On front-lines and ethnography

My previous post was about how ethnography, for me, is a way of being grounded in particular contexts, of getting one’s feet muddied with the nuances and contradictions of everyday life, and building something concrete out of it.

The term ‘front-line’ encapsulates that grounding for me. In this post, I want to demonstrate what the term signifies about the work done by the front-line workers in Dharavi themselves, and then conclude by reflecting on what it means to do ethnography in such front-lines (or, alternatively, front-line ethnography).

When I first began working on the pilot study for the NGO, the term ‘front-line’ featured in a rather banal way. The ‘sanginis’ – Hindi for female companions – we worked with were simply described as ‘front-line workers.’ These women are recruited by the NGO from the bastis (communities) during intervention and advocacy sessions by the Prevention of Violence against Women and Children (PVWC) team. As work continued, however, I realized that front-lines signify more than just a neutral description. In fact, I felt it should better describe the work of the sanginis and the PVWC team.

In this sense, ‘front-lines’ denote the spatiality, or spatialization, of everyday violence and gendered violence in the bastis of Dharavi. I initially described it as a ‘spatial proximity’ to case of violence, but that was erroneous since it is difficult to demarcate sites of violence from sites where there is none. Certainly there are certain spaces in bastis where there are more regular occurrences of violence, like public toilets or small, dimly lit streets. But violence is also something that happens in the home, behind closed doors. In several interviews and community sessions, the sanginis spoke about the sensorial aspect of violence: hearing screams or cries from their neighbor’s houses; sounds of pots and pans being thrown around; or in some cases, when the woman was thrown out of the house after being physically assaulted. The ‘private’ violence would, literally, spill out into the ‘public.’

This is perhaps the most important aspect of the term ‘front-line’: that it blurs the line between private and public forms of gendered violence.

Indeed, there are difficulties in pinning down exactly what violence, or hinsa, means for the women and the community. The women – and the front-line workers – would instead talk about abuse (atyachar), exploitation (shoshan), or ‘torture’ (in English). Many would deny that a husband beating his wife was ‘violence’ (hinsa) – it was disciplining the wife, the husband loves her, after all; or, very simply, the woman would have nowhere to go, so she had to suffer (sehna).

The sanginis and the PVWC team, thus, have to continually negotiate these multiple meanings and values attached to violence, and in some cases impose certain categories or ideas (also for legal reasons). Front-line work recognizes and negotiates the multiplicity of everyday social violence. I say ‘everyday social violence’ because they also intervene in cases of structural violence of the state and bureaucracy. Although Dharavi is described as a ‘good basti’ by its residents – which it certainly is, in terms of services, infrastructure and employment, at least,  compared to bastis in several parts in Eastern Mumbai, like Govandi and Deonar – everyday life is marked by structural violence that manifests itself as bureaucratic neglect (the police or municipality refusing to file complaints), or as social violence by political actors and big-men, the looming threat of redevelopment and displacement, and of course, gender-based and domestic violence.

As a concept, then, front-lines demonstrate that it is untenable to talk about violence in the singular; instead we need to speak about the ‘violences of everyday life’ (Kleinman, 2000). But apart from the spatialization of everyday violences, the term ‘front-line’ also signifies the specific kind of labor the sanginis are engaged in. Here, I find Jennifer Wies and Hillary Haldane’s edited volume Anthropology at the Front-Line of Gender-Based Violence (2011) to be extremely relevant. The text offered an exciting reflection of both my topic and work – gender-based violence and ethnography. They write:

Frontline workers can tell hundreds of stories of victimhood and survival. They can map the scope and scale of violence in their communities…They are the barometer of violence… (2011: 2; emphasis added)

In a similar context, Susan Clisby and Julia Holdsworth (2014) talk about women community workers, and their work, as a form of embodied infrastructure. They refer to

[T]he ways that women’s bodies and material actions themselves become the vehicles, the catalysts, the embodied infrastructure, facilitating access to services and enabling change and support through women’s networks…that serve to provide a framework, an infrastructure of support for women. (2014: 7; emphasis added)

What I add to the interventions above, are the specific gendered and feminized logics that the sanginis use in their everyday work in the bastis. In other words, the way in which violence is defined as an object of intervention, and the methods or tactics used to act upon it. The most important one, I think, is the statement, ‘We want to join families, not break them’ (Parivaar jodhna, todhna nahin), which is how the sanginis and community organizers (COs) usually describe their work. This helps them gain credibility with the women, men and other community institutions, who often accuse the mahila mandals (women’s groups) of ‘breaking families’ by instigating the women to file complaints. Instead, the COs and sanginis focus on things like ‘building a healthy relationship’ between family members. In a community session, Bhavanaben,* a program officer (PO), suggested that a husband ought to love and care for his wife, and while the wife should also respect him, she has the right to be free from violence.

As a feminist, when I heard this, I was left with a sense of unease, wondering whether these statements essentialize femininity as docile. But as an ethnographer, I had to pay attention to the nuances of such articulations. Most marriages in Dharavi are relations of dependency, since women lack resources, education and support networks (which is also prevalent in other situations across class and geographical contexts). This is often why they continue to suffer in violent relationships (along with a host of other structural factors like poor implementation of gender laws, discriminatory community rules, etc.)

