An Elephant in the Room: Tracking an Awkward Anthropology

July 15, 2020

Poland & Canada


Dr. Magdalena Kazubowski-Houston


Rajat Nayyar

In her talk, Dr. Magdalena Kazubowski-Houston tracked the feeling of awk­wardness she experienced in an imaginative ethnography project conducted in collaboration with Randia, a Polish Romani woman. She discussed her attempt to re-envision anthropology as an engaged, collaborative and interventionist practice.

Talk Description:

Kazubowski-Houston's article follows the trail, its offshoots and connections to arrive at what she calls an awkward anthropology, which entails a radical and imaginative epis­temic politics. Reflecting on how working at the intersections of ethnography, performance, storytelling and fiction shifted reflexivity from the purview of the anthropologist to that of the interlocutor, she proposes an imaginative and creative praxis as a starting point for reinventing anthropology. Drawing on these ideas, we discussed the "anthropology of possibility" and how ethnographers "can become attentive to the unpredictable, hidden, obscure, and humble ways in which activism might play out in the field" (Kazubowski-Houston 2018). Read the article here.


Magdalena Kazubowski-Houston is an anthropologist, performance theorist, theatre director and playwright. She is Associate Professor of Theatre and has graduate appointments in Theatre & Performance Studies and Social Anthropology at York University. Her book, Staging Strife (2010), was awarded the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry Outstanding Qualitative Book Award and the Canadian Association for Theatre Research Ann Saddlemyer Book Prize (2011). Her article, “quiet Theatre: The Radical Politics of Silence,” was awarded the Canadian Association for Theatre Research (CATR) 2019 Richard Plant Prize, granted annually to the best English-language article on a Canadian theatre or performance topic. She is a co-founding member and co-curator of the Centre for Imaginative Ethnography (CIE)—winner of the 2019 American Anthropological Association General Anthropology Division New Directions Award, which recognizes work presenting anthropological perspectives to publics beyond the academy across diverse forms of media with methodological rigor and ethical engagement.

Rajat Nayyar is an anthropologist and a filmmaker with an MA in Audiovisual Ethnography from Tallinn University. As a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholar, he is currently pursuing a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies at York University. His research focus is on vocality, everyday acts of resistance, collaborative fiction filmmaking and futures anthropology. Rajat is the founder of Espírito Kashi, a project that facilitates performative spaces for rural Indian communities to critically re-imagine folklore, envision new socialities, decolonize archives, and film futures. His recent film 'Kashi Labh' was screened at RAI film festival and numerous other anthropological film festivals and conferences. Rajat is the co-founder and curator at Emergent Futures CoLab and co-edits the 'Performance Ethnography' section of Centre for Imaginative Ethnography, a transnational research-creation network.

Talk Citation:

Nayyar, R., & Kazubowski-Houston, M. (2020). An Elephant in the Room: Tracking an Awkward Anthropology. “Talking Uncertainty” podcast, Emergent Futures CoLab, September.

Additional Credits:

- Podcast production: Rajat Nayyar, Rana El Kadi

- Podcast sound design: Debashis Sinha

- Visual design: Kaustubh Khare

- Insight synthesis: Rana El Kadi, Rajat Nayyar, Alize Arican, Daniel Akira Stadnicki

- Live Twitter engagement: Lachlan Summers

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Insights from the Talk

Awkwardness, collaboration and negotiating agendas

What is the broader epistemological significance of feeling awkward for the anthropological project? Ethnography is always improvisational, and mistakes are bound to happen, but we must engage with - and write critically - about them. Performance ethnography is not collaborative by default, and collaboration between researchers and interlocutors “often involves negotiating different interests and conflicting agendas”. Anthropologists tend to monopolize reflexivity in their writing, which does little to shift problematic power dynamics. We need to move beyond our own positionality in our reflexive writing. Trailing awkwardness through ethnography and pursuing an “awkward anthropology” can shift the lens of reflexivity and unsettle power dynamics between researcher and interlocutor, thus leading to a different kind of collaborative anthropology.

Wolf anthropology v/s Context-specific methodology

Is a shift in reflexivity possible in the short-term ethnographic work that has been recently gaining popularity in anthropology? Ethnography is not a toolkit, and there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to collaborative research methodology. Performance ethnography can just as easily constitute a “wolf anthropology,” where the scholar forces collaboration and pushes their own agenda. In fact, “performance” has become a trope for community engagement, where the neoliberal academy has usurped the language of social justice, only to recreate colonial power relations and extractivist research processes. We need to resist the urge towards imposing our own - potentially neocolonial - flavours of “equity” and “equality” with our interlocutors. Ethnography should always be context-specific and driven by the needs of the community. In fact, our interlocutors might sometimes be more interested in “a politics of invisibility” instead of recognition.

Engaging with (im)possibility and (un)certainty through fiction

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, how can methods that involve fiction or social fiction help communities to channel uncertainty and reimagine their futures? COVID-19 has starkly highlighted structural inequities and realities that have always existed. The reality we knew has disappeared overnight, and other realities have appeared. Therefore, in many ways, COVID-19 is about absence, and neoliberal academia has tried to fill this gap, through technology and other means - to try to resemble “the normal” - when in fact this is not possible. We need to construct knowledge in a kind of “twilight zone,” which lies somewhere in between the existing and the emergent, the possible and the impossible, the past and the future, and fiction and reality. Fiction helps us to tap into these spaces of absence, uncertainty, emergence by improvising these interiorities to the fore.

Performance, ethnographic intimacy and political context

A collaborative, improvisational ethnography focussing on the intimate might give the impression that our interlocutors’ world is limited, whereas they are connected to the broader society, discourses and politics. How can we juggle such an element of scale? Performance can show us how people relate to each other in terms of power. By using different modalities of ethnography, we get a parallax effect that can help generate different “truths”. Despite being a politics of intimacy, we need to always situate such practices within the broader political moment. Kazubowski-Houston emphasizes in her talk that the intimate improvisational moments between her and her interlocutor took place within the context of mass migrations and a broader affective economy of long-term-care in Poland.

Imagination, Covid-19 and elder care

The absence of elders’ caregivers appears as an elephant in the room throughout Kazubowski-Houston’s dramatic storytelling. How can we put things in perspective in terms of working with imaginative ethnography and elderly care in the context of the COVID-19 reality? Elders in many countries have been socially isolated and alone for a long time, so the “COVID reality” existed for many of us even before the pandemic started. In the context of the recent COVID outbreaks in long-term care facilities, we have been speculating the death of so many elders in Canada and around the world, and somehow this is considered normal. As an improvisatory ethnographic tool, imagination has often been romanticized in anthropology. Although it can be powerful, it can be equally disempowering and damaging to our interlocutors. The outcome of imaginative ethnography may not necessarily be what we had hoped for or anticipated, especially during these challenging times.

Community benefit and slow activism

How can we go beyond self-reflexivity in our research and deal with our inability to directly impact the living conditions of our interlocutors? Our interlocutors often request our assistance with daily tasks and have their own agendas regarding collaboration. But in many cases, they may not want us to intervene in any public way. Therefore, we must not enforce our agendas of “social justice” and “activism,” assuming that the project could transform their situation. Kazubowski-Houston explains how the layer of fiction in her work allows Romani women to share issues of concern in a carefully edited, curated, and anonymized way due to fear of community reprisal. Instead of always approaching activism as a social movement or a protest, we should consider the potential of such improvisatory practices and the subtle, slow ways in which activism plays out in everyday life.