My scholarly trajectory leading up to these series of posts on an anthropology blog is perhaps somewhat unconventional, and yet, also more straightforwardly located within the aspirational tenure-track model of the academy than some of my fellow contributors here—for the moment, at least. Even though I have worked closely with anthropologists since the earliest days of graduate school, been associated with Cultural Anthropology in good measure (c.f. here), my graduate degree—like quite a few contributors to this series—is in Science and Technology Studies (STS). And my university education prior to that was in Electrical Engineering: at Mumbai University (India) at the Bachelor’s level, and at Pennsylvania State University at the Master’s level. My dissertation research, in turn, went on to investigate the conditions of transnational mobility for Indian engineering students and professionals (between India and the United States): it was designed as a multi-sited ethnography with fieldwork components in Mumbai and in parts of the United States (more on that in my upcoming posts). I received my Ph.D. in STS from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Aug 2010, after which I worked as an Adjunct Professor at my graduate department for a year, and since July 2011, I have been based at the Department of Technology and Society Studies at Maastricht University in the Netherlands: first as a post-doc, and currently in the capacity of a Lecturer.
So, what does doing ethnography on/from the sidelines mean for me? What exactly do the “sidelines” look like when viewed from behind my work desk? In many ways, the sidelines, at present, do not relegate me to the margins of the academic hierarchy. Sure, I did was a freshly-out-of-school looking-for-jobs adjunct at my graduate department for a year. But since, I have been fortunate to find a position, which albeit temporary, affords me all the benefits of a full-time academic scholar: I have a (small) personal research budget, a printing-and-copying budget, regular library access, I don’t have an overly demanding teaching load (my time is evenly split between research and teaching), and I have access to a wide array of institutional resources including research funding specialists and a range of administrative support staff. There are certainly ways in which academic hierarchies do matter, but often, these are equally issues of navigating through a new work environment with a significantly different organization of higher education. My position at present, that is, is hardly anything that can be termed precarious.
The precarity that does exist comes in the form of (short) limited-term employment contracts: my initial work-contract was for a period of six months, my present one for a year, and will be up for renewal soon. And while this is somewhat atypical for my current employer, work contracts ranging in-between a period of 1-4 years (with significantly higher teaching loads) are a fairly standard way in which the university maintains a flexible workforce. And this is by no means something unique to my university: limited-term work contracts, often based on pre-existing projects, seem to be a more general feature of the European research landscape. (So much so, contract-lengths often becomes a topic of conversation: much like “what’s your research about?” was a question that I dreaded as a first-year graduate student, I have come to dread the question, “how long is your contract for?” as a first-year junior member of the staff.) The big difference between adjunctdom in the U.S. and my current employer, of course, is that I am entitled to all the regular benefits of being a full-time university employee: including (a luxurious) vacation time, research budgets, health insurance. But the possibility of work contracts not being renewed, the prospect of being on the job market again, the prospect of picking up and moving again—perhaps even transnationally—is ever present. And while this is anxiety-provoking in-and-of itself, it also presents a range of practical, professional, and sometimes very mundane dilemmas: including finding the time and resources to simultaneously be a productive scholar and be on the job-market, maintaining a steady e-mail address for professional correspondence, figuring out adequate housing arrangements, shipping solutions etc. That condition and the resulting anxieties and uncertainties, I am sure, are recognizable to many on this forum: the challenge, indeed, is to make virtue out of necessity, even while remaining critical of the being in that position to begin with.
Equally, there are other ways in which I can understand being on the sidelines as well: operating on the sidelines of the tenure-track model, operating in interdisciplinary spaces on the sidelines of mainstream anthropology, and operating in collaborative modes on the sidelines of dominant models of academic production in the humanistic social sciences. And all of these happen, for me, in the context of two key factors: transnational mobility (between India-U.S.-The Netherlands, in my case), and limited-term work contracts. All of these cumulatively shape how I, in turn, operationalize my own research projects.
In the series of posts that will follow, I unpack each one of these to a limited extent: my next post will focus on the idea of doing ethnography in transnational contexts. Transnationalism, of course, has been a dominant frame in/for much of contemporary ethnographic theorizing, including mine. But what I am interested in drawing attention to is not so much the theoretical tradition, but rather reflecting on what being transnationally mobile myself has meant in terms of the work I do. When place-based assumptions and commitments about research and teaching are not viable, what kind of ethnographies seem plausible? What constraints—and opportunities—present themselves to further ethnographic theorizing? What does making virtue out of necessity entail in this context?
My third post will focus on the idea of interdisciplinarity. Having graduated from an interdisciplinary field and continuing to do ethnography within interdisciplinary spaces, I tease out the relationship between interdisciplinarity and ethnographic production. What happens to ethnography when operationalized in interdisciplinary spaces, such as those of STS? What are the constraints and possibilities that interdisciplinarity poses? My last post will focus on the idea of collaboration: as a way of keeping exiting networks vital, as a way of finding continuity even as I am on the move, and as a mode of scholarship that I find particularly compelling and enjoyable. I reflect on the exercise of collaboration itself and the kinds of ethnographies that emerge.
Each of these—transnationalism, interdisciplinarity, and collaboration—are definitive aspects of ethnographic production for me, and I am sure, for many others as well. My hope, then, is to flesh out what these imply for the kinds of research (and teaching) that I (can) undertake, and hear from Savage Minds readers about the conditions that define their own scholarly trajectories and the kinds of strategies available for navigating those.
Stay tuned! And join the conversation!!
Aalok Khandekar is currently lecturer at the Department of Technology and Society Studies at Maastircht University in the Netherlands. He received his Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Aug 2010. His personal website can be found here.