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.

Each of our six participants in this guest group blog will offer a take on the relationship between precarity and the production of ethnography in the coming weeks, working our way from the dilemmas of institutional situatedness, through those of fieldwork and writing, to discussing what “ethnography” happens from these sorts of spaces. Our own conversation has developed on email over the past few months, and the narrative unfolding here naturally reflects this behind-the-scenes progression. We agreed on four prompts (copied below) to order discussion–though in the end we stuck to them as much as we used them as springboards to explore other directions. What has emerged, what will appear in the coming weeks on Savage Minds, is a somewhat serialized commentary that is at once self-sufficient and waiting for resolution in subsequent posts. The catalogs of experience and example we compile will not be exhaustive by any means. But it is our hope that they will spur much wider discussions of these on-the-sidelines conditions and how ethnography happens in/from these spaces.


1, Institutional situatedness: Briefly describe your training, career trajectory, and present academic context (funding, access to resources, constraints, advantages etc.). What sort of institutional spaces do temporary/ adjunct/ 1-year positions typically occupy in the academy? How does institutional situatedness generate both a sense of precarity and a space of production?

2, How do the conditions described in (1) affect the conceptualization of your ethnographic projects? Has fieldwork approximated the classic models of lengthy cultural immersion—to what extent does such a model remain viable? How is it changing? What are the disciplinary or structural frameworks (limitations, parameters) that have generated your research questions and defined your methodological design?

3, What would you say is the relationship of form to content—your particular conditions, within or at a remove from the academy, the nature of prevailing constraints/anxieties/freedoms, to the “ethnographies” that you generate? What sorts of analyses become possible or are cordoned off, what sorts of experimentation, and what theory? What sorts of partnerships or collaborations do you (necessarily) then seek? Are the possibilities for ethnographic/methodological/theoretical innovation broadened or constricted?

4, Finally, the question driving this initiative: is it possible that academic precarity or marginality of one sort or other generates new intellectual possibilities precisely because there is pressing need to make virtue out of necessity?  What sorts of virtues are made of these necessities, and what happens to “ethnography” (as method and as analytical approach) as a result?

Participants & Posts:

Dude, Where’s my Fieldsite?News from Lloyd Park Minding the GapAttention Deficit Ethnography

  • Nathan Fisk, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (USA)

Selling OutGoing Rogue?Fighting BackMaking Do

  • Laurel George, New York University (USA)

Fluidity, Multiplicity, Contingency: The Shifting Sands of Knowledge WorkThe Anthropology of Snacks, Widgets, and Pills: What I Learned from Ethnographic Consumer ResearchDance Lessons: A Comparison of Precarity and Contingency in Contemporary U.S. Choreography and EthnographyWorkplace Ethnography 101—Interrogating the Unpaid Internship

  • Ali Kenner, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (USA) & Managing Editor, Cultural Anthropology

Caring for Our SidelinesMaking Ethnography WorkEthnography’s SenseWriting Space for Ethnography

Transnationalism, Interdisciplinarity, Collaboration (Or, A Few First Words on Ethnography On/From the Sidelines)The Allure of the Transnational?Annual Identity Crisis

Going AdjunctAnthropologists for HireGoing NativeDecentering Writing

Deepa S. Reddy is Adjunct Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. She blogs on food, culture, and gastronomical life on Pâticheri: Ethno.graphic.Food


Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist with the University of Houston-Clear Lake and Human Factors International. She lives and works from Pondicherry & blogs her gardening and food adventures on

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