[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.
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