Fieldwork and the Nation Under Threat: Rethinking Critique, Recentering Relationships

Fieldwork and the Nation Under Threat: Rethinking Critique, Recentering Relationships

by Josh Babcock

(Fieldwork in a Time of Coronavirus series)

CNN’s Fareed Zakaria interviews Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a segment titled, “What the U.S. can learn from Singapore on Covid,” March 30, 2020. Screenshot by the author.

Singapore emerged early as a global success story in COVID-19 containment and response, with low infection rates, stable food systems, and functional medical infrastructure. In March, the WHO commended Singapore for its swift, “all-of-society, all-of-government approach.” Media routinely referred to Singapore as a “model” and “lesson” for the world. A Trump staffer even tried to take credit for the response, and Barbara Streisand made waves after tweeting in praise of Singapore’s Prime Minister.

In April, the situation changed. A rise in unlinked infections led government actors to institute a partial lockdown, or “circuit breaker” (CB). Shortly after the CB, Singapore’s migrant worker dormitories became new epicenters for rapidly expanding clusters. From 38 cases in early April, by May 6, a total of 16,998 migrant workers in dormitories had tested positive for COVID-19, accounting for almost 85% of Singapore’s then 20,198 cases.

Before, spokespeople for the Singapore state had claimed that success was due to the fact that Singapore had been preparing for crisis for a long time—not this particular crisis, but crisis in general. However, following the disclosure of the migrant worker COVID-19 clusters, spokespeople instead insisted that foresight had its limits, and rushed to lock down the dormitories (the lockdowns likely led to increased exposure for still-uninfected inhabitants).

Intermittently since 2015, and more intensively since 2018, I’ve attended to this choreography and rehearsal of Singapore as a nation under threat. Lately, I’ve been paying attention to how the trope is taking new forms since COVID-19: who is included as worthy of protection, and who is excluded as a source of—or as unavoidable collateral damage in the fight against—threat.

The thing is, I’m not the only one in Singapore to analyze this, or to point out its historical, structural, and ideological underpinnings—key features of what I take critique to be. In fact, I’m worse positioned than most to do anything about it. In reflecting on these facts, the present moment in Singapore has instead forced me to ask: for whom do we critique, and why?

Left: SG Secure poster artwork. Image © the designer, 2018. Right: Installation view, cybercrime room, part of the special exhibit/escape room experience—Will You Do You?—at the Singapore Discovery Centre. Image by the author, 2020.

Reminders of Perpetual Threat

I arrived in Singapore to begin my fieldwork research in late 2018. I’d been here for 15 months before the pandemic began in earnest. By then I’d completed most of my planned research, and from January through March was still able to move about freely—though temperature checks, travel declarations, and crowd limits were gradually instituted in public spaces.

Until April, life in Singapore felt surprisingly normal. In the face of this felt normalcy, ministers took every opportunity to insist that the situation was actually dire. In response to a question from a CNN reporter in late March—“What do you think has been the key to your success?”— Singapore’s Prime Minister replied, “I hesitate to talk about success, because we are right in the midst of a battle which is intensifying.”

I’m not saying that such reminders were unnecessary. But warnings against complacency and reminders of threat are a common feature of life in Singapore: subway-station advertisements for SG Secure—an app and public-readiness campaign—pair images of bloodied attack victims, bombed public transportation, and dazed first responders with the slogan “Not If, But When.” A television 2018 series, “It Will Never Happen Here,” asked viewers, “[W]ill terrorist attacks never happen here? Can we really be sure?” A 2020 exhibit at the Singapore Discovery Centre offered a dystopian escape-room experience set in a future Singapore ravaged by climate change, cybercrime, and the U.S.–China trade war. In various sites and media, people are constantly reminded that, no matter how good things seem now, threat is everywhere.

Adhesive and safety tape indicate which portions of built-in public seating are not to be used. Public furniture becomes a palimpsest of changing safe-distancing requirements: previously, every other place was x-ed out; now, benches like this one are not to be used at all. Image by the author, 2020.

Choreographing and Rehearsing Threat/Response

For me, the production of Singapore as a nation under threat can be understood analytically in terms of two anticipatory processes: choreography and rehearsal. Here I draw on work by dance theorist Kélina Gotman and anthropologist Saba Mahmood.

Though I don’t have space to do justice to the full analysis, in Mahmood’s (2001) account, rehearsal operates as a preparation for a performance that is to come, executed fully in form, but not in import. Rehearsal relies—conceptually, if not actually—on a prior moment of choreography.

