• Jenn Webb and Monica Carroll


Applying a ‘native ethnographer’ model to interviews collected as part of an Australian Research Council Discovery Project, Understanding Creative Excellence: A case study in poetry, reveals that for poets, play is an end itself. The poets play for play. Using incidental aspects of the interview form, interviewer and interviewee, within the context of the interview occasion, undertake play as an end in itself. 


Keywords: poet—ethnographer—insider—interview—play—creativity—peer-group research


At the opening of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle famously tells us that ‘a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them’ (1094a3–4). To put this in more modern language, activities can be characterised as instrumental (a means to an end) or as autotelic (being an end in themselves). The scholarly literature on ‘play’ tends to theorise it in instrumental terms. For example, functional approaches argue that animals play in order to reduce stress (Norscia and Palagi 2011), or to develop hunting skills (Bradshaw et al 2015). To take a second example, consequentialist approaches treat play in terms of its outcomes—such as the impact of violently-themed play upon children (Rosen 2015), or the improvements in problem-solving abilities for adults who play imaginatively in daydream (Singer 2009). In contrast to this instrumentalist approach, here we make sense of multiple instances of observed quirky, light-hearted and amusing play that indicates play as an end in itself.

From 2012 to 2014 three researcher-poets recorded more than 75 practising poets for an Australian Research Council Discovery project, Understanding Creative Excellence: A case study in poetry (DP No. 130100402). The audio recordings of the interviews were developed into written transcripts which were then used as the analytical corpus for a series of studies into the nature of creativity. Each interviewer’s biography is included here as an endnote but the identity of the interviewee poets have been coded to maintain anonymity. The researchers interviewed poets from nine English-speaking countries working at differing stages of their career. Each interview averaged 90 minutes in length.

An analysis of the interview transcripts reveals that both interviewer and interviewee, within the context of the interview occasion, undertake play not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. They play for the sake of play—with language, with the very form of the interview itself. As we will show, the transcripts also point to a further implication, namely, that play is a mode of being a poet, that poetic creativity and play share deep connections. In the words of one interviewee, poetic composition can be ‘just a question of having fun: of sitting down to play, seeing what happens’ (Poet 29).

A key aspect of the project that made this mutual play within the interview possible was the use of interviewers who were in a position analogous to that of the ‘native ethnographer’. Or, to use other equivalent terms from the anthropological literature, this was an example of  ‘insider’s view’ or ‘peer-group research’ (see Cassell 1977). The interviewers can be seen as ‘native-ethnographers’ in that poets-as-researchers interviewed poets as the subjects of the study. Compared to an ‘outsider’ ethnographer, the use of ‘native ethnographers’ in this project facilitated the possibilities of rich forms of play.

The use of the ‘native ethnographer’ model in these interviews does not imply that if the interviews had been conducted by ‘outsiders’, or non-poet interviewers, that play would not have been present. Play, it can be plausibly said, could be present in any semi-structured interview. In such anonymous instances, play is often analysed as a means to an end. For example, play as ‘pretend’ in interview is used to increase skills acquisition (Kang 2012), particularly the use of humour, is explained as relieving stress in an interview, or of establishing a particular power structure between interviewer and interviewee.

By applying a less generic relationship model to the interview structure, i.e. going beyond interviewer and interviewee, into the territory of the ‘native ethnographer’ model, we can see the quirky, light-hearted and amusing examples of play as an end in itself. This is an affordance for intimacy in the interview. It is clear from the transcripts that the interviewer and interviewee conversed in an intimate shared poetry discourse. For example, this discourse included:

  • transgressive poem-related humour, e.g. ‘I think of [name omitted] as genuinely a voice, he genuinely speaks. In my opinion, politically, he’s awful and sometimes stupid. But I cannot ignore it because it makes a claim of someone genuinely speaking, right? As opposed to blah, blah, blah, blah, blah’ (Poet 40),
  • intimate personal poet-related disclosure, e.g. ‘…we did Edward Thomas whom I completely fell in love with. … But then in recent years I have found he seems to be quite a lot of people's favourite poet. I was quite upset about that because after all I loved him since I was sixteen. I thought he was mine, and then I found I had to share him with all sorts of other poets’ (Poet 11), and
  • poet-related gossip and opinion for example, for Poet 77:

Interviewee: Too often he taught his own work, he intended to teach himself to First years and I think that’s off in the extreme.

