Groundings, or seeing-one’s-feet: An introduction

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Proshant Chakraborty]

Over the last year or so, I have found that nearly every academic essay I have written for my courses contains a section titled ‘Context & Positions,’ or some such variant.

The first reason for this is obvious – my undergraduate and graduate classes in anthropology focused on reflexivity to a very large extent. We were initiated into the discipline with an emphasis on the fact that our data is ‘co-produced’ with our informants; that there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ observation, nor are there any ‘Universal Truths’ out there.

The purpose of anthropology – and critical social sciences – one of my professors in my undergraduate class explained, is to ‘problematize the obvious.’ In my MA program, my professor and thesis supervisor underscored that anthropology is a ‘particularistic’ discipline.

That is perhaps why I consciously decided to title this post as ‘Groundings’ – but there is a second reason for it, which is more personal and intuitive, arising from my own engagement with ethnography. It is what I describe as ‘seeing one’s feet’ (which is, of course, a nod to Scheper-Hughes’ idea of ‘anthropology with feet-on-the-ground,’ and ‘barefoot anthropology.’ I will return to this theme in the next few posts).

‘Grounding,’ thus, does not only convey a disciplinary or methodological concern with reflexivity, or the situatedness and particularizing imperatives of ethnography, it also concerns a relationship with a particular field site, a set of social issues, and a network of people with whom I have engaged in ethnographic research and participation.

My first engagement with the ‘field’ happened at the end of my first year in my BA (summer of 2011), when I worked as a junior field researcher – that’s a fancy title for someone who administered surveys as a part of a larger qualitative communications study. That experience also got me addicted, in a sense, to doing fieldwork (since this didn’t strictly count as ‘ethnography’).

Over the next two years (till 2013), as I continued working part-time, my field encounters made reading ethnographic texts in class much more enjoyable and intriguing; I began wondering about the ethics of research and the politics of representation in AIDS advocacy in India (since that was the broad field/issue I worked on. This resulted in my BA dissertation on the need to rethink ‘risks’ and ‘vulnerabilities’ in the AIDS epidemic in India).

This particular context would be one within which I would work for the next couple of years – NGOs, social activists, social workers, researchers, and urban spaces like slums and construction sites. In my gap year (2013-14), I worked with civil society activists, migrant construction workers, and women front-line workers – slowly sketching out research networks in Mumbai.

This is yet another form of ‘grounding,’ albeit a relatively unexperienced one. My engagement in, and with, ethnography has always been carried out in these ‘NGO spaces’ (I did not necessarily see this as ‘applied research’ – I think all field-based research, like ethnography, is by definition ‘applied’ in one way or another. But more on this later).

I realized the potential for ethnographic observation in these contexts. Yes, I had to produce ‘deliverables’ (to use jargon from professional research work) like reports, briefings, and the likes, but my ‘grounding’ in academic anthropology allowed me to see such research work as the object of ethnographic analysis itself. If bureaucratization of research constrained creativity and independence, such networks also open up possibilities for future ethnographic engagements, which is how I ended up working in Dharavi as a consultant in 2014.

I never intended to do research work in Dharavi, which is by all means a media-saturated space – from its representation in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, the history of communal violence in 1992-93, the overwhelming academic and popular focus on its ‘informal economy,’ to its centrality in the debates on urban ‘redevelopment’ in cities in the third world. Yet, working on an ethnographic pilot study on women front-line workers engaged in the prevention of domestic violence showed how the experiences and narratives of such violence tend to be invisiblized in popular writings on Dharavi.

The basti, or informal community as it is known in Hindi and Marathi, is seen overwhelmingly as a ‘CitySystem’ made by ‘migrant labor’ (Brugmann, 2011); as Mumbai’s ‘shadow city’ (Jacobson, 2007); or a ‘special economic zone for the poor’ (2011). (As an exception to most popular narratives, I find Liza Weinstein’s ethnography of redevelopment politics in Dharavi to be refreshing and nuanced, including her focus on women’s political engagement. The writings of Kalpana Sharma, Roma Chatterji and Deepak Mehta, on Dharavi have been particularly inspiring as well). Yet, Dharavi is a space where domestic violence is highly prevalent; in fact it shapes, and is folded into, the very spatiality, materiality and the everyday experiences of the basti. Countless women experienced it – women who, as a program coordinator from the NGO explained, are engaged in the emotional and unpaid labor of maintaining the basti.

This is what I felt my ethnography could do – bring these narratives of violence, negotiations, and gendered experiences to the fore in writing about urban spaces and bastis, even a ‘world famous’ one like Dharavi. And it had to do so in a situation where it had to actively collaborate with the people being studied.

It has to be situated between contexts and nuances – two terms that I have, since then, used increasingly to describe ethnography and anthropology (perhaps as an addition to my professors’ formulations). This became for me the basis of what I describe as ‘front-line’ ethnography – the topic for my next post.

