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


Ethnology is a form of interdisciplinary anthropological research and practice that, at its heart, seeks to understand how we, as humans, make life meaningful. We might describe it as the study of how communities make sense of themselves to themselves in particular places through cultural memory and creative expression. Often, the focus is our relationship with the past and how we make sense of it in the present, and so historically, ethnology has been closely associated with its sister discipline of folklore, and the collection and study of 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. This metaphor takes in our own personal roots, as well as our place in history and culture. With its emphasis on drawing global insights from consciously situated perspectives (‘Wisdom sits in places,’ Basso 1996), a Scottish ethnology is one of the world anthropologies in practice.

Ethnology values human relationships and emotional connections, recognises the diversity of human experience and understands the importance of our ecological connection to place. Through fieldwork and and an ethic of mutuality, ethnology bears witness to the experience of others and reflects the manifold and diverse ways human subjectivity and experience manifests itself.

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 at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Ullrich Kockel’s inaugural lecture ‘Authentic Heritages, Sustainable Communities: Undisciplined Cross-cultural Perspectives’ in November 2018 at Heriot-Watt University.

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 sociological 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 that looks towards the future. 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 - working alongside communities, transforming ideas into collective action.  

Read more about my own reflections on ethnology as a creative practice here