ASA15: Symbiotic anthropologies: theoretical commensalities and methodological mutualisms

(P19)
Off-shoots in research: how do research practicalities shape content and data in contemporary ethnographies?
Location Room 12
Date and Start Time 15 April, 2015 at 09:15
Sessions 2

Convenor

  • Salim Aykut Ozturk (University College London (UCL)) email

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Short Abstract

For most anthropologists there are often differences between pre-research ideas and presumptions, and the final data based on ethnography. This panel seeks to trigger a discussion on the place of off-shoots in research, and the physical and discursive boundaries of fieldwork sites in ethnography.

Long Abstract

Ethnographic fieldwork is "a cluster of disciplinary practices through which cultural worlds are represented" (Clifford 1997:8). Recent anthropology has discovered not only novel ways of presenting its subject matter, but also new sites of research. This is how and why, anthropologists are now expected to engage with multiple forms and sites of meaning and cultural representation both during research and post-research writing-up. Increasingly, research in anthropology is moving beyond physical borders of localities or communities, similar to what Marcus and Fischer (1986) anticipated that it would be needed to conduct research on whole systems (instead of individual localities or communities). However, it is now crucial to ask how such research could be made possible and reduced to text.

In this panel, participants are expected to provide firsthand insight on how and why anthropologists explore, experiment and improvise during their ethnographic research. Papers should primarily address how off-shoots in research can come to introduce new perspectives and dimensions to researchers in the field of anthropology. Papers discussing how initially unexpected practical changes in the research plan add up to ethnographic data are especially welcome. Participants are encouraged to speculate on the complex relationships between research agendas, initial research ideas, boundaries of research sites, mobility of informants, complexities of representation and the data collected. It is in this sense that papers are also expected to elaborate on the effects of writing-up as a creative process on the final ethnographic data.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Moulded by the field: studying the castedness of contemporary Bengali middle class

Author: Sarbani Bandyopadhyay (Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay)  email

Short Abstract

Paper addresses how off-shoots of Bengali middle class Dalit takes on Partition, refugee question, experiences of caste, had repercussions for ethnography and redirected the study of contemporary Bengali middle class and significance of caste in its structuring and reproduction.

Long Abstract

Bengali society has not engaged adequately with the question of caste. In my study of the castedness of contemporary Bengali middle class I initially had plans of mapping it from 1991 the year when caste, one 'knew', made its public appearance through the anti-Mandal Commission (that extended reservations to Other Backward Classes) agitations. In selecting the sample I first approached several middle class Dalit organisations in Calcutta. Through these extensive interactions the shape of the project changed. The ethnography of Partition memories led me back to history and official documents; it made me look at the presentness of history in this (contemporary) ethnography, making history and presentness inseparable; it made me chart the contemporary in a larger sense going back to the Partition for I was being introduced to a new aspect, that Partition was also a caste question. Further, different reactions of the field to a Brahmin woman researcher, footnotes and locating textual materials in unintended ways all critically redirected the later ethnography, as well as the writing-up of research. They also led to interrogations of selves, to re-looking at ways in which caste and middle class get scripted and to opening up of newer sites of inquiry. These off-shoots had repercussions for ethnography; by redirecting the study they brought out a relatively new story of caste and middle classness characteristic of Bengal by bringing to the surface complex interplays of caste with history, different identities and contexts that structure contemporary Bengali middle class and allow its reproduction.

Interviews as catalysts: changing directions in ethnographic research

Author: Katherine Nielsen (Sussex University)  email

Short Abstract

Using a single encounter with an informant, in this paper I explore how informants can change research directions for ethnographies, and discuss the importance of including these encounters autoethnographically.

Long Abstract

Key informants have been the central focus of ethnographies for decades (Crapanzano (1985), McCarthy Brown (2001)). In this paper, however, I explore how key informants can change the focus of ethnographic research, even if they are only met once. I begin by discussing an ethnographic vignette I wrote (Nielsen 2014) to outline my encounter with one young woman while conducting fieldwork in a higher education setting in Ireland during my doctoral studies. I use this text as the foundation to discuss issues relating to how my research changed focus from tourism to learning in the matter of two hours, and the implications this had on research design, literature reviews, and matters of ethnographic representation. I then conclude with a discussion of the implications this has for the writing of autoethnography, and balancing the importance of an informant with how encounters with them can change the ethnographer as well.

Productive frustrations, frustrating production

Author: Rachel Shah (Durham University)  email

Short Abstract

The process of anthropological knowledge production is frustrating because our research agendas are rightly imposed upon by the ethnographic realities we encounter in the field. These unanticipated and unplanned for frustrations can become the most productive spaces of our research if we let them.

Long Abstract

The relationship between the messy practicalities of fieldwork and the final production of anthropological knowledge is one that I was optimistic but naive about when I set out for the Papuan highlands. Although there is a significant literature on fieldwork practicalities and on the process of writing ethnography, the ways they relate to each other are rarely front and centre for students preparing for fieldwork. This paper explicitly examines that relationship by focusing in on "messy moments" in my fieldwork, the frustrations they engendered and the productive spaces that wouldn't have come about without them. Instead of tidying up the tale, I use specific examples from my research to explore how the frustrations came about, why they occurred and how they led to specific results. I question whether they could, or even should, have been avoided, and present their results - the ethnographic data that would not have existed if I had been able to stick to my original research plan. Situating my approach as ethnographic determinism (Sillitoe, 2003, 2010) I argue that the realities of fieldwork are such that our research agendas should be imposed upon by life in the field and that the consequent frustrations can be productive. The more we can be explicit about these realities, the better prepared students will be to face and deal with them in the field. In conclusion, this paper, by examining rather than hiding the "messy moments" of my fieldwork, sheds light on the ways that anthropological knowledge production is frustrating, but powerfully so.

