Multimodality and the Future of Anthropological Research and Scholarship

by Harjant Gill

doi: 10.18278/aia.

Harjant Gill is an associate professor of anthropology at Towson University. He received his Ph.D. from American University. His research examines the intersections of masculinity, modernity, transnational migration and popular culture in India. Gill is also an award-winning filmmaker and has made several ethnographic films that have screened at film festivals, academic conferences, and on television networks worldwide including BBC, Doordarshan (Indian National TV) and PBS. His films include Roots of Love which looks at the changing significance of hair and turban among Sikh men in India and Mardistan (Macholand) which explores Indian manhood focusing on issues of sexual violence, son preference and homophobia. Funded by Wenner-Gren Foundation and Woodrow Wilson Career Enhancement Fellowship, his latest film Sent Away Boys examines on how provincial communities across northern India are transformed by the exodus of young men giving up farming to seek a better life abroad. Gill is a fellow alumnus of Point Foundation. He co-directed the SVA Film & Media Festival (2012–2014), and currently serves on the board of directors of Society for Visual Anthropology (SVA) and co-edits the Multimodal Anthropologies section of the journal American Anthropologist. His website is

As noted in the Introduction to this Special Issue, Harjant Gill has played a decisive role in the resurgence of multimodal scholarship in anthropology. Gill returns to India in June 2019 where he will begin developing his next multimodal project “Tales from Macholand,” a six-part immersive virtual reality series that will allow audiences to step into the “virtual shoes” of six Indian men belonging to different ethnic, caste and religious backgrounds. Funded by American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) and the Fulbright-Nehru fellowship, the series will explore Indian men’s relationships with the women in their lives, and how they negotiate questions of privilege, power, consent and respect. Upon completion, the series will be showcased at universities across India to facilitate critical dialogues on issues rooted in patriarchy including sexual violence and abuse, son preference, compulsive heterosexuality, homophobia, transphobia and toxic masculinity.


What does multimodality mean to you?

The intention behind writing this essay, “Multimodality: An Invitation” (Collins et al. 2017)[1] within anthropology is to create an epistemological and methodological intervention of sorts, similar to ones that followed the publication of “Writing Culture” volume (Clifford and Marcus 1986), where we hope to encourage anthropologists to reconsider existing paradigms for research, representation, teaching and knowledge circulation.

The concept of multimodality is not new. Anthropologists have been experimenting with different forms of media technologies throughout the twentieth century. Multimodal is a term that has been used readily since the 1970s in various disciplines including psychotherapy, phonetics, genetics and medicine to characterize different approaches to carrying out scientific research that involves, to one degree of another “thinking outside of the box.” In the early 1990s, semioticians used the terms to discuss different forms of communication across different media, eventually including digital media. Many anthropologists already practice multimodal anthropology (Chin 2017; Collins and Durington 2014; Cool 2014; Edwards 1997; Hamdy and Nye 2018; Jackson 2004; Pink 2011; Postill 2011; Varzi 2018). Our use of term is emblematic of the greater sea change in anthropological research in regard to what we study and how we go about studying it.

Until a decade ago, our discipline largely adhered to traditional ways of conducting research popularized by our fore-father (and fore-mothers) at a time when a notebook and a pen were the only essential tools needed in the field. The reality is that we now have access to research tools that are far more industrious than a pen and a notebook, with capabilities that exceed our wildest imaginations. The reality is that we are no longer merely observing and documenting our interlocutors’ lives. Our presence and involvement as anthropologists is simultaneously being observed and documented by our interlocutors on their phones, cameras, social media streams, etc. The reality is that those antiquated definition of what constitutes “the field” no longer apply; fieldwork doesn’t end when we leave our interlocutors behind and return to our academic institutions and ivory towers. Digital technology and social media networks keep us in a constant conversation with our interlocutors, cultivating an enduring sense of intimacy and accountability that some might find unsettling and others (like me) find incredibly productive and rewarding. Whether we like it or not, we are entering a new frontier in commercialization of immersive media technologies like Virtual and Augmented Reality that have the power to transport our audience and students into the field, allowing them to engage in a sensory experience of the worlds we observe at level much deeper than any written ethnography can accomplish—the question is how “deep” are we willing to go?

Video 1. Sent Away Boys.

As opposed to traditional scholarship through text, where can multimodalities take us? 

