Penniless anthropologist? Or I am my own boss? The ethics and politics of front-line ethnography

“However sensitive we are to our informants, we have to recognise that fieldwork is at some level always a violation. We are rather like uninvited guests who hopefully, once welcomed, behave with consideration and perhaps even offer our hosts something they value. We gain nothing by denying this violation: the inherent violence of field research.”

– Vincent Crapanzano, ‘At the Heart of the Discipline’: Critical Reflections on Fieldwork.

“We [anthropologists] must entertain the strong possibility that there will be no need for what we do among such actors. There is no guarantee that our knowledge and skills will be relevant. We must recognize that it is possible, too, that different kinds of knowledge and skills will be required, that the nature of our intellectual activity itself will have to be transformed in order to participate in this way. But the possibilities are there to be explored.”

– James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine.

“You are spending a lot of time here,” said Pankaj,* one of the NGO’s programme officers who lives in Dharavi, and had worked here until he was transferred to another site in the eastern part of Mumbai a couple of months ago.

“Well, I am my own boss this time,” I replied. “Although, I don’t have any money either.”

He smiled and added, “Yeh sector mein to aise hi hota hain, sir.” That’s what happens in this (social work) sector.

Pankaj was referring to the fact that I was spending more time in the community centre located in the middle of Dharavi, than the last time I was in here. Back then, I had actually spent a considerable time in the NGO’s offices in a municipal hospital, or in their main offices in Mumbai’s suburbs. Back then, I was also a paid consultant for the NGO. Hence, the briefings, meetings, discussions, presentations, and so forth. And although I had plenty of elbow room in running the pilot study on the ground, my obligations and energies were involved in coming up with a ‘deliverable.’ In this case, a report.

To those of you familiar with management-style NGOs and development aid work, a ‘deliverable’ is one of those things which can literally suck the life out of you. It’s a chimera; it can take any form, and continues to haunt you until you are able to send it off to the corporate masters, preferably with a fancy title and some awesome-looking style templates.

Again, I am exaggerating: I kind of loved writing the report for this NGO (and my front-line worker colleagues, too, appreciated that someone (a) spent several months with them on field; and (b) wrote a document appreciating their work, which others in the NGO took note of).

But fact remains, working in these governmental and neoliberal spaces of consulting-and-delivering, one is faced with several ethical questions, least of which are: what is the researcher able to do with the data; questions of transparency and collaboration; and, to what extent can the work be politically motivated (of course, I use the term ‘politics’ very specifically, which I will elaborate later).

Returning to the same context, and working with the same people (more or less), I think I am in a position to explicate certain tentative answers to these questions – answers which I believe have an impact on how ethnographic research can (rather than ‘should’) be conducted in front-line spaces like Dharavi.


The questions of ethics and politics of field research is something that has confronted the discipline of anthropology since its very beginning. After all, academic anthropology did have its roots in colonial ethnography and enumeration practices which were useful tools in the sustenance and perpetuation of European colonialism in Africa and Asia (as well as in northern America, most significantly in how the U.S. and Canada dealt with the Native American groups).

Anthropology (though in the west) did have its critical moments in the 1960s and 1970s, with the opposition to the Vietnam War – especially in the CIA’s use of anthropologists for covert research. And more recently, it is once again raising these questions with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests, and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel’s military actions in Palestine. And while these ethical commitments and political stances are admirable – indeed, it’s something that I am immensely proud of – they are somewhat distant to the everyday contexts that most anthropologists are working in.

Social and cultural anthropologists are, after all, practitioners of the everyday. This is how we “gain a first-hand sense of how local knowledge is put to work in grappling with practical problems of everyday life,” according to the American Anthropological Association’s description of the discipline. And this is exactly what ethics and politics refer to whilst I am in Dharavi (and even when I’m not): ethics is far more than procedures and protocols (e.g., consent clauses, forms). And politics is fundamentally a question of power: power imbalances between the offices and the community; between the consultant and the front-line worker; it is a question of transparency, and how to convey the collaboration of field research more clearly and, ethically.


