My research project explores the relationship between two rival conceptions of shared agency and Participant Observation, the main method empirically employed by social anthropologists. It does this by (a) analytically investigating the most fruitful way to conceptualise joint intentionality, (b) implementing this conception into a feasible definition of Participant Observation and (c) empirically exploring how joint intentionality comes into being when two people share in a habitual, unreflected, non-predicative action, the walking together. My research is thus centred around three core questions:

(a) What is it to engage in a shared action?

(b) What is a good definition for Participant Observation?

(c) (How) does joint intentionality arise when people walk together?

Doing ethnography often means to engage in practical activities with others. This engagement – the shift from a solitary to a shared intentional action – is an elementary, yet problematic aspect for what is, within social anthropology, frequently pooled together as the methodology of Participant Observation. As I want to argue, it is problematic because when a practice is truly shared, all engaged parties should know that it is so and on some level agree on what is done collectively – but whether or not these conditions are met is often decided by the researcher alone. Furthermore, at the beginning of one’s field site exploration, the intentions, implications and ends motivating the action under investigation are usually still unknown: Ethnographers try to join in an action they do not (yet) understand. This is in conflict with some contemporary philosophical theories on how collective intentionality arises, which build on the assumption that an action can only be shared if all participants can agree on why it is done and what it is about. 

Despite this conflict between philosophical theory and ethnographic practice, I act on the assumption that anthropological methodology could profit enormously from philosophical action theory. I thus propose a philosophical approach which introduces the following set of questions: What sort of action theory is needed to account for collective intentionality between an informant and a researcher? What are sufficient and necessary conditions for a shift from mere observation to participation and (how) can an ethnographer make sure that these conditions are met in the field? What type of knowledge is generated when ethnographers try to join in an action with informants they only know little about? Are actions of ethnographers at work a special case for philosophical action theory?

Within the scope of core questions (a) and (b) my work is a philosophical attempt to uncover the tacit presumptions present in the current debate on joint intentionality – many of which, as I want to show, found entrance into the methodologies of social anthropology. My first aim is thus (a) to bring out the underlying methodological distinctions between different views on the nature of shared agency in the most explicit way and hence (b) to carve out feasible concepts of what it means to observe and to participate. By conceptually separating observation and participation, I will define them as two distinct, but complementary methods of empirical investigation.

This analytical part of my work argues that joint intentionality can only be created through participation. Accordingly, it is practice, not theory, that shapes the common knowledge of an action necessary for the action to be shared. This is where core question (c) becomes relevant: On the basis of the answers to questions (a) and (b), I will investigate the feasibility of the previously conceptualised and separated methods observation and participation in a field study. The goal is to make explicit not only that practice is the key to a deeper understanding of any social action, but also how this understanding of a social fact comes into being. 

My empirical research will take place in Makhanda, South Africa, where I will explore the habitual act of walking together in two unequal social settings. In this, the goal is to discover how practical knowledge can be built through Participant Observation as a method of research, but also what happens when the mere observer becomes a participant and how these shifts differ, depending on the way a specific shared action is practiced. 

The overall aim of this project is to analytically and empirically explore the conditions of joint intentionality in order to come to a new, practical understanding of how observation and participation – the two methods commonly lumped together that lie at the heart of social anthropology – can be deployed in the most fruitful way. Thus, my dissertation is a reflection on the core aspects of ethnographic research and an exploration of the distinct knowledge it can generate.


Prof. Dr. Till Förster, Prof. Dr. Hans Bernhard Schmid


Graduiertenkolleg “Das Reale in der Kultur der Moderne”, Universität Konstanz