title: Aethnography
  slug: Aethnography
  parent: 15362
  summary: Aethnography in Witness
  keywords: worldbuilding, partipatory

Aethnography in Witness {style=“color: #fff; text-shadow: 2px 2px #000; padding-bottom: .4rem; font-weight: bold;” class=“leading-tight text-4xl”}

Aethnography is the study of the behavior of humans engaged in mutual interaction. {style="color: #fff; width: 80%; padding-top: 1rem; border-top: 1px solid white; background-color: rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.4); " class=“text-2xl mt-4 mx-auto leading-normal”}

If some intersubjective notion were shared by all sentients, would it not, ipso facto, be an absolute, unalloyed truth? And if it were not, how would we know?

– Keiko Manka, Aethnography: a field manual, 11 OD

Don’t look at the data! Look through the data, and at the people behind it".

– Hans Rosling, The Data Lecture

Aethnography is the study of the behavior of humans engaged in mutual interaction. It explores the phenomena that those interactions give rise to, taking into account the point of view of the interactants themselves and maintaining a stance of openness to evidence of different kinds and coming from different directions, known as epistemic pluralism. While all social sciences are taught in the education establishments of Witness, aethnographic thinking plays a special role in informing much of decision-making, both in business and public policy.


Most aethnographers attribute great importance to the history of aethnographic thinking. The discipline’s lineage is well researched, and a relative consensus exists that aethnography emerged from four roots, each one contributing a founding principle.

  1. The first founding principle is the danger zone. It is the area of pre-Sundering research at the intersection of economics and anthropology. This was spearheaded by scholars such as Marcel Mauss, Karl Polanyi, Albert O. Hirschman, James C. Scott and David Graeber. Among these authors, the vision of a “unified social science” is recurrent: the collaboration between Hirschman (an economist) and Clifford Geertz (an anthropologist) at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study is seen as a precursor of modern-day aethnography.
  2. The second founding principle is the chemical wedding. By this tongue-in-cheek term, modern aetnographers refer to the application of mathematical methods to social science. Most modern authors point to Georg Simmel’s idea of Social Geometry as the precursor of this trend, which then continued through Jacob L. Moreno’s Sociometry and into quantitative sociology, as proposed by social scientists like Duncan Watts, Albert-Lászlo Barabási (both physicists by training). In the 21st century, data science was increasingly used to buttress social science research, contributing to the toolbox of what would become aethnography skills like data visualization, statistics, and programming.
  3. The third founding principle is the pluriversity, the idea that fundamental scientific ideas should be non-discipline specific, and instead be effective across different domains. Its name evokes the supposed ability of truth to infiltrate the most difficult barriers. This idea resurfaced several times in the history of science, only to find a mature expression in the pre-Sundering Santa Fe Institute. From the SFI, aethnography derives its embrace of transdisciplinarity and eclecticism, as well as its attention to epistemology. An accomplished aethnographer is supposed to be able to switch between different epistemic stances.
  4. The fourth founding principle is the broken tower, a reference to the academic “ivory tower” of centuries past. Social sciences, it is argued, are performative: any analysis is bound to alter the analyzed object. Aethnographers must have the integrity to embrace this, and play responsibly their role as scholars/agents of change. The ideal type of aethnographer is someone who is equally accomplished at high theory, applied analysis, and action in business, politics, administration or the civil society. Economist Albert O. Hirschman is believed to have personified this ideal as closely as it ever got: for this reason, the head of an aethnographic establishment is given the honorific title of hirschman.


By the early 21st century, the main elements that would constitute modern-day aethnography were all present, but scattered across disciplines such as anthropology, economics, data science, philosophy, network science, and statistics. Aethnography then coalesced around the Pluriversity project of the United Nations Development Programme. The project promised opportunities for prestigious publications, deep engagement with field activity all around the world, and the attention of powerful people who could mobilize substantial research funds if they liked what they saw. That made it very attractive to restless scholars, who prized the intellectual rigor and diversity of academia but wished to leave the ivory tower, immerse themselves in the world and “have impact”.

Universities around the world sat up and started paying attention. In many of them, brilliant misfits, respected but hitherto relatively marginalized from academic life, were suddenly pressed into service as the heads of new interdisciplinary institutes. Pluriversity leaders discreetly signaled that this was a welcome move, and that traditional departments were considered too “epistemically narrow” to get the job done. Some of these institutes obviously already existed, and had in fact been in existence since the 1970s.

The new institutes attracted cross-disciplinary misfits, idealistic young academics that wanted to “change the world by understanding its secrets”, and more than a few opportunists. All of them took ample advantage of the Pluriversity field grants, where academics would deploy in various countries, advising governments and inter-governmental organizations, businesses, and civil society organizations. In between deployments, researchers would go back to an educational and research institution. The habit of deploying set them apart from other academics. Soon a sub-culture started to develop. Many of them had substantial cultural anthropology skills, and trained the spotlight of their enquiry to the sub-culture itself; naturally, this accelerated the speed with which the sub-culture evolved. The word “aethnographers” is recorded as an in vivo code since the 2020s, more or less at the same time as the first REDR tournaments and the mock-rivalry between theors, augurs and incanters.

