Michael Agar


Dr. Michael Agar is a prominent anthropologist in the field of linguistics and doubled the effort by becoming an internationally recognized expert on drug use and abuse. Recent work [ref DL comm] has been done on drug trends, and surrounds complexity theory, and agent-based modelling.[ref articles x2] As a groundbreaking research scholar, Dr. Agar's long list of trailblazing endeavors in anthropology include rich experiences and seminal writings in:

Dr. Agar has published on drug issues since the 1960s. He has recently finished work as a principal investigator on a seven-year NIH project to explain illicit drug epidemics.

Currently, Dr. Agar works independently as Ethknoworks, LLC near Santa Fe where he is engaged with various New Mexico University ecologists integrating cultural background knowledge into computer-based language learning (second language acquisition) [ref video]. As Ethknoworks, Dr. Agar conducts introductory and advanced workshops on qualitative research (follow links 1 2 3) and complexity theory and consults on the use of those methods in diverse project applications. Lately, the use of complexity theory to reformulate socials service organizations occupies his time and interest [ref website].

Research and Work

According to Mike Agar himself, "his projects (short or long-term) have always been linguistic and ethnographic at their core." The backbone of his research is essentially divided into three periods:

  • First period: In the early 70s, Agar did heroin addict research (life stories of Mr. Herbert Huncke) in New York City. Later on, Dr. Agar met and collaborated with a natural language artificial intelligence expert, Jerry Hobbs. The duo worked on axiomatic formalization of a knowledge base for computational implementation (Hobbs 1 and 2) and interpretive accuracy for a particular social category of outsider/audience in easy language (Agar). Several articles on various elements of discourse analysis emerged from their collaboration. "How to Grow Schemas out of Interviews" also grew out of this period and would be of special importance to anthropologists because it effectively summarized what would eventually be known as language-based analysis of "cultural models."

  • Second period: Vienna period of teaching, research and conferences and enjoying friendship and support of applied Austrian linguistics professor, Ruth Wodak (Institut fuer Sprachwisseschaft). Began work on mega hit and widely influential book, Language Shock: Understanding culture and conversation (1994) where earlier ideas of "linguaculture" (Paul Friedrich) morphed into Agar's theory of "languaculture" and explained the tension that exists between pragmatic and semantic uses in language. In linguistics, the spirit and ideas of "languaculture" caught on as specialists moved from grammar-heavy to more communicative styles of teaching.

  • Third period: Somewhat recent. Dr. Agar again took the show on the applied path and reflected on linguistic anthropology in publications dealing with peace negotiation (1996), intercultural communication (1994), drug research (2005), and organizational discourse (2006). He spent seven years on an NIH funded project and also conducting workshops and doing bilingual consulting on complexity and organizational development for social services in the U.S. and abroad throughout various countries in Latin America.

  • Current: The return to language as central in human social research and is also tweaking ideas on what makes ethnography "real" (see 2008 revision). Dr. Agar has renewed his interest in "ethnography as translation" and the etic/emic synergy so vital and wildly popular in current anthropology. A reconnect with artificial intelligence expert, Jerry Hobbs, and new projects bring ideas on integrating computer-assisted language instruction with "culture." Latest work also includes upgrading the problematic concept of "culture" by targeting those universal and local human elements that make the process of ethnographic translation possible.[ref webpage]

In many writings about ethnography, Dr Agar introduced the concept of "rich point" (1996), meaning a difference based on experience [which serves to] index a cultural difference worthy of attention as a research focus.[ref] In exploring what lies behind combining good ethnography with method, Agar supports expansive thinking in anthropology and explains:
  • It's not that ordinary social science isn't allowed to look for connections. It is that ordinary social science begins with variables already given by some theory, and then tries to figure out how to locate, decontextualize, and measure those variables. A card-carrying holist notices a "variable" in a situation, maybe one that he/she has never thought about before, but then he/she wonders what other things it might be connected with, in that situation and outside of it. The goal is to build patterns of many interacting things that include what was noticed, not to isolate what one was supposed to notice and measure it [ref article]

Complexity Theory and Agent-based modelling

Under construction


Under construction

A Conversation with Mike Agar

Dr. Agar as guest lecturer in Britain

Final words: Up close and personal, part of Mike Agar's appeal is mastery of academic and layperson's language. He seems to exist to serve both worlds simultaneously yet seamlessly and without audience members -- academic or non -- perhaps not fully realizing the colossal complexity and value of being able to do so. Agar is a self-described "Robin Hood" -- an academic whose self-deferent style allows him to hang his toga out to dry long enough to lend ivory tower ideas of theory and practice available to anyone who needs them [ref article on hosp work]. He is anthropology at its democratic and most productive rather than bickering best.


