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.

The precarity that does exist comes in the form of (short) limited-term employment contracts: my initial work-contract was for a period of six months, my present one for a year, and will be up for renewal soon. And while this is somewhat atypical for my current employer, work contracts ranging in-between a period of 1-4 years (with significantly higher teaching loads) are a fairly standard way in which the university maintains a flexible workforce. And this is by no means something unique to my university: limited-term work contracts, often based on pre-existing projects, seem to be a more general feature of the European research landscape. (So much so, contract-lengths often becomes a topic of conversation: much like “what’s your research about?” was a question that I dreaded as a first-year graduate student, I have come to dread the question, “how long is your contract for?” as a first-year junior member of the staff.) The big difference between adjunctdom in the U.S. and my current employer, of course, is that I am entitled to all the regular benefits of being a full-time university employee: including (a luxurious) vacation time, research budgets, health insurance. But the possibility of work contracts not being renewed, the prospect of being on the job market again, the prospect of picking up and moving again—perhaps even transnationally—is ever present. And while this is anxiety-provoking in-and-of itself, it also presents a range of practical, professional, and sometimes very mundane dilemmas: including finding the time and resources to simultaneously be a productive scholar and be on the job-market, maintaining a steady e-mail address for professional correspondence, figuring out adequate housing arrangements, shipping solutions etc. That condition and the resulting anxieties and uncertainties, I am sure, are recognizable to many on this forum: the challenge, indeed, is to make virtue out of necessity, even while remaining critical of the being in that position to begin with.

Equally, there are other ways in which I can understand being on the sidelines as well: operating on the sidelines of the tenure-track model, operating in interdisciplinary spaces on the sidelines of mainstream anthropology, and operating in collaborative modes on the sidelines of dominant models of academic production in the humanistic social sciences. And all of these happen, for me, in the context of two key factors: transnational mobility (between India-U.S.-The Netherlands, in my case), and limited-term work contracts. All of these cumulatively shape how I, in turn, operationalize my own research projects.

In the series of posts that will follow, I unpack each one of these to a limited extent: my next post will focus on the idea of doing ethnography in transnational contexts. Transnationalism, of course, has been a dominant frame in/for much of contemporary ethnographic theorizing, including mine. But what I am interested in drawing attention to is not so much the theoretical tradition, but rather reflecting on what being transnationally mobile myself has meant in terms of the work I do. When place-based assumptions and commitments about research and teaching are not viable, what kind of ethnographies seem plausible? What constraints—and opportunities—present themselves to further ethnographic theorizing? What does making virtue out of necessity entail in this context?

My third post will focus on the idea of interdisciplinarity. Having graduated from an interdisciplinary field and continuing to do ethnography within interdisciplinary spaces, I tease out the relationship between interdisciplinarity and ethnographic production. What happens to ethnography when operationalized in interdisciplinary spaces, such as those of STS? What are the constraints and possibilities that interdisciplinarity poses? My last post will focus on the idea of collaboration: as a way of keeping exiting networks vital, as a way of finding continuity even as I am on the move,  and as a mode of scholarship that I find particularly compelling and enjoyable. I reflect on the exercise of collaboration itself and the kinds of ethnographies that emerge.

Each of these—transnationalism, interdisciplinarity, and collaboration—are definitive aspects of ethnographic production for me, and I am sure, for many others as well. My hope, then, is to flesh out what these imply for the kinds of research (and teaching) that I (can) undertake, and hear from Savage Minds readers about the conditions that define their own scholarly trajectories and the kinds of strategies available for navigating those.

Stay tuned! And join the conversation!!

Aalok Khandekar is currently lecturer at the Department of Technology and Society Studies at Maastircht University in the Netherlands. He received his Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Aug 2010. His personal website can be found here.


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

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

  1. Two aspects, in particular, of your introductory post stood out for me: 1) your question about place-based assumptions of research and teaching; and 2) your recounting of the the prevalence of limited-term contracts and the question: “how long is your contract for?”

    As to the first, I wonder if these more contingent, shifting circumstances in which we ethnographers find ourselves are not, in some ways, shaping the multi-sitedness of so many of our research projects. In other words, we are simultaneously chroniclers of and subject to (and of) transnational flows of resources and ideas. Maybe that’s too obvious to bother stating, but it brings to mind the tradition of anthropologists of earlier generations locating their post-dissertation projects in or near their academic home bases, according to a “bloom-where-you-are-planted” ethos. (We could all call up many examples, I’m sure.) But if we are not, or at least cannot count on being, “planted” anywhere professionally or geographically, does that affect how we imagine research? If we are constantly in motion, does it not make sense that the tropes of motion, flows, and boundary-crossings structure and infuse our ethnographies?

