Para-ethnography involves collaborations among anthropologists and “other sorts of experts with shared, discovered, and negotiated critical sensibilities,” in the words of George Marcus. The root of “para” means “alteration, perversion, or simulation.” It also means “auxiliary”—as in para-medics, professional staff who perform critical medical functions in ambulances and on the front lines, or para-legals who are qualified to perform legal work through their knowledge of the law gained through education or work experience. Rather than relegate para-ethnographers to a subservient role to bona-fide anthropologists, fully embracing their work can destabilize power hierarchies based on expertise.
Praba Pilar was just one of the artists at the Multispecies Salon who engaged in para-ethnographic tactics.
As artists and anthropologists experimented with different tactics and methods, the Multispecies Salon became a “para-site,” or an auxiliary ethnographic field site. The notion of an “ethnographic para-site” plays with the work of Michel Serres, a French philosopher. In French the word parasite has diverse associations: it means “noise” in addition to biological or social freeloader. Serres wrote an unusual book, The Parasite, which celebrates the creative and productive potential of noise: “The parasite doesn’t stop. It doesn’t stop eating or drinking or yelling or burping or making thousands of noises or filling space with its swarming and din…it runs and grows. It invades and occupies.”
“The para-site is a space of excess,” writes Marcus. It is “a site of alternativity in which anything, or at least something different, could happen.” These spaces facilitate unconventional ways of speaking and thinking with “moderately empowered people” who are “deeply complicit with and implicated in powerful institutional processes.”
Kirksey, Eben et al. (2014) “The Tactics of Multispecies Ethnography” in The Multispecies Salon, Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 10-14.
Kirksey, Eben et al. (2014) “Life in the Age of Biotechnology” in The Multispecies Salon, Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 186-188.
Serres, Michel (2007) The Parasite, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Marcus, George (2000) Para-Sites: A Casebook against Cynical Reason, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Holmes, Douglas and George Marcus (2005) “Refunctioning Ethnography: The Challenge of an Anthropology of the Contemporary” in The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, Third Edition in N. K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln, eds. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.