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Improvising Theory

Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork

Improvising Theory

Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork

Scholars have long recognized that ethnographic method is bound up with the construction of theory in ways that are difficult to teach. The reason, Allaine Cerwonka and Liisa H. Malkki argue, is that ethnographic theorization is essentially improvisatory in nature, conducted in real time and in necessarily unpredictable social situations. In a unique account of, and critical reflection on, the process of theoretical improvisation in ethnographic research, they demonstrate how both objects of analysis, and our ways of knowing and explaining them, are created and discovered in the give and take of real life, in all its unpredictability and immediacy.

Improvising Theory centers on the year-long correspondence between Cerwonka, then a graduate student in political science conducting research in Australia, and her anthropologist mentor, Malkki. Through regular e-mail exchanges, Malkki attempted to teach Cerwonka, then new to the discipline, the basic tools and subtle intuition needed for anthropological fieldwork. The result is a strikingly original dissection of the processual ethics and politics of method in ethnography.

224 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2007

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Political Science: Political and Social Theory

Sociology: Theory and Sociology of Knowledge


“Improvising Theory represents the stupendous outcome of what should be an ordinary procedure—the interaction between a faculty member and her advisee in the field. What makes this book so remarkable is that both sides to this correspondence maintain a tone that is richly literary. Moreover, the exchange is a model for the kind of pedagogical relationship we should all aim to have with our students.”

Michael Herzfeld, Harvard University

“This courageous book opens our eyes in startlingly new ways to how cultural anthropologists do ethnography. Cerwonka and Malkki reveal the improvisational and deeply dialogical processes involved in producing knowledge about cultural practices, knowledge that emerges out of affective experiences and ethical dilemmas alike. Improvising Theory breaks important new ground that will greatly benefit all practitioners of the craft of ethnography.”

Emily Martin, New York University

"This work is a great conversation that leads to significant and continued learning. . . . Anyone with an interest in the practice of ethnography will derive great benefit from this book. Highly recommended."


"This reviewer certainly found plenty of excellent advice on fieldwork techniques, useful for a novice fieldworker, but also a great reminder for anthropologists who have been through the rite of passage that is fieldwork, yet who may still have doubts whether they are carrying it out correctly. . . .

Liza Debevec | Anthropological Notebooks

"The book provides a fascinating insight into the interdisciplinary research process and demonstrates how ethnographic understanding takes time to develop. . . . Improvising Theory will be intereesting reading for all anthropologists cencerned with the process of theory development, and invaluable for first-time ethnographic researchers as it breaks down the mystique surrounding fieldwork."

Stephanie Jones | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"An invigorating and energizing read, perhaps most especially for graduate students and those who guide them. . . . Improvising Theory captures as well as anything--and better than most--the truly social and interactive nature of knowledge production. . . . [Cerwonka] and Malkki have aptly demonstrated that method and theory are always deeply intertwined, and that it is the frustrations as well as the joys of fieldwork that ultimately lead us to achieve our most valuable insights."

Susan Brin Hyatt | Collaborative Anthropologies

Table of Contents


Nervous Conditions: The Stakes in Interdisciplinary Research          
Allaine Cerwonka
Fulbright Proposal                                                                
Fieldwork Correspondence                                                                    
Allaine Cerwonka
Liisa Malkki
Tradition and Improvisation in Ethnographic Field Research                
Liisa Malkki

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