The Allure of the Transnational?

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

Transnational mobility has been a definitive condition of ethnographic production for me. Mobility came to me early on: as a kid, I spent a couple of years in Germany, thanks to a fellowship that my father had accepted there. And by the time I finished (engineering) college again, it was more than apparent that I was headed westward again: this time to the United States for graduate education, first for a Master’s degree at Pennsylvania State University, and then again for my doctoral studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Indeed, I grew up in a generation in India where many of my peers left India for other places: mostly (or at least eventually) for the United States, but also to just about every corner of the world. Since leaving Mumbai in 2002, I have met with my close friends from college thrice: once in New York City, once in Chicago, and recently, in Amsterdam. Somewhat extreme, perhaps, but I offer this tidbit more by way of an index to attest to the phenomenal transformation of socialities—and the central role of transnational mobility therein—for the post-liberalization (post-1991, to put an approximate date on it) Indian middle class. I leave the substantive discussion of this for another day, suffice to say that my dissertation research sought to make sense of this kind of transnational mobility: examining how it is experienced, and the structural conditions and cultural systems that allowed for this generation of Indians to take to the world in such a dramatic fashion. I conducted my dissertation fieldwork among Indian engineering students and professionals, partly in Mumbai, India, and partly in the United States between 2007-09. Since finishing my doctoral work in 2010, I first worked as an Adjunct professor at my home department, and in mid-2011, moved to the Department of Technology and Society Studies at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

The latest trans-Atlantic move poses its own set of challenges, some of which I return to in my next post. But, of immediate relevance to the matter at hand, was to figure out new ethnographic grounds which could continue to build on the work I had already done: ways of keeping my ethnography mobile, that is. In some ways, this has been remarkably straightforward, if also sometimes frustrating. My own mobility, after all, was always at the core of my ethnography: an Indian engineer-turned-STSer who then went on to investigate the transnational mobility of other Indian engineers. The move to the Netherlands provides an extraordinary opportunity to extend my previous work: it now becomes possible to imagine my dissertation as an ethnography of the ‘knowledge economy’ instead of one of technomigration between India and the United States. The sort of flows and globalist connectivities that constitute the bases of much contemporary anthropological theorizing become more accessible on account of my own mobility. Run-ins with numerous immigration bureaucracies (for which I seem to have a particular penchant) provide powerful reminders of the uneven distribution of mobilities—even among the much sought after “knowledge migrants” (kennismigrant, or the knowledge migrant, is the legal-bureaucratic category that operationalizes much of highly skilled migration into the Netherlands)—and of the fundamentally transformed ways in which states interact with their publics in the wake of 9/11. Inhabiting contexts where English is not the default language—even though everybody speaks it just fine—where my banking, immigration, insurance, and tax documents are all but illegible to me, provides some insights into the lived experiences of “expat” lives: a category through which I have only recently come to imagine myself, in spite of not having lived continuously in India for nearly a decade now. And lest it all seem negative, I am quite aware of ways in which my mobility is highly facilitated: be it in the (relative) ease of obtaining residence permits and driving licenses, or the relaxation of language skills requirements for mobility of the “knowledge migrant” kind. Life itself as participant-observation, that is, which also seems to be a sensibility shared by fellow bloggers.

And yet, it needs to be emphasized, that this still remains a particular choice in terms of research design and analysis. Other choices are possible: questions concerning cultural-nationalism and emergent articulations of the Indian middle class, for example—also themes building out of my dissertation research—are equally urgent. They are just not nearly as viable questions to pursue firsthand. Although, as I mention below (and in the following post), I do continue working on these in other ways—through collaborative work, in particular—I can, for the moment at least, scarcely imagine engaging these questions through prolonged fieldwork. (Neither is this choice theoretically innocent: as Aiyer argues in his 2007 Cultural Anthropology essay on the political-economy of water in India, the dominant focus on issues related to “mass media, information technology, cultural identity politics, new subjectivities, and transnationalism in its various incarnations” (p. 647) in recent much scholarship on India, has resulted in erasure of what he, following Barbara Harriss-White, calls “the other India of the 88%” from the research agenda. “The allure of the transnational,” Aiyer argues, has come to displace questions concerning land and water rights, an emerging (and often violent) class conflict, and other such issues in relation to the rural peasantry.)