Interviewer:  Yeah, I do, too.

It has been argued by some that ‘native ethnography’ suffers from significant weaknesses as a research approach. For example, it has been suggested that ‘native ethnographers’ will lack ‘objectivity’, being too familiar with the structures of their culture and discourse. The stranger, or outsider, on the other hand, is seen as free of commitments to the study group and can thus fulfil the role of a properly objective inquirer (Aguilar 1981: 17). These positivist critiques, however, assume that embeddedness excludes capacities for distancing as though an insider’s view is a type of blindness, and have themselves been comprehensively rebutted (see, for example Ohnuki-Tierney 1984, Kumar 1992: 112-3 and Joseph 1988: 25, where ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ no longer exist as meaningful categories). In the context of play, our project suggests that the use of ‘native ethnographers’ is an affordance for the capacity to play.

The use of ‘native ethnographers’ has several key characteristics that create this affordance. First, with a native ethnographer there are usually lower levels of ‘performance’ from the subject informant and higher levels of natural or authentic discourse. Secondly, there will tend to be a greater attunement to metacommunication (for example, there is more likely to be a mutual understanding of when comments are made ironically). Thirdly, there is more likely to be mutual recognition when misunderstandings have occurred. Fourthly, the interviewer and interviewee will not tend to regard each other as a ‘stranger’ or ‘other’, but as ‘a palpable being in their own right’ (Stewart 1989: 9). Finally, there will tend to be a repositioning of power and authority within the research setting. The ways in which these characteristics permit the activity of play as an end in itself are explored in the analysis that follows.

Broadly, two types of play emerge from the creativity project data. First, there is the type of play we might have expected from the subject poets. Word play and language play feature highly as a practice typified by the poets and poetry. Similarly, many poets discuss their play with sound (as feet, stress or shape), and rhythm (as metre and beat). In keeping with expected dimensions of play, poets play in the composing process looking for spaces, imagined and material, in which to begin and form. Composing play seeks to invent something new, or play with a new idea. The editing process involves a finer grade of play, usually at the page level of shape, line, meaning, and capturing the essence of tone or mood for which the poet searches. The variation and nuance in these expected types of play requires the right amount of tension or conflict; thus, often, the formal aspects of poetry such as line, line length, rhyme and metre create the conditions for play in themselves.  

Secondly, there is a field of unexpected play within the interview context. Prima facie, this type of play seems flippant, light-hearted and amusing. This play can be defined temporally; poets play with the material now, and with the imagined future. Many of the interviews began with play between the interviewer and interviewee. This is consistent with Hofer’s observation that the native ethnographer experiences a radically reduced ‘introductory period’ when conducting fieldwork (1979: 86). Interviews for the creativity project have a sense of opening in medias res.

Interviews were conducted using a Livescribe Echo smartpen. It functions as a pen and has the capacity to record as well as connect to a computer. For some poets, the unusualness of the smartpen was their opening into play within the interview context. For example, from Poet 14:

Interviewee: Oh, how extraordinary that is. What a marvellous thing.

Interviewer: It is nice. It's called an Echo.

Interviewee: Hello, little Sir Echo.

Interviewer: Yes, and it answers me back saying it's all about me, and Echo's saying, it's all about you (both laughing).

A similar example from Poet 48 follows:

Interviewer: It's somewhere in there, it's catching everything we're saying.

Interviewee: It's so crazy. And what is it, a USB?

Interviewer: Yeah, that plugs into a USB.

Interviewee: That is insane.

Interviewer: It's pretty cool.

