Tag Archives: Method

Topics concerning ethnographic or anthropological methods or general Methodenstreiten

Attention Deficit Ethnography

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Lane DeNicola, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Lane’s previous posts: post 1 — post 2 — post 3]

Our final prompt in this series asks about the possible virtues that emerge from the necessities of marginality or academic precarity, the effects on ethnography of such “new intellectual possibilities.”  On the whole I’ve so far stuck with the trajectory I laid out for these posts, engaging with precarity and ethnography first via my experience of living in a London suburb in over the last several years and then on the subway I used to get aroundwhile living there.  In both cases I focused on my own ethnographic practice and experience and particularly on observational practice.  For this final post though I want to shift the focus to the effects on ethnography not “as practiced” but “as taught or learned,” not as observational technique but as representational technique.  The post-millennial relevance of this seems clear, with a number of the conversational threads on SM proceeding from the observation that information technology and digital media are having an expanding range of effects not just in the field of anthropology but in education (that other domain inhabited by so many practicing anthropologists).

My earlier posts also (I note in looking back over them) relied pretty heavily on metaphor and pop culture/sci-fi references, but I can’t think of a good reason to change that now, so: for better and for worse, one of my last opportunities to be social before leaving the UK last month was spent in front of the IMAX screen at the British Film Institute (“the largest film screen in the UK”).  The BFI’s performative apparatus is matched only by the fantastic quality and diversity of films routinely screened there, but this particular outing (with several participating students and other friends) was centered around a pop-culture event with a dash of speculative pseudo-archaeology: Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s prequel to the 1979 film Alien.  Overall the film is pretty awful in largely predictable ways (did I mention this was a 3D screening?), but it serves to illustrate my point here, particularly in a fleeting reference the film makes to Lawrence of Arabia (a quite different film about a quite different type of alien). Continue reading

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Decentering Writing

[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 — post3]

Note: updated on 7/26/2012 for clarity.

For this final post in our series, I find myself returning to Carole McGranahan’s post from some weeks ago, going through her very useful 9-point schema to describe what makes things ethnographic these days—realizing that whatever the circumstances of ethnographic production, whatever our definitions of ethnography might be, they always presume the centrality of writing. And that is writing in a particular mould, one that satisfies most, if not all, of the criteria enumerated in McGranahan’s post. Specialized, often lengthy, mono-graphs or variants thereof.

aalu anday salanRecipe for Pakistani-style Political Potatoes
[Click on the image for a more readable higher-res version]

Part of me wants to say: But of course, how could it be otherwise? The other part, perhaps handicapped by my present need to cobble together a professional identity while remaking myself in an almost completely new cultural landscape—and finding precious little time to devote to writing, is wondering about ethnographic end-products, and the centrality of conventional writing to the ethnographic enterprise. In this post, therefore, I’d like to think through the prospect of decentering writing [fully aware that writing can’t ever be entirely displaced; that there is an awkwardness to the idea, reflected in this post’s two-ing title]. Continue reading

Ethnography’s Sense

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Ali Kenner, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Ali’s prior posts: post 1 & post 2]

In this post I’m going to diverge a bit, writing not about my work for Cultural Anthropology, but about that other project of mine: an ethnography of breathing, and how the breath registers embodied signs of late capitalism (in the contemporary asthma epidemic and U.S. yoga industry). It’s a project grounded in my own yoga practice, a risky set-up, I think, for someone already working on the margins.

Deepa’s weekly prompt asks us about the relationship between form and content in our work. This prompt called to mind the way I position myself to my project, leveraging embodied practice for ethnography. Rereading Carole McGranahan’s post on teaching ethnography, I keep coming back to Ortner’s understanding of ethnography as “the attempt to understand another life world using the self—as much of it as possible—as the instrument of knowing.” Tomie Hahn’s ethnography of dance transmission, Sensational Knowledge (2007), is a powerful example of how body and self become instruments of knowing. Working in the Japanese tradition of nihon buyo, Hahn shows how cultural knowledge is embodied through her own experience and practice of nihon buyo, a practice sustained over three decades. What I find most interesting about Hahn’s work is the way she translates movement and sensation into graspable material for analysis. The argument that culture flows through dance transmission is performed back to readers through Hahn’s own transmission; thick descriptions of sight, sound, and touch.