But within these unequal relationships, there is also hope for change (badlaav). In another session on ‘Women’s Unpaid Work,’ Bhavanaben said something that, at the moment, seemed to contradict her previous statement. ‘It is your [women’s] unpaid work,’ she said, ‘that maintains the basti! Men go out to work, but they return home and eat the food you cook for them. You take care of the children and the elderly – jobs you would get paid for if you worked for someone else’ (which is what many women do as they are engaged as domestic workers). After the session I asked her if she had read anything about socialist feminism that informed her views. Bhavanaben said no, that she developed this ‘module’ on the basis of her own experiences and observations. But she seemed very excited by the fact that other ‘thinkers’ had written about it as well!

I think Bhavanaben’s statements can be thought of as a part of a continuum of feminized (and indeed feminist) logics, which critique structural patriarchy on the one hand, and on the other talk about domesticity, desire and happiness as pragmatic conditions. I must reiterate that these logics of care work and unpaid labor do not essentialize femininity and womanhood; indeed, many front-line workers, especially the community organizers, see gender itself as an unequal relationship between women and men (stree-purush asamanta). These feminized and gendered logics respond to the material, experiential and phenomenological conditions of the women in Dharavi. (I use the term gendered because I briefly interacted with a few transgender activists whose experiences of violence and notions of gender identity are different than that of other women. So I do wish to keep open the possibilities of a kind of queering of front-line work, for the lack of a better term).

As an ethnographer, the term front-line signified a specific way of doing ethnography with my colleagues in Dharavi: of being able to understand, interpret and analyze their techniques of intervention and the kind of embodied knowledges they produced. I contrast this to the more ‘sanitized’ and ‘objective’ – and very often, depoliticized, forms of knowledge that NGOs normally produce, like quantitative/qualitative analyses, metrics, outcomes, and so on (which is how one could describe my report to the NGO).

In this space, ethnography could take seriously the nuances and messy contradictions, and follow the attempt of the sanginis to make sense of the violences of everyday life in their own terms, and the ways in which to negotiate, if not overtly resist, them. This also involved helping the PVWC team improve their ‘modules,’ give feedback to their presentations, collect relevant and accessible documents on the prevalence of domestic violence, which I would translate and share with them (becoming a partial social worker, perhaps?). There were awkward encounters, too, where my erroneous assumptions about the community would clash with theirs; or when I would be asked to speak to a meeting of Dharavi residents, breaking the imagined pact of ‘objectivity’ that binds researchers.

There is still, however, a sense of confusion whether I should describe this as ‘ethnography in front-line spaces’ or as ‘front-line ethnography’ (or both?) – I invite the readers to share their perspectives and experiences.

The latter would indicate a kind of ethnography that goes beyond the academic convention – indeed, it can and should be used to describe the work done by the sanginis and COs, which I consider ethnographic in its own right. Further, this raises important questions of doing ethnography among/with NGOs and social movements. There are real risks of the depoliticization of critical anthropological perspectives, as there are of dismissing such work as unscholarly, mere activism, or as ‘public ethnography.’ The answer, I suspect, is somewhere in the middle. And these challenges, I believe, should inspire new forms of ethnographic engagement and commitments with people like Bhavanaben and the sanginis.

* I have changed the names of my colleagues


Clisby, S. & Holdsworth, J. (2014). Gendering Women: Identity and Mental Wellbeing Through the Lifecourse. Bristol: Policy Press

Kleinman, A. (2000). The Violence of Everyday Life: The Multiple Forms and Dynamics of Social Violence. In Das, V., Kleinman, A., Ramphele, M., and Reynolds, P. (Eds.) Violence and Subjectivity. Berkeley: University of California Press

Weis, J. & Haldane, H. (2011). Anthropology at the Frontlines of Gender-Based Violence. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press

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 “On front-lines and ethnography

  1. Proshant, is “front-line” your term, your colleagues’ term, the sanginis’ term, the victims of violence’s term? Is there a single, shared meaning, or a range of usages with different implications? Historically, “front-line” is a military term, used to describe the situation of soldiers in direct contact with the enemy, in contrast to officers and others who work “behind the lines” and are, at least relatively speaking, out of harm’s way. In a business context, “front-line” is used to describe “customer-facing” roles, where customers are “other” but not, by definition, colleagues. In social work as I understand it, “front-line” refers to case workers, as opposed to administrators who, like their military counterparts, work away from the front line and are thought to be in relatively safe positions. Thinking about this with my ethnographer’s hat on, I note a common structure, a triad that involves those on the front line, those they face across the line, and those who work behind the line, where relations between individuals in these various categories can very widely. A soldier may be trying to kill the enemy. The business person may be trying to sell something or deal with a complaint, the social worker may be try to help. What I don’t know, of course, is whether or how any of these musings are relevant to what you, your colleagues, or the people the NGO is designed to serve are focused on when you or they use the term “front-line.” Could you say a bit more about this?