    In a more concrete vein, I am so interested that, in a European context, one is likely to be asked, “What’s the term of your contract?” It makes me curious about the differences between casualization of academic labor in Europe vs. the U.S. both in a statistical sense and in terms of the relative stigmatization of the temporary worker in the U.S.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Laurel. Excellent points, both. The point about motion, flows, boundary-crossings (all of which, incidentally, I do relate to in my own work) — I will pick up on more in the following post. Being in motion has certainly influenced how I have come to think of research — both how to work because and in spite of it (hence the emphasis on transnationalism and collaboration). At the same time, I am puzzling through what it would actually mean to write outside of those tropes: given that “globalization” and its associated density of interconnections (and precarities) are such defining aspects of this historical moment: fluidity, multiplicty, shifts, after all, also come to dominate your own writings and reflections — in spite of having “planted” yourself, no?

    Regarding the casualization of labor: Not really having a statistical sense for it, my hunch still is that the idea of temp labor in the U.S. is far more stigmatized. It’s not just academics here either, but I see many of my corporate acquaintances locally also being hired on limited-term contracts. And yet, describing it as casualization is somewhat tricky: given that contract work is still much more organized than is typical of the U.S. also (stronger labor laws overall).

  3. Aalok, I’m reminded of a question I was asked in a telephone conversation some years ago by a reporter from a small London-based design mag: did I consider the kind of work that I do INTER-disciplinary, MULTI-disciplinary, or TRANS-disciplinary? The first term I was familiar with of course, and the second I thought of less as a theoretical qualifier than a practical one. The third I knew nothing of really but it smelled of buzz, and initially the question sounded more like a one of branding than anything of genuine intellectual interest but I’ve since come to think there actually is something interesting about their distinction, in particular the different posture toward disciplinary boundaries denoted by each (e.g. as necessary evils, things to be transcended, or potential sites of innovation). I’m wondering if your three axes (INTER-disciplinarity, collaboration, and TRANS-nationalism) aren’t a sort of refraction of those differences (via discipline, work, and nationality for example). Looking forward to subsequent installments!

  4. Assuming the validity of Twain’s Rule #13an author should use the right word, not its second cousin – is each and ever instance of ‘transnational’ in this thread really anything more than the second cousin of ‘international’?

  5. For what it’s worth, I have generally taken “international firms” to mean companies with branches in more than one country that are, however, still firmly rooted in their home country where the bulk of their operations are. “Transnational firms” may still be legally headquartered in one particular country, but in terms of their operations, have largely severed their roots from it, doing much if not most of their business outside of it. One marker of the shift is a management team with members of several nationalities, as opposed to the older form in which people from the home country make up the bulk of management, especially top management. In the latter case, management style retains a “national” flavor.

  6. “My position at present, that is, is hardly anything that can be termed precarious.

    The precarity that does exist comes in the form of (short) limited-term employment contracts: my initial work-contract was for a period of six months, my present one for a year, and will be up for renewal soon.”

    Is this not the essence of precarity? Minimal job security? While your position has its perks, I would say it is everything that can be termed precarious.

    The conditions of contingent faculty in the US vary from the per course lecturer without benefits (a true moral scandal) to the “visiting assistant professor.” Even with benefits, its precarious academic labor. Administrators want to be able to expand, contract or “refresh the pool” with minimal risk.

  7. I’ve seen takes on that definition in the context of the business world. And I can understand how it would be useful. What I do not understand is whether the typical anthropological usage is via analogy with the business world’s. If so, why? Is a so-called transnational career really that much like a transnational corporation?

  8. Re “transnational career”: Interesting question. If we assume that “inter” implies between things on the same level while “trans” implies something above and beyond, then how would a transnational career differ from an international one. Diplomatic and military careers would certainly be international, since both are tied to particular nations. A traditional anthropological career would also be international, with the anthropologist doing research somewhere else but returning to write up and teach at a university in the nation of which he or she is a citizen. But what, for example, do we make of careers like that that of my friend Jim Farrer? Jim was born in Tennessee and remains an American citizen and got his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He is, however, a tenured faculty member at Sophia University in Tokyo, where he and his wife Gracia also own a home. Gracia, who teaches at Waseda University in Tokyo, is a native of Shanghai, where her parents still live. Could we say that Jim’s career is something more than international; it has transcended nationality in a way that makes it transnational?

