11. Observing the Invisible, Speaking the Unspeakable: Bodily Practices and Skills in Technical Activities

Panel organised by Nicole RODDA & Carlotta TAVORMINA

Invisible and inexpressible through common language, motions and technical knowledge represent a true challenge for anthropology. “How can one identify, describe in order to reproduce, an object which […] conceals itself to both investigation and explanation?” (Chevallier, 1991) is an issue still debated both in the French (Descola, 2006; Julien, 2006; AFEA, 2011) and in the Anglo-Saxon literature (Ingold, 2011; Marchand, 2010; Farnell, 2011). Often, in most texts, descriptions of the more dexterous motions and tricks – the expert movements of a carpenter, the finger movements of a pianist – are either absent or very general. It is however these detailed actions which truly constitute the know-how underlying expertise (Bril & Roux, 2002): being able to capture these precise motions and mobilisation of the senses is vital to understand expertise, its acquisition, transmission and cultural value.

In this workshop we wish to discuss the merits and limits of classic ethnographic tools with regards to motions, mainly the use of the human eye as a data collector, and also the methodological innovations which could help overcome any quagmires. Setting off from Mauss’ observation of body techniques as “physio-psycho-sociological” assemblages (Mauss, 1936), we are especially interested in interdisciplinary approaches which coordinate qualitative and quantitative data collection methods, observations and measuring instruments, science and human sciences. Can these tools be integrated into an ethnographic field research study? How? Can we still call these methods ethnographic? How are they received by the ethno-anthropological community?

This workshop welcomes presentations dealing with technical knowledge and know-hows in the most general sense, such as handicrafts, sports, music, etc. as well as daily activities. We are also open to presentations dealing with the animal world when this is compared to the human realm.

We invite young researchers and PhD candidates to explore the methodological issues raised by this workshop both in their field applications (choice and combination of data collection methods and their application context) and their diffusion criteria (choice of elements to include and exclude, props and treatment of the variability highlighted through individual observations). Also, in bearing with the workshop’s interdisciplinary vocation, we will especially consider those proposals which endeavour to coordinate methodologies stemming from different fields and dealing with different data (qualitative observations, instrumental measurements, interviews).


Bril B. & Roux V. (dir.) (2002), Le geste technique. Réflexions méthodologiques et anthropologiques, Ramonville Saint-Agne, Editions Erès, p. 29-48.

Chevallier D. (1991), “Des savoirs efficaces”, Terrain, n°16, p. 5-11.

Descola P. (2006), “Introduction”, Dire le savoir-faire. Gestes, techniques, objetsCahiers

d’anthropologie sociale, n°1, p. 9-12.

Farnell B. & Wood R. (2011), “Performing precision and the limits of observation” in Ingold T. (ed.), Redrawing Anthropology. Materials, Movements, Lines, Ashgate, Farnham, p. 91-113.

Ingold T. (2011), Redrawing Anthropology: Materials, Movements, Lines, Ashgate, Farnham.

Julien M.-P. et al. (2006), “Le corps: matière à décrire”, Ecrire le corps – Corps, n°1, p. 53-60.

Marchand, T.H.J. (2010), “Making Knowledge: explorations of the indissoluble relation between mind, body and environment”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 16, n°1, p. S1-S21.

Mauss M. (1936), “Les techniques du corps”, Journal de Psychologie, XXXII, n°3-4.


Submit your proposal/abstract via email attachment to Nicole RODDA (nicole.rodda@ehess.fr) and Carlotta TAVORMINA (ctavormina@hotmail.com)

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