Choreography gets a bad rap in both theoretical and nontechnical uses. Applied to politics or statecraft, it often connotes misdirection, abuses of power, or inauthentic movement. The concept of choreography has been making rounds in light of COVID-19, but choreographies and rehearsals have been part of the techniques of statecraft for a long time. Following Gotman (2018), I’m using the term here in a more expansive sense: the timed arrangements and movements of bodies in space.

Posters with information about public safe-distancing measures. Lefthand poster: Vinyl appliques indicate where to stand (green circle) and where not to (yellow circle) when using public transit. Righthand poster: Public transit riders are informed of the need to wear masks when riding public buses, trains, taxis, and ride-hailing services. Image by the author, 2020.

Activists, writers, academics, and others in Singapore have long pointed out problems with the state’s choreographies and rehearsals of threat. These commentators pointed out that, when COVID-19 response was garnering international praise, government spokespeople said it was due to their “foresight.” Yet as cases in worker dormitories began to skyrocket, the discourse shifted. Spokespeople instead lamented the unknowability of the future, and the fact that clarity only exists in “hindsight.”

As journalist and activist Kirsten Han wrote, this appeal to “hindsight” is spurious on two counts. First, labor activists had been reporting on and raising awareness about migrant worker dormitory conditions for a long time—among other things, describing how overcrowding posed health and safety risks. Second, as Han and others pointed out, the excuse of “hindsight” isn’t about “hindsight” at all. Rather, it’s used to summarily reject critique, and to justify containment measures: bodies already deemed threatening are further isolated from the “Singapore community.” (This is one of the reasons for dormitories’ existence in the first place).

Critics point out that these choreographies of exclusion have been rehearsed for decade. Activist and writer Constance Singham has linked the current treatment of migrant workers to that of 19th century convict laborers. The geographer Daniel Goh describes how Singapore’s 2013 Little India riots could have been an opportunity for reforms based on labor and housing grievances articulated by the workers; then—as now—it instead became an opportunity to place blame on workers’ “culture” for their own conditions, and to justify the deepened exclusions and the extended surveillance that followed the riots.

Screenshot of the public Facebook Group SG Covidiots, which garnered over 22,500 members in just two weeks. The page description says “Covidiots doing their best to sabo us all’ (“sabo” can be glossed as ‘sabotage’ or ‘cause to fail’). Screenshot by the author, 2020.

Covidiots, Community Policing, and the Practical Entailments of Perpetual Threat

I’m not trying to suggest that Singapore has never faced threats. Quite the contrary: housing shortages, unemployment, resource shortages, and (para)military plots were especially threatening during the post-independence years. Even with its strong socioeconomic position today, Singapore remains particularly sensitive to global events. But the rhetorical trope of the nation under threat goes beyond this material precarity.

Since the circuit breaker (CB) began, talk about “Covidiots” snowballed on social and mass media, with commentators calling out Covidiots of all kinds: Florida spring-breakers, supermarket panic-buyers, toilet-paper hoarders, people going out without masks, people intentionally sitting on public furniture that’s been x-ed out with tape. But some started taking it further, leaving home to engage in counter-Covidiot Covidiocy, finding and verbally assaulting ostensive CB violators—and uploading videos and photos documenting their exploits.

In response, a chorus of Singaporeans have again voiced critiques. Many commentators explicitly point out that this kind of citizen-policing of Covidiots is an effect of the choreography and rehearsal of Singapore as a nation perpetually under threat. As stated in an exasperated Facebook comment by a Singaporean poet: “Of course they’re doing this. They’ve been hearing since 1965 that the defence of Singapore is up to them.”

But a lot of the critique I’ve seen doesn’t simply rush to blame individuals. Instead, the critique is structural and systemic, targeting the geopolitical and institutional orders by which state responses are choreographed and rehearsed. After months encountering and engaging with the work of activists, advocates, writers, scholars, and others, I can’t help but ask myself: why would I add my own to the many already existing critical voices? What good is critique in (or for) anthropology?

On Critique, Critically

At this point, I think it’s time to say explicitly what I mean by “critique.”

I’m not referring specifically to ideology-critique—unmasking ideology in service of power. Nor am I referring to cultural critique—an extension of the Western-Enlightenment practice of “clarification of concepts” by and for the West, accomplished using fieldwork as “defamiliarization” (Marcus and Fischer 1986, 137–141ff).

The endless regress of ideology-critique, as described by philosopher György Markus (1995).