Hahn also speaks to the challenges and drawbacks of embodied ethnography – studying her own culture, wearing various hats, and negotiating multiple identities. Although my project, and my relationship to it, is quite different from Hahn’s, Sensational Knowledge is an enduring touchstone that inspires my work. It’s important to have one or a few of those in reach.

In the sections that follow I put yoga in conversation with ethnography. In the first section, breathing becomes an instrument of knowing; in the second, I consider how my yoga practice situates me as ethnographer. Continue reading

Annual Identity Crisis

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Aalok Khandekar, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Aalok’s prior posts: post 1 & post 2]

Interdisciplinarity has been another definitive condition of ethnographic production for me. My formal graduate education has been in an interdisciplinary department, I go to conferences that are interdisciplinary in their scope, I teach within contexts that are highly interdisciplinary, and interdisciplinarity has also been an object of inquiry in some of my previous collaborations. Depending on the day and the audience, my (inter)disciplinary affiliations are located somewhere in between the fields of Cultural Anthropology, Science and Technology Studies (STS), and South Asian Studies. And I do not really anticipate not being interdisciplinary in this sense any time in the foreseeable future. For one, I really enjoy working in such spaces. Reading broadly, connecting laterally across a wide range of scholarship is a highly stimulating experience. And too, interdisciplines can be extraordinarily rich sites of intellectual production: they are, after all, the “trading zones”—in all their pidginny messiness (and “busy” talk)—where new knowledges emerge. They are also, as a colleague reminded me recently, the spaces where the disciplinary aspects of disciplines are somewhat less pronounced. Equally also, not being a credentialed anthropologist makes it that much more difficult to imagine myself as part of a traditional anthropology department, in the context of U.S. higher education at least. For better or for worse, the sidelines, for me, are necessarily interdisciplinary.

And indeed, working within the space of STS has been extraordinarily exciting. For someone previously unschooled in the Humanities & Social Sciences, STS provided an excellent space from which to transition into these very different modes of scientific inquiry. It provided a broad introduction to the breadth of humanistic and social scientific inquiry: our graduate coursework was carried out under the supervision of anthropologists, historians, philosophers, political scientists, sociologists, and STSers alike.

STS also offered a set of tools from which to interrogate the epistemologies in which I had been previously schooled: we read and debated how scientific knowledge comes to assume a seemingly universal character, how science travels, and how it can be complicit with various modes of domination. Needless to say, the experience wasn’t always comfortable: what was being deconstructed, after all, was an entire worldview—my own worldview at that. And this was a fraught exercise from the very onset: much like anthropology’s past complicity with colonialism, STS too had its own demons to contend with. The memory of the science wars was all too recent, and appropriation of STS-like critiques towards delegitimizing scientific authority in politically charged contexts (like those of climate change and evolutionary theory) was an ever-present risk. And yet, the tools for putting back together what we had pulled apart weren’t always readily available: the challenge for us, as I have come to understand it, was to formulate critique while also being attuned to the ecologies in which such critique circulated. It was this kind of figuring out, I think, that animated much of my graduate schooling. Continue reading

Minding the Gap

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Lane DeNicola, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Lane’s previous posts: post 1 & post 2.]

I keep hearing the voice of Harding from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in my head with this post–I’m talking about form!  I’m talking about content!–but let me go out on a limb here with a colorful analogy: professional precarity (as we’ve been talking about it in this series) is to ethnography a bit like the London Underground is to…well, I was thinking London originally, but better to say “London Below,” the reimagined and mythological rendition of the London Underground in which Neil Gaiman’s television serial Neverwhere is set.  That’s at least as confusing as it is colorful, especially if you didn’t happen to catch the show, so let me try and explain.