What differentiates anthropological scholarship and makes ethnography exceptional is its ability to offer its audiences with rich, vivid and deeply descriptive portraits of people and places. In an era of instant-connectivity where it not only possible to live-stream images and videos from the field, but also to transport the viewer into the landscape of a place they are interested in learning more about (via immersive VR), relying on text alone as the primary medium for storytelling, to me, seems incredibly limiting. Multimodal approaches have the ability to engage the different “sensory” and experiential modes of learning (see Bailenson 2018; Pink 2011), which, whether we like it or not, are increasingly the dominant modes familiar to our students and increasingly our interlocutors. While a film or a multimodal account might fall short of offering the broader context that can be gained by reading a scholarly paper or book, and therefore does not seek to supplant textual scholarship, when presented in tandem with it, multimodal scholarship can offer the kind of affective and emotive experience necessary to understand the human condition at a level that can rarely be accomplished by writing alone.


Figures 1, 2 and 3. Harjant Gill (dir.) and his production team filming Sent Away Boys in Dhudike Village (Punjab, India) in 2015.

In this way, this shift to multimodality within anthropology is also reflective of shifts in thinking about how anthropological scholarship is circulated. Historically, our discipline has placed a greater emphasis on written accounts as perhaps the more reliable and “legitimate” form of scholarly output. While there have been important interventions in the nature of ethnographic storytelling and how we deal with questions of representation (see “Writing Culture” debate),[2] the entrenched hierarchies within existing structures of knowledge production and circulation that values written scholarship above (and often at the cost of excluding) films and media-based scholarship, continues to be upheld in academic institutions, scholarly journals, and at annual meetings and conferences. Often the resistance to change, to trying novice approaches and to showcasing multimodal research is rooted more in the familiarity with traditional way of doing things, rather than skepticism of some of the newer approaches. However, as the “business” of academia changes and adapts to the increasing technocratization of education (online journals, interactive textbooks, instant streaming, etc.), we will inevitably see a shift from primarily text-based scholarship to multimodal scholarship. In fact, the publication of this essay in American Anthropologist (our flagship journal) and the coinciding name change of the new section from “Visual Anthropology” to “Multimodal Anthropologies” was made possible only after the journal seized to exit as a “printed” volume (in 2013), and went entirely digital/online—which led to opening up of a space for experimentation and alternative modes of scholarly engagement, and ultimately, the “Multimodal Anthropologies”[3] section. This section currently exists as a hybrid section of the journal that features video, photos, drawings, music, performance, etc. Parts of the scholarship featured in this section is included in the “printer-friendly” version of the journal that resides behind the publisher’s paywall, while other “multimodal parts” are featured on a linked online database that is publicly accessible, and will continue grow as online-content production and streaming becomes more accessible and user-friendly.

Figures 4 and 5. Harjant Gill (dir.) sharing Sent Away Boys with one of the families featured in the film (in Kotkapura, Punjab) in 2016.

What do you see as the relevance of multimodalities/visual media beyond anthropology for social studies in general?

As anthropologists increasingly incorporate visual media and other multimodal approaches into their research and scholarly output, I would argue that it has made anthropology more accessible to other disciplines and to nonacademic audiences in general. Based on my personal experiences, translating anthropological understanding and insights into a visual/multimodal medium for storytelling often forces me to articulate my thoughts, ideas and observations in a clearer, more succinct way. It is difficult to hide behind disciplinary jargon or other scholars’ theoretical frameworks when telling a story through a film or a podcast. More so than any other social science discipline, we (anthropologists) are deeply invested in the practice of storytelling, and privilege “thick description” as form of knowledge production and to inform the holistic understanding of the world we live in (Geertz 1973). We have also been around perhaps the longest. It is encouraging to see anthropology lead other social science disciplines in a move towards toward multisensory, multimodal forms of ethnographic engagements as instruments and technologies for doing so become more and more accessible. Beyond rethinking our scholarly practice, to ignore the role different forms of medias plays in shaping our society would result in a rather teleological understanding of the human condition in current times.

Multimodality also present us with new opportunities to develop more engaged and applied practice where our scholarship has the potential to garner public attention to issues we explore and perhaps even policy changes in a much more immediate way, in contrast to the scholarly articles we publish in academic journals, most of which take long time to appear, are hidden behind paywalls and are read largely by our colleagues. While I have published several scholarly articles in a variety of anthropology journals based on my research, the number of times my documentaries have been viewed on one streaming site ( over 655,855 views combined,[4] far surpasses the readership for my text-based scholarship. While I believe that both my films and my journal articles are equally valuable, and recognize how they add to our holistic understanding of gender relations in India and diaspora, the two forms of scholarship are evaluated very differently when tenure and promotion is concerned. Historically ethnographic films have been treated more like a hobby, whereas journal articles are considered the “legitimate” form of scholarly output. Our call for making multimodality a necessary feature of anthropological research and scholarly output is also intended to challenge and ultimately reconsider these hierarchies of scholarly knowledge production while paying attention to who they benefit and how.

