The Ecological Annum

I have to admit I laughed at the phrase “ecological annum” when James used it as a foil for his post on the duration of fieldwork. The phrase (real or invented) dates from a period when anthropologists primarily studied agriculturists and hunter-gatherers with long trips to the field and little concern for budgets. At first glance it is exactly the kind of old fashioned advice that seems at odds with the realities of conducting fieldwork in the early 21st century. But, working in Silicon Valley over the last year has turned me into a militant luddite and left me with an appreciation for the old ways.So, I want to throw a wrench into James’ vision of “moving beyond” traditional approaches into bright new future(s) and focus for a couple paragraphs on this anthropological koan.

The definite article indicates that a particular annum is specified. Not a universal annum or a hypothetical annum but a concrete thing known to the listener. Ecological and annum are indexical to context and temporality respectively. Ecology calls attention to the ongoing, interactional of work of people and materials at play in every social situation and implies a manner of working which has its roots in natural history. Activities, cognition and emotions only take on meaning within context, and further, they are both formed by and forming of that context. A natural history approach hints that action is not preordained, but rather unfolds contingently in time. An annum is literally the period of time it takes for the earth to orbit the sun, reminding us that phenomenal, lived time, is circular, not linear. Activities must be made anew on a periodic basis and in this remaking people and relationships are reestablished and renewed. These three terms invite us to ask the practical questions; when and how, rather than why, a phenomenon occurs.

Take the phrase “the ecological annum” not as literal advice to spend a full year in one place (unless it makes sense to do so) but rather as an injunction to follow concrete action from start to finish and back. This is sound and practical advice whether you are studying an alpine meadow or an afternoon of laundry in a suburban home. Investigating the “ecological annum” of laundry might take as its starting point the moment a shirt is declared “clean” and end with the moment it is re-declared to be “clean”. In between those two temporal points is the narrative of how a shirt becomes dirty. Or it might focus tightly on the wash cycle and take the moment “out of clean clothes” as a starting point and end with the declaration that the laundry is done. There is a fractal quality to the phrase. The scale may change but the elements retain the same relationship.