Harman’s Speculative Realism in Ethnographic Methods


by Rowan Jaines

There is an epistemological problem that sits at the heart of modern rational thought and permeates anthropological thought, methodology and analysis. We can call this, the problem of ‘the one and too many.’ Jarvie stated that the general formulation of this problem goes something like this: ‘Is the world just one thing or many different things?’ In anthropology the question looks more like this, ‘Is there just one kind of humanity, or many and how can we reliably explore this?’

Anthropology has historically dealt with this problem in two main ways, by attempting to explain either origin or structure. I mean here that anthropology, like most branches of the academy, has attempted to explain phenomena through either what they are made of or what they do. Recently, questions about the epistemological basis of the bifurcation between objects and subjects have led to a new wave of philosophical theories, sometimes coined ‘speculative realism,’ which has amongst its aims a commitment to clarifying what it is that we mean when we speak of objects. It is important to note here that during the course of this discussion when I refer to an object I do not simply mean a coffee cup or a table, but rather I refer to anything that cannot be reduced to a single quality or action. Therefore objects can also mean for example, people, communities, songs, speech and political parties.


Graham Harman, a key philosopher within the speculative realist movement, has contributed theory that could be of benefit to overcoming problems of representation and dualism in ethnographic methods. Harman claims that over the history of philosophy in the West we have attempted to overcome the problem of objects and their definition in two main ways. The first he refers to as ‘undermining.’ He describes this as attempting to go deeper, to understand a thing as more than a thing. In anthropological research we see this method in structuralist analysis as well as the recent trend in cognitive anthropology of understanding the human mind as a collection of neurons and brain cells rather than as a complex whole. This idea can be traced back to the pre-Socratics at the dawn of Western philosophy, who had two opposing views about how the world works. The first stated that the world can be reduced into elements, or as posited later by Democritus, atoms, and the second privileged the idea of the Aperion, the limitless, boundless, infinite state that is bigger and more complex and subtle than human comprehension could ever truly appreciate.

Harman argues that the problem with both of these techniques for understanding objects is that mid-sized objects are ignored. In both cases objects are vanished by stating that they are too shallow, that there must be more than meets the eye, or there must be something deeper, either particles or a deeper meaning. A key problem that he identifies with this method of understanding the way that the world works is its failure in explaining emergence. Emergence is, for example, why what we refer to as water has properties not found in either hydrogen or oxygen. Further to this, it cannot explain why a thing is not dependent on all of its pieces to be the thing that it is. An academic institute such as the University is a good example of this, as each year a portion of the students and faculty are replaced and yet the University does not become a different thing. This is something anthropologists have been acutely aware of when studying culture. People are always coming into the world, dying and moving but you would not refer to, for example, the Appalachian community in West Virginia by saying ‘we’re using Appalachia simply as a nickname for a shifting collective.’ To me the beauty of anthropology lies in trying to comprehend the emergent life that the history and spatiality of a group of people holds, seemingly in its own right. This excess that it is difficult to name or measure colours and permeates language, stories, music, ways of holding and conceptualising one’s body, ways of feeling and knowing. It cannot be explained away simply by neural pathways in the brain, political or spiritual theories. It is at once spatial, temporal and yet something more, it exists in the centre ground right in the flow of everyday life.

The second technique that Harman refers to is what he calls ‘overmining’, which opposes the idea that objects are too shallow, positing instead that objects are too deep. This notion roots many post-modern theories that have been popular especially within anthropology since the ‘Writing Cultures’ movement of the 1980’s. These theories attempt to explain objects through linguistic theories and networks of signification and actors. Latour’s ‘Actor Network Theory,’ for example, offers a radical move away from ‘undermining’ theories by (on a very basic level) stating that a thing is its actions. The problem with this understanding of reality is that it cannot explain change. Harman reminds us that Aristotle famously stated, if something is only what it’s doing now it can never become something else. For example if one says, that you are not a writer unless you are writing, how can you explain a writer who is ill or is working a different job to support their writing career? Harman’s theory highlights the failure of overmining to explain phenomena and the subsequent need to acknowledge that there must always be unexpressed qualities in every object that exists which are not manifest in the here and now.

Harman argues that ‘overmining’ and ‘undermining’ are often used in a kind of pincer movement to destroy objects. He uses scientific materialism as an example, which he claims states that things can be reduced to their underlying parts (undermining). However, once this reduction has occurred one does not find a mysterious truth, what’s left is seen to be mathematisable (overmining). In other words it is seen as something that is simply doing what it’s doing and is completely comprehensible in mathematical terms. The ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology (which acts as an extended cultural relativism stating that understanding of the world creates different realities) does this in reverse. It starts off by ‘overmining,’ stating that there are discrete worlds that we can only know by observing actions. However, this analysis relies on the reader buying into a meta-ontology in which multiple worlds exist within a kind of ‘bloated universe’—a modern-day Apeiron if you will, which contains more reality than a human mind can ever conceptualise. In this way one loses what Harman refers to as the mezzanine level of the world. This is where much of the flow of everyday life is held and where the entanglements and connections between all things play out in ways that quite literally matter. If anthropology can reconceptualise its practice and methods based on a mezzanine level understanding of our place in the world, we have an opportunity to develop new methodologies with which to more accurately and truthfully represent the reality of people’s lives.

