chapter  5
On Embedded Action Anthropology and How One Thing Leads to Another by Chance
ByJonathan L. Zilberg
Pages 14

What is the practical and theoretical value of following up on unexpected, or serendipitous, information during fieldwork? That is the question this chapter explores. In reflecting back upon how three successive applied ethnographic research projects of mine led from one to another I revisit the literature on serendipity in anthropology and other fields and consider the theoretical, practical, and pedagogical consequences those conceptual models might have for an anthropology of the unexpected. Conducted in Indonesia, each project came about and led directly from one to the other by pure chance, thus the term “linked ethnographic serendipity.” In each case, a single short comment immediately caught my attention as significant and worth investigating. Simply put, a red flag or critical datum surfacing in one research context led to a different applied activist project in a very different context. In the process of discovering the literature on serendipity, I came to realize that

there is an enormous difference between simply recognizing an obvious research topic worth investigating and the serendipitous datum. First one has to realize that the typical understanding of serendipity as merely an unexpected chance interesting observation is not serendipity (Rond 2014). Chance is an event while serendipity is a capability dependent on bringing separate events, causal and non-causal together through an interpretive experience put to strategic use (Makri and Blandford 2012a, 2012b). Thus serendipity turns out to be a more complicated concept than one would otherwise imagine from its usual currency as merely being something unexpected. Simply put, in its modern definition by Horace Walpole in The Three Princes of Serendip, and dating back to Amir Khusrau’s Hasht Bihasht of 1302, a tale about the Persian King Bahram V of the Sassanid Empire (420-440), the term refers to “the combination of accident and sagacity in recognizing the significance of a discovery” (Remer 1965, 6-7). There is specific consequence in being aware of the literature on serendipity for

graduate school pedagogy as George Marcus (2009) emphasizes for an era of

disciplinary transition in which students are by and large ahead of the discipline, though this is not uniformly the case (Hale 2008). Apparently, graduate students today are typically more interested in applied and activist agendas than their older professors and the students trained in graduate anthropology programs in the 1980s and 1990s. An analytic awareness then of serendipity and the literature on unexpected and unanticipated consequences will be of particular value for students interested in applied anthropology. Though the value of serendipity in qualitative research has been clearly shown (Fine and Degan 1996) and though there is an emergent appreciation in anthropology of it as a subject of vital concern (Hazan and Hertzog 2012; Rivoal and Salazar 2013) my purpose here is to extend current thought by calling for a greater attention in anthropology to the theoretical work on the topic in other disciplines, specifically to two illuminating models of the “serendipity pattern” as presented by Lawley and Tompkins (2008) and modified by Makri and Blandford (2012a, 2012b). There are other relevant studies, for instance on intuition by Klein (2013), and a history of work in sociology on unexpected and unanticipated consequences by Calhoun (2010), Portes (2000), and Merton and Barber (2004). The work on innovation and knowledge diffusion by Swan, Scarborough, and Robertson (2003) and Rogers (2003) is equally pertinent. Above all, there is the critical foundational work by Andel (1994), though the literature on the role of the unexpected and serendipity in science (Roberts 1989; Corneli 2012) and economics is for reasons of space and focus barely referred to in this chapter, except to mention in passing the irreverent best seller The Black Swan (Taleb 2007). To be sure, as George E. Marcus (2009, 22) highlights, the surprise or serendipitous

datum in anthropological research has the status of being virtually a disciplinary trope. Nevertheless, as Hazan and Hertzog (2012) emphasize, the phenomenon and its importance for the discipline has remained theoretically unexamined. We are returned again then to Hortense Powdermaker’s acute observation that “Little record exists of mistakes and learning from them, and of the role of choice and accident in stumbling upon significant problems, in reformulating old ones, and in devising new techniques, a process known as serendipity” (quoted in Fine and Degan 1996, 444-5). As Marcus calls for, and as Hazan and Hertzog (2012) illustrate, there is theoretical and practical value to be had in incorporating an appreciation for the ubiquity and consequence of serendipity into graduate training, and there Robert Willim (2013) notes that we should even embrace a sense of events in fieldwork as being outside of our control, never mind capitalizing on failure (Le Feuvre 2010). The idea is at hand then that graduate students should be trained to sagaciously take advantage of the changes of course that the unexpected offers during research. A familiarity with the phenomena and research could allow them to establish connections between data towards generating new anthropological insight into the nature and importance of serendipity (Le Courant 2013; Giabiconi 2013; Dalsgaard 2013). There is a world of difference between careful planning for conducting anthro-

pological research projects on specific problems in graduate school and what happens when one discovers unexpected topics during research and then seizes the opportunity offered by the serendipitous observation that stands out as a potent metaphor. In

fact, anthropological research is particularly well suited for investigating the unexpected, so much so that Daniel Miller noted at the 2012 EASA Young Scholars Forum that “it is important to cultivate a certain willingness to seize unforeseen opportunities” and if necessary set aside previous research plans and methods (Rivoal and Salazar 2013).1 There, in its fullest significance to the discipline, serendipity is seen as an engine for anthropological research with the potential to advance both method and theory (Hazan and Hertzog 2012, 183) in the context of post-1980s disciplinary changes (Marcus 1999, 2002, 2008).