I learned quickly to lift my toes toward the end of the escalators on the Tube.  Why?  Because the pace is frenetic, almost always.  Fast enough in fact that you become hyper-aware of not just your pace but your stride.  The “walking” you normally experience as a mostly fluid rhythm becomes a staccato series of “moves.”  Regulars seem to the outsider like formula 1 racers clustered on a straightaway: they can’t simply start moving faster if (say) they realize they’re running late, they have to anticipate and strategize.  Those who break the synchrony of the group are showing “bad form” and may get a snort of disapproval, or worse, get stigmatized as tourists.  If you don’t raise your toes at the escalator landing you’re just begging for an ill-timed trip, and heaven help you if pause mid-stream to look around for guidance.  You can practically discern the middle of Spring, Stonehenge-like, by observing the sharp up-tick of gruesome multi-passenger escalator-landing misshaps. Continue reading

Going Rogue?

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Nathan Fisk, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Nathan’s previous post here.]

So, in my last post I spoke mainly about my current situation as a post-graduate in employment limbo, experiencing the strain of potentially leaving academia. In this post, I want to start to unpack what I meant by “selling out” through a discussion of some of my own experiences on the job market. Specifically, I’ve chosen the two positions I’ve applied for that most clearly evoked the stigma of selling out. None of this is to say that I think there should be a stigma attached to leaving academia in all cases, or that people who have taken jobs outside of academia have “sold out,” but rather that leaving academia comes with baggage that deserves at least some attention.

On any given weekday, you’ll likely find me in the hanging chair on my front porch, with an aging MacBook open in my lap and two black cats sprawled at my feet. My job hunting process is simple – I use various job listing sites to search for positions which contain the term “qualitative” within the state of New York. Beyond that, I progressively widen my search to more inclusive terms such as “internet,” “PhD,” and “research”. The first search tends to bring the results I’m most interested in – and I am often pleasantly surprised to find employers who are aware of, and looking for, applicants with backgrounds in ethnographic research. As I mentioned previously, a wide range of employers are looking for individuals with research experience, including strategic consulting firms, media companies, marketing firms, and think tanks. These positions tend to be located in major metropolitan areas however, so my initial rounds of applications were more frequently directed towards more local, non-research positions where I imagined a background in ethnographic research might give me an advantage.

My first round of interviews included one with a wholly-owned subsidiary of Goldman Sachs. In many ways, the position would have distanced me from research work and ethnographic practice, bringing me closer to my former life as an IT worker. As an Information Security Analyst, I would have been engaged in various forms of training, investigatory work, and contract analysis. In my mind, I had still envisioned a site for ethnographic practice – after all, information security is universally concerned with networks of trust and authority, and fostering a culture of security is often more important than strong technical safeguards. How do everyday employees within a particular corporate culture frame information security risks? What is the discursive work of a contractual agreement to protect sensitive financial information? While it may seem slightly idealistic, I genuinely think that ethnographic practice can provide new and useful insight into these kinds of issues. Continue reading

News from Lloyd Park

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Lane DeNicola. It is the second in a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Lane’s previous post here.]

In his late 19th Century sci-fi classic News from Nowhere, Arts & Crafts figurehead William Morris posited an agrarian utopia in which private property, centralized government, money, prisons and many other modern institutions were non-existent.  The work was intended to respond to a common criticism of socialist projects: the “innately human” lack of incentive to work in communitarian societies.  While some socialist advocates sought to deal with this issue by reducing the menial labor of humans via technology and industrialization, Morris’ work is predicated on the idea that most if not all work could and should be creative and pleasurable, with the introduction of machinery being reserved only for those rarer instances where not just labor but painis to be reduced.  For all its romantic pastoralism, Morris’ works (and this idea in particular) seem compelling to me in the context of ethnographic work “on the sidelines.”