On Witness, aethnography is well established in the research and education establishments of all Distrikts Major, though senior academics in the Covenant pay lip service to the “epistemic opportunism” of aethnographers, which is believed to sit unconfortably side by side with a divine Revelation. The Assembly is probably where aethnographers enjoy the most attention and respect, with the most accomplished theors being treated as celebrities. The Graeber Institute is conventionally considered to be the brightest beacon of aethnography in Witness, and its hirschman is called, with the usual aethnographic touch of irony, “The Hirschman”.

Domains of application

Aethnography is applied to the three domains of high theory, applied analysis and action.

  • Aethnographers engaging in high theory are called theors. They reflect on general patterns and cross-domain intuition, invoking mostly the principle of the chemical wedding.
  • Aethnographers deploying on the ground to understand a concrete, situated set of issues are called augurs. They immerse themselves into a river of observables, from which they extract intersubjective meaning. They invoke mainly the principle of the pluriversity.
  • Aethnographers who leave their research institutions to engage in direct action take on the title of incanters. Invoking the principle of the broken tower, they shift to working in favour of a particular outcome: a reform, the starting up of a successful company, a military campaign.

An accomplished aethnographer is expected to have covered all three roles at least once during her career. Specialization is discouraged, though not unheard of.

Martial arts

REDR, a martial art based on situational awareness, strategy and hand-to-hand combat developed as an exercise for undergraduate aethnographers. Most aethnography establishment offer courses in it.


@yudhanjaya, @joriam: I would like to propose an idea. It comes from here:

This spelling, “aethnographer”, stayed with me. And well it should: the whole idea of the Sci-Fi Economics Lab is that we need a better economics to be able to imagine, and build, a better economy. Our own modest efforts to turn ethnography around into a collaborative research method is informed by this need for tooling up (we => @amelia, @markomanka, myself and others).

So, I propose to write a Witnesspedia article on aethnography, a form of knowing specific to post-Sundering Witness. It traces its lineage to the “danger zone” between anthropology and economics (Mauss, the Geertz-Hirschman collaboration, Scott…) and to the interdisciplinary and mathematical agility of the Santa Fe Institute. It is also militant, action-research: theoretical aethnographers are epistemologists and model builders, applied ones are field analyists, but praxis aethnographers are actors of change, or of prevention thereof. They are to theoretical and applied aethnographers what business managers are to economists. This makes space for unorthodox practices in the day-by-day business in Witness. What would the world look like, if it were run according to a different economic thinking?

What it does in the grand scheme of things:

  1. It creates a natural narrative point of view. A story told through the eyes of a scholar (perhaps a field analyst) gives the author an excuse to go explicitly into Yudha’s bottom of the iceberg: social structures, foreign trade, organization of production etc.
  2. It might promote identification in econ/anthro types, turning the WBA into a sort of role playing game. “Join the ranks of the Aethnographers! Help the Graeber Institute figure out how to fight the free rider problem in a commons-based economy!”. Stuff like that.


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Totally +1 for this. I was indeed thinking of Edgeryders and your interview the need to step outside orthodox economics thinking and try a more hands-on approach. I’m up for a Witnesspedia article.

“As with all great cities, much of the founding of Witness is lost. What remains are skeleton logs preserved in machine memory, wrapped in a cocoon of half-myths, apocrypha, and clashes between rival historians. Move three districts and the stories change. On such a tenous sea we are now adrift, and it is up to us to make sense of it.” - Andromache Kosovitch, Aethnography: The New Histories of Our Times , the Library of St. Benedict

A few other article reqs I’d like to toss in: Migrant train, Microgrid Collective. Both historically important in the histories of Witness and its Distrikts.

Good. Though I must be careful: this, for me, risks being the ultimate rabbithole. :slight_smile:

The Applications and impact section of our upcoming white paper is codenamed “A word run by anthropologists”. :slight_smile:

Can you think of a better name? I suck at naming.

Scope creep is of concern. Perhaps we can commit to adding these by March, after the initial release?

edit: reading the paper now . . . dude, this is incredible stuff. The general richness of our world is going to enter a whole other level altogether. Will think about names!

SUPER cool, Alberto.

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PS I wonder if the term “pluriversity” could be interesting to play with here

“By pluriversity, many understand a process of knowledge production that is open to epistemic diversity. It is a process that does not necessarily abandon the notion of universal knowledge for humanity, but which embraces it via a horizontal strategy of openness to dialogue among different epistemic traditions. To decolonize the university is therefore to reform it with the aim of creating a less provincial and more open critical cosmopolitan pluriversalism – a task that involves the radical re-founding of our ways of thinking and a transcendence of our disciplinary divisions. The problem of course is whether the university is reformable or whether it is too late.” (Mbembe 2015: 19)

Mbembe is great, by the way – especially good for Sci-Fi anthropology. His theories include “necropolitics” and one of my favorite articles of his is called “Aesthetics of Superfluity”

I am taking your lead here. There is a reason I never wrote fiction.