Dr. Michael Agar was born in Chicago on May, 7 1945 but moved to San Francisco with his parents in 1956. After a trip to Mexico, he developed an enduring interest in the meaning of culture, otherness and language. During the early years, Dr. Agar learned German as a high school exchange student in Austria, and later spent time in South India teaching and working as an undergraduate anthropology student from Stanford. After obtaining a degree in linguistic anthropology from Stanford University, Dr. Agar moved on to do graduate work at the Language-Behavior Research Laboratory at the University of Berkley, California where he later earned his Ph.D.

In 1968, plans to return to India were interrupted by the Vietnam War and Dr. Agar ended up in uniform working at a national center for narcotics addiction treatment in Lexington, Kentucky. The experience became his now famous dissertation called "Ripping and Running" -- a 1973 formal ethnographic study which became an urban Rosetta Stone for understanding U.S. addict jargon and lifestyle.

From 1973-1975, Dr. Agar worked for the state narcotics treatment agency of New York, but for most of the 70s, traveled around the world and held academic positions in Europe, South America, India, Austria and Hawaii. He accepted a permanent faculty position at the University of Maryland in 1981 and resigned as professor emeritus in 1995. Since then, he has been actively working as Ethknoworks where he does research, writing and consulting on issues in ethnography, language, complexity theory, and the organization from both theoretical and practical points of view. [ref website]

Dr. Agar currently lives about fifteen minutes outside of Santa Fe with his partner Ellen and continues working on numerous projects as Ethknoworks, an independent anthropology consulting firm he started in 1995. The range of Dr. Agar's groundbreaking research and intellectual contributions potentially make him a hall-of-fame giant in the history of North American anthropology.

Major Positions

  • Honorary Woodrow Wilson Fellow
  • Currently Fulbright Senior Specialist
  • Professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park
  • Adjunct appointments in Speech Communication and Comparative Literature and associate at Antropocaos at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina
  • Recently appointed Distinguished Scholar at the International Institute of Qualitative Methods at the University of Alberta
  • Member of several editorial boards and has served on numerous research advisory committees
  • 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 USA, and visits with the Universities of Mysore in India, Surrey in the UK, and the Johannes Kepler University in Austria (ref from webpage)

Awards & Distinctions

  • NIH Career Award recipient
  • Honorary Woodrow Wilson Fellow
  • Leadership Award in Qualitative Inquiry (Int. Institute for Qualitative Methodology)

Major Publications

  • Ripping and Running: From thesis to masterpiece. A 1973 tale (formal ethnographic study) of heroin junkies living on the edge and the urban Rosetta Stone Agar crafted for understanding U.S. addict jargon and lifestyle.

  • The Professional Stranger: Chronicles the survival and evolution of ethnography into the 21st century. An ethnography primer which illustrates the ethnographic process and analyzes its stages and methodology. Debunks hard science as the "only" way and proposes a move towards a "personal and global" ethnography that brings disciplines together and reconciles the scientific with human behavior. In Agar's words, anthropology has a leg up in "one-hundred years experience in learning, documenting and translating language and practices from one perspective to the benefit of another and vice-versa."

  • Angel Dust: Monograph done in collaboration with several other individuals and published by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Created in response to the government's preoccupation with the "inexplicable rise" in the use of PCP. A powerhouse, innovative ethnography and research collaboration on the use and abuse of PCP across four U.S. cities.

  • Speaking of Ethnography: Thought-provoking look at how social science investigative practices should be open to inspection and critical assessment. He explores how ethnographic language has been borrowed by many fields and uses the world of addiction and independent trucking to illustrate. In readable fashion, manages to slip in coherence, breakdown, resolution, inference and schema, and scripts in ethnographic understanding.

  • Independents Declared: Called by some the "best qualitative work on trucking" and a stunning revelation. Mike Agar went to work as ethno-sleuth anthropologist zeroing-in on independent trucking voices in the 80s and their dilemmas and disappointments during a time of deregulation.

  • Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation: Introduction of languaculture -- the culture + language connection that deeply defines who we are, controls how we relate to others, and often accounts for the conundrums and misunderstandings that surround human conversation. Examines daily mishaps when individuals attempt to communicate outside their native comfort zone (cultural context). The remedy? Agar suggests that navigating across cultural contexts (with self and others) makes us effective bicultural and bilingual agents capable of verbal exchange (communication). A great book to understand the tension between pragmatic and semantic uses of language.