The erosion (in the Digital Era) of the Industrial Era segregation of play and labor has been a regular theme in UCL’s Digital Anthropology programme, but even more immanently I’ve been thinking about the ways that fieldwork, writing, and all the other activities comprising the best ethnography are as much play as they are work. Take the advantages of long-term participant-observation as an example.  The likelihood of experiencing events or observing patterns impossible to plan for or foresee is increased, and all those “artificially-induced formalisms” that can plague interviews or other highly-structured modes of data-gathering are gradually relaxed with the passage of time and greater familiarity between researchers and informants.  The ethnographer relies, that is, on contingency–the unforeseen and serendipitous, the “possibility that things might have been otherwise” (Malaby 2007)–and informality.  Both conceptually underpin play.  The outcome of games, for example, must be indeterminate, and some of the most important aspects of gameplay come not in the form of rules but in what we learn or negotiate around the rules.  Obviously ethnography entails bothlabor (or maybe more appropriately “struggle”) as well as pleasure and creativity, but for a variety of good and bad reasons we talk about it principally as a work activity. Continue reading

Anthropologists for Hire

[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 post here.]

Note: post updated for clarity

Fieldwork is one of those extraordinarily-difficult-to-bracket experiences, as it blithely ignores any sort of compartmentalization of practical issues, professional demands, family, work, even time. Most conversations I’ve had about the hardship of fieldwork have invariably been cognizant of the sorts of practical-professional-personal negotiations involved—which often can become frustrating, overwhelming. In this post, I consider how such circumstances compel certain sorts of research decisions, serving as the often unspoken frameworks for the questions we ask and the projects we choose.

Fieldwork for my dissertation research followed a fairly classical/conventional trajectory, but for the break I took at the 6-month mark so as not to be away from my husband for a continuous year. India was far, tickets were expensive, but this was workable, still. I lived in Hyderabad, studying women’s activist organizations and their responses to Hindutva. I thoroughly enjoyed the vagrancy that fieldwork in an urban setting demands—and realized it was easiest to do this sort of work when one was away from family, so that it was informants and leads that set my pace and defined my agendas, not the realities of child- or parent-care. But it took the year and much stubbornness and persistence besides to move out of what Geertz has called one’s “ghosthood” into a more recognized position in a network, from which information was more accessible, and fieldwork as an experience much more enjoyable.

Our first baby arrived on the heels of the tenure-track job at a teaching-focused institution with a 3-3 load and neither research money nor any assured sabbaticals, but with research requirements to meet at tenure review nonetheless. Summers were all the dedicated time there was, but summers are hard in India, India was half the world away, childcare was not ever easy to organize, and getting there and back in time to teach again with research planned in between was beginning to sound exhausting, near-impossible, and almost not worthwhile. Continue reading

Selling Out

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Nathan Fisk, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.]

Over the past year, I’ve had to carefully consider the meaning of “selling out”.

Of my blogger colleagues, I’m probably the farthest removed from academia – or, at least I’m moving in that general direction. This certainly does not mean I’m abandoning research, quite the opposite in fact. It does, however, mean that I’ve all but given up on the idea of staying in academia and searching out a tenure-track position. For the time being, anyway. Instead, I’m looking to transition into the corporate world, but ideally in a way which would allow me to still do interesting ethnographic research. But, before I get ahead of myself, let me explain a little bit about my background and current position.

In 2011, I wrapped up my doctoral degree in STS – the first to graduate from my program under the soft four-year deadline slowly hardening under increasing institutional pressures. For years, I had labored, perhaps delusionally, under the hopes that if I was working on a “hot” and highly visible topic a job would simply materialize by the time I reached the end of the doctoral plank. For me, that topic was youth Internet safety. I developed my dissertation research with jobs beyond academia in mind, and deliberately built into the project opportunities to meet with school administrators across New York, in the hopes of expanding my contact network for eventual consulting work. I envisioned possibilites in state government, doing technology policy work. I thought I could even keep writing, given the two freelance books already under my belt.

The imagined job never really materialized. Between the economic downturn and my failure to anticipate what I’ve come to describe and recognize in others as post-dissertation slump, things simply stalled out. My dissertation research panned out in a way that made consulting difficult – schools want someone to come in and talk to kids about cyberbullying, not so much someone to tell them that the idea of cyberbullying is fundamentally problematic. State positions dried up during budget cutbacks, and I never really figured out how to get into a position that would allow me to write policy briefings. In terms of more writing, merely considering the idea of returning to Internet safety issues after almost a decade of research on the topic made me nauseous.