The benefits of flexibility in ethnography

Author: Laura Silvestri (University of Montpellier )  email

Short Abstract

In this paper, first I wish to share experience about the productivity of disappointments in fieldwork. Second, I wish to show how some important clues for understanding local dynamics may be obtained by taking a distance from the field.

Long Abstract

In my fieldwork on the conceptions of the body in kalarippayatt, the martial art of Kerala (India), and on the way transnationalisation could affect them, I was immediately confronted with the « wrong » location for fieldwork. In fact, the school of martial art that could make me get a visa was not an « authentic » one in my view, because it was attended by foreigners. My attempts to understand what kalarippayatt was before transnationalisation were fruitless, until I realized that that school was an excellent location for my work, since it was at the heart of the transnationalisation process, and that there were no such things as a before and an after. Furthermore, it was by talking to Keralans living in Paris that I could better understand some local dynamics. This too questioned some of my assumptions about being there, and about where the field is.

Air as an intangible object of research: Moving data and making air pollution visible in scientific and ethnographic data practices

Author: Emma Garnett (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)  email

Short Abstract

This paper is based on ethnographic research as member of a multi-disciplinary public health project. I discuss some of the ways in which the problem of making air pollution visible for scientific researchers led me to examine the emergent, dynamic and performative spaces in-between research practices.

Long Abstract

In this paper I draw upon ethnographic research carried out as member of a multidisciplinary public health project studying the relationship between air pollution and health. I begin by describing some of the assumptions which shaped my initial research proposal, both my own and those shared by the scientists on the project. I will then highlight two ways in which my movement between different research practices, as a multi-sited and collaborative project, encouraged particular explorative and experimental 'off-shoots'. These offshoots shaped both the contours of my own ethnographic inquiry and the subsequent theoretical focus of my analysis. The first off-shoot I discuss emerged within the first few months of my field work commencing: the problem of studying 'air pollution' as a multidisciplinary object of research for my informants, and its concomitant intangibility in terms of traditional ethnographic modes of inquiry. This initial finding encouraged me to re-consider the collaborative process of studying air pollution and to focus on the movement of things (particularly data) between researchers rather than the epistemological differences which ensue. The second development relates to this problem of researching a non-material form. Scientists materialised air pollution in visual ways in order to share research findings and to enliven air pollution as a shared research object. I will present some of these visual forms in my analysis to explore their performative capacities, not only for scientists in the project, but as ethnographic data, made active in the process of writing up.

An untouchable ethnographic subject: responding to exclusion in the field

Author: Zoe Goodman (SOAS)  email

Short Abstract

Arriving in Mombasa, Kenya with the intention of researching food and exclusion amongst Muslim communities of Gujarati origin, it soon became apparent that food was, in many ways, off-limits to me: here I consider the possibilities created by that predicament.

Long Abstract

Much of my initial research proposal was shaped by a long-standing interest in food and exclusion. Somewhat jaded with the emphasis on food as a positive factor in the lives of dispersed populations - prevalent in much of the food and diaspora literature - I arrived in Mombasa, Kenya with a plan to focus on the way various Muslim communities of Gujarati origin use food as a means to critique, castigate and keep out others. I had not expected those others to include myself.

This paper looks at the process through which I came to learn that I would not be allowed to touch the food of most of the people I had imagined cooking with, and the consequences of being frequently precluded from domestic cooking spaces. Grappling with an untouchable ethnographic subject forced a reappraisal of my own culturally-specific notions of sociability, permeability and the limits of bodies. It also pushed my research into new spaces and directions - sometimes relating to food, but much of it not. Here, I contemplate the dynamic process between exclusion and inclusion that characterised much of my fieldwork experience, whereby obstacles in one area served to open up others. I conclude by considering some of the challenges posed by the forms of exclusion I experienced on the process of writing-up.

Making sense of dispersion? Problems of ethnography beyond representation of 'wholes' and anthropology as a science of critique

Author: Salim Aykut Ozturk (University College London (UCL))  email

Short Abstract

Based on my previous research experience in Turkey, Armenia and 'elsewhere,' in this paper I speculate on ways to challenge community based approaches and analytical categories of social analysis in research design and post-research writing-up.

Long Abstract

It is often the case that anthropologists need to revise their research plans and improvise during fieldwork. It is even more often the case that data collected is ethnographically - as well as theoretically - 're-framed' in writing-up. During my research on contemporary Armenian identity issues in Turkey, Armenia and 'elsewhere,' 'ethnic community' based approaches were proven to be not only extremely limited but also impossible due to the specific context of research.

At one level, this paper specifically focuses on the ways through which fieldwork practicalities - or the anthropologist's first recognition of the failure of the research design? - could lead to substantial changes in relation two major issues: (a) 're-framing' of ethnographic data and 're-clustering' of informants, and (b) 're-consideration' of the theoretical agenda of the entire research project. At another level, this paper is intended to trigger a discussion on how contemporary anthropology could still function as a science of critique despite hidden positivisms within the discipline and its seemingly ongoing reliance on a variety of units of analyses and variables.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.