Video 2. Mardistan.

Why did you turn to film as your primary medium for multimodal scholarship?

My path to ethnographic filmmaking is a meandering one. It is the result of several serendipitous life events and development opportunities that I encountered while I was pursuing my undergraduate degree in anthropology at San Francisco State University. Following my involvement in a year-long community-based storytelling project where we used film to document life in SF’s Mission district in the early 2000s, a neighborhood undergoing gentrification and radical transformation as a result of neoliberalization of San Francisco during the second “tech boom,” I recognized the value of film as an effective (and affective) medium for documentation, communication and empowerment (see Gill 2019).[5] From that point on, I have sought to make film a regular feature of my anthropological research, scholarship and pedagogy.

I was born and raised in India, a nation with a rich tradition of oral and visual storytelling and cinema-going. My use of film to showcase my research findings within in South Asia, as well as my scholarly writing where I try to make sense of the role popular film and media plays in shaping quotidian life on the subcontinent and in diaspora, is motivated by the desire to make my scholarly output accessible and relevant to my participants and communities I study. As a “native” ethnographer I feel a sense of responsibility to communities I study and to which I belong in India, in Punjab specifically. I feel responsible to not only tell their stories and document the changes transforming their/our daily lives, but also to create an archive of their/our family’s experiences that can be readily accessed and shared with future generations. I am privileged to be in this position – of being the storyteller for my community – and it is a task that I approach with deep sense of respect, gratitude and love.

In addition to film being an essential part of my practice as an engaged or “public” anthropologist, the medium of film and the approach I take to ethnographic filmmaking is also informed my ethos as a transnational feminist, queer activist. My approach to filmmaking and the film that I make are rooted in rich traditions of queer, feminist, and diasporic documentary-filmmaking that challenge the conventions of ethnographic and documentary cinema through experimental, performative, reflexive and conceptional approaches. As an undergraduate student at SFSU, films by queer, feminist, diasporic filmmakers like Marlon Riggs, Pratibha Parmar, Trinh T Minh-ha and Richard Fung resonated with me in a way that traditional anthropological films and texts never did. None of these filmmakers are classically trained anthropologist, yet their films and observations on the cultures they explore are incredibly complex and multifaceted, and they produce an affective experience that can never be captured by text alone. Their films breakdown the conventional hierarchies of observer-observed, and traditional power dynamics in ethnographic storytelling. Being a queer South Asian immigrant in largely white, heteronormative, and euro-centric discipline, and someone who belongs to the communities I study and write about, the reflexive approach employed by these filmmakers spoke to me and my own experiences of growing up in India and later in the diasporic community in California. I also learned to question and challenge the conventions and boundaries of ethnographic and documentary cinemas. This ethos of experimentation and inclusion of different approaches to ethnography is an important feature that we wish to highlight and celebrate in “Multimodal Anthropologies” section of American Anthropologist. In transition from visual to multimodal, we want to widen the purview to be more inclusive of diverse voices, perspectives and approaches like the ones that shaped my approach to ethnographic representation, and not concern ourselves with boundary-policing (as the subdiscipline has done in the past).

Video 3. Roots of Love.

What advice would you give other social scientists venturing into multimodalities? How can they overcome resistance in academia and from their colleagues?

My advice to social scientists thinking about incorporating multimodal interventions into their research and scholarly output is to recruit and collaborate with other artists, filmmaker, editors and technical experts to help you develop your ideas along the way. Unlike fieldwork, filmmaking in inherently a collaborate enterprise and requires different people with different technical expertise to work together in a team. When I am shooting an interview for my film, my production team typically includes a director of photography (the person in charge of operating the camera), a sound-recordist/mixer, an assistant director or a line producer (the person in charge of scheduling, logistics, releases etc.) and a production assistant (in change of crowd control, and other necessary tasks). My job, as the director, is to focus solely on the interview and the interviewee, and to cultivate a comfortable space where an intimate conversation can take place. Similarly, while I edit most of my own films, I often work with an assistant editor to improve the “final cut” of my films, and I recruit graphic designers to design all film-related graphics and correct any color-related discrepancies in the final cut of the film. In this way, my films are conceived and shaped by the input and expertise of a team of people with variety of different technical skillset. I do not have to do everything on my own. For many anthropologists and social scientists, the fear of not possessing the technical skillset needed to undertake multimodal projects is the greatest obstacle in them trying a new approach to research and scholarly production. The best advice I can give is to develop these projects in collaboration with others, which for me has led to some of the most rewarding and memorable experiences of my career as an ethnographer and an anthropologist.