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Caring for Our Sidelines

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Ali Kenner, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.]

What might one find on the sidelines of academia? If you’re the managing editor of an academic journal, such as Cultural Anthropology (CA), the sidelines are rich with activity – trouble-shooting Open Journal Systems and managing content on http://culanth.org; staying up on open access conversations; running CA’s editorial intern program; coordinating various projects and figuring out how best to archive them; overseeing the production of the journal, in print and online; and managing the redesign of CA’s website. You’ll spend untold hours with your email client, and talk about how much time you spend there (this is part of your “busy” talk).

I didn’t see my work with CA as academic, or ethnographic, until recently. “Sidelines” is a fitting concept for the work I do at CA – managing editor by day, and ethnographer – of asthma, yoga, and alternative healthcare systems – by night, and weekend. I told myself I would stay on the sideline just until my partner finished grad school, then we could go on the job market together. But this isn’t honest – CA is much more than a day job for me (especially when you consider how I really spend my nights and weekends). I am compelled by our professional gold standard, the tenure-track position. That’s the endgame for many of us, I think. On the other hand, I love the work I do at CA. It’s an incredible space of production, if not in terms of conventional social science research.

As for my precarious position – I work on a 12-month contract and I ignore this fact. For now. Continue reading

Fluidity, Multiplicity, Contingency: The Shifting Sands of Knowledge Work

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Laurel George, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.]

In this discussion by and about anthropologists working at the boundaries of academia, a reasonable place to start is with a statement of academic situatedness.  But in academia today—and especially on its sidelines—talking about situatedness can be tricky business.  In the traditional U.S. academic trajectory with a tenured academic position as the ultimate goal, a simple name, rank, and affiliation answer was sufficient and expected. Moreover, that small piece of information could offer a good amount of information about one’s intellectual pedigree and leanings, relative degree of success, and likely fields of expertise. For so many today, though,  both within academia in contingent positions and those working outside of academia, describing one’s institutional situadedness requires qualifiying language of  temporality, multiplicity, and fluidity. These qualifications we make, offered apologetically or not, stem, I believe, from the gap between the reality of academic careers in the U.S. today and the ideal(ized) traditional tenure-track career trajectory, which we still hold as the norm.  This despite the fact that those with tenure and on the tenure-track comprise a distinct minority of faculty in U.S. colleges and universities. Recent statistics and studies indicate that somewhere between 65% and 75% of all faculty in U.S. colleges and universities are in part-time or adjunct positions while only 25%-30% are tenured or on the tenure track. And these numbers do not account for those who went into academe aspring to careers that looked like those of their own professors and mentors, but who now work fully or partly outside of academia. The next few weeks will take up these issues as they pertain to the field of anthropology and the practice of ethnography, and in doing so will offer ideas about centers and margins, success and failure, and tradition and innovation.

First, though, a quick look to my academic and professional trajectory, offered as a kind of case study.  After getting an undergraduate degree in anthropology (with a big dose of dance thrown in), I decided to work for a year or two before going for my doctorate in anthropology.  At the encouragement of an esteemed professor, I applied to work in the Dance Program at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), attracted by the possibility of immersion in a completely different world. Months went by with no word from the NEA. I took that as a sign that I’d better get on with the grad school plan without the detours,  so I applied to doctoral programs in anthropology.  Mere days before replies were to go out from graduate programs and almost a year after applying to the NEA, I was called down to Washington, D.C. for a job interview.  I was offered and accepted the job, deferred my acceptance into Rice University’s Cultural Anthropology Ph.D. program, and stayed at the NEA for a year and a half. It was the right move—not only did I learn about arts funding, concert dance in the U.S., and how to work outside of an academic environment, I also gathered information for my eventual doctoral disseration, a multi-site ethnography on contemporary dance in the U.S. which included the NEA as one of the field sites.  (The other field sites were dance organizations and communities of dancers in New York City, where I moved to do fieldwork  in 1997 and have never left.)