  2. Hello, John. Quick answer to your first question, no, there is no shared meaning in the way I use it since it is largely an ethnographic construct. However, I do use it in order to describe the multiple layers of the work done by the sanginis, the front-line staff and by the NGO. So in the way I use ‘front-lines,’ I try to ensure that it captures the nuances of the work the sanginis and community organizers do, the meanings and values they attach to violence, the contradictions they work through (how violence is seen in the community), and so on.

    And thank you for outlining the broad history/historical context of the term! It is something I have written about in another paper, but I felt it would lengthen an already long post, so I left it out.

    In literature, I haven’t been able to find an exact ‘definition’ of the term (apart from its military connotations); perhaps the oldest reference I could find to ‘front-line workers’ in the sense of social workers, was in Michael Lipsky’s work, Street-Level Bureaucracy (1980). Thus, your idea of the ‘triad’ makes a lot of sense (is there, by any chance, a reference to it? or is it your interpretation?) – I am developing a similar idea for my thesis, but working more with urban metaphors (I find AbdouMaliq Simone’s work very inspiring here).

    Your musings are quite relevant, as well, mainly with regard to the fact that I am also working on analysing the different kinds of epistemologies that the different actors in this this triad produce, and how these are hierarchized. Here, the local/global becomes another axis, since global ideas of interventions are often use by the NGO (mostly because of funding constrains – e.g., mental health), but local or vernacular ideas and concepts hardly trickle upwards in terms of developing policy (they do so, however, in ethnographic writings, but remain somewhat distant from policy).

    For instance, my work in the pilot study was appreciated by the community organizers (COs) – who are also residents of Dharavi – precisely because it was able to tell the administration that this front-line worker model is sustainable and effective (the usual complaints regarding their work is that the administration cannot see the results; so there is an increasing tendency towards using numbers and statistics). But as an ethnographer, while I am developing more thorough concepts, they remain esoteric for the administration. So these are some of the tensions being navigated. (You can read some early reflections on this in a previous post: https://frontlinereflections.wordpress.com/2015/08/29/an-anthropologist-among-researchers/)

    Hope that addresses some of your questions! Cheers!

  3. Beautifully written, I very much appreciate this piece, Prochant. I like your explanation of the front-line as well. Many of the workers who participate with me who consider themselves “front line workers” (flw) do see themselves positioned in some ways before an enemy (structural violence) and they themselves often recognize the role they might play in reproducing violence. In the field sites where I’ve worked, military/battle metaphors are a regular aspect of worker discourse.

  4. Proshant, the triad is my own construct, based on the variety of meanings I sketched in my previous comment. Here are a few additional remarks stimulated by what you have just written.

    First, your observation that the frontline workers feel misunderstood by the administrators, who lack firsthand appreciation of what they have to do and put up with and treat them as anonymous numbers closely parallels the military experience. At least as early as the Vietnam War, U.S. soldiers involved in direct combat referred to officers and, also, it should be noted, support troops not directly involved in the fighting as REM (Rear Echelon Motherfuckers). This sort of resentment and feeling unappreciated may be a generic feature of relations between frontline and behind the line, whatever the specific situation.

    Second, thinking about behind the line, I realize that I have omitted an important usage, “behind the line” meaning across the line but on our side: scouts, spies, irregulars, partisans, all of whom may be regarded as traitors by those across the line, the enemies, customers or clients with whom the frontline people interact.

  5. Thanks a lot for the clarification, John, and additional points. I wonder if I can ask for your permission to use the ‘triad’ idea in my other writings/analysis? And your comment about the REM and the Vietnam war reminds me of a very poignant line from Pink Floyd’s ‘Us and Them’: “Forward he cried from the rear, And the front rank died, And the general sat, And the lines on the map, Moved from side to side”

  6. Thanks a lot, Hillary! Your, and Jennifer Weis’ work has been a huge inspiration (as you could see). While there is an absence of engaging with militarized metaphors among the women I worked with (though when I made the comparison with it, they seemed to have very interesting responses!), what really intrigued me is how they themselves theorize on the complex relationship between gender and violence, which I describe as gender/violence intersection in my work. And more so, given the precarity of life in slums and informal communities, these feminzied metaphors and logics (E.g., of care work, motherhood) are even extended into politics of urban commons. I lack the space here for a more detailed engagement, but if you’re interested I’d be happy to share some of my stuff! Cheers!

  7. Proshant, permission is granted. It will be very nice to be cited. One further puzzle has crossed my mind. In my idiolect, when I talk about scouts, spies, partisans, etc. I say “behind the lines” (plural) as opposed to “behind the line” (singular), which I use to talk about REM and others positioned behind and above (at least in the case of officers or administrators) the front-line troops. I have no idea how idiosyncratic this usage is. My wife and I, who comprise a small translation company, frequently disagree on points like this. Still, I am feeling the I-need-an-explanation-for-this itch and haven’t yet found a way to scratch it.

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