Going ‘Home’ to do Fieldwork

By Nithila Kanagasabai

The summer of 2020 posed various challenges for scholars across the world continuing to do fieldwork alongside national lockdowns and international travel restrictions. In response to these restrictions, humanities and social science scholars began hosting online seminars and roundtables reflecting on the peculiarities of the moment. In particular, for those in institutional locations in the Global North, but whose fields were situated elsewhere, most often, in the Global South, inquiry focused on possible ways to move forward with their research projects. With the pandemic interrupting ‘research as usual’ these colloquiums contemplated questions of both object and method. They questioned present approaches to research, highlighted opportunities for transnational collaboration, and initiated a discussion on the possibilities opened up by remote modes of research. As a scholar located in the elsewhere – India in this case – studying the ways in which knowledges travel between the ‘field’ in the Global South and the ‘metropolitan institution’ in the Global North. This moment provided me with the opportunity to reflect on the ways in which access and identity, shape and legitimise knowledge production.

This reflective essay concerns itself with problems posed not by the spectacular (the pandemic) but by the normal. It builds on my ongoing doctoral work that explores the ways in which knowledges travel by focusing attention on the figure of the Indian doctoral researcher engaging in self-identified feminist knowledge production in universities in the United States of America.* I attempt to map the many ways in which knowledge production practices and frameworks in the Global North (often coterminous with the geographical West) interact with and are encountered by epistemic and political projects in places beyond its geonational borders, particularly in India. It is pertinent to note here that the metaphorical or notional West, as John (1996) points out, extends further than the geographical West, in order to include scholars located and working in postcolonial nations like India. I mention this to situate myself vis-à-vis the study as a student physically located in India, but participating in and therefore implicated, however differentially, in the very same hegemonic knowledge flows. Simultaneously, I propose that the figure of the Indian scholar engaged in feminist research in the university in the US and doing ‘fieldwork’ in India not as an ossified category, but as a subjectivity that is socio-temporally (re)constituted. I begin the essay by critically examining the idea of travelling for research and then argue for the continued relevance of a postcolonial feminist framework in understanding knowledge hierarchies with specific reference to my own doctoral work. Drawing from the epistemic inequities laid bare by positionality, I suggest that we explore the political possibilities offered up by not just paying attention to discomfort and constraint, but in learning to work with them.

Knowledges are not abstract constructions, they emerge from social-economic realities, embodied practices, and labour processes. Scholars have emphasised the need to continually examine the ways in which knowledges get produced, commodified and restructured along market lines within neoliberal globalisation. In the context of urban social movements, Lila Leontidou (2006) writes of the flaneur activists, borrowing from Walter Benjamin, as activists who are able to travel and congregate in various locations across the globe in ways in which those they represent or speak of cannot. Building on this, Cindi Katz speaks of the flaneur academic to prompt questions on and problematise the politics of knowledge-making: what is theory, who is a theorist, who gets to travel and make knowledges, who is an expert and on what?**  She draws on her earlier formulation of counter topographies as opening up possibilities of tracing common effects of macro level processes across disparate places – geographical imagination that is simultaneously trans-local and transnational. She insists that even projects, which are framed as co-production of knowledge within feminist transnational praxis, need troubling. Additionally, due to their colonial histories, places like India have a long and fraught history of being studied from afar. Colonial knowledge production practices rendered space into territory, and have historically contributed to the centralisation of knowledge in the Imperial Metropole, and enabled rule at a distance.