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Transnationalism, Interdisciplinarity, Collaboration (Or, A Few First Words on Ethnography On/From the Sidelines)

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Aalok Khandekar, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.]

My scholarly trajectory leading up to these series of posts on an anthropology blog is perhaps somewhat unconventional, and yet, also more straightforwardly located within the aspirational tenure-track model of the academy than some of my fellow contributors here—for the moment, at least. Even though I have worked closely with anthropologists since the earliest days of graduate school, been associated with Cultural Anthropology in good measure (c.f. here), my graduate degree—like quite a few contributors to this series—is in Science and Technology Studies (STS). And my university education prior to that was in Electrical Engineering: at Mumbai University (India) at the Bachelor’s level, and at Pennsylvania State University at the Master’s level. My dissertation research, in turn, went on to investigate the conditions of transnational mobility for Indian engineering students and professionals (between India and the United States): it was designed as a multi-sited ethnography with fieldwork components in Mumbai and in parts of the United States (more on that in my upcoming posts). I received my Ph.D. in STS from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Aug 2010, after which I worked as an Adjunct Professor at my graduate department for a year, and since July 2011, I have been based at the Department of Technology and Society Studies at Maastricht University in the Netherlands: first as a post-doc, and currently in the capacity of a Lecturer.

So, what does doing ethnography on/from the sidelines mean for me? What exactly do the “sidelines” look like when viewed from behind my work desk? In many ways, the sidelines, at present, do not relegate me to the margins of the academic hierarchy. Sure, I did was a freshly-out-of-school looking-for-jobs adjunct at my graduate department for a year. But since, I have been fortunate to find a position, which albeit temporary, affords me all the benefits of a full-time academic scholar: I have a (small) personal research budget, a printing-and-copying budget, regular library access, I don’t have an overly demanding teaching load (my time is evenly split between research and teaching), and I have access to a wide array of institutional resources including research funding specialists and a range of administrative support staff. There are certainly ways in which academic hierarchies do matter, but often, these are equally issues of navigating through a new work environment with a significantly different organization of higher education. My position at present, that is, is hardly anything that can be termed precarious.

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Dude, Where’s My Fieldsite?

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Lane DeNicola]

This post is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.

Last month I was involved as a planning committee member for a neat little event, the annual Anthropology in London Conference.  Each June the anthropology departments at SOAS, Goldsmiths, LSE, UCL, Brunel, and UEL (and occasionally the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) come together as a community for a full day of talks and panels by doctoral students, academic staff, and anthropologists at large (mostly but not exclusively based in London).  Unsurprisingly, the planning committee had wanted the theme for the event to somehow reflect both the current atmosphere of the discipline but also of London, the confluence of the 2012 Summer Olympics, the European economic crisis, and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. The theme we settled on—Certainty? (with a question mark)—struck a resonant and suitably interrogative chord.

If the waxing and waning drive for “certainty” deeply frames the academic profession (e.g. the tenure-track as canonical objective) I suppose I’ve had to contend with only a typical overall level of it, but it rarely feels that way.  When I slid from technical employment and a BS in physics and computer science into the social sciences, it kicked off a cognitive and professional butterfly effect I couldn’t return to order even if I wanted to.  Though several of my graduate mentors were anthropologists, I came not out of an anthropology program but rather a program in science & technology studies.  I suspect that many here would concur with my own (mercifully limited) experience as an STS-person the academic job market: the thaumatrope-like character of the field is usually received within more conventionally-disciplined departments as either powerfully “interdisciplinary” or suspiciously “everywhere and nowhere at once.”

Even my dissertation fieldwork—nine months in north India—largely took the form of participant-observation within a school, specifically an institution for the training of satellite image interpreters.  Most SM readers will be familiar with the often dicey proposition of having to explain their fieldwork to funding organizations or governmental agencies charged with evaluation, auditing, or border control.  It may well be that you can’t throw a rock in South Asia without hitting an anthropologist, but throw satellite images and “school as fieldsite” into the mix and you’re pretty much guaranteed to confuse people before you’ve really gotten anywhere.  If I’d had to choose a one-word theme for that work, Uncertainty! (with an exclamation point) might have worked fairly well.