Interviewee: It's really, really weird, I've never seen anything …

Interviewer: (Chuckling)

Interviewee: … I've never seen anything that deals with page and the pen like that. That's crazy. It's not a tablet, I mean it would make much more sense if this was on your iPad.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: But the paper, it's weird, I mean why can't it be on your iPad?

Interviewer: Because it's taken me three weeks to work out how to use it.

Interviewee: It's so weird.

Interviewer: (Chuckling)

Finally, from Poet 25:

Interviewer: Can I … are you happy for me to record you in this?

Interviewee: Absolutely. That's very fancy, like a spy …

Interviewer: It's a spy deal.

Interviewee: We can just pretend that's your pen but you're actually recording, yeah.

Months ahead of each interview, we gave each poet a schedule of questions. The interviewers brought a paper copy of the schedule of questions to each interview and used it as appropriate to the semi-structured framework. The bank of questions followed two themes. The first half were questions concerned with the conditions and context of being a poet. For example, we asked ‘What sustains you?’ and ‘When did you first encounter poetry?’. The second half of the question bank explored practical issues of making poetry. For example, we asked ‘Is there a difference between stopping and finishing?’ and ‘Do you need to be in a mood to compose?’.

There were high levels of play around the question bank. Temporally, this play was centred on ‘now’ and worked within the expected boundaries of the interview as a research genre. As native ethnographers, the interviewers were sensitive to moments of miscomprehension and misunderstanding. For example, ahead of the scheduled interview time, some poets wrote answers to prompt them during the interview. A typical example from Poet 26:

Interviewer: The last question is this tricky one. Is there anything your readers or in your case your viewers generally owe you?

Interviewee: Yeah I found that … I did find that hard.

Interviewer: (Chuckling)

Interviewee: I wrote ‘no’ (both laughing).

Some poets did not write answers ahead of the scheduled interview but had considered their capacity to answer the questions. An example from Poet 46:

Interviewer: … Whose emotions are expressed in your poems?

Interviewee: I was hoping you were going to skip that one! (laughing) That's a really weird question, I think.

Interviewer: You've talked about the personal versus the impersonal so I'm happy to skip that if you think that's enough because you did answer that, I thought, quite fully when you talked about that.

Interviewee: OK. I'm fine with that because the answer is, I don't know. It's one of those things that I'm not really sure that I want to know, either.

Still within the temporal ‘now’ moment, some poets looked to play with external roles to comprehend and comment on the questions. Babcock defines reflexivity as the capacity of the self to become an object to itself (Babcock 1980). This is the form of play from Poet 49:

Interviewer: Your reading of poetry: how regularly do you read it and which form of writing comprises the bulk of your reading?

Interviewee: This sounds like the headmaster's question, doesn't it? ‘How much poetry do you read Horton?’ (laughing) ‘How regularly do you read?’

The interviewer, as native ethnographer, also adopted various roles within the interview context, indicating their preference for authority from their status as poet rather than as interviewer. A common example is in expressions of doubt about some questions in the bank. From Poet 76, note the interviewer’s natural alliance with the interviewee:

Interviewee: I thought that was the hardest question on the list.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: Actually.

 Interviewer: Sometimes these questions sound like they've been written by a committee.

A similar dynamic from Poet 40:

Interviewer: Let's go on to the last question which is maybe the strangest question of the interview, is there anything your readers owe you? (Both chuckling)

Interviewee: This is a strange question. I don't know, I'd just like a few readers at all.

As insiders, the interviewers often settled confusion by drawing upon experiences they had witnessed in interviewing other poets for the creativity project. For example with Poet 49:

Interviewer: Other poets who've talked around this have talked about a poem … somehow naturally coming to a close.

