ASA Conference 2004, Durham - Locating the field

Producing fields, selves and anthropology

Panel convenors: De Neve & Unnithan-Kumar

Panel abstract

The panel presents papers that critically reflect on the shifting engagement of anthropologists with fieldwork, ‘field sites’, informants, and the discipline itself. The papers reflect not so much on the question of the field as site, as on how we as anthropologists regard the role of fieldwork in the production of anthropological knowledge and in the making of ourselves and our discipline. The main question for the panellists therefore is: how does the ethnographer’s engagement with the 'field' come to shape the discipline as well as his or her own, multiple and shifting understandings of it? The contributions intend to further shift the focus (as set, for example, by Gupta and Ferguson 1997, and Marcus 1998) from the anthropologist and the field as fixed and bounded entities towards the processes of mutual engagement between people, locations, and representations. A particular interest shared by the paper contributors is the relationship between the agency of the anthropologist and the nature of the discipline.

Cold comfort on the long road: shifting the horizons of analysis in modern Tibetan studies

Dr Martin Mills, University of Aberdeen

The diaspora that arose from the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 has presented anthropologists of the region with a complex geography of ethnographic approaches, while at the same time problematising the theoretical basis for Tibetan studiesas a regional discipline, creating an on-going schizogenesis between untheorised and highly localised cultural studiesby ethnographers, and translocal (indeed thoroughly disembedded) studies of the Tibetan Buddhist literate traditions by textual specialists. Whilst this is hardly a new problem in South Asian studies of religion (although one rendered particularly acute in the case of the Tibetan diaspora, where textual traditions have often been entirely divorced from their sites of production), this paper argues that the problem is being replicated afresh in the domain of political analysis.

This semi-autobiographical paper covers the writers movement from a classic one-site ethnography of religious life within a remote and long established Buddhist community in the Western Himalayas, through to the more recent study of the religious and political organisation of global diasporic communities by the Tibetan government-in-exile: ethnographic work which entailed multi-site field studies and ethnography by internet. Such a shift in ethnographic focus requires analytical displacements which often entail the adoption of larger-scale theoretical concepts, many of which particularly those involving concepts of nation, state, and globalisation - are now becoming a comfortable commonplace within modern anthropological discourse, but have nonethless been adopted (often wholesale) from disciplines (such as International Relations) whose analytical methodologies have often been constructed precisely to edit out the kind of awkward and rich inter-personal considerations that are highlighted by long-term fieldwork in a single site. Whilst easy to work with when analysing large-scale processes, such concepts often entail methodological steps which would be simply unacceptable if applied within anthropologys more traditional domain.

This paper examines some of the theoretical consequences that have emerged from this kind of analytical appropriation in the Tibetan context, and asks whether the trade-off has been worth it. The intention here is not, however, to see such developments as wholly negative, but rather to ask whether or not the particular ways in which anthropological theory as based on the analysis of small-scale interactions can be rebuilt to aid in our understanding of (apparently) larger-scale processes.

Writing as a kind of anthropology: alternative professional genres

Anthony Good, University of Edinburgh

This paper takes a preliminary and inevitably partial look at the kinds of writing which different scholarly or professional activities entail.  The four genres of writing examined are, in order: academic articles in chemical physics; ethnographic papers in anthropology journals; development consultancy reports for the Department for International Development; and expert witness reports for the British asylum courts.  For reasons to be explained, I use examples from my own past output to typify the genres to which they aspired to belong. While it seems intuitively unsurprising that different disciplines should entail their own distinct forms of writing, these examples suggest that the main differences between academic research publications in the physical and social sciences concern relatively superficial matters of presentational style and manifestations of authorial authority. On the other hand, different forms of professional activity, even when undertaken within the nominal boundaries of a single academic discipline, appear to entail more fundamental modifications of presentational structure and underlying logic.

In search of a field: reflections on locations and localities

Henrike Donner, London School of Economics

The paper will deal with the ways 'a field of study' comes about - in terms of the theoretical assumptions we make beforehand, the problematic (re-)construction of ourselves as fieldworkers once ' out there', and the mundane problems of fieldwork as a woman approaching woman in an urban and middle-class setting. While this will be a critical and not merely a descriptive account, it will provide ethnography through which the way in which the ‘field’ emerges can be read. In order to do so, the contribution will draw on recent discussions of politics of location, on attempts of authors such as Gupta and Ferguson to discuss fieldwork as a disciplining practice, and on some feminist reflections on fieldwork practices as well.

