Multimodal Anthropologies

By Luke Cantarella (Pace University, USA), Christine Hegel (Western Connecticut State University, USA), and Sari Pietikäinen (University of Jyväskylä, Finland)



Ice hockey is many different things simultaneously: brutal and graceful, chaos and choreography. It is raw athleticism and sheer luck. It is a national pastime and a family tradition. Barely a living for many players, yet a multimillion-dollar global industry. Entertainment. Work.

Pietikäinen has been at work unraveling these internal contradictions as one node within a four-year multi-investigator project entitled Cold Rush that explores Arctic economies, identity, and language. Cantarella and Hegel began collaborating with her in the fall of 2017 to participate in analyzing her ethnographic data on Finnish ice hockey through a speculative design project. What developed out of our studio time was a detailed sketch for an installation piece, or “conversation piece” (Kester 2013), made up of objects to prompt rumination on the meanings and practices of managing a major hockey team. The next phase of the process, underway as of May 2018, is to prototype and produce a three-dimensional version of the installation. As the sketch indicates, the installation will comprise a series of trophy cases displaying fictionalized versions of trophies, pins, rings, patches, and other “commemorative” items, all of which have particular resonance in the realm of sports for documenting and indexing achievements. The installation plays with the form and content of these objects to make analytic proposals derived from the ethnographic data. These include propositions about the forms of calculation, evaluation, observation, and speculation that are entailed in the everyday labor of the sports manager, including assessing the physical attributes, skills, and potentials of players, and evaluating intangible elements of team sports like sportsmanship, aggressiveness, and “hockey sense.” They illustrate what hockey-as-work means for the sports manager to achieve what they call “success beyond good luck.”

As we continued to develop and refine the installation, we decided to try placing the sketch into a Prezi digital interface and layering elements of the ethnographic data into it as an experiment in using this conversation piece to make unexpected connections across the data. The three audio-visual pieces presented here (A above, and B and C below) embed fieldnotes, images, and video and audio recordings from different times in 2017 into the sketch of the proposed installation to create nonlinear mini-narratives. These audio-visual elements address at least four discrete nexus points or episodes in this project: (1) what the sports manager says about his own work, (2) conversations between the sports manager and the researchers about the former’s work, (3) brainstorming the design for the conversation piece and then how to approach bringing the design into the field, and (4) the presentation of the sketch to the sport manager to get his point of view.

Speculation is a central concept in our multimodal anthropological work. We think that employing the concept of speculation as both a way to make sense of the ethnographic data and a mode of design for an installation about hockey as work allows us to make several connections: between temporalities and spaces, between four people around the conversation piece, and between anthropology and sports. Adapting some of the ideas discussed by Deleuze and Guattari (1987; cf. Bialecki 2018), we also see speculation as a modality for creativity, possibility, and the future, opening up a smooth space that escapes some of the norms and restrictions of conventions. It turns our attention away from conformity and directs it to a multiplicity of possibilities and connections.

REFLECTION: The following are questions we posed to ourselves to analyze how this multimodal piece operated as an analytic tool.

Q: So if this digital piece is an intermediate, temporary form produced inside of and along the way toward producing a full-scale, three-dimensional conversation object, what is it helping to clarify or crystallize in the larger project?

