October 2008

In his quest to locate contemporary manifestations of liminal performance, Victor Turner wrote about “retribalization as an attempt to restore the original matrix of ritual” (1984:25). Vague as to what constitutes ‘retribalization’, Turner seemed to be subtly mandating his readers to seek out those communities, organizations or tribes in their own immediate geographies whose activities or events were somehow distinguished from the more ritually impoverished mainstream of Western society.

Through investigating and, more importantly, participating in events which embody the multidimensionality of tribal ritual – speech, music, dance, art and so on – Turner suggested that the transformative experiences of our agrarian forebears could be rejoined and recovered by post-industrial citizens long separated from such creative activities by the division of labour and other changes in society. It is a suggestion he made throughout his writing, first appearing in The Ritual Process (1969), where he briefly mentioned the liminality of that event that will dawn or, rather, dusk on my immediate geography in about 32 hours: Halloween.

Notwithstanding his perpetual distinction between the liminal and liminoid, Turner believed that events such as Halloween had discovered “the cultural debris of some forgotten liminal ritual” (1979: 58) and somehow managed to excavate a connection to a numinosity thought lost to large-scale, complex societies.

32 hours from now, those of you planning to gear up, doll up, paint up and dress up for the first Halloween to hit a Friday night in a long time (and the fact that the week’s biggest party night coincides with the real date of Halloween makes staying up late and doing what you do all the more potentially transformative and/or numinous) should take this to heart. There are many semi-accessible liminal and/or liminoid (depending on how stodgey you are in defining their space) zones to get into these days. But, regardless of your age and the transformative numinosity you might want to be tapping into, there’s something special about that one night of the year that exists betwixt-and-between dusk and dawn, childhood and adulthood. So if you’re dressing up and planning to misbehave, make it count.


Turner, Victor. (1969) The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure. Chicago: Aldine.

Turner, Victor. (1979) Process, Performance and Pilgrimage: A Study of Comparative Symbology. Delhi: Concept Publishing

Turner, Victor (1984) “Liminality and the performative genres,” in John J. MacAloon (ed.) Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle: Rehearsals toward a Theory of Cultural Performance. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues Inc.

Check out the must play, must innovate game of…the year? Superstruct it!

If you’ve been on the research or client side of interactive, innovation, design and/or usability over the past few years chances are you’ve run into something like the above photo. This is just one of many that you can find on Flickr’s What’s In My Laptop Bag loop.

I’m throwing it up here because there’s been talk and surrounding photos like these as a type of “ethnography on the cheap.” In that context (and I’ll get back to context in a minute), I guess the value of such photos might be that, for designers of laptop bags, they offer a certain survey value of what people actually carry. But is the “actually” really actual?

Many of these photos seem to be hyper-staged. The one above reeks of Mac style sensibility: wood floors, everything lined up neatly, an Ikea (?) table and a copy of Fast Company just to let you know that the user takes his innovative business thinking seriously. Chances are, the owner is closer to the dude designing laptop bags than the man-on-the-street user that proponents of this type of visual research suggest they are representing.

But representation isn’t research, at least not ethnography. Case in point: personas. If you’ve read Post Number One on this blog, you’ll know that I, like many of my more erudite colleagues, think personas are a hop, skip and a jump away from being total bullshit. I know they keep some people who work in a social void on track when it comes to design etc., but they are not a valid ethnographic representation of anything more than fictionalized amalgamations of “research subjects,” “users” “consumers,” and other human “targets.”

Instead of ethnography on the cheap, I’d suggest that photos like these, when promoted as a research tool that exist solely on Flickr, actually cheapen ethnography. Given the number of non-anthropologists and firms hiring them that are currently running about the industry waving the I/We Do Ethnography flag right now, that’s the last thing we need.

Methodologies come and go, or at least get new values ascribed to them. But as a methodology, I don’t buy into the Flickr approach to user-gatherer culture. Maybe seeing what a vast number people I can’t talk with have somewhere (in closets, purses, drawers etc.) helps me get a sense of what I might ask/investigate when I actually (the real ‘actual’) meet them. But unless there’s a situated, context in which I ask and investigate, I don’t consider this ethnographic at all.

That’s not to say I don’t think the method can provide insights. Flickr’s great and all, but if you want to learn about what’s inside somebody’s something, how it might be used, what the relationships are between those things and – most important of all – the narratives of experience that can be told about and through those things, you need to meet the people.

So continue posting your baby photos, your pet photos and your foodie photos – but if you’re looking to truly, madly, deeply understand what makes a laptop bag tick from the inside, I suggest trucking the donuts, pop and crisp bills of the focus group to the street and teaming them up with couple of chairs, a little table and your field gear. Good research isn’t cheap.