Anthropologists for Hire

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Deepa S. Reddy, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Deepa’s previous post here.]

Note: post updated for clarity

Fieldwork is one of those extraordinarily-difficult-to-bracket experiences, as it blithely ignores any sort of compartmentalization of practical issues, professional demands, family, work, even time. Most conversations I’ve had about the hardship of fieldwork have invariably been cognizant of the sorts of practical-professional-personal negotiations involved—which often can become frustrating, overwhelming. In this post, I consider how such circumstances compel certain sorts of research decisions, serving as the often unspoken frameworks for the questions we ask and the projects we choose.

Fieldwork for my dissertation research followed a fairly classical/conventional trajectory, but for the break I took at the 6-month mark so as not to be away from my husband for a continuous year. India was far, tickets were expensive, but this was workable, still. I lived in Hyderabad, studying women’s activist organizations and their responses to Hindutva. I thoroughly enjoyed the vagrancy that fieldwork in an urban setting demands—and realized it was easiest to do this sort of work when one was away from family, so that it was informants and leads that set my pace and defined my agendas, not the realities of child- or parent-care. But it took the year and much stubbornness and persistence besides to move out of what Geertz has called one’s “ghosthood” into a more recognized position in a network, from which information was more accessible, and fieldwork as an experience much more enjoyable.

Our first baby arrived on the heels of the tenure-track job at a teaching-focused institution with a 3-3 load and neither research money nor any assured sabbaticals, but with research requirements to meet at tenure review nonetheless. Summers were all the dedicated time there was, but summers are hard in India, India was half the world away, childcare was not ever easy to organize, and getting there and back in time to teach again with research planned in between was beginning to sound exhausting, near-impossible, and almost not worthwhile.

[I read the narratives of other anthropologists who had carried their babies to the field [Margaret Trawick’s Notes on Love in a Tamil Family stands out in my memory for a description of a small child held in the crook of an ex-husband’s arm, somewhere in Chennai] and watched, in awed admiration, colleagues who could carry their infants to conferences and nurse them without skipping a beat or missing an analytical thread. The models were out there, but they were never ones I could emulate.]

So I couldn’t have been happier (or more relieved) when the HapMap Project community consultation research fell into my lap in Houston: an NIH-funded collaboration between Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Houston (Main and Clear Lake campuses) that charged me with charting Indian community views of genetics, blood donation, and basic science research. If I was struggling to find ways to return to my community, my community came to me in this project—and that in a spiffily professional package. I didn’t need to figure out Houston in the way I’d had to figure out Bangalore or Hyderabad. I knew the city already; I knew the community. I rode on institutional authority: everyone knew and respected UH and Baylor [in contrast to my Indian fieldwork experience, where I had constantly to laugh off jokes and explain that Rice University, really, was no agricultural college]. I could set my own schedule, most of the time. There was sufficient funding for research expenses, and an assistant besides. As a research team we didn’t always agree, but we met regularly and vetted issues collectively. It was, all things considered, an entirely professionalized research experience which, above all else, required me to remain just where I was: in Houston.

As cushy as the HapMap fieldwork process was in all these ways, however, it was also somewhat strange: booths at community fairs for subject recruitment, focus groups as ethnographic method, the conclusion in blood sample collection drives and so on, fieldwork less as immersive and much more piecemeal and formal, many subjects met once and never again, a depersonalized model of research interaction the prevailing norm. There was also a significant gap between the instrumental role the project was asking me to play (find out whether the community would consent to provide blood samples for the International HapMap project) and what research I wanted to do (be positioned within a science ethics project to understand how ethics happens, what gift economies were at stake, how the solicitation process works etc.). One was the price I paid for access to the other.