  9. “Is this not the essence of precarity? Minimal job security? ”

    Working on short-term contracts or on a project basis is not necessarily minimal job security, though it may seem so to those who see a long-term “job” with an established institution as the only form of security there is.

    The translation business in which I and my wife are managing partners represents a familiar alternative in the professional services sector. A good reputation and established network of regular clients is a better guarantee of income security than working for an institution that can fire you at will.

  10. Could we say that Jim’s career is something more than international; it has transcended nationality in a way that makes it transnational?

    As a U.S. citizen he is taxed on his worldwide income. That fact alone would lead me to argue that it has not.

  11. As someone who pays the same taxes, I’d say that you are legally correct. But the experience is very different from that of someone who travels from and returns to a home base in their own country. I am a US citizen but have lived in Yokohama, Japan, for 32 years. I own an apartment and a business here and, as a permanent resident, have my own special line at immigration when I pass through immigration at the airport. My daughter grew up here, and I also pay Japanese taxes.

    At any rate, my reading of the “trans” in “transnational” suggests that something more is going on that simply moving around from one place to another while remaining attached to only one.

  12. Wow! Quite the discussion unfolding overnight. You are right, of course — the “trans” of the transnational suggests something transgressive. A move that is at the core of the scholarship on “transnationalism” — recognizing the many ways in which the nation-state continues to (powerfully) shape our everyday lives, while also displacing it as the default (or worse, only) frame of analysis. And so, paying taxes in the U.S. and Japan for very many years is a good example of where the institutions of the state continue to matter very much, but clearly misses out on the many other connections, mannerisms etc. you have developed on account of living in Japan. Things that can be classified neither “Japanese” nor “American” in any straightforward way, and yet those seem to be the categories available to frame the discussion.

  13. One thing about the transnationalism literature that tends to rub me the wrong way is that it all too often takes something as inherently interesting as discussion of expat life and turns it into a discussion of a pet concept. Another thing is that it so often, if only implicitly, suggests that the phenomenon of people and groups of people in movement is somehow categorically different in the post-colonial (or is it post-War? or post-Cold War? or post-globalized?) world. As someone who has spent time living in the Caribbean I do not recognize the novelty.

  14. @MTBradley

    I can’t comment on the transnationalism literature. Haven’t read enough of it to feel comfortable with sweeping generalizations. But I do agree that there is a lot of excessively precious writing and concept-mongering all over the place these days. I remember, in particular, being put off by the style of Aihwa Ong’s Flexible Citizenship .

    That book has, however, become one I frequently cite. Why? It addresses issues that suggest that transnationalism involves a lot more than the old, old story of people moving around. The title points to a new class of cosmopolitan folk who travel, invest, and live in multiple countries at once and may often, in fact, carry multiple passports. The lives they lead are made possible by airlines flying jet aircraft, the electronic technology used in the international network of global finance that makes credit cards issued in one country work in another and allows virtually instant shifts of capital from one side of the globe to another….the list goes on and on. The result is a world whose fundamental class structure is tripartite, with national middle classes composed of people whose lives are restricted to a single nation, the people who make up the constituencies of democratic national politics, sandwiched and squeezed between the cosmopolitans described above and the global proletariat whose members are subject to all the rigors of 19th century industrial discipline and 20th century police states when they try to migrate across national boundaries.

    Ong’s primary subjects are overseas Chinese from Malaysia and Hong Kong and one of her most telling ethnographic observations concerns how upset established residents of Chinatowns in California get when these folk swoop in, buy houses in Beverly Hills, and start making hefty contributions to local politicians. To people whose stories tell of ancestors who were brought to America to build the railroads, started small laundries and restaurants, and whose children worked their butts off to get their kids into the U. Cal university system, these newcomers seem to have it all without ever having paid the dues of a standard immigrant life trajectory. None of this could happen without changes in technology and global institutions that make transnational lives, as opposed to merely international migration, possible.


    I find it interesting that when you think of “trans” the first thing that comes to mind is transgression, when for me it is transcendence. Care to comment on the difference?

  15. I don’t know the “transnational lit” either. But I am pretty sure that the expatriate is different. There is a group of people floating around the world who do not owe the traditional allegiance to a particular flag, like the traditional expatriate (diplomats come to mind). I’m not sure that their home is airports, but multiple languages, cities, and airplanes are part of it. I would like to read more–

  16. None of this could happen without changes in technology and global institutions that make transnational lives, as opposed to merely international migration, possible.

    That’s true, and the story Ong tells is engaging in and of itself. While I would point out that old immigrant/new immigrant tensions are something the U.S. has seen before it is true that the class stuff is different in this case. I think we should give it a few years before we generalize too much out of it, though. As with the post-War American middle class, it may turn out to be a bit of a historical blip. Devaluation and inflation would play merry hob with the current status quo for these folks, no?

  17. Possibly. But the cosmopolitans include the 1% as well as a large number o in the top 10%. As I remarked to my classes during the Asian financial crisis back in 1997, a 10% drop in income can be starvation for a Javanese peasant. For those of us doing well in Japan, it only meant a shift from feeling obscenely well off, as we had during the late ’80s bubble economy, to merely comfortable. Still, you are right. A total collapse of the global economy or an ecological catastrophe would shake things up and leave us all in the same lifeboat.

  18. @Tony Waters

    One interesting phenomenon that you may want to keep an eye on is the split between the floaters, who tend to move on from one country to another every few years and the clams, people like me who have put their roots down in the local sand and become lifers in the place to which they have moved. In the old international world, the clams would be immigrants and they or their descendants would, barring special ethnic or religious barriers, tend to assimilate to their new country. As Arjun Appadurai points out, clams like me can now put down our roots in our new home while retaining strong ties to the places where we were born. In my case, our only child, a daughter, astonished her ex-academic, anti-Vietnam War movement veteran, aging New Lefty parents by winning herself an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. She’s out of the Navy now, has picked up a public policy degree from the Kennedy School at Harvard, and now works for IBM in public sector consulting. She and her Marine Corps pilot husband have bought a house in Fairfax, VA, where they live with our two grandchildren, a boy (6) and a girl (4). For a sixth year in a row, my wife and I have spent several months in the States helping out with childcare while the daughter and her husband have moved through a series of career transitions. Japanese members of the mens chorus I belong to in Tokyo frequently travel to the States as well, to visit their children who have settled there.

  19. @John McCreery This is unfolding to be quite the discussion I will pick up on other threads later (in my next post on Transnationalism, probably):
    On transgression vs. transcendence: The prepositions that I would associate with each of them would be “across” and “above and beyond” respectively. And so transgression suggests a certain lateral relationship that transcendence obfuscates. And so, coming back to Japan, United States etc. — transcending would suggest making the institutions, borders, contours of each irrelevant in a way I do not think that they are.

  20. @Aalok,

    I take your point but “transgression” doesn’t work for me for a set of relationships that are, in my case, all perfectly legal and above board, which is generally true of the cosmopolitans that form the top layer in the tripartite class system that Ong describes. What makes our situation different from both the global proletariat and the middle-class stay-at-homes is the ease with which we travel, communicate, and move skills and capital across national borders and feel at home in more than one place.

  21. I wonder, like MTBradley, whether this represents anything new at all. People have always moved around, and they tend to move where there are opportunities for them, as plenty of others have pointed out, both here and elsewhere. It seems like the Chinese diaspora retained an allegiance to Chinese things; they still had an ethnic identity, which isn’t exactly a newer and stranger thing than a national one.

    We’re not talking about true cosmopolitans who have ditched the very idea of ethnic or national allegiances, I’d say. I don’t mean to be facetious, but it seems like this “transnational” stuff would apply just as well to the lives of Phoenician sailors.

  22. It seems as if much of this “transnational” literature would describe the lives of Phoenician sailors just as well as the modern Chinese Peranakan diaspora. Chinese migrants still have an ethnic allegiance, which is hardly newer and stranger than a national one. We’re not talking about a population of pure cosmopolitans, it seems.

  23. @John McCreery. How would you put the many people of the European Union who, unlike their parents, now take cross-border mobility, multilingualism, and even the Euro for granted? This is effecting the culture, economy, and political structures in new ways. I wonder if there is any other area of the world where such a mix is occurring so broadly. My guess is that in the EU, this new trans-national mobility goes well-beyond both the 1% and 10%.

    What kind of trans-nationaism is emerging in Japan and the other countries of Asia? Is it traditional migration, or something else?