Christine: In a sense, we created this digital piece to think through—it is partial, intended to literally and figuratively zoom in on just a few elements of the data and set them alongside one another in the “frame” that we created (the drawing). Luke and I had access to a bit of the data that Sari has been collecting for years, and we spent time with her key informant, after which we began an intensive process of thinking about Sari’s broad analytic frames and research questions through the objects that index the work of the sports manager—equipment, diagnostic tools, symbolic markers. Luke, our visual artist and designer, began rendering these objects in forms that helped us think about the kind of work to which they attach (observation, valuation, etc.). Months later, when we met up in New York and returned to figuring out how to fabricate this conversation object (which is, in fact, a set of objects), we felt a need to reattach the design to the ethnography—in other words, to take some of the images and the interview data and flesh out the rendering with some of the source material that inspired it. Doing so was a way of breaking up the chronology of knowledge construction. Instead of a linear movement forward, this caused us to pause, step back, try out connections. Did the drawing, and hence the objects we will have designed and fabricated, still resonate with the ethnographic data and with the interests/research questions of the Cold Rush project? We zeroed in on the part of the drawing focused on the skills that hockey players need to succeed and found various statements and bits of conversation across the data that spoke to that concern. Doing so created a layering, deconstructed effect, and we could hear and see, through repetition, different ways that Sari and the sports manager described and evaluated skills.At the same time, we used this intermediate form to reflect on Sari’s experience bringing the rendering back out of the studio and into the field. The piece is in part a kind of offering to the sports manager as a material distillation of and reflection on how he has contributed to the research as a primary interlocutor. But it is also a conversation prompt and a diagnostic toolo gauge what he felt was captured in the piece and what was left out or misinterpreted. Beforehand, Luke, Sari, and I spent time discussing the ethnographic mechanics of its return to the field: How to present it, exactly? As finished or incomplete? Framed by prepared questions, or as a conjecture seeking open-ended response? With a detailed explanation, or merely a few words to avoid preempting his own explanation/interpretation? These questions of approach were part of a larger set of questions about what an object like this might generate or curtail in the ongoing ethnographic project. So in this digital interface, we are likewise mulling over the delicate process of bringing something back to the field that is meant to deepen reciprocal engagement between the anthropologist and her key informant, and then reflecting on that reciprocal engagement.


Q: Why speculation/speculative? What does it do for us in this research? What does that concept allow us to see, discuss and argue?

Sari: Professional ice hockey is a bit like the stock market, where speculation plays a key role. This is what my key collaborator and informant, a sports manager from a Finnish men’s ice hockey team, said to me. The success of the team—or of an individual player—is a combination of multiple things, but it always requires a lot of work. To understand more about the relationship between professional hockey, discourse, and identity, I have since 2015 been doing collaborative ethnographic research as a part of two research projects: a pilot project called Powerplay and a large four-year project called Cold Rush (funded by the Academy of Finland). Working closely with my colleague Monica Heller, as well as with one Finnish hockey team in particular, I focus on hockey as work from the perspective of professional players who are circulating across global hockey markets, including Finland, as well as from the perspective of professional hockey managers.

Work has multiple meanings around the rink. For some hockey professionals, including players, managers, and our key collaborator, it means paid work with a contract, a paycheck, requirements, and responsibilities. For many other hockey workers, however, it is actually voluntary work, driven by aspiration for success for their own career—or in the case of many parents volunteering at hockey games and events, for their son’s career. But for everybody, it is hard work, requiring long-term economic, physical, and emotional investments with only a speculative chance for success.

The speculative aspect of hockey work became evident through the ethnographic research collaboration with the sports manager. Over the period of three years, I shadowed him from time to time during hockey games, scouting, and sponsor events. I interviewed him about his work, in particular, and hockey work, in general. Speculation about, for instance, the outcome of the season or a game, about the mobility of the players, or about the best game strategy seemed to be part of every moment. The sports manager compared his work to that of stockbrokers: speculating on whether future success and failures against the investment (of time and money) would be worthwhile. When thinking together with Luke and Christine, it seemed to us that much of the work evolves around three interrelated processes. Like an ethnographer, the baseline work for the sports manager is to observe: hours and hours of vigilant observations of players on the ice, using a template to direct and systemize the observations around key skills needed to be a successful player. Following this is the work of evaluation of individual performances and of the whole team, reflected against the overarching strategic decisions, some made long ago, some made in the moment. This is where calculation comes in—a reflective, critical stance regarding the best possible combination of skills for success weighted against the resources available. These processes of observation, evaluation, and calculation are all in the service of speculation, an omnipresent modality of professional sports used to anticipate, imagine, and, to some extent, manage the possible futures of the game, the players, and the team.


This research is supported by the Cold Rush project ( and the collaboration between the researchers as well as by the Research Collegium for Language in Changing Society, both funded by the Academy of Finland. Our collaboration was also enabled by the Advanced Research Collaborative at CUNY.

[1] A version of this piece was presented at the AES/SVA meetings in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on March 25, 2018.


Bialecki, Jon. 2018. “Deleuze.” In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited by F. Stein, S. Lazar, M. Candea, H. Diemberger, J. Robbins, A. Sanchez and R. Stasch.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guatarri. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kester, Grant. 2013. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Share this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *