The Paradox of Ethnographic Solitude and the Necessity of Withdrawal (with special reference to ‘social distancing’)

In June 2020, the Solitudes network met to discuss research related to the theme of voluntary solitude. Here Leo Coleman offers an account of social distancing (something we were all getting used to at the time) read through the lens of social anthropology.


‘Social distancing’ is a phrase that makes you think. Of course, as an item in the lexicon of public health communication, that is its overt function—to serve as a handy reminder of what it is good to do in a pandemic, a guide to individual practices that will increase the safety of all. But it also implies further questions, about the reasons we give for maintaining distance from others, or practicing solitude, and, further, the social knowledge we may gain by such an ethical practice of voluntary solitude.


That is, the present public health crisis, as it has unfolded through a regime of ethicized practices of isolation and self-quarantine—impositions justified on the grounds that they protect not only the self but also others—may help us think in new ways about how we experience community. The philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy pointed this out as the crisis deepened in late March. He noted that the practice of isolation and the associated radical transformation of social life during the first phases of the pandemic had led some to imagine a more thoroughgoing alteration in everyone’s everyday relationship to capitalism and the environment. He said, ‘we should not scoff at this fragile euphoria, rather ask ourselves how far we can better understand the nature of our community’. One point Nancy made is particularly useful as we begin to emerge from an isolation that was never equitably distributed in any case, and start to reflect on what we may have learned: he insisted that if we are to think about community through these recent events, to reflect upon the fact that our mutual isolation is a paradoxical way of being (alone) together, then we have to displace the virus from the centre of our attention. ‘The problem’, he wrote, ‘is that the virus is still . . . [the] main representative’ of this emerging community of voluntary isolation.[1] That is, the virus is the icon or principal figure of, and justification for, our present practices of voluntary solitude. Insofar as they are governed by this figure, the political and technical apparatuses mobilized around the virus—the state and medical institutions devoted to our common biological life—limit a wider inquiry into the rewards of this voluntary solitude, what we may gain socially by self-isolating for each other.


There is, however, an archive of writing to be mined which involves self-conscious reflection on voluntary withdrawal, estrangement, and even (though the phrase is anachronistic in this context) ‘social’ distancing. This archive comes from social anthropology, and is comprised, perhaps paradoxically, of methodological reflections on the challenge of knowing through immersive social experiences. These reflections may be found in the broad genre of anthropological writing about ethnographic knowledge production—a genre in which experiences of solitude and withdrawal have a surprisingly prominent place. In fact, there is a long record of anthropologists wryly confessing that their field research was not nearly so convivial or participatory as the stereotype of hearty engagement in different ways of life might imply, and this confession usually comes twinned with an acknowledgement of the solitude demanded by the ethnographic vocation—although such rhetorical invocations of hardship in pursuit of knowledge are now completely out of fashion, to say nothing of the quasi-colonial trope of retreating to the privacy of one’s tent.


One genealogy of this kind of self-conscious account of ethnographic knowledge as the product of withdrawal or solitude might run (backward) from Clifford Geertz’s formulation of the ethnographic vocation in 1973—’what does the ethnographer do? He writes’—to at least Evans-Pritchard’s 1940 description of his relative solitude in the field, his abandonment by servants and guides, and the ‘Nuer-osis’ brought on by his Nuer ethnographic subjects’ (perfectly understandable) refusal to be interrogated by the interloper anthropologist (who formed part of the civilizing wing of an imperial apparatus that had not long before been employed in pacification). We might trace this even further back to Malinowski’s ‘Confessions of Ignorance and Failure’ in his fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands (conducted during World War I, though he only published his methodological accounting in 1935). A particularly influential example of an ethnographer documenting her own practices of withdrawal and isolation can be found in Jean Brigg’s 1970 ethnographic text Never in Anger. In fact, Briggs employs her retreat from her Inuit interlocutors’ social and emotional demands, and her need for time alone with her typewriter in her separate work tent, methodologically: she uses her own reaction of withdrawal and refusal when overwhelmed by daily personal proximity and intimacy in her fieldwork as a starting point for understanding the whole emotional complex of Inuit life.