Harman explains that Kant’s theory of ‘the thing in itself’ essentially describes the human condition as a painfully tantalising situation where we can never reach the truth of an object, no matter what methods we use. He puts forward the idea that this can be reconceptualised if we understand this epistemological problem as a crisis resulting from our methods of understanding objects transforms this from a human problem to a problem with objects. If we understand that any relationship between two things can never exhaust all the possibilities that exist within each object our inability to access the ‘whole’ truth ceases to be problematic and instead opens up a new space where conversation and communication becomes a key methodological tool. Here Harman urges us to consider the Islamic metaphor of fire and cotton, which explains that when the fire burns the cotton, the fire does not interact with all the properties of the cotton. The fire interacts only with the limited properties that the fire needs in order to burn. From this point we can consider, as Heidegger pointed out, is that for the most part things are not present to us because they are taken for granted. For example, unless I mention the air around us that is moving in and out of your lungs you probably have not noticed it for some time, yet you have desperately needed it in order for all of the rest of your senses to be able to process and report data. Harman encourages us to take this a step further in order to acknowledge that when a person uses something, they are not making any more direct contact with it than when they are looking at it or theorising about it. For example, a botanist will never get to the depths of a tree but neither will someone who is using it for shade or dancing in its leaf fall. The same could be said for anthropological research; one will never be able to fully penetrate the depths of a particular community or social group, but nor will someone living within that group or society for the whole of their lives.

So what does this mean for anthropological methods? I would suggest that we can use Harman’s theory to develop a methodology where we can consider all things as objects, (this includes human, non-human, living, non-living, theoretical and physical phenomena). This offers us an opportunity to move away from ‘overmining’ and ‘undermining’ in our analysis. Instead we can accept that things are indeed what they seem to be on the mezzanine level of the world, but that there is always an excess beyond our knowledge that holds the potential for change. This excess is held in all objects although it is more apparent in very complex systems such as animals, computers and social groups. This however, also makes these objects more vulnerable. For example, a kitten both has more potential for change than a rock because of its complexity and is simultaneously more vulnerable to circumstance than the rock because of this self-same complexity. Thus we see that the world conforms to the rules of entropy: as systems become more complex they also become more volatile and disordered. This is important to remember when carrying out anthropological research, since all things are ‘intra-active’ in the system on the mezzanine level but the most complex are the least stable. This could create a kind of hierarchy where once again we find ourselves in a bifurcation between complex and non-complex objects. However, the world on the mezzanine level works on probabilities not absolutes. A rock could be smashed into a million pieces, each of which may be used to make beautiful tools and jewellery, it is just less likely than the kitten either growing up to hunt prey or indeed dying. This volatility and vulnerability corresponds to a ‘plasticity’ in objects that provides great opportunity for change.

When considering objects in this context there is a kind of truth that we can state as long as we acknowledge that it is not an absolute truth, rather a framing of a bigger picture based on other specific frames of reality. We can never fully know even our own selves, since much of our potential will always remain hidden to us, requiring the right environmental stimulus to provoke it into action, but this does not mean that an analysis of what is present is worthless. If we resist the urge to privilege an interior gaze that makes complex contextual factors fall away and instead understand the world on the mezzanine level, metaphor, representation and poetry emerge as necessary tools for exploring ideas about the world.

If we consider objects in the light of speculative realist theory we begin to see the possibility for new forms of anthropological method and analysis. In the recent past, anthropology has shied away from analysing landscapes because of fears of flattening our views of the world. However, Tsing states that landscapes can be very ‘thick.’ Landscapes encompass the material and the imagined, the past and the present, they acknowledge the potential for change, and they represent political and social realities on an aesthetic and phenomenological level. They allow for the real to be real, and for all things to be intra-related, as each thing thrives or perishes in the life-making project of all other objects. Landscapes also allow for conversation and collaborative research with other specialists; botanists, geologists, physicists, and historians to name just a few, in order to make manifest some of the more subtle connections and entanglements involved in the enactments of the world. Landscapes enable us to reconcile things that flow, such as time, with things that jump, such as technology. This could be seen as the central aim of not only anthropology, but also of the natural sciences and metaphysics. As Harman states, by reconciling things that ‘flow with things that jump’ we bring the world and objects within it onto the mezzanine level, where we can analyse phenomena in context. By doing this we have the opportunity to make manifest individual human experience (which has its own dimensions and functions on an interior level according to its own rules) on the mezzanine level of the world, anchored in a shared reality of spaces, places, and movement.

Rowan Jaines is winner of the Bill and Scarlett Epstein Prize for the Best MA Dissertation in Anthropology at the University of Sussex, 2016. This post is a distillation of her dissertation, ‘Ethnography on the Mezzanine Level: Moving Beyond Dualism Towards and Anthropology of the Real.’ Rowan will graduate with an MA in Anthropology, with Distinction, in January 2017.

Cover photo: James Supercave – Better Strange.


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