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Going Adjunct, Or: A Picture of Precarity

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Deepa S. Reddy]

This post is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.

It is said that when the Indian cricketer “iron man” Sunil Gavaskar announced his retirement in 1987, he observed that it’s nicer by far to quit when people still ask “why?” instead of “why not?”

I’d like to think that I quit the tenured position that I’d held for a decade at a similar juncture. Not simply because my research and career trajectories were pointing upwards, but because institutionally things were stable—or should I say, stable enough. Anthropology was accepted as a valued service department key to maintaining multiculturalist credentials; our graduate program was growing organically—enough to justify a new faculty line. And yet it was on a crisp sunny fall 2008 day that a container with most of our belongings left our home in Houston for Pondicherry; the implications of the subprime mortgage crisis were just beginning to manifest themselves, though an increasingly anxious buzz was the only sound on the airwaves. Our Dean was soon to retire, and with him was to go the system of benefaction we’d so long worked with just fine. Big changes were ahead, though we could hardly have predicted their impact at the time: close-to-bone cuts in legislative funding, new initiatives to measure faculty productivity both within and without, new drives to measure the value of service programs like Anthropology by majors enrolled rather than by semester credit hours taught, an apparently new proactiveness from State educational policy-makers that determined, more than ever before, the fates of individual programs.

These are not just idiosyncratic details, specific to our school or to Texas, but rough measures of the sort of dubious “stability” that exists within the public university and that creates spaces for scholarship: “secure” only until the next (financial) crisis or push to fiscal efficiency. This is a condition that probably doesn’t need much elaboration for Savage Minds readers, but I want to pin it as a point of contrast to what we see then as life off the precipice, in the abyss of adjunctdom. The fear of falling, as Barbara Ehrenreich might have described the feeling one gets looking down.

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Ethnography on/from the Sidelines: A Quick Introduction

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Deepa S. Reddy]

Note: Updated on 7/27/2012 with links to all posts contributed as part of this series; please see below. With thanks to Savage Minds admins and readers for a fantastic four weeks.

The idea for this group guest blog on Savage Minds began serendipitously, as I suppose many projects do, with random conversations in hallways or after talks—this time, after a talk I’d just delivered at Rice University’s Department of Anthropology. I’d been asked for material by which to introduce me anew in the place where I grew (professionally) up, to the new students and faculty who had joined after I’d left. I offered the following bits, alongside my CV: after 10 years as tenure-track and then tenured faculty at UH-Clear Lake, I relocated to India in 2008; I continue to work for the University of Houston, however: I teach as an adjunct online and I serve as UH’s liaison in India in an administrative/ counseling/ recruitment-oriented role; I look increasingly to collaborations as the means to make ethnographic research viable, from where I now am situated. A series of conversations with friends and colleagues ensued, face-to-face and virtual, each considering situations such as my own as raising important and increasingly relevant questions about the production of ethnography in the intellectual spaces that line the margins of the academy.

Humph, I remember thinking, but of course. I’d been so immersed in making this relocation to India work as smoothly as it would with a husband still in Houston and a family to care for on my own in India, suddenly a single parent of a sort keeping my professional connections alive and my own research going—so much a participant in this process had I been, I’d neglected any observation/ reflection on what sort of intellectual space it was that I was now occupying, even myself creating, and within which I was attempting to (re-)create “ethnography.” And not just me, but so many colleagues and friends, people I knew and those I’d heard about, who’d left the academy but kept tethers to it, or who’d finished graduate studies and were struggling to get back in on firmer, more independent footing. What might a wider conversation on the precarities of the discipline look like—particularly when we think about just what sorts of intellectual spaces of production are produced as a result? What would ethnography produced from such spaces come to look like?

And so was born, longer story cut short, the conversation to unfold on Savage Minds all July.

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