Activism and Collaboration

(another response paper…)

George Marcus, in his article “Ethnography in/of the World System: Emergence of Multi-sited Ethnography” and Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson in the introduction to Anthropological Locations both urge for reconceptualizations of ‘the field’ and ‘field work’ within Anthropology. Concepts of ‘the field’ as being remote, exotic, and potentially dangerous construct the locations where ‘fieldwork’ is carried out such that they must fit this criteria in order for the work there to be legitimate. Unless one is conducting Malinowskian ‘field work,’ one is not a ‘real anthropologist.’ These conceptions also privilege a certain form of knowledge production, placing ‘the field’ and ‘the academy’ (granted that ‘the field’ as conceptualized above cannot exist without the academy, as it is an academic construct) at the center of this system of knowledge production. The naturalization of these perceptions masks the structures of prejudice and inequality that shape our disciplinary work, as well as shape the ‘knowledge’ (ie: representations, analysis) of the work we produce as anthropologists. I found two points from these articles of particular relevance to my own interests as an anthropologist: Marcus’s assertion that multi-sited fieldwork, as an alternative to ‘localized’ fieldwork, can serve as a form of activist research; and Gupta and Ferguson’s account of collaborative investigation as one of their examples of heterodoxy within anthropological research.

One of my main problems (points of discomfort?) with activist research is the claim many activist scholars make that you must align yourself with a particular political group or effort. I don’t align myself with a political group/ effort because I feel that they tend to have an ‘all or nothing’ attitude, in that you are either ‘with’ or ‘against’ them (which has been my experience in being involved in organizing and other activist work) and this attitude clearly has the tendency to mask the nuances of social interaction that anthropologists so relish. However, I don’t feel that being ‘unaligned’ should preclude politically active research. Indeed, research cannot help but have political influence, and pretending it does not only serves to mask the systems of power and exchange that are in play.

For these reasons I appreciate Marcus’s proposal for an anthropology OF (rather than IN) world systems. That is, instead of viewing social processes as contained within (and controlled by) an overarching world system, we must view these processes of interaction as constituting and producing the system itself, and therefore having the power to alter that system.

Studying these systems of interaction, through participation (and observation) within them, in multiple locales thus becomes a form of activism. By conducting research, we are becoming political actors. Marcus’s argument is further supported when we take into account the points made by Gupta and Ferguson that field site selection is an inherently political process (based on our personal experiences, likes, dislikes, and the social systems we are a product of– and produce ourselves). Therefore, our research cannot help but have strong political undertones which become overtones when the system of their (re)production is articulated.

Marcus alludes to, and Gupta and Ferguson describe the benefits of, collaborative research, particularly (in Marcus’s case) as multi-sited research. Gupta and Ferguson suggest collaboration as one of the heterodox (in Bourdieu’s sense of the word, then, capable of producing a new system– or at least making a change in the current system) examples of anthropological research.

In my personal experience, I find research very (very, very) difficult to do without collaboration. First of all, Gupta and Marcus are right– I am indeed a socially awkward graduate student. I find it nearly impossible to travel somewhere new and immediately begin making ‘contacts.’ It helps if I am working with a local academic or a nonprofit organization aligned with my topical interests. Furthermore, through collaboration with the people you are ‘studying’, you gain a more sensitive insight to the topics at hand.  You also (hopefully) develop empathy with your subject, rather than attempting to maintain a falsely ‘objective’ stance.  In this way, the research becomes explicitly political (rather than simply implicitly political), and the structures of such organization (and research, including the academy) are further clarified. The anthropologist, through collaboration with the organization she (or he) is studying, is more obviously part of the object of study.


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