Ethnography of the Invisible

During the 13th biennial conference of European Association of Social Anthropologists in Tallinn, Estonia Marja-Liisa Honkasalo and Susanne Ådahl of the Mind and Other project, together with Vibeke Steffen of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen co-convened a panel on “the Ethnography of the Invisible”. The purpose of the panel was to open up a discussion on how to study ’the invisible´ on theoretical and methodological levels; how to understand the concept of truth; and, why the emic notion of kumma is an important tool for rethinking anthropological theory and knowledge. The Finnish term ’ kumma’, which means ’weird’, ’liminal’, ’abject’ and is etymologically linked with the word for ghost, kummitus, has been adopted from earlier discussions we have had within the Mind and Other project (please refer to the previous blog post on this subject; ). For the purposes of the panel and more broadly within our Mind and Other project the ‘invisible’ has been used as a working notion. Like so many other notions linked to the otherworldly realm, the notion of the ‘invisible’ is imprecise and we are struggling with how to define it. During the panel there was, unfortunately not enough time to discuss how we would like to develop this notion.

The panelists presented on a wide variety of ethnographically informed questions that linked in with the notion of the invisible (see this link for further information on themes and panelists:, go to page 172). These can be summarised as a number of main problems:

  • The (epistemological) problem of knowing.

How can we know that the ’invisible’ exists? A necessary companion to both perception and belief is uncertainty, and it should not be viewed in opposition to belief or non-belief, but rather as something that contributes synchronically to the specific nature and practice of the ‘act of believing’. This ’act of believing’ can be captured by an action that frequently is preceded by or intertwined with emotion. A central and important point in the experience of the invisible is the ambiguity that marks perception, experience and modes of knowing – or programs of truth. In this regard ambiguity is precisely what challenges the main epistemological assumptions of knowledge and action made in the social sciences.

Knowing in relation to the limits of language; How it is possible to understand the boundary experience of the Other (without having any own experience of this nature as a reference point) as these boundary experiences are not conveyed through language?

What are the limits of getting proper knowledge (e.g. by resonance, by searching for similarities) and of making sense of something totally unfamiliar, of kumma, that which is ’radically other’ in the other’s experience?

  • The problem of linking invisibility to the human mind (or consciousness). In western science (psychology and philosophy of mind) the definition of the mind includes a sharp boundary between inside and outside. In several of her articles, Tanya Luhrman (latest here 2011) addresses this question by emphasizing that in the Euro-American modern theory of mind, people treat the mind as if there is, in effect, a clear boundary between what is in the mind, and what is in the world. Entities in the world, supernatural or otherwise, do not enter the mind, and thoughts do not leave the mind to act upon the world. The assertion that they do is seen as a symptom of mental illness. The theory of the porousness of the human mind is, though, used in contemporary contexts, for example in the realm of neuro-security (and more specifically the widely applied military strategy of ‘neo-cortical warfare). Although we speak of clear mind-world boundaries there are nonetheless areas where a blurring of these boundaries is visible.
  • The issue of Ethics in research. A strong critical point directed at anthropological theory and epistemology came up during our panel discussions. Because it is not possible to use a relativist stance when analysing phenomena that are ‘invisible’, and the other strategy – to explain them away – isn’t proper either, how do we write about these phenomena when our anthropological tool kit is insufficient?

A central theme that explicitly appeared in a number of the papers was that of radical otherness/alterity and the possibilities that ontographic research offers. In the discussions some of those present wanted to broaden the ‘ontological’ approach beyond what is being discussed at this moment in scientific research. Both a culturalist stance and scientifically based attempts to explain invisible phenomena away provide heavily biased results. Doing ethnographic research on the ”invisible” requires us to think of otherness through the meaning that it really exists. In addition to the new ”ontological turn” in anthropology (radical) alterity is a theme that is widely discussed in other philosophies too. It has, for example previously been theorised in the phenomenology of Schutz (multiple realities), phenomenology of the body (embodiment, Merleau-Ponty), and the philosophy of von Uexkull (parallel worlds). Contemporary philosophical contributions of use to this discussion are those presented in the work of feminist theorist Karen Barad.

One important task ahead of us is to find and create bridges between constructionist and ontological approaches. This requires intellectual legwork in the form of going through these philosophical discussions and putting them in dialogue with the theoretical approaches of the ontological turn, thus offering a fresh contribution to ontography.


Written by Marja-Liisa Honkasalo and Susanne Ådahl


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