It is in this context that I find it useful to return to a postcolonial feminist framework that critically examines diversity, and studies the engendering of power equations and hierarchies to allow for a critical theorisation (Mohanty 1991). Rajeswari Sunder Rajan and You-Me Park (2004: 54) define postcolonial feminism as a space in which “questions of location are historicised and politicised… and places of speaking are marked by hybridity, in-betweenness, and hyphenation.” Even as transnational feminism had already begun to gain currency, Mary E. John (1996) demonstrates how employing the optic of the nation-state could be productive for feminist scholarship. While transnational feminist literature tends to focus on the homogenising tendencies of the Western intellectual field, John’s Discrepant Dislocations: Feminism, Theory and Postcolonial Histories (1996) makes the postcolonial feminist intellectual as much a part of her investigation as her Western counterpart. She posits that “questions of location – where one is positioned and how this affects one’s political and intellectual interventions – have been less well-developed” (ibid., vii). Emphasising the epistemological project of feminism, she highlights the need to question the hegemony of certain knowledges over others, to interrogate “sanctioned ignorance” within academia. She employs the metaphor of anthropology, in which postcolonial places are perceived as experiential raw matter that Western theory must structure or make comprehendible, to argue that feminist academics are implicated in the very structures they seek to dismantle or the hierarchies they wish to deconstruct. John points out that the questions that one asks (or, one is allowed to ask, that one comes to) is a necessary product of one’s location (ibid). Taking forward Said’s idea of a ‘travelling theory,’ John examines the ways in which one needs to be attentive to the movement and change in location of theories. She suggests that those in the academe are often aware of ‘the theory ladenness of data’ – that the kind of data one seeks out is dependent on one’s theoretical leanings. However, the ‘data ladenness of theory’ – that theory is formulated on the basis of available data which is highly determined by spatiotemporal locations – is often lost. Discrepant Dislocations questions the universalism of theory by highlighting its materiality. It complicates feminist positions within postcolonial academia by making a compelling case for the need for researchers to give up the privilege that transparency entails and to subject one’s own position to scrutiny in order for the other to be invested with agency.

While Third world scholars in Western universities have written extensively about the constitution of their own identities in response to the barrage of stereotypical representations of their homes and their people within Western academia, and how this has become central to their work. Seldom has there been work about them or their knowledge production practices from the perspective of those who produce scholarship from within universities in the Global South. Hemmings (2011, 3), in making her arguments about the institutionalisation of particular discursive modes of feminist storytelling, reminds us of “feminist historiographers’ insistence that which story one tells about the past is always motivated by the position one occupies or wishes to occupy in the present.” I argue that the metaphor can extend beyond the temporal into the spatial, and which story gets told is dependent upon where one tells it from.

In this section, I demonstrate the importance of location and positionality in the creation of a narrative by drawing on my experiences of doing ‘fieldwork’ for my doctoral research.***  Though I started my fieldwork much before the pandemic struck, I had to employ multiple remote modes of research due to my limited access to the field as I had defined it. I interviewed research participants online, followed researchers’ engagement with their fields on social media, and familiarised myself with application and funding processes in American universities. Much of the early research on my project was motivated by the seemingly unanimous idea amongst both peers and teachers in India that a PhD abroad (and this usually meant the US) would be more prestigious. Not only would a doctoral degree from abroad ensure a better learning experience as it would be more rigorous, it would also guarantee better exposure and might lead to better scholarship, and eventually, to gainful employment. It is the uniformity and taken-for-grantedness of this narrative, at least within metropolitan academia within India, told through interlocking articulations of absence and aspiration that I seek to unpack. During the course of my research, I discovered that decisions of going abroad for doctoral work are often retrospectively fashioned as stemming from perceived absences within the Indian higher education system. These theoretical, methodological, and empirical absences enable a narrative that invests in an absolute difference between doctoral study here and there, and consequently instantiates monolithic imaginations of locations and processes. My own identity was co-constituted in these moments in two distinct ways. I was the scholar who stayed behind in interactions with people aware of my own journey within academia and my indecisions regarding travelling abroad for doctoral work. I was seen as the scholar who was left behind, in conversations with those who simply saw me as a doctoral candidate from India.