Ethics, then, have to be negotiated on field.

Last year, I was a newcomer to the front-line team. They’d seen people like me before: people who come, spend three days on ‘field’ (in reality, just the centre), and write their reports, never to be heard of again.

During the first few days (I arrived in Dharavi only several days after I took the project), I would ask them about cases, their activities and experiences. But I’d also follow them into the gallis; into the nukkad, or corner, meetings. When I had to conduct interviews, I would take the contact numbers of the front-line volunteers (on whom the study focussed), and try to remember the way to reach their places – instead of summoning them to the centre. I’d sit and eat awkwardly during our communal lunches, since I’d often not carry home-cooked lunches (dabbas) like them; but they’d be more than willing to share theirs (a strategy I have since corrected – now I carry dabbas almost every day). Earlier, they would understandably be more sceptical of my presence when they were criticising the organisation. But now, I tend to participate in some of their criticisms more actively.

But the key to any ethnographic encounter is listening. In fact, listening and paying attention to what your interlocutors say, treating their words and ideas as though it’s more than just mere data; that is what I think fundamentally constitutes an ethical practice. And so does writing it (but I reserve the ethics of writing for another post). I realised this more conspicuously as I started fieldwork this time. I will share one example below.


I was sitting at the kattha, an open space in Dharavi Koliwada, often used for meetings with the women in the area. A case-sharing meeting was about to start with the front-line volunteers, where they would discuss the various cases where they have intervened or taken ‘action.’ But this one was attended by a coordinator, who normally works out of the office in the local hospital. She runs one of the NGO’s intervention programmes, and had an interest to “go on field,” I was told by Bhavya,* the community worker who was in charge of Koliwada.

During the meeting, not many of the front-line volunteers shared cases – despite five cases being recorded on an application. One woman spoke of how she took action against male staff members in her workplace in the railways, who would harass her and other women. The programme coordinator appreciated this, and said, “Kanoon aapke saath hain. Aap ko koi chu nahin sakta.” (The law is with you. No one can touch you.)

Later when the women didn’t share any more cases, she was visibly annoyed, and even confronted them: “If there aren’t any cases, why have you come here?” Misinterpreting one of the volunteer’s statements about there being few cases that month, she stated that “violence happens everywhere,” and began explaining different forms of abuse, and urged them to identify these. After the meeting, she left with another programme coordinator, while I stayed on with Bhavya (and later, we followed up on three cases which the voluntary workers did follow up).

Before I continue, let me clarify that I am not arguing that ethnography is the more morally and ethically sound method of working with such volunteers in this context. Nor do I wish to criticise the work of the NGO coordinator, since it is a responsibility that I wasn’t qualified for, or was able to fulfil. As an ethnographer/anthropologist, however, I am in a position to see that the way in which the coordinator undertook in this field interaction is rather flawed (if not entirely unethical).

For one, anyone who wishes to have a sustained engagement with ‘the field,’ with and these front-line volunteers, has to be open to the various articulations of identities that they inhabit and express. That was the fundamental point I had made in my report, as well (which the coordinator said she had “looked at”). And telling these women that the law and the police are “with them” is also problematic since it negates many of their experiences with the law, some of which can amount to violence (bureaucratic neglect, harassment, ambiguities of the law, and so forth).

Second, the reason many of the women did not share the cases they worked on in a public space is because some of them involved relatives or acquaintances. Speaking critically of them in an open space was problematic for these women since it could have an impact their personal relationships. They shared the cases and the recent developments with Bhavya after the meeting.

In fact, these women have a far more nuanced and contextual view of everyday violence – which, in my view, would take far more than an application, or for than matter, an ethnography, to chart out. They are also deeply aware of the power differences between themselves and NGOs and government agencies (given Dharavi’s history of contested redevelopment). Indeed, even the dimension of ‘effectiveness’ (the central theme of the pilot study last year) is also problematic, and needs to take into account the more complex negotiations these women are involved in.