Rather, by critique, I’m referring to an analytic stance, one that draws attention both to the construction of specific concerns as facts, and to the constructedness of facts as such. In the words of the anthropologist Danilyn Rutherford, the stance is at once “skeptical and committed” (2012, 473).

The challenge is not to fetishize constructedness. I am reminded of Latour’s essay, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” It describes how climate-change denialism weaponized STS scholars’ own modes of skepticism, which they initially deployed to dethrone the transcendent image of Science-with-a-capital-S. Instead of skepticism as an end in itself, Latour insists that we turn our attention to what is created when participants coordinate with others—even antagonistic others—over their mutual concerns (2004, 231–232). While I acknowledge that this is important, I want to invert this. Instead of attending to what participants are making, I want to insist that we ought to attend to how a researcher participates.

(Re)centering Relationships

To put it polemically: maybe, as fieldworkers, our priority shouldn’t be critique at all. Rather, in participating, our priority ought to be the obligations that fieldwork entails. In other words, we ought to center the relationships that fieldwork creates.

Needless to say, fieldwork is not a single activity. Moreover, its composite activities are not identical with it: participant observation, nonparticipant observation, interviewing, overhearing, eavesdropping, lurking, writing fieldnotes, etc. might be necessary to (some) fieldwork, but they’re not fieldwork.

Closing performance of Kebaya Homies by Singaporean theatre company The Necessary Stage. From October 2019 to January 2020, I observed devising sessions and rehearsals for the work. Photo by the author 2020.

To again cite Rutherford, fieldwork—like all social life—involves exchange:

To exchange is to receive and to receive is to confront the impossible demand to give others their due…Fieldwork generates both debts and identities in the back and forth through which interlocutors create a sense of what they are up to and who they are. Anthropologists find themselves compelled to do right by a cultural other that fades into a specter as soon as they think hard about what they do…[P]artial truths are the best they can do (2012, 468–9).

Though I’m not comfortable with the formulation of “doing right by a cultural other” (Rutherford’s own use of the term is ambivalent), what’s important is that giving creates relationships, and that relationships require something of us. Often, we wouldn’t form these relationships outside the fieldwork frame; this is true even in the case of fieldwork “at home.” But “giv[ing] others their due” in fieldwork relationships often means that we have to do something else.

In my own fieldwork, this has meant doing things that don’t involve “being an anthropologist.” Before the CB, it meant assisting with and attending events—book launches, poetry readings, conferences, exhibitions—because friends and collaborators worked hard on and were passionate about them, not because I needed to take notes. It also involved working with a team of artists to develop a mixed-reality game exploring histories of the arts in Singapore—unfortunately put on hold due to the pandemic. These things won’t end up in my dissertation, or in anthropology journals.

I’m not claiming I’m a better fieldworker/person than others for doing this. Fieldworkers do these kinds of things all the time. I’m just suggesting that, rather than viewing these activities as peripheral, we accord them pride of place in our practice. Kim Fortun (2012) refers to this as ethnography that “loops”; though focused on “ethnographic engagement,” Fortun acknowledges its implications for fieldwork.

In the end, fieldwork isn’t just a necessary means for anthropologists to write books and articles, or to get university credentials (PhDs, MAs, BAs, etc.). Rather, to me, fieldwork is a practice of making partial connections, of building relationships that wouldn’t have otherwise existed, and of reflecting on that process.

Thank you to Robert Gelles, Shawn Chua, Corrie Tan, and Hanna Pickwell for comments on different iterations of this piece. Additional thanks to Corrie and Shawn for introducing me to several of the references and resources in this piece: the Gotman text; “It Will Never Happen Here”; a thrilling visit to the Singapore Discovery Centre; and for organizing, facilitating, and including me in a generative conversation on “Sickness and Social Choreographies” through Bras Basah Open: School of Theory & Philosophy.

Fortun, Kim. 2012. “Ethnography in Late Industrialism.” Cultural Anthropology 27(3): 446–464.

Gotman, Kélina. 2018. Choreomania: Dance and Disorder. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30(2): 225–248. 

Mahmood, Saba. 2001. “Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual: Disciplines of Ṣalāt.” American Ethnologist 28(4): 827–853.

Marcus, George E. and Fischer, Michael M. J. (1999[1986]). Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences, Second Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Markus, György. 1995. “On Ideology-Critique—Critically.” Thesis Eleven 43(1): 66–99.

Rutherford, Danilyn. 2012. “Kinky Empiricism.” Cultural Anthropology 27(3): 465–479.


Josh Babcock is a 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.