the internet to be an essential part of
anthropological research.
The Internet -- the technologies on which it depends and the communication that it makes possible, its
virtuality, its political potential and provocativeness and so on -- is itself the object of an increasing array of
objects and subjects of anthropological inquiry. It is the means of novel social and cultural exchange and
invention and of new modalities of communication -- and also of inquiry into them. As a multitude of new
sites, it has yet to be brought even remotely to anthropological terms. As an element in the fieldworker's
toolkit, as a means of inquiry into other subjects and objects and sites besides itself, it is useful, but so far of
less return that some of its enthusiasts would like to believe. (in Jaschik, 2009)

Another thought that can be applied to the research of the hybrid multisited imaginary is the
idea of time as a site. This would entail having a set of time intervals implying multiple spectra of time
that can be considered as sites in longitudinal research. While this could be thought of as one of the
modes of multisitedness construction, as in Marcus follow the life (1995, 109), I do not aim at
specifically portraying biography, although that can certainly be an applicable approach.
The adaptability of multisited ethnography is where its appeal lies. The possibilities that I have
presented, and the many more that exist, pose the question of realistic projects where methodologies,
approaches and concepts that were suited to either/or single and multisited projects need to be put into
consideration and adapted to new translocal, transvirtual, and transtemporal situations. With all these
considerations, the one that needs to be aware of the enormity of possible dimensions that multisited
ethnography brings is ultimately the ethnographer.

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