Perhaps I am being rather uncharitable and harsh towards the coordinator, which was absolutely not my intention.

Running high-end programmes like application-based interventions in these spaces is highly challenging, especially with funding constraints and the likes (not to mention the pressure of producing ‘deliverables’). But running such programmes cannot preclude a more honest and ethical conversation with the people who are going to be stakeholders in the project. Furthermore, confronting them with a “then-why-did-you-come-here?” question can prove disastrous for the community-based work (as it indeed was once before, Bhavya tells me).

Is the ethical solution then more listening? Is it to come up with more detailed, nuanced and contextual reports? Is it more “collaboration” with the front-line staff?

Certainly not. Those forms of knowledge are useful in some regard, but are far from a silver-bullet solution. As for collaboration, the very enterprise of social research is, by definition and necessity, collaborative. But we need to pay attention to how such collaborations take place, and how the unequal relations within them can be changed.

Ethnography is one part of the answer – and even my colleagues like Bhavya and Pankaj are involved in some kind of an ethnographic exercise in their own way: that is, they are concerned with “gain[ing] a first-hand sense of how local knowledge is put to work in grappling with practical problems of everyday life.” They understand that the consequences of confronting the voluntary workers is not merely hurting their sentiments; but is to undermine the very contexts they work in, and how they negotiate and create identities as front-line workers. The very work they are engaged in Dharavi, then, outlines the complex ethical and political questions that are fundamental to ethnographic and anthropological research in front-line spaces.

In other words, the ethics and politics of research cannot be divorced from the everyday experiences of violence and power differences. Ethnography, in my experience, is not the solution to the problem of ethics in front-line spaces. Far from it, it is a step in asking more informed questions regarding ethics of field research.

Gerald Berreman, one the anthropologists at the forefront of the critiques in the 1960s (and a rockstar anthropologist, in my opinion), understood the question of ethics and its relation to the practice of anthropology. Berreman recognised that a discussion on ethics in anthropology had to account for the diverse kinds of work that anthropologists engaged in, both academically and professionally. But he also underscored the need to not separate the two, so as to avoid two forms of ethics and anthropologies—what he respectively called principled and laissez faire. This division, he says, is “unnatural, unnecessary, and counterproductive,” and resisting it is in the interest of both, “the public, and the profession of anthropology.”

Most of my field research experience so far has been with NGOs (a curious neoliberal mix of the private sector and the state). But it is only with my work in Dharavi that I have been able to become more of an ethnographer, rather than a consultant or a researcher. While my work in AIDS and migration has helped me develop nuanced political stances on both issues, it is only in Dharavi that, besides a stance, I am also in a position to work more closely with my collaborators and make my work more relevant for them in their everyday negotiations.

In other words, it is in my work with front-line workers that I have realised than the enterprise of an ethical and ‘principled’ anthropology cannot exist independently of power, both in the context of the ‘field,’ and the larger politics that affect our relations there. For, as Berreman states, “There is no place anywhere for unprincipled anthropology or anthropologists.”


*I have changed the names of my colleagues to preserve their anonymity. 

Correction: The designation of the coordinator was incorrectly mentioned as research officer.

Note: This post is a shortened version of a conference paper – which was arguably the inspiration behind this blog. You can read the slides of the conference presentation here.

  Words Cited

Talal Asad, (Ed.). 1973. Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter.

Gerald D. Berreman. 2007 (1991). Ethics versus “Realism” in Anthropology. In Ethnographic Fieldwork: An Anthropological Reader.

Vincent Crapanzano. 2010. ‘At the Heart of the Discipline’: Critical Reflections on Fieldwork. In Emotions in the Field: The Psychology and Anthropology of Fieldwork Experience.

James Ferguson. 1996. The Anti-Politics Machine: ‘Development,’ Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho.


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