In engaging with the ways in which questions articulated and explanations sought are informed by the site of enunciation, my research seeks to understand how location continues to play a significant role in securing legitimacy for the work produced. I analyse the researcher’s identity as ‘native informant,’ someone intimately familiar with the context of their work, and their simultaneous insertion into an imperialist institution. In doing so, I also examine the negotiations involved in being accountable to two places situated within a hierarchical spectrum. Reiterating an argument first made in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (1999), Spivak (2011, 65) argues that “the native informant, who was so useful to the anthropologists, is not a real perspective. As far as the anthropologists went, the native informants were produced because anthropology had to be possible […] the pathos of so-called postcolonial work is that as we grow up and go up in class in metropolitan circumstances or at home, we want to claim the place of the native informant, until the real subalterns become completely unhearable.” While cognisant of, and sometimes even defiant about, Euro-American academia’s tendency to treat Indian researchers in Global North universities as native informants, there were moments – such as the writing of the Statement of Purpose as part of the application process – of strategically invoking the self-same identity to stake claim to knowledge.

Unpacking these narratives using postcolonial theory allows me, a researcher located in a Global South university with its attendant possibilities and limitations, to try to reverse the gaze. Articulations of aspirations of academic mobility, the stories and images invoked in the narrations, become not merely stories that one tells of one’s own history and imagined future. They also turn into a collective imagining of the Indian higher education system, and furthermore an archive of navigating the inequity that continues to operate in the mechanics of knowledge production and circulation. They allow for “a way of exploring how difference is established, how it operates, how and in what ways it constitutes subjects who see and act in the world” (Scott 1991: 777). Examining the transitions and translations of feminist problems and concerns as they move across geonational borders, but also across institutional structures and disciplines, can challenge linear concepts of knowledge transfer. Instead it can unpack layered stratigraphies of knowledge production through processes of circulation, connectivities, and entanglements. In highlighting the emergence of interstices, I attempt to open up interrogatory spaces that allow for a reconfiguring of feminist storytelling and illustrate the role of identity investments and affective attachments in epistemic endeavours.

This kind of work is often deemed impossible, or at the very least impractical, given one’s location within a Global South university and the inability to travel to the ‘field’ in the Global North. The pandemic has allowed for a reimagining of research methods with scholars emphasising the generative possibilities of studying from afar, of thin description, of scavenger and patchwork methods. Methods that are not just familiar, but also necessary for those of us in universities in Global South seeking to do work in fields elsewhere. What if one begins to consider these methods not simply as analytic failures or even provisional substitutes, but as methodological counterpoints–as unlikely places from which to tell new stories.

* Writing in the year 1996, John points to “the dwarfing of Britain by the United States as ‘our’ contemporary metropolis” (11), and more than twenty years hence this continues to be the case in India. According to a report released by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Institute of International Education (IIE), India remains the second largest source of international students in the US and Indian students contributed USD 7.6 billion to the US economy in the academic year 2019-20.

** These arguments were made in an invited lecture at a workshop – “Urban Feminist Methodologies: A Workshop of the Urbanisation”– organised as part of the Gender and the Global South: A Transformative Knowledge Network (GenUrb) Project funded by SSHRC, Canada and held at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai between 28-29 September, 2018.

*** The term ‘fieldwork’ is highlighted here as my fieldwork for my doctoral project does not conform to the traditional idea of ethnographic fieldwork. Due to issues of access, I have adopted what can be described as patchwork ethnography – conducting not just online interviews, but also examining social media discourse on researching from afar, and more recently, attending webinars organized on the same. I propose that reimagining ethnographic practices can help decolonise the discipline and allow a deeper engagement with questions of who is able to study what/whom, and why.

Nithila Kanagasabai is a Doctoral Researcher  in Women’s Studies at the Tata Institute Social Sciences, Mumbai, India. Her areas of interest include feminist media studies, feminist pedagogy, journalism studies, academic mobilities, research cultures, and digital cultures. Her work has appeared in journals such as Feminist Media Studies and Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. Her earlier disciplinary training was in Media and Cultural Studies. She has been a news reporter with NDTV and TIMES NOW between 2009 and 2011. She has also co-directed two documentaries – Badalte Nakshe (Changing Maps) on the 1992 communal riots in Mumbai and Daane Daane Pe (On Every Grain…) that explores street-food politics in the city of Mumbai.