  • Dope Double Agent: The Naked Emperor on Drugs: A 2007 release. Tale-like and spun around as a novel based on Agar's multi-decade preoccupation with the ghastly world of drugs and anti-drug. Why do illegal drug epidemics keep happening? Set as the chronicle of a part-time druggie and street-wise student who ends up working in the U.S. anti-drug effort but as a "double agent." A hair-raising critique of U.S. anti-drug policy and how the drug problem is not just out on the streets but "hidden within an economic history, in epidemiology and in policies that persist despite their ineffectiveness and accumulated failures (Agar)." [ref video]

Selected Articles

  • (In press) A tale of two epidemics. Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry.
  • (2002). A heroin epidemic at the intersection of histories (with H. S. Reisinger). (2002). Medical Anthropology (21) 79-126.
  • (2001). Another complex step. Field Methods, 13(4), 353-369.
  • (2001). Another complex step. Field Methods, 13(4), 353-369
  • (2002). Using trend theory to explain heroin use trends (with H. S. Reisinger). Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 33(3), 201-212.
  • (2001). Buprenorphine: A Field trial of a new drug. (with Philippe Bourgois, John French and Owen Murdoch). Qualitative Health Research 11, 58-68.
  • (2001). Ethnography. International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 3, 1:76. Oxon UK: Elsevier.
  • (2000). Explaining drug use trends (with H. S. Reisinger). In Illicit Drugs: Patterns of Response, Eds. A. Springer & A. Uh. Innsbruck, Studienverlag.
  • (2000). Border lessons: Linguistic rich points and evaluative understanding. In special issue of New Directions for Evaluation, How and Why Language Matters in Evaluation, Ed. Rodney K. Hopson, 86, 93-110.
  • (2000). Read all about it: media construction of a heroin epidemic (with H. S. Reisinger). Substance Use and Abuse 35(4),1363-1383.
  • (1999). Complexity theory: an overview and exploration based on Holland’s work (with commentary by Michael Patton and reply). Field Methods 11, 99-126.
  • (1999). Numbers and patterns: heroin indicators and what they represent (with H. s. Reisinger). Human Organization 58, 365-374.
  • (1999). How to ask for a study in Qualitatish. Qualitative Health Research 9, 669-681.
  • (1999). Talking Numbers: Ethnography and Epidemiology. Special Issue of Substance Use and Misuse. (co-editor with Nick Kozel), 34, (14).
  • (1998). Heroin habit size in three cities: context and variation. (with Philippe Bourgois, John French, and Owen Murdoch) Journal of Drug Issues 28, 921-940.
  • (1997). Ethnography: An Overview. Substance Use and Misuse 32(9), 1149-1167.
  • (1996). Show it, don’t tell it: How to run an ethnography appreciation course. Practicing Anthropology, 18(2), 3-5.
  • (1996) Recasting the “ethno” in “epidemiology.” Medical Anthropology, 16, 391-403.
  • (1995). Ethnography. Handbook of Pragmatics Manual, Eds. Jef Verschueren, Jan-Ola Ostman & Jan Blommaert. Amsterdam, John Benjamins. pp. 583-590.
  • (1995). Concept abuse in the drug field. International Journal of the Addictions 30(9), 1165-1168.
  • (1995). Focus groups and ethnography (with James McDonald), Human Organization 54(1), 78-86.
  • (1994). Investigating recent trends in heroin use in Baltimore City: A Pilot “Quanitative” Research Project. (With Owen Murdoch). CESAR Special Topics in Substance Abuse 94-1, College Park, MD.
  • (1994). Le role de l’ethnographie dans les politques de soins aux Etats-Units. (The role of ethnography in health politics in the U. S.) La Revue Agora: Ethique, Medecine, Societe, 31, 95-105.
  • (1994). The intercultural frame. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 18, 221-237.
  • (1994). What is a trip--and why take one. In LSD: Still With Us After All These Years, Eds. Leigh Henderson and William Glass. New York, Lexington Press. pp. 9-36.
  • (1991). The right brain strikes back. In Using Computers in Qualitative Research, Nigel G. Fielding and Raymond M. Lee (Eds.). London, England: Sage

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Online Resources

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Ethnography in Education

Further Reading

Atkinson, P. , Hammersley, M. (1994). Ethnography and participant observation. In N.K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research, (248-261). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Boas, F. (1901). The mind of primitive man. Journal of American Folklore, 14(52): 1-11.

Fetterman, DM. (1998). Ethnography: Step by Step. Applied Social Research Methods Series, 17. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Hammersley, M. (1990). Reading Ethnographic Research: A Critical Guide. New York, NY: Longman.

Hammersley, M & Atkinson, P. (1995). Ethnography: Practices and Principles// (2nd ed.) New York, NY: Routledge.

Malinowski, B. (1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Park, R. , Burgess, E. (Eds.) (1921). Introduction to the Science of Sociology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Radcliff-Brown, A.R. (1948). A Natural Science of Society. New York, NY: Free Press.

Savage, J. (2000). Ethnography and health care. BMJ 321:1400-1402.

Agar, Michael. (1996) Show it, don’t tell it: How to run an ethnography appreciation course. Practicing Anthropology 18(2):3-5.

Richardson,L. (2000) Evaluating ethnography. Qualitative Inquiry 6(2):253-255