‘Grounding(s)’ – to return to the metaphor I started this post with – signifies, firstly, a conscious positioning in relation to our stances during fieldwork but also beyond it (a complain I have about certain anthropologists is that I ‘cannot see their feet,’ meaning there is relative ambiguity about the terms of their engagement with the field). And secondly, following Scheper-Hughes (1992, 1995), it is also a plea for a sort of ‘barefoot anthropology,’ as a form of praxis (i.e., doing ethnography), but also moral, political and ethical commitments to the people we work with. Groundings, in this sense, refer not to stationary stances, but to how we continually get our feet muddied while doing ethnography.

The upcoming posts engage more concretely with such ‘groundings,’ where I hope to outline more political and epistemological questions of ethnographic fieldwork in front-line spaces, and with NGO actors. Here, my concern is with how epistemology, power and ethics come to be intertwined in such encounters, and how ethnography, rather than disentangling or simplifying them, should instead focus on enhancing our understanding of such complexities, whilst also focusing on ‘solutions’ for our activist and social worker colleagues, even as we attempt to theorize the ambiguities and contradictions in such encounters.

My engagements are by no means exhaustive; they are more illustrative, based on my limited experiences and readings. But I do hope they open up the space to think about the practice of ethnography both within and outside academia, and the questions that come along with it.

References

Brugmann, J. (2011). The Making of Dharavi’s ‘CitySystem,’ in Campana, J. (Ed.), Dharavi: The City Within (pp. 41-54). New Delhi: Harper Collins.

Chatterji, R., & Mehta, D. (2007). Living With Violence: An Anthropology of Events and Everyday Life. New Delhi: Routledge.

Jacobson, M. (2007). Dharavi, Mumbai’s Shadow City. National Geographic Magazine (May), 211(5). Link: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2007/05/dharavi-mumbai-slum/jacobson-text

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1992). Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1995). Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology. Current Anthropology (June), 36(3), pp. 409-440.

Sharma, K. (2000). Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum. New Delhi: Penguin.

Weinstein, L. (2014). The Durable Slum: Dharavi and the Right to Stay Put in Globalizing Mumbai. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.

Yardley, J. (2011). In One Slum, Misery, Work, Politics and Hope. The New York Times (December 28).  Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/29/world/asia/in-indian-slum-misery-work-politics-and-hope.html?_r=0

Proshant is currently pursuing his MA in Social and Cultural Anthropology at KU Leuven, Belgium. He previously worked as a researcher in Mumbai, India, on issues like public health, AIDS advocacy, migration, and gender-based violence.

7 thoughts on “Groundings, or seeing-one’s-feet: An introduction

  1. Proshant, I am looking forward very much to reading the posts that follow this one. I must admit, however, that I am a bit disturbed when you write,

    We were initiated into the discipline with an emphasis on the fact that our data is ‘co-produced’ with our informants; that there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ observation, nor are there any ‘Universal Truths’ out there.

    That we must always be careful not to impose ideas that we take to be universal truths on situations that have not been carefully investigated and always be prepared to recognize that what we take to be universal truths may not be is fine. To say that there are no universal truths at all is not only an overstretch but one demonstrably dangerous to any hope that anthropology may actually be more than a miscellany of hobbies of limited interest to anyone but enthusiasts. Think about it. I am a U.S. citizen who lives and works in Japan. If everything you discover in Dharavi must be explained in only particularistic terms, why should anyone like myself, who has no connection to the place, have any interest in it at all? When I ask myself why I am interested, it is because I assume, as a universal truth, a shared humanity, which imposes obligations not confined to any particular place or moment. Without that assumption, and the thought that what you write may be relevant to other times and places, why should I care?

  2. Dear John, thank you for the comment – and I do understand your sense of unease with my statement. Let me clarify that I do maintain we can ‘generalize’ from our particular positions. I would not necessarily claim that this is the same as a ‘Universal’ – if I read you correctly, I think you meant the same about imposing universal ideas on others.

    That said, I do not think by putting into question (or denying) a ‘Universal Truth’ – note the commas and the capital U and T, which are intentional – one would risk reducing anthropology to a hobby as such. I think universal ideas are particularized (or vernacularized), so the fact that it exists out there somewhere as an a priori is something that I am questioning. I think there is sufficient consensus on this among anthropologists, social scientists and other scholars.

    For instance, while I do stress the particularity of Dharavi, there are ways in which certain universal ideas, such as freedom from violence, figures prominently in the work of the front-line workers. At the same time, their experiences and narratives resonate with other researchers who work on gendered violence elsewhere in the world. Precisely because ethnographic and anthropological work is also generalizable; we produce concepts, theories, and so on.

    Hence, my emphasis on contexts (and nuances). I think contexts are what are shared – patterns, arrangements, structures, apparatuses – not an idea of the ‘Truth’. I just think assigning any ‘Truth’ to these is what’s over-stretching, and the basis of epistemic and real violence, too (though this doesn’t discount the idea of a shared humanity; it is merely questioning to what extent is it shared, and what are the things being shared).

