To Fieldwork, To Write

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Kim Fortun as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Fortun is Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is the author of Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders (University of Chicago Press 2001), former co-editor of Cultural Anthropology, and is now playing a lead role in the development of the Platform for Experimental, Collaborative Ethnography.]


Sometimes, to do fieldwork is to write. This was the way first fieldwork went for me, in the years in the early 1990s when I was working in Bhopal India, at the site of the “world’s worst industrial disaster,” resulting from a massive release of toxic chemicals over a sleeping city. The devastation was horrific, but debatable from the outset. Dead people and animals were strewn across the city, rows of the dead covered in white sheets paved hospital courtyards. The sounds of coughing and grief were overwhelming, and unforgettable.  Disaster was blatant and flagrant, yet it was still was a struggle to account for in words and politics.

It was years later I was told and read about the sounds and sights of Bhopal in the days just after December 3, 1984. Journalists, activists, academics, poets, and many who were tangles of all these helped with the accounting. Stories about the plight of gas victims were also, always, stories about cover-up and denial. Even the basics – the numbers of dead, the number exposed, the number injured – were (and remain) in dispute.   At the 30th anniversary of the gas leak in 2014, activists were still mobilizing to revise the death record.

I was in Bhopal six years after the gas leak, when the legal case was before the Indian Supreme Court.  It was a politically fraught, discursively dense time. The Indian state was neoliberalizing, Hindu nationalism was on the rise, left activists were mobilized against an increasingly ominous state-multinational complex, working to connect an array of people’s movements, linking farmers, fisherpeople, tribals, and those working again big hydroelectric projects in the Himalayas and Narmada Valley. Early use of computers at and on behalf of the grassroots animated and increased the sheer volume of writerly output.

I spent my time writing legal documents, press releases and pamphlets for students and journalists on behalf of gas leak survivor organizations. I also helped a former plant worker, T.R. Chouhan, write his account of what went wrong in the factory; he wanted his story in English so to be widely read around the world.  Bhopal had already been extensively written about. The challenge was to figure out what more needed to be said, in what forms, and with what timing. Writing more required thinking about the discursive terrain we were operating within, and how different forms of argument, evidence, and symbolism was likely to work, or go awry. Writing was a way to really work with my research “subjects” (emically), and a way to work together to understand the political and discursive conditions within which we worked – collaboratively producing “etic” perspective.

But I have written about this before. Indeed, writing was both subject and challenge of Advocacy After Bhopal, and of the PhD dissertation that came before – a dissertation painfully shaped, chapter by chapter, around the different genres in which advocacy in Bhopal was carried out. I wanted to convey how form mattered, encoding how fiction works differently than the legal affidavit or field reporting in the style of human rights activists. The harshly memorable stories of Mahasweta Devi, which Spivak had taught me to read, were an important catalyst.

What more needs to be said and written now, about writing as fieldwork, and writing as/in disaster?

I think it can be said that writing is an especially important way to participate in and observe the conditions of our times, times I have written about as “late industrial,” characterized by by discursive density and risk, expertise of remarkably high order, oiliness, and slow as well as fast disaster. Neoliberalism and fundamentalism now saturate the discursive terrain rather than work in oppositional terms. Computation enables both surveillance and slick-to-the-point-of-oily PR while also providing fundamentally new ways of accounting for and connecting people and problems. Big data, informatics and new visualization capabilities both feed the monster of commercialism, and provide ways to see and address problems previously discounted or disavowed. The granularity of insight enabled by new modes of producing and working with data poses special challenges for ethnographers. We must learn to read the formative influences of data and informatics, and learn to use data and informatics in/as we have learned to use ethnographic writing – tactically, reaching across scale, working against dominant systems of representation, working Otherwise.

It is thus a time of writing against, and of writing futures underdetermined by the present.

We write against the elisions of public relations machinery that (still, decades later) tells us that toxic sludge is good for you, that industrial chemistry is essential2life, and that high levels of ground level ozone are good for business. And we know what we write against more acutely in the very crafting of sentences and claims, through which we understand how deeply commercialism and what I think of as “industrial logic” has saturated available concepts, terms, and the very way we think about and practice language.



The 1995 book Toxic Sludge is Good for You describes how the waste management industry sponsored a contest to come up with the name “biosolids,” then “went about moving the name into the dictionary and insuring that the dictionary definition of the name would not include the word sludge.” The name stuck. As PR Watch reported in 2013, the U.S. Composting Council (USCC) a sewage sludge industry trade association now sponsors “International Compost Awareness Week, calling for “gardeners to celebrate by joining the USCC’s Million Tomato Compost Campaign, which connects community gardens, compost producers, chefs and food banks to grow healthy soil, healthy food, and healthy communities.” The “aggressive perkiness” of industry’s PR face continues to be formative today; greenwashers set the stage for many ethnographic projects.

