A Creative Ethnology

"To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience, it is depth that counts, not width."

Patrick Kavanagh


“At surface level, [cultural renewal] is a question of politics. At a deeper level, it’s a question of poetics…If you get politics and poetics coming together, you can begin to think that you’ve got something like a live, lasting culture."

Kenneth White

Ethnology can be understood as a form of interdisciplinary anthropological research and practice that seeks to understand human creativity and how we, as humans, make life meaningful. It values human relationships and emotional connections, recognises the diversity of human experience, and understands the importance of our ecological connection to place. Often the focus of study is our relationship with the past, and how we make sense of it in the present, and so been closely associated with traditional culture and local knowledge. More than other humanities and social science fields, ethnology is rooted not just in a national and regional context, but, crucially, in the local milieu. We dig where we stand; our own personal roots, as well as our place in history and culture, are vital to our theory-practice. 

Since 2016, a diverse network of academic researchers, creative practitioners and cultural activists has emerged in Scotland, keen to explore the potential of a ‘creative ethnology.’ This is in part a response to the political, cultural and wider intellectual climate in the aftermath of the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, to Brexit, and to ongoing debates in the arts, culture and higher education. Although the term ‘creative ethnology’ has been used before, it acquired wider currency and meaning following Gary West’s inaugural lecture as Personal Chair in Scottish Ethnology, ‘Performing Testimony: towards a creative ethnology for the 21st century' in November 2016.

Implicit in the concept of a ‘creative ethnology’ is the notion of creative practice. For some, a creative ethnology is about finding more imaginative ways to share our research through performance or creative production. For others, the creative potential is in how we engage in vital dialogue and find synergy with other fields  - whether music, writing, theatre or visual and other arts or sciences. Rather than drawing on the creativity of the category of the artist, there is a sense too in which we must become artists ourselves. This appeals to an expanded anthropological notion of art - the power of the human to transform and be transformed in a constant, creative process. 

A creative ethnology is an attempt to hold the global and the local, thinking and action in engaged praxis. For many, an ethnological being-in-world speaks to the need for an activist orientation in practice. Many ethnologists consciously engage in different forms of cultural and political work – for example, in consciousness raising, advocacy and social change.  We do not seek to re-construct or re-perform the imaginary past. Through our work we seek to inspire a process of re-engagement with a broader and deeper understanding of culture in this place as part of a future-oriented project.