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I really like this concept. Especially because Witness is under no obligation to reproduce the model of the university as is common today. We already have different epistemic traditions: the master-journeyman-apprentice process of the Assembly, the more orthodox advancement within the Covernant, and Libria will probably do some heavy wisdom-of-the-crowds stuff combined with knowledge gained by belonging to social or corporate constructs. Groups like the Plurality University also come to mind.

My question is: are we limiting ourselves by positioning our thought as a reaction to universities?

@amelia @yudhanjaya @Joriam @hugi in the end I just had to give a first shot at the Aethnography article. Edit at will.


+1. I am a fan. A few questions to nudge some more detail out of this:

  1. Who or what maintains this structure? A structure this codified implies someone or something exists to enforce it. Is this a monolith, or should it be fragmented, with people using different approaches to achieve the collective understanding we’re trying to get to?
  2. How did this structure come to be in Witness? Foucualt argued that the study of philosophy must begin through a close and ongoing study of history. I’d like to deviate and flip it: is there a study that arrives formless, even into a fictional world, bereft of a history?
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How about a Hitchhiker’s-style field guide? A sort of hodgepodge of histories, guidance/wisdom, and myths/cautionary tales about aethnographers past?


And if I get involved i’m writing a Zoe Todd / Audra Simpson style fugitive aethnographer history, with Mbembe necropolitics and afrofuturism at its core :wink:

see relatedly UncommonFutures_HassounValentine.pdf (323.7 KB)


I was thinking a simple outcrop of academic life, plus UN involvement. Imagine someone like Giulio Quaggiotto, running a journal on top of arX.iv (as people do now) that becomes prestigious on the basis of extreme epistemic agility and tangible results on the field; and then rotating scholars from academia to the field on a regular basis. This prompts unis to pay attention (research funds!) and start interdisciplinary institutes (rather than departments). UN-World Bank style field deployment meshes well with anthro culture of field work, and practitioners develop a subculture – much like economists now can rotate between finance, government and academia, think Larry Summers, and they end up being different from pure academics doing, say, sociology.

The lore (the name “aethnography”, the mock-rivalry between theors, augurs and incanters, the martial art – upcoming!, the tradition of calling “hirschman” the heads of the institutes, as in “I am supporting Mia Hassoun in the election for the next hisrchman”) are a consequence of that. It’s a bit like the 16th century distinction between savants in general and alchemists proper: there was no “alchemy central” to give the line, it is more that the Campanellas, the Bacons etc. adopted a common set of attributes and sources, and eventually “speciated” from savants as such.

Yes please! An afrofuturist distrikt minor, borrowing from Matonge, would be a hit.

Oh hell yes.

We even have a potential seed in The Covenant which you can use or discard to start afresh:

Almost everything we know about the inner workings of the Covenant come from the works of the poet-economist Cottica. Using a pseudonym to evade the attention of censors, Cottica published a viral poem known as Tibi Deo de Purgatorio , chronicling a trip through a supposed high-fantasy world inhabited by celestial and demonic beings. Further analysis revealed a cipher in the opening stanzas that turns the names of the angels and demons within into their respective offices, and place names turn into laws and deeds; thus their grandiose, introspective statements becoming both a history of decisions made within the Covenant as well as a declaration of their political power.

Imagine her sitting by the docks, seaside, by the light of a dying sun, with a fat and angry-looking orange cat next to her. She has grey hair and a left hand that looks badly scarred. For the last so many years she’s been advising the Migrant Train Committee on the yearly train-route optimization, which at its basic level is a variant of the Traveling Salesman Problem with some political tension thrown in. I know because I serve on the same committee.

Today she has proposed a new idea: using the number of connected districts - and the radius of the train-circle -as a measure of how diverse this floating megacity is. But we both wonder whether size is a reliable indicator of diversity, given recent events; distrikts have seceded in the past, and she is deep in thought about whether there is an optimal arrangement of distrikts that enables even the most polarized of them to connect to the superstructure without fighting too much.
Every so often she looks up as the train passes by and pets the cat absent-mindedly.
The cat, of course, does not care.

- Anagram Dias, aethnographer, The Assembly

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I think that fits the nature of what we’re trying to create the best. Not too dissimilar from what we go through as fiction authors, then! Various gleanings from authors retrospectively analyzing their own careers: from critics and tastemakers: from the occasional literary agent proclaiming their theory of why something works as if that is the word of God. Terms like “worldbuilding” and “iceberg theory” shift laterally among groups of peers, who take and discard theories and structures as they find useful.
We could therefore pair a Hitchiker’s-like guide with a few workshops throughout Witness that each teach different ways of approaching knowledge. What do you think?

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Love this idea!

Wait, how would this work? Have opened a portal to somewhere dangerous yet?