26 Min, 2011—Punjabi/English Subtitles
Told through the stories of six different men ranging in age from 14 to 86, Roots of Love documents the changing significance of hair and the turban among Sikhs in India. We see younger Sikh men abandoning their hair and turban to follow the current fashion trends, while the older generation struggles to retain the visible symbols of their religious identity. The film is a timely and relevant exploration of these inherent conflicts between tradition and modernity, between pragmatism and faith. The choice of cutting one’s hair is one that not only concerns the individual and his family, but an entire community.

29 Min, 2014—Hindi/Punjabi/English Subtitles
Mardistan is an exploration of Indian manhood articulated through the voices of four men from different generations and backgrounds. A middle-aged writer trying to make sense of the physical and sexual abuse he witnessed studying in an elite military academy, a Sikh father of twin daughters resisting the pressure to produce a son, a young 20-year-old college student looking for a girlfriend with whom he can lose his virginity, and a working-class gay activist coming out to his wife after 20 years of marriage. Together, their stories make up different dimensions of what it means to be a man in India today. Mardistan starts a conversation on critical issues including patriarchy, son preference, sexual violence, and homophobia in a nation increasingly defined by social inequalities.

40 Min, 2016—Punjabi/English Subtitles
What happens to families in the absence of sons? What happens to land in the absence of farmers? What happens to communities in the absence of men? Sent Away Boys weaves together stories of individual ambitions and family biographies from Punjab to chronicle the gradual transformation of agrarian landscape and patriarchal traditions through ongoing transnational migration. As the promise of a secure future in agriculture grows increasingly uncertain for young Punjabi Sikh men across the region, escaping India to join the low-wage labor in countries like Canada and United States becomes their sole aspiration. In rural Punjab, being a successful man now entails leaving their village, traveling abroad, and sending money home. Through interviews with men preparing to undertake risky journeys and women awaiting the return of their sons, brothers, and husbands, Sent Away Boys shows how young men’s decisions to emigrate implicate families and communities across North India.



[1] (Accessed 19 March 2019).

[2] (Accessed 19 March 2019).

[3] (Accessed 19 March 2019).

[4] Total number of views as of March 21, 2019.

[5] (Accessed 19 March 2019).



Bailenson, Jeremy. (2018) Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Chin, Elizabeth. (2017) On Multimodal Anthropologies from the Space of Design: Towards Participant Making. American Anthropologist 119 (3): 541–546.

Clifford, James and George Marcus (eds.). (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Collins, Samuel, and Matthew Durington. (2014) Networked Anthropology: A Primer for Ethnographers. Abingdon: Routledge.

Collins, Samuel, Matthew Durington and Harjant Gill. (2017) Multimodality: An Invitation. American Anthropologist 119 (1): 142–146.

Cool, Jennifer. (2014) Gardening Metadata in the New Media Ecology. American Anthropologist 116 (1): 173–185.

Edwards, Elizabeth. (1997) Making Histories. Pacific Studies 20 (4): 13–34.

Geertz, Clifford. (1973) Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture. In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 3–30. New York: Basic Books.

Gill, Harjant. (2019) Degentrifying Documentary and Ethnographic Cinemas: Displacement of Community-Based Storytelling in San Francisco’s Mission District. Pluralities 1 (1): 6.

Hamdy, Sherine, and Coleman Nye. (2018) Drawing Culture, or Ethnography as a Graphic Art: The Making of Lissa. American Anthropologist website. <> (Accessed 21 March 2019).

Jackson, John. (2004) An Ethnographic FilmFlam: Giving Gifts, Doing Research, and Videotaping the Native Subject/Object. American Anthropologist 106 (1): 32–42.

Pink, Sarah. (2011) Multimodality, Multisensoriality and Ethnographic Knowing: Social Semiotics and the Phenomenology of Perception. Qualitative Research 11 (3): 261–276.

Postill, John. (2011) Localizing the Internet: An Anthropological Account. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.

Varzi, Roxanne. (2018) The Knot in the Wood: The Call to Multimodal Anthropology. American Anthropologist website. <> (Accessed 21 March 2019).