Ethknoworks LLC

Michael Agar @alcaldemike

I added another Billy Collins poem in late 2015 because of its title and how it reminded me of early days in Catholic school. I'm leaving "The Country" in the column. It made me laugh, because since we turned our little plot of desert into a truck stop for every animal around, sometimes there's too many mice and I have to get rid of them. Since the house is run by a vegetarian dictator they have to be caught and released in the north forty rather than killed. My theory is that they just consider this a minor inconvenience and wander back to the house. Besides, the poem for some reasons reminds me of writing a book.


by Billy Collins

There’s a possum who appears here at odd times,
often walking up the path to the house
in the middle of the day like a little ghost
with a long tail and a blank expression on his face.

He likes to slip behind the woodpile,
but sometimes he gets so close to the window
where I am standing with a glass in my hand
that I start to review my sins, systematically

going from one commandment to the next.
What is it about him that causes me
to begin an examination of conscience,
calling to mind my failings in this time of reflection?

It could just be the twitching of the tail
and that white face, but his slow priestly pace
also makes a contribution, as do the tiny paws,
more like hands, really, with opposable thumbs

able to carry a nut or dig a hole in the earth
or lift a chalice above his head
or even deliver a document,
I am thinking as he nears the back door,

not merely a subpoena but an order
of excommunication with my name and a date
written in fine Italian ink
and signed with a flourish of the papal sash.

"Catholicism” by Billy Collins from Aimless Love. © Random House, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Country
by Billy Collins

I wondered about you
when you told me never to leave
a box of wooden, strike-anywhere matches
lying around the house because the mice

might get into them and start a fire.
But your face was absolutely straight
when you twisted the lid down on the round tin
where the matches, you said, are always stowed.

Who could sleep that night?
Who could whisk away the thought
of the one unlikely mouse
padding along a cold water pipe

behind the floral wallpaper
gripping a single wooden match
between the needles of his teeth?
Who could not see him rounding a corner,

the blue tip scratching against a rough-hewn beam,
the sudden flare, and the creature
for one bright, shining moment
suddenly thrust ahead of his time—

now a fire-starter, now a torchbearer
in a forgotten ritual, little brown druid
illuminating some ancient night.
Who could fail to notice,

lit up in the blazing insulation,
the tiny looks of wonderment on the faces
of his fellow mice, onetime inhabitants
of what once was your house in the country?

Here's another poem by Wendell Berry that made me laugh about delusions of "objectivity."

The Vacation

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

American Life in Poetry: Column 162


Though at the time it may not occur to us to call it "mentoring," there's likely to be a good deal of that sort of thing going on, wanted or unwanted, whenever a young person works for someone older. Richard Hoffman of Massachusetts does a good job of portraying one of those teaching moments in this poem.

Summer Job

"The trouble with intellectuals," Manny, my boss,
once told me, "is that they don't know nothing
till they can explain it to themselves. A guy like that,"
he said, "he gets to middle age--and by the way,
he gets there late; he's trying to be a boy until
he's forty, forty-five, and then you give him five
more years until that craziness peters out, and now
he's almost fifty--a guy like that at last explains
to himself that life is made of time, that time
is what it's all about. Aha! he says. And then
he either blows his brains out, gets religion,
or settles down to some major-league depression.
Make yourself useful. Hand me that three-eights
torque wrench--no, you moron, the other one."


Michael Agar received his undergraduate degree from Stanford and his Ph.D. in linguistic anthropology from the Language-Behavior Research Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. An honorary Woodrow Wilson Fellow, NIH Career Award recipient, and former Fulbright Senior Specialist, he is professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park, with adjunct appointments in Speech Communication and Comparative Literature, as well as an associate at Antropocaos at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina. He was recently appointed Distinguished Scholar at the International Institute of Qualitative Methods at the University of Alberta and Research Professor in Biology at the University of New Mexico.

He works independently as Ethknoworks LLC in northern New Mexico with the self-appointed title of "Chief Paradigm Mechanic." Ethknoworks centers on research, writing and consultation around issues in ethnography, language, complexity theory, and the organization from both theoretical and practical points of view. Kurt Lewin provides the motto: There is nothing as practical as a good theory.

He has also worked with the Redfish Group in Santa Fe (, particularly around the application of a blend of ethnography and computer visualization called "OrgViz," short for "making the organization visible.

His past appointments include research positions with public health agencies in Kentucky and New York as well as university positions at the Universities of Hawaii, Houston, and California in the U.S., and visits with the Universities of Mysore in India, Surrey in the U.K., and Vienna and the Johannes Kepler University in Austria.

Publications include articles in journals from the fields of anthropology, linguistics, folklore and oral history, sociology, organization research, psychology, psychiatry, public policy, artificial intelligence, complexity, intercultural communication, and the substance use and transportation fields. He has also written for general magazines like Smithsonian and The New Mexico Mercury and done op-ed pieces for various newspapers. His books include Ripping and Running, The Professional Stranger, Angel Dust, Speaking of Ethnography, Independents Declared, and Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation. A recent book, a policy critique based on his decades in the drug field, is Dope Double Agent: The Naked Emperor on Drugs. The Lively Science: Remodeling Human Social Research is an accessible description of the historical roots and modern logic of a style of human social research closer to intentionality and lived experience of the human subjects who are the point of it all. It was just published in both print and e-versions in late May, 2013, and is available on most internet booksellers. Copies of the first chapter of the latter two books are downloadable on his web page.

In 2006 he finished work as principal investigator on a seven year NIH project to explain illicit drug epidemics. He also conducts introductory and advanced workshops on qualitative research and complexity theory and consults on the use of those methods in diverse project applications. For several years the use of complexity theory to reformulate social service organizations occupied his time and interest. Projects now underway include water policy in New Mexico, artificial intelligence applications to intercultural communication, and agent based modeling of clinical practice. He serves as co-investigator on an ongoing project funded by the ESRC at Surrey University called "Constructed Complexities." This year he is Visiting International Fellow at that university and Visiting Fellow for the Consortium of Practicing and Applied Programs. He is currently developing water governance projects with colleagues in Puebla, Mexico. He is a member of several editorial boards and has served on numerous research advisory committees. In 2004 he was presented with the Leadership Award in Qualitative Inquiry by the International Institute for Qualitative Methodology.

Mike Agar died on May 20, 2017, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Selected Works

Wonder why studies you read about your world usually don’t get who you are and how you really live? Frustrated that “the numbers” don’t solve the problem? Does it bother you that policies and programs, more often than not, don’t work like they’re supposed to? People, organizations, countries–they rely on information about real human social lives. Usually they don’t have it because they only test what they think they already know in narrow situations of their own design. The results have value, some of the time, but it’s not nearly enough. We need a human social science that begins and ends in the real worlds of the humans that it claims to be about. One has been around for a couple of hundred years. The Lively Science tells the story of its historical roots and the reasons for its neglect, blends in new intellectual tools, and argues that it’s time to get on with a science that changes research objects into human subjects and learns who they are and what they’re trying to do before conclusions are drawn.
Living in a world of linguistic and cultural differences
A personal story of decades of work in the substance abuse field, a story of how our ineffective drug policy came to be and stayed in place. Now available as an e-book at iBook on iTunes and on Barnes and Noble.
The story of the working world of independent truckers in a time of deregulation
Nonfiction, Introductory Text
An introduction to ethnography