    In retrospection, I do share the idea of a universal that is plural and diverse (or pluriversal, as someone like Walter Mignolo would have it).

    I hope my reply addressed your concerns, and thanks again for the comment. Cheers!

  3. Proshant, it is,I believe, precisely because we share so much common ground that we can productively discuss these issues. As I read the passage that disturbed me, the first thing that came to mind was the question whatever happened to such universals as the description of H. sapiens as a featherless biped with binocular vision and opposable thumbs and far more developed tool use and language skills than other primates? Then I thought of the mathematical properties of social networks, where generalizations are as universally certain as the law of gravity: the theorem, for example, that states that above a certain scale and density, such properties as network centrality will have sharply skewed distributions, a theorem whose applications include power grids and protein cascades in cell biology as well as social networks. The caveat here is that institutions may be designed to offset the skewing; sharply progressive taxation is one possible example. Nothing very mysterious here. That airplanes fly does not deny the law of gravity; it involves some additional physics, the Bernoulli principles that generate lift when air passes rapidly over airfoils. That aircraft sometimes crash introduces other factors; icing, birds sucked into engine turbines, are as well as human error frequently cited as causes when crashes happen. More relevant, I imagine, to our discussion is the conclusion I came to at the end of a book I once wrote on Japanese consumer behavior, using data collected and analyzed by a think tank set up by a Japanese advertising agency. As an employee of the agency, I was fascinated by the think tank’s newsletter, whose art, wit and irreverent humor not only seemed very Japanese but also the antithesis of academic writing. Then, digging deeper, I discovered that the issues that had preoccupied the think tank’s researchers were the same as those that worried people in other OECD countries: absent fathers working in factories and offices instead of on farms or in household businesses, mothers with time on their hands as husbands went off to work and children went off to school, women entering the work force, relations between men and women, children whose behavior seemed increasingly alien to their children, what do do with longer lifespans and more years to fill after retirement. All of these issues were, however, also affected by material conditions specific to Japan or, more precisely, the greater TOKYO metropolis where most market research was conducted. Thus, for example, the organization men who worked in Chicago studied by William Foote Whyte were usually home by five or six in the evening, with time to share meals with families and participate in community activities. Their Japanese counterparts had hour-plus commutes as well as feeling obliged to socialize with their workmates. These absent fathers were rarely, if ever, home. Thinking through what my research had told me, I concluded that I was dealing with a triad of relevant factors: universal issues shared by all modernizing countries, local material conditions that affected the local seriousness of the issues, and, finally, the local language and cultural imagery used to describe how people in different groups or categories dealt with the issues. From this perspective, the notion that all that counts are particularstic details of local situations seems to me wrong-headed. I do not deny on that account that particularistic considerations may be vital in the case at hand. I do assert that an anthropology that fails to spell out their relationships to more global (no need to say universal) factors is missing something important.

  4. Let me start by saying I agree with your last statement – I am not suggesting at all that we forsake the analysis of global connections and doggedly focus on the particular. I am not advocating for vulgar empiricism, rest assured.

    To draw another example, my work does indeed pay attention to the global in a significant way: how Dharavi is situated within the global capitalist market, how globalized ideas of what gender rights are affect and influence how local NGOs behave; the circulation of commodities, images, ideas and so on – they’re all there. I look at works on gender violence from Brazil, Peru, the US, UK, and so on precisely because the work these scholars do resonates with the particular contexts of my own work; because their work generalizes concepts and theories. What we share are common experiences and structural factors, and how the actors in our respective contexts behave – how they diverge and converge. Perhaps, yes, there may be a universal ‘patriarchy’. But what needs to be questioned is how it get the universal tag in the first place? How is it manifest if crucially different ways, as demonstrate by fieldwork? In maintaining a universal theory of patriarchy, what kind of epistemic violence does social sciences commit on experiences that do not conform to general theories – and thus, interventions that operate on these assumptions?

    Again, I do not dispute the first half of your comment either. That there is a need for universalizing tendencies in theory is not my objection – in fact, that’s not even the topic of my post (which is about how as ethnographers we are situated in contexts; and by definition, we are also situated in global contexts and flows).

    When I write ‘Universal Truth’, it is in relation to pedagogy, which took place in a particular context of a classroom, where as students we are taught that one cannot simply study social phenomena as one would study the physical or natural world. Finally, this involved a critique of grand theories (rest assured, this is not a plea for vulgar post-modernist interpretations either).

    Once again, thanks for the comment – and giving me a lot to think about. I do hope we can move past this particular impasse now. Cheers!

  5. Hi John. Yeah, for someone prone to typos a lot, I wish so too (which is my main beef against Twitter). But thanks again for the comment. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and I hope to use some of your interventions in the next few posts.

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