Introduction: Fieldwork in a Time of Coronavirus (new series)

Introduction: Fieldwork in a Time of Coronavirus (new series)

Anthrodendum welcomes guest blogger Josh Babcock. Ph.D. Candidate in Sociocultural and Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Chicago. His research examines the public co-construction of language and race in the making of a multimodal image of Singapore.

Fieldwork—a core dimension of ethnography—has, for generations of researchers, been seen as a necessary method in many kinds of qualitative investigations, and a rite of passage in its practitioners’ professionalization. Despite severe critique from both within and outside its host disciplines, fieldwork remains a crucial—if contested—part of many disciplines’ knowledge production and professional identity-formation. In many ways, the critique hasn’t substantively changed dominant modes for talking about, teaching, writing about, and institutionalizing fieldwork (in grant applications, in project proposals, in ethnographies, in funding structures).

For many of us, it feels as if we are banging our heads against a wall against which many others have been banging theirs for a long time. In the current pandemic, fieldwork has undeniably become precarious in new and different ways. That being said, the precarity is not itself new. By focusing on the fieldwork situations—and the situation of fieldwork—made apparent in the pandemic, this collection seeks to advance three goals: (1) to consolidate some of the scholarly sources that already make prescient critiques of fieldwork, but which I feel are generally overlooked; (2) to focus on the fieldworker as a person, rather than a data collector or sensor; and (3) to confront assumptions about the aims of fieldwork—about what fieldwork “is”—that persist even in many interventions.

The inspiration for this collection came in late February this year, as I was assembling a syllabus for a proposed fieldwork methods course. I wanted to center decolonial literatures, issues of identities and identifications, self-care (in a more expansive, less bourgeoise-neoliberal sense), and the politics of care as feminized labor. I wanted to refuse the myth of what George Stocking has called the “ethnographer’s magic”—the idea that fieldwork is ineffable, and cannot be taught (Stocking 1992, 52–53)—which I and other fieldworkers-in-training have heard endlessly repeated in methods courses. As “social distancing” drove university instruction online, I was forced to grapple with what a fieldwork methods training could look like at all, and where my intended critical interventions would stand in the face of these transformations.

At the time, I was still in Singapore conducting fieldwork research. As I note in my own forthcoming contribution to this collection, in late February the situation in Singapore still felt surprisingly normal. Yet I couldn’t help but feel—viscerally—the strangeness of “normal” life here, especially as the lives of many of my friends, grad school peers, and colleagues around the world were being thrown into upheaval by COVID-19: mandated quarantines, self-imposed quarantines, lost livelihoods, disrupted study plans, sudden evacuations from fieldsites.

Many of the more widely publicized critiques—some more generous and generative than others—have motivated responses across multiple academic and nonacademic sectors. The wholesale rejection of ethnographic validity at the core of a legal academic’s dismissal of urban ethnography—from Alice Goffman’s 2014 On the Run to late 19th century works by W.E.B. DuBois—is still a fresh wound. The 1986 reflexive turn in anthropology remains a symptomatic site for the discipline’s repetition of originary trauma, especially in methods coursework—even though the now-canonical text is about ethnographies, not fieldwork or the field.

Generations of fieldwork practitioners have written against a host of presumptions at the core of fieldwork pedagogies and methodologies. Their less widely publicized critiques have challenged the idea that fieldwork takes only one form: “solitary, dangerous, and intimate” (Hanson and Richards 2019, 25). They have critiqued the celebration of trauma in fieldwork. They have pointed out misplaced assumptions about what it means to do fieldwork “at home,” or to speak as a “native anthropologist” (Jacobs-Huey 2002). They have challenged the idea that “the field” is a place one goes to and returns from (Davis 1993). They have pointed out the vulnerabilities entailed by being anything other than a white, cishet, masculine-presenting researcher: being a person of color, queered, feminized, or racialized in the field comes with risks often treated as secondary to the risk of “misrepresenting” people at a fieldsite (Johansson 2015, Krishnan 2015).

And yet, contributors in this collection insist that fieldwork offers distinctive possibilities for situating the responses to and experiences of the current global exercise in containment, disaster preparedness, and care. They reflect—among other things—on the fact that this crisis is often just one among many nested, even recursive crises for the people with whom they form relationships in the field. They note the reconfigurations, both familiar and unfamiliar, happening in statecraft, political movements, and geopolitical formations.

Contributors’ reflections illuminate not only the responses and experiences of friends, collaborators, and informants in the field, but also of the fieldworker themselves: as Ph.D. students, how do we navigate the pressure to make crisis “productive” for our projects? As researchers, how do we navigate the blurring of boundaries between home and work, between being “in the field” and returning to “the everyday”—bearing in mind that these boundaries were never clear or stable in the first place? What will happen to the pedagogies and modalities of fieldwork in the present and future?

This series is a collection of accounts from those currently engaging in—or disengaging from—fieldwork during the COVID-19 moment. Contributors not only highlight ethnographic accounts of coronavirus response from different locales and academic-disciplinary formations, but also critically reflect on fieldwork as such, and what it means to be a whole person engaged in its practices, pedagogies, exclusions, obligations, relationships, and conditions of possibility.

I hope that the reflections presented here can contribute, in some small way, to the ongoing conversation about fieldwork beyond the present pandemic.

Beyond the present pandemic. I won’t say “when this is all over”: it’s unclear what this means, in the first instance, and suggests a latent desire to go back to “normal”—a condition that got us here in the first place. Rather, in the words of Singaporean playwright Nabilah Said, the world is changing, and we are changing with it.

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I would like to thank Robert Gelles for in-depth commentary on various drafts of this introduction, and Rachel Howard for additional suggestions in the later stages. I would also like to thank Ilana Gershon, Meghanne Barker, and Sarah Green for their assistance in suggesting contributors to this collection. Last, my thanks to Caio Flores-Coelho, Kerim Friedman, anthro{dendum}, and contributors for their support in preparing this collection.

References:

Davis, Dona L. 1993. “Unintended Consequences: The Myth of ‘The Return’ in Anthropological Fieldwork.” In When They Read What We Write: The Politics of Ethnography, edited by Caroline B. Brettell, pp 27–35. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Hanson, Rebecca and Richards, Patricia. 2019. Harassed: Gender, Bodies, and Ethnographic Research. Oakland: University of California Press.

Jacobs-Huey, Lanita (2002) “The Natives Are Gazing and Talking Back: Reviewing the Problematics of Positionality, Voice, and Accountability among ‘Native’ Anthropologists.” American Anthropologist 104(3): 791–804.

Johansson, Leanne (2015) “Dangerous Liaisons: Risk, Positionality and Power in Women’s Anthropological Fieldwork.” Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford Online 7(1): 55–63.

Krishnan, Sneha (2015) “Dispatches from a ‘Rogue’ Ethnographer: Exploring Homophobia and Queer Visibility in the Field.” Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford Online 7(1): 64–79.

Stocking, Jr., George W. (1992) The Ethnographer’s Magic and Other Essays in the History of Anthropology. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.

One Reply to “Introduction: Fieldwork in a Time of Coronavirus (new series)”

  1. I am so excited you are writing this! I am (possibly, depending on … enrollment, finances, etc.) teaching anthropological field methods online this summer, so I am so happy to read an expert’s ideas on it. Expect more comments from me in the future. You know, like after my online classes end, if they ever end (offering a lot of incompletes to students who were ‘essential workers’ and found that they were working 40+ hours a week while also trying to complete online classes).

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