Going Native

[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 posts: post 1 & post 2.]

In my prior post, I argued that a certain set of practical, professional constraints (read: the increasing impossibility of the lengthy immersion fieldwork model) compel us to sell our services as anthropologists (often in some stereotyped sense) piecemeal – holding out in the hope that just participating in such research buys positioning that opens out to truly innovative research questions. In this uniquely inter-disciplinary process, anthropology retains—often actively protects—its exclusivity, even as it hands itself over as a tool of commerce or fashion design or whatever. Sans exclusivity, after all, where would those lucrative professional research opportunities be? What value would I have in a market already over-filled with experts?

Here I want to consider the ways in which the impossibility of imagining fieldwork in the conventional-classical mode prompts also an eschewing of exclusivity on two levels: both in terms of research strategy and in terms of just joining the field.

Traditional fieldwork models turn on the need for mobility: pick yourself up and get someplace; once you’re there, pick yourself up and explore; go where your questions take you; allow your informants to lead you. Such research has little respect for time, which has to flow freely if conversations and relationships are to develop freely—or space. My most successful times in Hyderabad found me all over the city and at home only to rest and write notes. I couldn’t have done any of it as smoothly with family around, for example, as the need to call home, run errands, be present for bedtimes and so on would have fast become burdensome. When I found myself with-job-and-child, my mobility severely curtailed, access to research sites and to materials a critical issue, I needed fieldwork models and research design strategies that were somewhat less immersive, somewhat more forgiving. Finding research projects that could be done close to home and roughly 9-5 became imperative, for one.

While that worked with HapMap, Pondicherry (where I’m now based) was never a field site for me in the first place, and turning it into one has proven tricky. While it would seem straightforward enough to create a project out of Peter Heehs’ The Lives of Sri Aurobindo controversy—religion, faith communities, ethics, writing, history: all topics I’ve written of in the past, particularly via the Public Hinduisms project—I decided that this one was, finally, a little too close to home. I’m a newcomer to this small, tight-knit town, after all, and have no intention of taking a position on a controversy that would jeopardize my position or that of my kids here as much as it’s apparently tearing the ashram community apart. [And no, it’s not possible to write about such enmeshed issues without taking positions. It’s an academic fallacy to presume otherwise.] So, scratch that obvious option. And sigh.

But then again, if I cannot be at Ramlila Maidan when there’s a massive anti-corruption rally taking place there—the topic of a collaborative project with Aalok Khandekar, also a contributor to this guest blog series—then why not let Ramlila Maidan come to me? Via the newspapers and the incessant 24X7 television news coverage, that is. Social and broadcast media fill quite a bit of the gap that immobility and my sort of inflexibility leave open; in fact these days they provide sometimes very personal information that even good face-to-face fieldwork would have had a hard time unearthing. Using media reports as primary sources, especially in the age of the blog, and the interactive spaces created by online publishing therefore represents a route to research viability—as close to first hand as one can get, if one needs to get at it from a distance. This is not always a risk-free route. A paper co-written with Jacob Copeman (on the tutelary value of death when there are organs to be donated) and submitted to JRAI was bounced back sympathetically, as not ethnographic enough. So if we get the method to suit our conditions, then there’s the added burden of making it ethnographic. Which raises the all-important question of what ethnography is, beyond fieldwork—to which I’ll return in my upcoming (and final) post.

If going online and looking to papers for data sets was one way of gaining remote access to sites and research materials, working with collaborators represented yet another strategy to access the a space of dialogue and discussion that’s equally critical to research. Collaboration allows me to combat the isolation of being in a virtual academic outpost, to share the work of research and writing, and, not negligibly, to gain access to their institutional research resources. [I’ve neglected to mention till now that adjuncting remains critical to retaining the institutional benefit of mundane things like email addresses (of 12 years!) and library database access—which is a research (and teaching) lifeline.] Collaboration as a model by which to produce research under conditions which are not at all conducive to scholarly production means also that work I’ve been involved with has been presented at Edinburgh, Durham, and might go as far north as Oslo: sites which are farther away for lack of travel funds than Houston, to which I’m still able to return once a year.

Each of these strategies shaves off a bit and a bit more of anthropological exclusivity, at least in regards to method. It necessarily involves fieldwork compromises (better and worse ones, to be sure, but still compromises), and as much as I will argue for collaboration as an increasingly influential way of thinking about research in the first place (something I wrote about for Collaborative Anthropologies and the Fieldwork volume years ago), so much depends on finding the right collaborator, figuring ways to meld voices and writing styles, and on agreeing to share authorship. Gone is the image of the lone anthropologist exploring unknown territory, all the way from fieldwork to writing.

But what about joining the field? The great thing about being in India, as I’ve said before, is that it is the field for me, and there’s no choice now but to join it in every sense. My kids are in school here. We have a home here. Family is all around. Bills need to be paid here and taxes need to be filed here (also—but that’s entirely another story). The bridge to this place cannot be burned. So the compulsion to join the ethnographic field is very, very strong. Kelty and all note the following:

Anthropologists are by professional disposition interested in remaining anthropologists rather than joining in and becoming part of their field. Other social scientists show less compunction: political scientists work for campaigns and for foreign policy institutes; economists become civil servants and chairmen of the board—anthropologists, especially those of the “critical” stripe, are far less comfortable joining in. The perceived virtue of this resistance is “critical distance”—but such a claim all too easily papers over the realities of contemporary fieldwork. (Fieldwork is not, 204-5)

So, no papering over, I’ve gone and done it. I’ve gone native. That is: Set my claim to exclusivity aside. Washed off my critical stripe, though I reserve the right to claim it again. Nobody’s hiring anthropologists here anyway, and I found it more purposeful to join the board of a local NGO that targets school drop-outs and provides them (and their families, oftentimes) with the financial, emotional, and practical support to return to school. I now assist in their writing and administrative work, as well as some of their projects (bistro, library, etc.). When I’m composing text or watching children or brainstorming with social workers or selecting photographs that represent the organization’s programs, my mind sometimes wanders around the question of what anthropologists might read, looking just at this material or observing office interactions—much as I once did. Would they pick up on the language dynamics? Would they excessively highlight the differences? Would they grasp the nature of the long friendships and associations? My only consolation is that I’m a short step ahead, and can anticipate some, at least some, of those potential readings.

So. Take away fieldwork. Take away critical distance. What’s left? I think what’s left is the other half of what we do as anthropologists and the other site where ethnography happens: in creative play with representational strategies—and with writing.