Interviewee: Right. Bluffers. (laughing) …

The interview context allowed for interesting forms of play with an imagined future. As mentioned earlier, it would be expected that poets develop forms of play on the page in the creation of poems; to perform this type of play, most poets expressed a need for a degree of tension or conflict. We can also see this pattern unfold within the context of the interviews; tension and conflict emerge between the present and the imagined future. To play in this context, the native ethnographer as interviewer must engage with the tension and conflict but also maintain the role of ‘native ethnographer’ by not crossing ‘the point of betrayal’, that is, they must remain loyal to their ‘native’ ties over their ethnographic duty. Thus, play towards the future is aimed at resolving and settling tension. For example, from Poet 56:

Interviewer: (Laughing) By the way, … we transcribe the interviews, clean them up and send them to you so you can confirm that they've been corrected. And then we'll analyse just for text. But nothing gets published or shown until you're … that will mean excluding things … and rearranging things. And you do get the say on what goes in, cause most people say things that …

Interviewee: … making myself not sound incoherent ’cause some of that was probably very incoherent.

Similarly, from Poet 85:

Interviewee: Much better said, scratch everything I said, just state what you said.

Interviewer: Well, man, the transcript's yours to do what you want with so okay …

Finally, from Poet 54:

Interviewee: Don't put that in.

Interviewer: No, no, facial expressions don't go into the transcript.

‘Future’ play in the interview context is often taken a step further through a collaboration between the native ethnographer and the poet. Poet 13 provides a good example here: 

Interviewee: (Chuckling) I would prefer just to have a lot of laughter going on and leave it like that. You want to follow up and have me explain my laughter …

Interviewer: That'd be great.

Interviewee: … or can we just leave it?

Interviewer: (Chuckling)

Interviewee: That's the whole interview. It's just laughs, would be in brackets, laughs.

Interviewer: (Chuckling)

The intimate knowledge of the native ethnographer provides for a rich and interesting exchange between researcher and subject. The rebalancing of the authority and power enables the interviewee to be frank, and sometimes challenging. Above all, in the observations offered here, use of the native ethnographer model is an affordance for observations of play. Play is a mode of being for the poet, and thus a shared characteristic between people in this model of research. Play is not ‘out there’ as an external structure but an internal activity undertaken for its own ends. Poet 69 captures the sentiment well in the following extract:

Interviewer: Beautiful. (Chuckling) I really like that. Thank you.

Interviewee: You like that, do you?

Interviewer: I do. I like it very much. (Chuckling)

Interviewee: Good. No. I don't know whether what I've said is any great use to you or not because you were talking about the question of creativity, almost implying that it's creating something out there, a poem, a sculpture or something. But I don't see it that way.



‘Native ethnographers’ conducting interviews for this ARC project included Jen Webb, Kevin Brophy and Paul Magee.

Jen Webb is Distinguished Professor of Creative Practice at the University of Canberra and Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research. She has published 18 books, some creative, most of them scholarly, with several translated and republished for Chinese, Korean and Indian readerships. Her scholarly work for the most part deals with art, visual culture, and representation. She also makes and exhibits artist books, incorporating her photographs and fragments of creative writing, and has published and performed her poetry across Australia and New Zealand, and in Canada, the UK and the USA.

Kevin Brophy teaches creative writing in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. He has had 13 books of poetry, fiction and essays published. He is a winner of the Calibre Prize for an outstanding essay, the Martha Richardson Medal for poetry, and has been shortlisted for the Vogel Prize and NSW Premiers Prize for nonfiction. From 1980 to 1994 he was founding co-editor of the literary journal Going Down Swinging with Myron Lysenko. In 2012 Walleah Press published a collection of his prose poems in Radar, a book that featured the work of both Kevin Brophy and Nathan Curnow. His latest book is Walking,: New and Selected Poems, published by John Leonard Press in 2013.

Paul Magee is author of the eleven-chapter Cube Root of Book (John Leonard Press, 2006), and he is working on Chapter Twelve, again for John Leonard Press. He is also close to a final draft of a scholarly monograph on the meeting point between aesthetics and epistemology, entitled Poetry and Knowledge. His first book was the surrealist ethnography From Here to Tierra del Fuego (University of Illinois Press, 2000). Magee is a chief investigator on the Australian Research Council funded project Understanding Creative Excellence: a Case Study in Poetry, and he teaches poetry at the University of Canberra, where he is an Associate Professor. He has published extensively on psychoanalysis, stagnation, boredom and revolution.


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