Collaborative Ethnography: Welcoming the Passenger

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By François-Xavier de Vaujany, PSL, Université Paris-Dauphine

Ethnography, auto-ethnography and collaborative ethnography are more and more parts of my research and teaching practices. Open Walked Event-Based Experimentations (OWEE), these collaborative learning expeditions experimented since 2016, have been an opportunity for me to explore further the collaborative side of ethnography with co-produced articles, shared log books and collaborative use of social media.

By means of a movie I use for some of my teachings, the Passenger  directed in 1975 by Michelangelo Antonioni, I would like to come back here to three key issues about collaborative ethnography: “reversibility” of the conversation, “silence” and “depth” (more than “perspective”). Those are topics which particularly resonate with the work of the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the writer, poet and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Collaborative ethnography is not about ‘applying’ a research protocol. Sometimes, the use of logbooks in the context of ethnography or organizational ethnography turns to a ‘tool’ and a ‘control system’ (even an ‘auto-control system’). I believe that collaborative ethnography is not only about co-producing the narration and the experience. It is most of all about openness to true encounters, surprises, drifts, and loss of control. Conversations just flow and become reversibilities (you could be me-I could be you). The others, the alterity encountered, must always be in a position to do an ethnography of one’s ethnography. This is beautifully epitomized by this discussion between the witch doctor and David Locke (Jack Nicholson) in the Passenger (click on the picture):

Passenger 1

Like ethnography and maybe beyond it, collaborative ethnography is or should remain an open, endless, surprising trip. Exactly like the one done in the all movie by David Locke who becomes Robertson after his death. It is strongly about identity. One should be able to plunge into others’ identities. But not at the risk of identity loss or schizophrenia. David always knows who he is and he needs this to really be in a process of becoming and to become who he is.

Collaborative ethnography is also a particular relationship with apparent passivity and silence which Merleau-Ponty found intriguing. The discussion between Robertson and Locke illustrates this passivity-activity chiasm in collaborative ethnography. Robertson finds the desert beautiful. It is “so still. A kind of waiting.” Locke prefers “men” to “landscapes”:

Passenger II.png

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had also this particular relationship with desert and silence. According to him,  silence is always full of something. If is not filled with people and actions now, it is just the precious, perfect stage waiting for an imminent action later. But when? Collaborative ethnography is also about temporal openness, patience, temporal ambiguity. Like the desert, it seems first filled with our sole presence but soon, we feel what has happened, what is happening and most of all, what could happen. It is about accepting a more or less transitional loneliness in a different community of destiny. David meets a deep alterity at some point, a girl (which remains a mystery, someone unnamed in the story). He shares with her deep silences which are not empty moments. Something truly happens in and through silence. Both accept it, except after the final conversation which seems to break the silence and what it ordered.

Lastly, collaborative ethnography is about “depth” more than “perspective”. Points of view matters, but most of all, it is the flow of the narrative, the happening that matters. The subjects (this includes the collaborative ethnographer) are settled by the narratives and the events much more than the subjects settle what is happening. The last scene (more than 7 minutes long…) of The Passenger is fascinating. It is fully reversible with the introductory scene about the death of Robertson:

Passenger III.png

Hotel rooms are similar to the ones of the beginning of the movie. The imminent death of Locke is not at all the center of scene and yet, it is settled by the amazing long take offered by Antonioni. All what is captured here by two gyroscopic cameras is about depth, the layers of the event settling this final, reversible, drama. All actors, all objects seem to collaborate to produce the narrative. This does not mean that a pivot is not necessary. Obviously, Antonioni is there and even prepared things. But he just let them flow, he let them drift in the story.

I like to use this movie in some courses or seminars I do about ethnography or phenomenology. Not only because it is (for me) a great movie. But also because it is a great life experience which puts me both behind and in front of the final window.

The passenger poster