The point, for now anyway, is that making transnational mobility itself the object of analysis has been one way to conceptualize a viable research program. More generally, the lessons for ethnographic production, I believe, are two-fold, neither of them, I admit, particularly original: the first is a constant interrogation of what objects of analysis continue to make sense. It is a commonplace in qualitative research that one never ends up writing about the same thing that one started out with: questions, objects, sites, interlocutors, theories, methods are all equally likely to change along the way. Arguably, that very open-endedness is what gives ethnography much of its productive potential. So, that research objects evolve and transform into something else shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise, with a minor qualification, perhaps: this time, it is the grounds beneath my feet that have shifted, quite literally. And second, as has already been brought in comments on my previous post, working where you live (or, in some cases, living where you (want to) work)—with all its attendant challenges (where is my fieldsite?)—seems to be an important strategy to remain ethnographically engaged. There are others, of course: obtaining personal research grants—something increasingly emphasized as a (pre)condition for career progression—being the most prominent one. But that presupposes the ability to even just apply, leave alone actually receive a fellowship, which is itself contingent on an array of factors: including the time to conceptualize new research, ability to meet deadlines, and a certain positionality within institutions (i.e. not an adjunct) that qualifies one to apply, for example.

I must rush to add that much of this remains purely hypothetical: between teaching and working on various manuscripts, I have had precious little time to develop yet another research project. Beyond preliminary understandings of how “knowledge migration” is organized in the Netherlands, a few informal conversations with fellow expats in Maastricht, and acquiring a basic language proficiency in Dutch, I have conducted hardly anything that would comprise actual fieldwork. And, of course, all of this may still come to naught: my current position—all its positive attributes notwithstanding—remains temporary, and I might very well have to enact another transnational/transcontinental move as early as next year.

Another response towards making mobility manageable has been a move to online resources (an analogous strategy among STS scholars has been to treat scientific conferences as their primary field-sites: a strategy that provides access to multiple scientist-interlocutors all at once, and allows for short bursts of intensive fieldwork). An ongoing collaboration with Deepa S. Reddy (that centers on the popular anti-corruption protests that took place in India in Summer 2011 and draws out the dynamics of class, consumption, and cultural production embedded therein) has focused almost exclusively on resources available online: mostly news reports, but also on various parliamentary committee reports, and somewhat superficially on social networking platforms such as Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. The richness of these resources is unquestionable, as is the extraordinarily mediated nature of contemporary sociality. There is much to be gleaned from such resources, and indeed, media scholars of various stripes have done exactly that. Of course, whether such works counts as being ethnographic (enough) remains a matter of ongoing contestation.

Equally, however, something about the driving logic behind this move demands an expanded conversation: the turn to media sources, that is, is in significant part precipitated by the impossibility of the long immersion model of fieldwork. As Deepa points out in her post here, as also something that has now been repeatedly iterated in the form of comments, for many—sidelined or otherwise—the field seems to have receded hopelessly out of sight. And yet, media sources are no substitute for “being there”: each of these research designs is more-or-less equipped to answer a different set of questions. In my work with Deepa, for example, that media reports heavily focused on the supposedly “middle class” nature of these protests itself became a point of entry (and even there, it is important to recognize the vast repertoire of cultural meanings that we already had access to on account of being intimately familiar with the contexts in which these protests were taking place in the first place). There still remains little by way of actual data on the demographic composition of the crowds. Would we have conducted surveys to assess crowd demographics had we been there? Probably not. But we probably would have a different sense of what middle classness signified in this context. And yet, as Deepa pointed out in a conversation leading up to this post, the “had we been there” formulation—even by just asking the question, that is—is already such a big demand that we place on ourselves. Even without the additional constraints that academic precarity poses, practical limitations and the demands of bureaucracies like institutional reviews render the productivity of “being there” almost a matter of journalistic luck.

The point, for the moment, is that different kinds of sources and research designs are suited for different kinds of analysis. So, one, it just becomes important to recognize and acknowledge these parameters within which the analysis increasingly seems to unfold. And two, going back to where I started: does the long immersion “golden” model of fieldwork need to be updated (even more so, given the pressure on accelerating the expected-time-to-completion? When a year away for fieldwork becomes untenable for even tenured and tenure-track faculty, leave alone those on the sidelines, what kinds of ethnographies seem plausible? Is the anthropologist-for-hire who reserves the right to reflect on her data at a future, less hectic moment, the model of research that seems increasingly more viable?

