Discovering by Surrendering: for an Epistemology of Serendipity Against the Neoliberal Ethics of Accountability

Aurora Donzelli


In an essay on serendipity in relation to Peirce’s notion of abduction, Ugo Fabietti (2012, p. 17) highlighted how, in spite of a vast literature on ethnographic authority, reflexivity, and positioning, little attention has so far been paid to the process of ethnographic discovery, that is, the identification of something that will allow the ethnographer “to alter their perspective on a given theme or problem and, naturally, enable them go forward in the knowledge of their object.” Drawing on Fabietti’s reflections, I discuss how an epistemology of serendipity can be used to counteract the neoliberal bureaucratic regimentation of ethical reasoning and practice. I contrast my 2002-2003 fieldwork experience in upland Indonesia with my 2015 encounter with IRB procedures in the U.S. to show how the heuristic potential of serendipity advocated by Fabietti might be obstructed by (and mobilized against) the demands of a bureaucratized ethics of accountability and the growing hegemony of the research protocols of audit cultures.


Ethnography; Serendipity; Audit cultures; Upland Indonesia; U.S. Bureaucracy

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