  24. @Tony Waters

    I wish I could answer your question. I can’t. Any generalization I’d offer would be grossly ill-informed. What I can say with confidence is that among the people in my social circles, members of the chorus, mostly Japanese, male, mostly somewhere between 55 and 75 years old, members of the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club, mostly European, a combination of floaters and clams, with many of the latter married to Japanese spouses, a variety of academics, both Japanese and non-Japanese, like the people I met or reconnected with at the Asian Studies Japan Conference last weekend, there are individuals whose lives resemble my own. They have lived for substantial parts of their lives outside the country of their birth and were comfortable doing so. They travel frequently and often have children or other relatives who live outside Japan.

    Japan is, however, a country that severely restricts immigration and, being an island nation, finds it relatively easy to enforce its restrictions. Many older Japanese seem more cosmopolitan than younger Japanese. They remark that while young Japanese travel abroad a lot, the majority prefer to live and work in Japan. They see little abroad that looks better than what they have here. Also, politically speaking, nationalism is alive and well in East Asia. Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans speak, read and write very different languages. The three nations have different currencies and agendas and their overlapping histories have left simmering resentments that are still important to people in power. In this part of the world, the attitudes of the young Europeans you describe are still only a possibility for rare individuals.

    I warn again, however, that these are only impressions gleaned in what has been an oddly random life. Large grains of salt are required when assessing their value as evidence.

  25. @John McCreery: I think you just added another “trans” into the mix. I read what you describe as being “transposable” rather than “transcendent.” And I still see middle class articulations of belonging as transgressing the boundaries of the institutionalized, well-policed boundaries of the nation as a symbolic community — on symbolic, legal, and other registers as well. Illegality is not the operative concern here, since most of us are indeed above board in that sense, but still in obtaining multiple passports, paying taxes multi-locally etc. legal structures that can tolerate/accommodate difference still need to be devised.

  26. Transposable, I like that. It nicely captures the flavor or lives that can be easily transposed, albeit with some adjustments, from one country to another, and based in more than one. The empirical issue it raises is how much can be transposed. In my case, the Internet and a network of clients who trust us to deliver good stuff on time has made it possible to keep our translation business going wherever in the world we have access to a broadband connection. Copywriting is trickier, since clients prefer to negotiate face-to-face when the meaning of original writing is in question. One way in which our lives change fundamentally when we are being grandchild-care providers in the States is having to drive everywhere. One of the things Ruth and I like very much about living in Yokohama is that we live within walking distance of Yokohama Station, a major public transportation nexus, and, if we are in a hurry, occasional taxis are much cheaper than owning and parking a car. There are also, of course, the minor stresses and strains of living in our daughter’s house and doing things her way when it comes to what the grandkids are or are not allowed to do. Another reason that we are always glad to get back to Yokohama is that, besides our apartment being our place, where we are free to do whatever we like, here is where we now have most of our friends and the volunteer activities that take up a substantial fraction of our free time. I suppose that if there is a larger point to all this detail, it is that the symbolic boundaries of the nation state are, from this actor-centered point of view, only one of several sets of personal and other boundaries and positions that need to be negotiated every time a transnational spatial transposition occurs.

    That brings me back to the topic of “transgression” versus “transcendence.” I don’t think that we disagree at all on the social fact of the continuing existence of nation states with national boundaries, whose legal and other regimes constrain the degree to which transnational lives sever their roots from the nations that issue our passports. As a copywriter, however, I have learned to be sensitive to the emotional nuances of terms, and in my English dialect, “transgression” comes loaded with negative implications whose roots are religious, a conventional equation of transgression with sin. This darkens the term in a way which rings false to the liberation I feel when I think about my life and thank my lucky stars that I did not wind up stuck where I grew up. I recall a study of “taboo products” (most associated with sex) conducted by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, which included a psychologist’s observation that responses to liminality vary widely, from laughter to fascination, shock, revulsion or anger. I recall, too, what Mary Douglas wrote in Natural Symbols, when she observed that how different peoples respond to liminality, to things that overlap or cross established boundaries, varies depending on social structure, depending on whether the group in question is high-group, high-grid; high-group, low-grid; low-group; high-grid; or low-group, low-grid. I.e., how its members feel about the importance of group boundaries and ranks that may cut across multiple groups. The more I think about it the more “transgression” bothers me because it seems to assume the subject-position of the modern nation-state, a very high-group sort of group. It thus introduces rigidities, giving social theory what I might, using totally politically incorrect language, call a “maiden aunt” perspective, in which behavior that those who engage in it see as liberating is perceived as being instead, “shocking, absolutely shocking.”

    P.S. These qualms about “transgression” are not a defense of “transcendence,” which carries its own religious baggage. But that’s another story

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