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

3 thoughts on “The Allure of the Transnational?

  1. You sure do take on some big questions this week! The one that seems most clearly keyed to the theme of precarity-and-ethnography-July is that of the decline of the long immersion model of fieldwork. For those of us who study communities and phenomena which are familiar to us or of which we are a part, ethnography can seem to be happening always and everywhere. As you note, this is a function not so much of precarity, but of the geopolitical and economic moment. The Malinowskian moment of encounter and subsequent long-term immersion in unfamiliar places situations are unlikely to happen for many (most?) of us.

    Moreover, practical and structural constraints make this kind of bracketing a pipe dream for most. And, as you also point out, it is not just adjuncts or contract workers who experience this–tenured and tenure-track academics also have time and money constraints and pressures that make the “golden” model of fieldwork untenable.

    So, my questions are: what is lost from ethnographic work when we are no longer able to externally bracket our fieldwork in the same way? And what are we studying when we study flows and movements, intersections and relationships? I guess the answer is:culture. But, I do wonder from both a methodological and analytical perspective, how do we bracket our ethnographic encounters in such a way that we can get both precision and depth of cultural analysis?

  2. Laurel: I am not sure I have too many answers to the questions that I raise here, yet, and would love for others to chime in. In any case, I think, partly, it’s a question of pushing back against the accelerated time-to-completions of graduate degrees that seem to be gaining steam. When I was in graduate school, the stipulated time-to-completion was 5 years, which already seemed to rushed — I understand that that is now changing by default to 4 years, owing to funding cuts. And Kerim blogged here not too long ago about the benefits of a four-field training, and how that is under pressure because of similar budgetary concerns. Given that so many of us continue to work on related issues as we progress along our academic trajectories — I think preserving the space of graduate school for prolonged fieldwork is at least part of what needs to happen.
    At the same time, I do think it’s a good time to elaborate on precisely the question that you raise: how do you get both precision and depth to our cultural analyses, given these constraints? Collaborative research/writing has been working great for me: for branching out in somewhat new directions, taking away some of the isolation of the writing process, and just the ability to do more than I would otherwise have been able to in a comparable time frame. And I do see good examples of collaborative ethnographies (The Asthma Files that Ali Kenner wrote about in her contribution, for example) around me: how to operationalize these with an eye for conceptual and methodological robustness, however, is not something we have talked about too much yet, I think.
    And now that I think about it this way, we have much to learn potentially from your experiences of collaborative market anthropology. Care to elaborate?

  3. Hi Aalok, Sorry for the lag in responding. I have been thinking about depth, precision, and robustness in ethnographic methods while AWOL, though!

    I agree that collaborative knowledge production at all stages (conceptualization, research, writing) may well be a key way to enrich ethnographic work. For me, the initial attraction of collaboration in the corporate work I did lay in the fact that is was an antidote to the intellectual isolation I had felt during write-up. However, your comments above as well as Deepa’s description of the teamwork model in the HapMap project point to ways in which collaboration can both deepen and broaden ethnographic projects in various contexts. For instance, in my own experience with the consumer research outfit, the various fields of expertise of the three anthropologists on a particular project helped us see different things in the learning tapes. In one project, for example, I was really keyed into class and ethnicity and another anthropologist especially attuned to the gender dimensions of how consumers related to and talked about a particular product. The reason for having three anthropologist on the project was to cut project time and maximize efficiency by having each of us tackle a different market, but the effect was to generate a more robust analysis.

    The other mode of collaboration is, of course, co-production of ethnographies with those communities and actors whom we study and about whom we write. Recently I worked with an artist, Ben Kinmont, interested in ethnographic methods and ethics as they relate to performative and socially-engaged project art. Through a series of conversations and workshops, we generated a range of experiences and texts whose scope was wider than would have been possible without the cross-disciplinary collaboration. Here’s an example of one, which, while not an ethnography, points to ways in which anthropologists might collaborate with other knowledge and cultural workers as well as various other communities in order to produce ethnographies:

    Just some thoughts….

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