By Anna Harris, Sally Wyatt, Andrea Wojcik, Harro van Lente, and John Nott—in correspondence with Rachel Vaden Allison and Carla Greubel (Maastricht University, The Netherlands)

Postcards carry one world into another, just like ethnography (Pandian and McLean 2017). Their layered materiality—the chocolate stains and pen smudges, curled corners, fluorescent barcodes, spots faded from sun exposure, and, of course, the stamps—carry traces not only of trips through postboxes, sorting machines, and airplanes but also of other, imagined worlds.

During the collaborative, comparative, historic-ethnographic project Making Clinical Sense, members of the research team based in cities in Ghana, Hungary, and the Netherlands wrote postcards to each other. The postcards documented observations, ideas, dilemmas, puzzles, and everyday happenings. They could only ever be thumbnail sketches—a moment or thought caught, a question that arose or a short greeting. But as we have learned in our project, from studying how doctors learn physical examination skills, there is a world of information in a thumbnail.

Through this form of “correspondence thinking,” to paraphrase Tim Ingold (2015, 154), our ethnographies were crafted not only through individual participant observation with medical students and teachers but also from lines threaded across fieldsites and our home university. Ideas that we circulated on the postcards became important themes in our research—ideas around visualizing and articulating sensory findings, for example, or comparisons we made between fieldsites.

The postcards were not simply carriers of written words and ideas. Taped to walls or propped on desks as decorations, the postcards served as visual reminders of the team we were a part of despite simultaneously and, for the most part, individually conducting fieldwork in three distant fieldsites. The pictures on the front also told their own stories. Some gave a sense of place (church, above), some related directly to the project (digestion system, below). Another had a picture of the British Empire, deliberately chosen to invoke the role of colonialism in the circulation of medical knowledge. Others had pictures of writing instruments, a not-so-subtle reminder from the professors left behind in Maastricht who were supervising two of the ethnographers working on doctoral dissertations. Some postcards were artifacts in themselves, such as a reused hospital request slip or covered with cloth.

Postcards were not the only way we corresponded as a research team—we also used Skype, WhatsApp, email, and Google Docs. Yet, unlike digital correspondence, which now so often serves as the primary reminder of academic cooperation, a postcard’s physicality and aesthetic lends it a permanence that is reinforced through sentiment. Digital correspondence is so rapidly replaced to almost be drowned out, but we can buy old postcards in Maastricht’s antique market. In pursuit of our project’s historical element, postcards saved by the mother of a colonial doctor working in West Africa turned up in the archive of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM/GB 0809 Leiper/02/02). They do not say much, sometimes they do not say anything—early twentieth-century convention, it seems, proscribed any writing other than an address on the card’s reverse. Then, as is perhaps the case today, it was the thought that counts more than the thoughts that were put down.

We felt that there was something particularly direct and sensuous about our fieldsites that we could convey in the postcards, in the handwritten vignette and its accompanying image. They certainly lacked in space for the drawn-out field reflections of the kind that Allaine Cerwonka and Liisa Malkki (2007) engaged in; nonetheless, the postcards helped facilitate “an immersion into the ethnographic imaginations of others in [our] team” (Harris, Wojcik, and Allison 2019).

Moreover, postcards brought their message with a delay of several days, if not weeks. This temporal indirectness added to the sense of distance that characterizes the ethnographic exercise. The delay, the silence, and the simmering expectation of cards-to-come reflected the distanced position of the ethnographer: someone in a no-man’s-land, neither at home in the new situation nor at home among colleagues. The ethnographer, after all, can deliberately create a situation of productive distance to allow novel relationships and novel insights (Rosaldo 1989). So close, yet so far, like a postcard on its journey.

Unlike in the best-selling postcard romance from the 1990s Griffin and Sabine, where the postcard writers seem to exist in parallel and never cross realities, we have all since reconvened, in Maastricht, the Netherlands, where our project is based. We bring fieldwork to the conversation, but they are not completely new places, for we have had each other’s postcards on our desks and noticeboards, thumbnails, and sketches of these other worlds.

Acknowledgments. Making Clinical Sense is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement No. 678390).



Bantock, Nick. 1991. Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Cerwonka, Allaine, and Liisa Malkki. 2007. Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Harris, Anna, Andrea Wojcik, and Rachel Vaden Allison. 2019. “How to Make an Omelette: A Sensory Experiment in Team Ethnography”. Qualitative Research.

Ingold, Tim. 2015. Life of Lines. London: Routledge.

Pandian, Anand, and Stuart McLean, eds. 2017. Crumpled Paper Boat: Experiments in Ethnographic Writing. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Rosaldo, Renato. 1989. Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon Press.