These are wholly positive accounts of social distance and personal isolation as a starting point for ethnographic knowledge, and as a stage in overcoming, through reflection and comparison, the epistemic distance imposed by culture. There is also a distinct sub-genre of ethnographies in which a kind of retreat also produces a distinctive critical distance on the society under study, as opposed to deeper knowledge or greater sympathy. Such ethnographies often frame their data with an account of moments of doubt and uncertainty when the ethnographer found herself not only distant from the to-and-fro of daily (ethnographic) life, but also began to account for her own negative judgments upon the practices and goals of the people she is researching. Examples range from Hortense Powdermaker’s wry reflections on the difficulties of fieldwork in anti-Communist Hollywood in Stranger and Friend to the autobiographical introduction to Michael Moffatt’s study of caste, a quasi-allegorical account of his fieldwork in which he, as an instinctive democrat, is physically sickened by the ritualized humiliation of untouchability and can only think about it, and come to some understanding of its ultimate violence, by turning away from it.[2]


The line of reflections that includes Evans-Pritchard, Geertz, and Briggs, though marked by emotional drama, is notably positive in its assessment of voluntary withdrawal from the daily round of social life as part of the process of ethnographic knowledge production. The ethnographer retreats to her note-taking or gives up in frustration when receiving rehearsed and stale answers to ethnographic inquiries, but ultimately this all produces more insight into alien cultural patterns. The more frank and critical self-assessment given by Malinowski, a list of all the things he wished he had bothered to learn while in the field, is presented, likewise, as a positive catechism for future ethnographers, but was revealed by the posthumous publication of his fieldwork diary in 1967 to be more a record of true failures—ethical ones—produced by frustration and loneliness than simple lapses in method. Malinowski, his disciplinary descendants learned, committed bigoted expostulations to his private diary, was lonely, engaged in erotic reveries, and—perhaps most scandalous of all—read novels while he was in the field! That is, Malinowski not only complained rudely about the people he researched among, he read bad novels, and purely it seemed to escape from the pressures (and disappointments) of social interaction. He seemed to conform to the stereotype of the immature reader that the critic Francis Mulhern has recently identified as the key figure of mid-century cultural criticism: ‘the heteronomous reading subject, the stock life form of F.R. Leavis’s “mass civilization”.’[3] Even though the shock of these revelations has long-since faded, Malinowski’s double confession of ignorance and failure, the first methodological and the second a revelation of deeper frustrations, haunts all those who might write, still so anxiously, about the role of solitary reflection in the field, the necessity of withdrawal, and the conflicts brought on by spells of novel-reading. Such solitary practices seem like an escape from responsibility.[4]


Our professional judgement on Malinowski is perhaps kinder, today. I and others (including the literary historian Carlo Ginsburg) have written of other passages in the diary that reveal a rather more productive interchange between self-and-other in the moments of withdrawal and reflection that Malinowski recorded there. In this assessment, we have accepted that fieldwork cannot only be talk and interaction; it requires moments of isolation and even refusal of interaction, too, just as the elders acknowledged in their wry confessions—and, as they were less likely to observe, on both sides of the ethnographic relationship too.[5] But the questions I raised at the outset, in relation to social distancing, remain troubling: what could be offered as a justification for thus isolating or withdrawing, especially in the midst of a project of knowledge-acquisition and data gathering? Could it be that some distinctive knowledge is gained by practices of social distancing? Further, when might practices of personal withdrawal from society and its interactions, especially when these are willed or voluntary, still be ineluctably social, a pathway to learning and insight and even ‘good’ in an ethical sense?


Like most of my peers in my discipline, I am not inclined to embrace the hoary anthropological answer that we can achieve a transcendent perspective on the condition of culture and the patterns characteristic of other forms of life by cycles of immersion and withdrawal (usually accompanied by spatial movement from one ‘cultural’ place to another). On this out-of-date view, withdrawal and isolation are simply the other side of fruitful social immersion, and together they provide a way of achieving, through engagement followed by introspection, some comparative insight into others. This view of fieldwork proposes ‘value-free’ knowledge of other cultures, in their plurality, as the profit to be gained from this-worldly asceticism (or, at least, from going far away and leaving behind more immediate gratifications). This is too close to the Protestant ethic to be taken seriously as offering any kind of method free of its own cultural biases. We can, moreover, see clearly some formal similarities between this disciplinary self-justification and wider structures of ethical justification that link sacrifice to profit—for instance, the notion that the advent of the novel coronavirus requires us all, together, to engage in cycles of lockdown and re-opening, which are imagined, explicitly, to be both periodic and therapeutic. Giving up something now gives us greater reward later. More interestingly, perhaps, but equally problematically, knowledge becomes something that takes shape in stages, with cycles of withdrawal and re-emergence leading to new insights over time, rather than proceeding through analogy, comparison, or as something that comes from a stock of previous social experiences.


As an account of the production of ethnographic texts, of course, the stages sketched above are unobjectionable. One must participate, one must engage, one must write, and these are separate activities—so separate that several writers now advocate severing anthropological writing and theorizing from ethnographic experience altogether.[6] Their argument is that the particular ‘reward’ of ethnographic fieldwork (a term Malinowski used to describe his greatest results) is a broad and generally experiential one, which involves learning to live with new norms and to understand incommensurable values. If hitched too closely to textual representations, especially of ‘culture,’ this experience ends up being flattened into a product—on which one can earn a profit rather than win a reward. I tend to agree with this strong argument that what is most problematic in anthropology is the link that ties ethnography to culture and both to some written product, rather than a process of learning. Perhaps the same reservations apply to the practice of social distancing, and the effort to link it to specific results, whether gains in knowledge or skill at “management” of the virus.


The economy of such representations of social immersion and withdrawal as alternating phases of a broader and productive process, we might say, is inflationary. To escape from its debasement of the real value at stake, we might need to break the circuit which ties withdrawal to autonomy and hence to insight, and engagement to knowledge and understanding. Here is where I think we might return anew to the questions posed at the outset: what is figured as the motor of voluntary withdrawal, what justifies it or provides it with its particular set of incentives? How might these be linked to moral practices of belonging and solidarity? Malinowski’s practice of reading in fact provides one route toward an answer.


What if we take a fresh look at the notion that what one gains from reading or from aesthetic experience in general is insight not into other selves like oneself, fictive individuals, through a process of false equivalence or identification (the bugbear of heteronomy), but rather an imaginative grasp of a structure of relations? This is something akin to, but not exactly like, what the old account of ethnographic knowledge-production promised. The structure at issue may be culturally alien or veiled, ideologically, and thus difficult to access through direct personal experience; it may need to be mediated aesthetically in order to take on graspable form. Insofar as they are structured, such imaginary or alien relations can also serve as norms or models for action, and hence guide the development of culture in an old but still valuable sense—there is a social pedagogy that takes shape in the solitary act of reading, and in the practice of ethnography.


To be clear, according to Mulhern, Leavis disdained precisely the kind of novel-reading that sought models for imitation and moral instruction in the plots and characters of popular fiction—and I don’t want to seem overly instrumental in my account of reading. What I want to suggest, rather, is that it is neither immersion that is the pathway toward cultural knowledge nor the experience of isolation or withdrawal that uniquely allows reflection, but rather that a kind of voluntary withdrawal in the midst of interaction is a necessary condition for both understanding social relations and acting within them.[7] This claim reties the lines that connect ethnography to anthropology, experience to knowledge, engagement to reflection, and autonomy to community, but perhaps in novel ways.


Withdrawal or distancing is, I have said, productive—it makes us think, and think of sociality. It can even, perhaps, provide the decisive occasion for knowledge of social relations. But acknowledging this involves grasping that withdrawal is not necessarily the opposite of immersion or engagement—it can also be a kind of irony. In fact, it is a durable lesson of the anthropology of law, first articulated perhaps by Malinowski, that social norms cannot be known at all (or do not appear as norms) without the ‘moral irony’ of the mismatch between them and actual practices; this apperception of mismatch further imposes the endless effort to pull the two (practices and norms) back into alignment, and this is what makes it a moral irony rather than logical contradiction.[8] Withdrawal might not be a movement from involvement to a space of reflection, but rather the occasion for an awareness of that irony, and a heightened consciousness—albeit virtual or fictive in the absence of concrete others—of the moral duties it imposes.


Novel-reading, then, along with any aesthetic practice that involves the interplay of (affective) involvement (or absorption) and (distanced) judgment, can provide a type-case for a seemingly paradoxical kind of solitary-but-social knowledge. It provides readers with the possibility of evaluating other norms, other socialities, other rules, and allows them to follow how they might be worked out in worldly practice. Heteronomy, that is, might not be such a bad thing, if it is an alternative to an airless world of entirely self-generated and fully inhabited norms.


In any case, this indicates that anthropologists’ accounts of the poles of withdrawal and sociality, and their respective roles in knowledge-production, has thus far been too individualistic, too much indebted to a subject-centred notion of volition (in which knowledge is a product of the will), and a Christian metaphysics of denial, effort, and return. Solitude is even less a state of autonomy than immersion; both states are relative, can be thrust upon one as a consequence of its apparent opposite, and the trick is neither to manage the transition between them, nor to arbitrage and thus profit from their differences, but rather to expend the rewards of solitude in interaction, and vice versa. This, then, is the lesson of our current moment and of practices of ‘social distancing’ for anthropology, and for social knowledge more generally: Withdrawal, solitude, and even isolation can be moments of social action, and a richer understanding of social possibilities can result from these practices, too, rather than only from more engagement.


To return to Nancy’s paradoxical notion that the practice of social distancing allows us to experience community anew, the questions that now become clearer are these: what is the form or shape of the community we experience in social distancing? Further, what would be the posture of double isolation or withdrawal-from-withdrawal that would allow one to reflect upon and understand the community of isolates produced by social distancing? How would one study it ethnographically, through a dynamic that combines the aspects and reaps the rewards of a no-longer polarized immersion and withdrawal, interaction and solitude? If a person practicing individual isolation in the midst of a pandemic is one kind of ethical or ‘pro-social’ subject (in the argot of the psychologists), what purchase does that practice give us on the very social formation of that ethical choice, the alternatives that are withheld and the collective forces that are mobilized in order to make must and ought line up, when they do?


As Nancy himself is aware, the shape and form of the collective provides part of the consciousness of the individual, a part that is as much other as self, and this makes thinking about collective forms and their affordances and demands even more crucial. Indeed, there is a connection between collective form and personal predicament that we allude to when we talk of ‘mass-subjects’ and even ‘crowd psychology’. The question Nancy leads us to ask is: What difference is introduced when the crowd is (physically) separated, virtually communicating, and mass-mediated? As these terms suggest, the answer might be more diagnostic of contemporary urban lives than a measure of exceptional—even pandemic—conditions.


I will leave open for now exactly how we might answer Nancy’s own question, of what figure could better occupy the space of the common in the age of viral infection, other than the virus itself to which we are all still, albeit unequally, vulnerable. What is clear is that this figure cannot be a lone and self-sufficient individual, and will not be a singular but rather a plural figure of solitude; it may be a distanced figure, one that withdraws, but that does so in concert with others and for others. And then, what devices, what tools, what media will intervene between—and connect—this withdrawn, distanced, but knowledgeable self and all the others whom it carries with itself into isolation? It can’t only be the novel (that would launch us back into value-laden contrasts between mass and elite culture). Still, I might propose that some form of reading, including reading of ethnographic texts, or—put differently—a voluntary retreat to solitary immersion in a projected world not of one’s own creation, is a type of the doubled withdrawal with which we have now to deal, the lessons of which we want to learn. Reading, that is, can be one’s own retreat from solitude as well as an entrée to other worlds—it can be both withdrawal and engagement. The way out is also the way further in.


This is also a way toward thinking, finally, about the withdrawn ethnographer, reading (and writing) in solitude while sustaining an imaginative relation, an immersive relation, to social difference, and by doing so learning about the structure and form of social relations that both impinge upon but also constitute them. This scene of voluntary and pedagogical withdrawal, with the ethical demands it imposes and its requirement of a lively consciousness of difference, offers one way of answering the question of what, other than a virus, can be a figure of our present historical experience in a community of isolates.

[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Communovirus.” Verso Blog 27 Mar 2020:


[2] Hortense Powdermaker, Stranger and Friend: The Way of the Anthropologist (New York, 1966); Michael Moffatt, An Untouchable Community in South India: Structure and Consensus (Princeton, 1979).

[3] Francis Mulhern, Figures of Catastrophe (New York: Verso, 2016), 13

[4] To be sure, the whole elaborate enterprise of ethnographic knowledge production was, of course, first justified by Malinowski in part through his accounts of crossing cultural boundaries, leaving behind one social world to engage in another. Voluntary withdrawal and a kind of social distance were a part of this exercise, but this was more in the nature of the kind of exile or estrangement that enables relativism than it was a retreat into the absorbed and world-denying solitude characteristically associated with novel-reading. That was the shock of the revelation that he had indulged in this way. The one form of distance (from “home” and its comforts) had been counterbalanced by a presumption of total immersion in the elsewhere of fieldwork, which his private confessions seemed to deny.

[5] See the discussion and citations in my article ‘“Functionalists Write II:” Weird Empathy in Malinowski’s Trobriand Ethnographies,’ Anthropological Quarterly, 90(4) (2017), p. 983.

[6] Tim Ingold, ‘That’s Enough about Ethnography!’ Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (1): 383–395;

Tobias Rees, After Ethnos (Durham, NC, 2018).

[7] I should note here that this is a fragment of a larger project, and in the fuller exposition of these thoughts a reading of some types of fictive characters who are always doubled in this way, both living out and standing apart from norms becomes a way of supporting this otherwise quite broad claim.

[8] Carol Greenhouse, ‘Law,’ in D. Fassin, ed., A Companion to Moral Anthropology (Malden, Mass., 2012).


Leo Coleman is a political and legal anthropologist at Hunter College, City University of New York.