Indeed, to borrow the title of a workshop-produced-volume to which I (and many others from Rice) contributed some years ago, fieldwork is not what it used to be. The older classical models are not so much insufficient (as village studies become obsolete and multi-sited field-is-everywhere approaches take over) as absurd, all the more given the ways in which the year is parceled out into two long semesters, summer and winter breaks, “May-mesters,” “winterim semesters,” and the like. Where’s the time for fieldwork, even in tenured jobs that demand it? We wait for sabbaticals (if we’re lucky enough to have them at all), we leave the week of final exams only to return the week when classes re-commence, we figure out and furiously juggle personal lives and childcare, and feel happy that our kids are, at least, growing up in diverse contexts. And even then, the model that works best is that of professional fieldworker: no lengthy immersion, straight pre-defined questions and targets (only so much room for the “correction” motif, as Marcus calls the process of defining a project and then needing to correct it based on empirical realities), all IRB scrutinized, relatively de-personalized, often instrumentalized. 2-3 months, start to finish. Boom.

Of course, corporate ethnography has deviated from anthropology’s classic model all along. “Two years hanging with the Masaai” is hardly a viable model of data collection if one has a defined budget, deadlines and targets, and (most important) useable, implementable deliverables. My point here is that that model, which I know we all once pooh-poohed at some stage in our professional development or other, is increasingly attractive as a workable approach to fieldwork, for pragmatic reasons: it more readily attracts funding, and it’s actually more doable. The methodological rationalization follows, but later.

Perhaps I was being overly nostalgic in ways, but HapMap left me increasingly clear that I needed to return to India as field-site both to retain the “international expert” credentials that were quite critical to me institutionally (given continued area studies emphasis and the multiculturalist commitment to teaching about diverse groups) and to recover some of the depth and dimension I’d associated with my earlier fieldwork. Making the decision to repatriate was great because of course the move returned India to me as a fieldsite in a way that no single summer ever could have. [Of course it was a decision of considerable magnitude made for all manner of other reasons, and with all manner of other consequences—all of which are both relevant and tangential to this conversation.] The profound irony was that I had to trade the job that required fieldwork (as part of an active research program) for an adjunct position that cares little for active research programs, in order to return to the field in any meaningful long-term way.

What’s fieldwork like in India now that I’m back here, you ask? I haven’t the faintest. Profound irony #2: I’ve been so busy adjuncting and advising Indian students about their prospects of studying abroad and trying to keep up with some writing just-in-case, not saying no to any collaboration that comes my way, and being bendable and flexible in ways that put my immune system to shame, that I’ve not even come around to thinking about fieldwork per se, after all these years in the field.

Now that doesn’t mean that fieldwork is not happening. It is, very much [I’ll say more about this in subsequent posts, and you could read my fellow blogger Lane's take on this matter, too]. It’s just not at all in the ways it ever did before, or as I imagined it would.

The point I’m trying to make in some circular way is that every last notion I’ve had about “fieldwork” as anthropology’s signature method has hopelessly broken down—and that that has at least as much to do with the changing ways in which we now pose research questions, as with our increasingly limiting professional-practical constraints. The professionalized model that caused discomfort once makes perfect sense now, at least because the piecemeal is eminently doable, and seems equitable besides. Truth is, I’d become an anthropologist-for-hire long before I went adjunct—not because I’m marketing services to a company, but because that’s the way in which I was starting to think about my work and my time: as piecemeal parcelable, and ultimately a trade-off. I have a skill, a niche expertise, a way of getting at human habits, of explaining “Indian and hindu” views of genetics, of understanding “the human factor,” the “cultural factor.” It’s part of the rationale by which “Anthropology” exists in smaller schools and corporate environments anyway: the way we don’t do things any more, or perhaps even the way we never did. So, buy me out of teaching or pay me consulting fees by the hour, and I’ll figure out whether Indians will consent to blood donation or a smaller scoop of laundry detergent. In exchange, I reserve the right to use data for my own research, and to reflect critically on the entire process—the right not to join the field. Anthropology turned instrumental in exchange for time and invaluable positioning to other, more reflective, critical ends. “Ethnography” is what happens on the sidelines of for-hire research–which even gold-standard positions within the academy are often generating anyway.

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