Writing forward without overdetermination is even harder, depending on mixes of forms, deeply experimental sensibilities and practices, and technical as well as rhetorical creativity – creativity that literally creates, putting different issues, scales, data, and types of analysis together in new ways. Creativity that puts people – across geography, discipline and social standing – in new formations, leveraging different kinds of code (social as well technical), literally re-ordering things.

Philosopher Dan Price’s work is exemplary. Author of Without a Woman to Read   and Touching Difficulty, Price is an amazing reader of reading, writing, and formations of the ethical.  He’s also helped write the maps at the center of the Houston Clean Air Network. Houston has long had difficulty with its air, but it has taken high-end technology to make it visible and accountable.  And the difficulties are far from over. The State of Texas is leading an effort today to discredit the science supporting stricter ozone standards that would again put Houston (as well as many other cities) out of compliance. Price is not simply pushing information about levels and health impacts of ozone out to the public, merely correcting an information deficit. His goal in mapping Houston, with plans to draw in new data sets in coming years, is to refresh and re-order the semiotic field, and the ways people relate to both knowledge and each other – rebooting possibilities for sense making. The ends are thus underdetermined and inconclusive with purpose. It is arche-writing, with political purchase.

This, I think, is what it will take to write out a world that isn’t overdetermined by what has come before. It will take new kinds of work and writing, and an expansive sense of what writing can be and do. Old oppositions – between the theoretical and the practical, the literary and calculative, the hermeneutic and definitive – must shift and reformulate.

As I write here, for example, my student Pedro de la Torre also writes, in keeping with the work of Hanford Challenge and other organizations working to shape cleanup and a long range stewardship of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where the United States produced most of the plutonium used in its nuclear arsenal, including the plutonium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Today, Hanford Nuclear Reservation is the most contaminated nuclear facility in the United States, and the nation’s largest environmental cleanup effort. Like Bhopal, Hanford can and should be connected to an array of issues and movements – against nuclear weapons and power, for and against linkage between nuclear weapons and power, for recognition of the rights of indigenous nations, downwinders, downstreamers and exposed workers, and for what the U.S. Department of Energy calls Long Term Stewardship, and Legacy Management. Just imagine (or just imagine how hard it is to imagine) what needs to be written for this – for stewardship of forever toxic sites over the very longue durée– on the order of thousands (or tens of thousands or millions) of years. There is a large plume of Iodine-129 in Hanford’s groundwater, and I-129 will take millions of years to decay; its 1/2 life alone is 15.7 million years.

de la Torre has blogged for Hanford Challenge, helped develop materials for educational campaigns and given presentations about future land use maps and the challenge of visualizing Hanford, past, present and future. Like Bhopal, Hanford has been extensively photographed, mapped, filmed, drawn and painted, and written about. And much of the effort has been recognized as cultural work – aimed at changing the way people think about the problems at hand, at possibilities for collaborative action, and about how the future can and should be configured. Much of Hanford Challenge’s work, for example, fosters collaborations that strengthen capacity in various publics to understand and engage in the cleanup, raise questions, and help conceptualize long term stewardship. But there are enduring clashes of interest and interpretation. Together with one of Hanford’s unions, for example, Hanford Challenge recently announced a legal action against the Department of Energy that calls for DOE to finally deal with workers’ exposures to toxic chemical vapors from Hanford’s aging high-level nuclear waste tanks — after decades of reports, discussion, and disavowals. Hanford Challenge is thus writing against, while writing forward; de la Torre maps the dynamics by helping write the maps.

Many of Hanford’s injuries aren’t blatant and flagrant; the violences are slow and insidious, and make non-sense in usual terms. de la Torre, as an ethnographic fieldworker, will need to write in many ways to make sense of this, in process mapping and helping refigure discursive terrain. Such is what is called for by the many slow disasters of our times. Ethnographers need to be in the mix, not only writing about but also alongside, building code, big data, and play with visualization into ethnographic practice, as a way to better understand, write against and write past the formative conditions of our times.




I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

One thought on “To Fieldwork, To Write

  1. Writing without determination, leaving space open for others to continue the conversation and develop ideas further, is a vitally important idea. Why, then, does this piece end in the classic teacherly manner, with what is presented as an authoritative summation instead of an invitation to participate in discussion?

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