The multi-sited ethnographer

Simon Coleman, University of Durham

The phrase ‘multi-sited ethnography’ is usually taken to imply that the anthropologist examines a number of fieldwork sites that are connected through movements of people and/or cultural representations. In other words, spatial separation is emphasised and temporal distinctions diminished in work that often aims to focus on the simultaneity of linked events in distinct places. In this paper, I want to examine a slightly different idea, that of the ‘multi-sited ethnographer’. By this phrase I mean to refer to the temporal and spatial journey that most anthropologists make throughout their careers, from one site to another, and then possibly another, and so on. Contemporary anthropology now accepts that the notion of the isolated, autonomous fieldwork site has been something of a convenient functionalist fiction. No site is (at least metaphorically) an island, cut off from cultural, social and political developments elsewhere. However, what has been much less examined has been the way in which one fieldwork experience may leach into and affect another, even if the two are undertaken in separate places and at completely different stages of the fieldworker’s career.

I propose to examine these ideas through a form of ‘three-field ethnography’, reflecting on my experiences of three different sites selected at various stages of my career. In the 1980s, as a PhD student, I embarked on fieldwork within a controversial conservative Protestant ministry based in Uppsala, Sweden. Although I was not going to somewhere geographically remote, I still engaged in much of the behaviour expected of the lone ethnographer: avoiding visits to the local anthropology department and treating the ministry as my ‘tribe’. In the 1990s, I started a fieldwork project on Walsingham, a pilgrimage site in Norfolk and one explicitly targetted by conservative evangelicals as ‘ungodly’ and idolatrous. This fieldwork has been undertaken with a colleague who is an art historian, and on some occasions staying at the site has involved taking our families with us. Finally, in 2002, I have embarked upon a new project examining the use of space and art in a hospital that is located just down the road from one of the university campuses where I work. Teaching in the morning can be replaced by fieldwork in the afternoon. The study has also involved hiring a research assistant to do much of the data gathering as well as co-operating with a research team of architects, anthropologists, NHS administrators and doctors. These projects have been initiated not only at different times of my career and at different periods of anthropological and cultural debate, but also in contexts where local expectations over the practices of ethnography have been very different. I therefore ask whether such varied forms of fieldwork can be seen as connected by certain intellectual and experiential threads associated with the constitutive practices and underlying ideological assumptions of ethnography. Or is the idea of ‘fieldwork’ itself an essentialising myth, constructed by anthropologists for their own purposes?

Temporality and difference: others in and of the field

Narmala Halstead, University of Cardiff

This paper considers ethnographic encounters with East Indians in Guyana and New York to probe changing ideas of temporality and difference which illustrate their forms of being modern. How East Indians are modern allows for the ‘other’ to emerge in various interactions and through a mode of intra-group scrutiny which is extended to the observer. This also contextualises how I, as an ‘indigenous’ anthropologist, am re-positioned in the field where I become visible in relation to my discipline or academic setting rather than to East Indians. Their understandings of being modern frame how my indigeniety shifts and how otherness has to be understood in different ways. This relates to how difference is managed and produced in varying cultural contexts and vis-à-vis the presence of the anthropologist.

Choosing the unknown: reflections on ignorance and reflexivity in fieldwork

Geert De Neve, University of Sussex

In this paper I engage with one particular aspect of anthropological fieldwork, that is the way in which choices are being made at particular junctures of field research. While a lot has been written about the types of knowledge anthropologists bring with them and the articulation of the anthropologist’s knowledge with that of the people studied, the role of ‘ignorance’ (and indeed ‘cluelessness’) has received comparatively little attention – let alone more systematic analysis. Through reflections on the way I myself had to make a series of choices in the field, ranging from field location and research topic to field assistants and informants, I intend to show how ignorance was as much a guiding factor as my research questions or my knowledge of theory and ethnography. In particular, I will analyse the manner in which ignorance shaped my field choices in contexts where ‘ad hoc’ opportunities and chances arose for which often an urgent response was required. Through these reflections I hope to give ‘ignorance’ a more central theoretical location in conceptions of field research and the making of an ethnographer in the field.

A subtext to this paper is a preoccupation with ‘reflexivity’, both as it informs our choices in the field and in the way we write once we are ‘back home’. While ‘reflexivity’ is heralded as a product of Western modernity, I intend to show that much of the anthropologist’s reflexivity is as much the outcome of his or her engagement with the people they study, and often triggered by the latter’s own reflections on the anthropologist’s presence among them.