Fragmented field(work), and anthropology in the front-lines

“Hi Proshant, what are you doing here?” asked Patrick,* one of the UK-based consultants of the NGO, where I am doing fieldwork.

I was sitting in a corridor of the municipal hospital where the NGO’s offices are located, right outside the counsellor’s office.

“Um, fieldwork,” I replied, smiling, trying to remember the details of a case of sexual violence that I had just heard.

He looked around, and asked “Here?”

I added rather awkwardly, “Well, the field is everywhere!”

He smiled, said bye, and went ahead to the office. I returned to my field notebook, scribbling details of my conversation I only just had with a woman who was seeking legal aid from the NGO.

***

I am tempted to talk about ‘the field’ as Jeff Bridges’ opening voiceover from TRON: Legacy does, where he describes virtual reality space of The Grid, and how he “got in” there. But the ‘field’ in anthropology is far more complex, as is describing it – from Bronislaw Malinowski’s description of being stranded on a Melanesian beach in Argonauts of the Western Pacific, to Phillip Bourgois’ of inner-city poverty in the United States.

This turn – from the exotic landscapes of Melanesia to contemporary New York – highlights the changes that anthropology as a discipline underwent: from a study of ‘exotic’ far-away places and tribes in the Pacific or in Africa, to detailed and in-depth studies of places and social groups that are very much a part of the contemporary world, in how they’re connected by globalization (and in the past, colonialism) – in other words, how these spaces are a part of the here and now.

Understandably, then, talking about the ‘field’ in anthropology would mean traversing through the hundred-odd years of the discipline – way beyond a simple blogpost. But there is one crucial insight from this reflection that I wish to underscore when I talk about my ‘field’ in Dharavi. That is, the ‘field’ – and everything contained in it (rituals, kinship, etc.) – is very much a product of anthropological interventions.

It is not so much that anthropologists invent the field, but that, we can talk about something like the ‘field’ only by doing anthropology and ethnographic fieldwork. Now, this does not dilute or negate the empirical space of the ‘field.’ Rather, it shows that spaces don’t have an a priori existence; they are mapped, constructed, creates – sometimes, through a gradual historical processes (e.g., migration), or through violence (e.g., invasions, conquests, and, more recently, ‘development’).

With this insight, the anthropologist’s field is something that is both, a product of these processes, and of her or his work, as well. That is, each anthropologist underscores certain elements that she or he sees as a crucial dimension in the spaces they work – which is why every (good) anthropological work, by definition, is first and foremost about contexts and nuances (or, the particular, as my supervisor puts it). And as much as an ethnographer provides these contexts (sometimes, painstakingly), all anthropological work is also partial and fragmented.

***

It is not anthropologists alone who have the monopoly over the field. The social workers I work with, too, speak of the field (or, community).

But, as an anthropologist, I claimed that the municipal hospital corridor, too, was the ‘field.’ Clearly, Patrick and several other colleagues who are a part of the NGO’s front-line staff may not think so.

Is it my anthropological intervention that creates the hospital – and the NGO’s offices and counselling centres – as the field?

Partly, yes – because I am conducting fieldwork in that space (I was speaking to women survivors of violence from Dharavi who had gone there).

The other explanation is that the anthropologist’s ‘field’ actually represents the different spaces and sites that that are spatially and temporally connected, and that certain hierarchies exist in these connections. Anthropological works in the late 1980s and 1990s spoke of ‘multi-sited ethnography’ – of highly mobile anthropologists working in field-sites that are fragmented thanks to globalization and an unprecedented increase in global migration, blurring the differences between the global and the local (or, glocalization).

Dharavi, thus, is a curious field as well. It is almost entirely made up of migrants (except the indigenous Kolis) who settled on the marshy landscape since the 1930s onwards; it is highly heterogeneous where residential and workspaces coincide; it is multi-linguistic and multi-ethnic; and is seen as exemplary in how it has been able to resist globalization’s efforts at redevelopment (but its existence is also curiously spurred on by globalization itself).

From the perspective of my fieldwork – that is, of everyday and gendered violence – one can also see the spatial and ideological fragmentations and continuities in Dharavi. While it is nearly impossible to hypothesize whether certain forms of violence are prevalent in certain areas (I think it is not at all possible, nor desirable), the entrenched prevalence of violence and micro-social and micro-local responses to it do vary, and interestingly so.

Some forms of everyday and structural violence, like neglect by municipal authorities or the police, generally elicit collective responses in almost all parts of Dharavi. But domestic violence is far more contentious: it is seen as a ‘private matter,’ or not seen as violence (hinsa) at all. Incidentally, other forms of gender-based violence, like street sexual harassment, does see collective responses, even by the men, who otherwise refuse to even talk about violence in their own homes and families, as the program coordinator, Dinesh-ji,* explained.

It is, then, precisely this ambiguity that the front-line workers try to negotiate. They don’t see violence in an abstract or legal sense, but how it is engendered in the everyday contexts: as abuse (atyachaar) or exploitation (shoshan), and even as ‘torture,’ retained in English. Many of the women front-line workers and volunteers have themselves faced violence, and have been able to effectively use their training in the NGO to negotiate violence, leading to changes in their relationships and outlooks. Yet, more work needs to be done here – as we realize everyday when we’re on field.

***

The detour to violence was essential in my discussion of the ‘field’ in anthropology, with which I started this blogpost. In my project, everyday and gendered violence veritably (or, inevitably) shapes my field; it shapes the questions I ask; and it shapes my relationships with my colleagues and respondents.

And this is precisely what the term ‘front-line’ means for me and my work: a metaphor, a shorthand, for how violence shapes the social geography of Dharavi.

Following my colleagues on field as they try to mobilise men in the area for a corner meeting. Photo by author.
Following my colleagues on field as they try to mobilise men in the area for a corner meeting. Photo by author.

But the ‘front-line’ is every bit real as the experiences of the front-line workers and my colleagues. The front-line is something that blurs the distinction between public and private forms of violence; between the ‘field’ as the slum settlements (basti) or the narrow lanes (galli) where we mobilise women, and as the counsellor’s offices or the police stations or the hospitals, where women attempt to address and negotiate the myriad forms of violence they experience.

My field, then, is the front-line; a space, or a set of sites, connected spatially, temporally and through instances of everyday violence – and how such violence is perceived, negotiated, and in many cases, leads to change. My fieldwork is as much about documenting and observing these practices, as it is about participating in these processes. And although I am far removed from these contexts, despite in-depth participant observation, I cannot help but feel deeply affected by the work and experience of my colleague. Perhaps, then, the field is something that traverses into the emotional domain, as well, where time, space, emotions, and politics come to be intertwined.

*The names of all my interlocutors and colleagues have been changed to protect their identity.

Works Cited

Arjun Appadurai. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization.

Phillip Bourgois. 1995. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio.

Bronislaw Malinowski. 1922/1978. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagos of Melanesian New Guinea.

Jennifer R. Weis & Hillary H. Haldane. 2011. Anthropology at the Front-lines of Gender-based Violence.

Kalpana Sharma. 2000. Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum.

George E. Marcus. 1998. Ethnography Through Thick and Thin.

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