Plotlessness, ethnography, ethology: Play

Synthia Sydnor, Robert Fagen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The authors of this article hail from perhaps disparate fields of biology and cultural studies. The authors use ethnography and ethology, which have offered parallel modernist responses to the challenge posed by Otherness, as touchstones for exploring modernist responses to the theories/methods of the research texts that are produced and performed in their respective disciplines; for example, ethnography typically promises a supreme moment of insight, an intellectual epiphany, when the trained ethnographer's patient and painstaking field work finally cracks the code of the alien culture to reveal the philosophical and metaphysical essence that constitutes that culture's previously baffling Otherness. Similarly, field studies of animal behavior promise a royal road to the Umwelten (encompassing worlds, milieux) of natures and cultures far more alien and Other than even the most exotic forms of the human condition. The article highlights that scholars in 20th-century ethnography-and, to a lesser extent, ethology-began to question these philosophical and methodological bases and that by the beginning of the 21st century, their criticisms and answers to such dilemmas sparked a range of interrelated responses, which the article briefly overviews: epistemological decentering and recontextualizing of inquiry; illumination of the tensions between, and experimentation with traditional and avant-garde rhetorical, statistical, evidence-based, performance and literary forms necessary for presentation of research; and return to and/or finer articulation of the goals of ethology and ethnography. Within these responses the authors are particularly interested in understanding plotlessness, a concept that emerges from recent ethnographic and ethological investigations of Other-ology but that is rarely dissected in ethnography. The authors further explore and refine the idea of plotlessness, especially in regard to possible commonalities that this idea might reveal in thinking about play, broadly and loosely conceived, and the openings that play may afford present, and future work and thought in ethnography and ethology. Reminding readers of thought on the imperatives of play, on the ordinary/extraordinary nature of play, the authors push play as an all-encompassing paradigm for scholarship across the disciplines and much more (play as core of the ontological-epistemological human condition?).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)72-81
Number of pages10
JournalCultural Studies - Critical Methodologies
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2012


  • culture
  • ethnography
  • ethology
  • play
  • plotlessness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


Dive into the research topics of 'Plotlessness, ethnography, ethology: Play'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this