[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.