An anthropologist among researchers: Part 1

(This post is the first part of a two-part series of posts on my experiences with researchers in the NGO, and with it’s front-line staff. You can read Part 2 here).
In this post, I am taking a slight detour from the front-line space(s) that has been the subject of my previous blogs – or rather, I am expanding the term itself into a different site of research.

As the title suggests, my primary interlocutors are changing as well.

Of course, to those of you who are aware, the title is stylised after Bernard Cohn’s book An Anthropologist among Historians (a text which I haven’t yet read. That’s where the similarity begins and ends).

The researchers I am referring to are the people engaged in the various projects and interventions that are run by the different programmes of the NGO across Mumbai, and in domains other than violence (like maternal and neonatal health, nutrition).

The moments and spaces where I am among them – and the kind of epistemological exercises we are engaged in – is the core concern of this post.

Let me begin, then, with three particular moments where I was among researchers (I will address this apparent difference between the ‘anthropologist’ and ‘researcher’ after this).

***

We had just finished a meeting on participatory learning models.

By ‘we,’ I mean the researchers and programme staff associated with the NGO’s prevention of violence programme (and me, since I was asked to join in given my field experience in Dharavi).

The meeting was a part of this group’s project on developing parameters to measure/assess/evaluate gender-based and domestic violence intervention outcomes, funded by an international agency (however, their work is way more complex than this simple description; I’ve merely shortened it).

As we ended, Patrick,* the UK-based researcher working with the NGO, asked me if I was doing participant observation at that very moment.

I laughed and said that of course I was. The field, after all, is everywhere (recall the earlier conversation I had with him about this very topic).

***

Two days later, there was another meeting in the very same space.

This was a meeting with (a) one of the domestic funding agencies of the NGO’s prevention of violence programme; (b) their monitoring and evaluation (M&E) partner; (c) the front-line staff from another community-based organisation (CBO) that works in slum communities in eastern suburbs of Mumbai (also funded by the first group); and (d) the NGO’s programme staff including the director and coordinators.

This meeting was concerned with developing new ways for both, the funders, and the NGO and the CBO, to develop a framework to evaluate the kind of change they are attempting to bring about in the communities and among individuals.

***

The third example is the NGO’s own internal research meetings, where their various programmes discuss their individual and collaborative projects.

In this particular meeting, one of their consultants – a retired professor from one of Mumbai’s leading social work and social sciences institutes – used the metaphor of a “high-powered microscopic lens” to describe a particular qualitative study on men perpetrators of domestic violence.

I presented my own work in the research meeting (largely, elements from my thesis start report), but it wasn’t that well received. One of the points of feedback that came was: ‘What exactly is Proshant doing?’

***

Now that I have (somewhat) introduced the three contexts that frame this blog post, I do apologise for the way I will manoeuvre between them – including developing my first anthropology joke (or so I think).

I will engage with the first two instances first, since the themes and insights I glean from them are more or less coherent, and continuous. Here, I am concerned with certain subtle, yet fundamental, disjunctures between knowledge produced by social work discourse and (qualitative) social research, on the one hand; and on the other, the more embodied and “messy” forms of knowledge produced by the front-line workers with whom I work on field. The relation between these two forms of ‘knowledge’ – rather, epistemologies – is foundational to what I describe as ‘multi-sited epistemology.’

That is, how knowledge itself is spatialized and hierarchized; but also that, through ‘participant observation’ and the practice of ethnography in front-line spaces, these relations can be interrogated, thus outlining the potential for creative and generative moments where embodied and “messy” forms of knowledge can be taken more seriously without necessarily translating them into more polished (if you will) terminology of outcomes, indicators, or processes.

Finally, I ground these insights in my most recent presentation at the research meeting – this time it was essentially about ‘front-line ethnography.’

Doing so – and I realise this insights as I’m writing this post – also highlights how the ethnographic endeavour is itself very similar to the front-line work that my colleagues in Dharavi are engaged in.

***

So, from both the participatory learning (PL) and the funders’ meetings, two sets of observations stand out.

First, in the funder’s meeting, there was a marked difference in how each of the actors (the funders, the M&E team, the counsellors and the CBO staff) articulated their experiences and knowledge about gender-based and domestic violence. The first three actors, for instance, were concerned with more formalised questions: outcomes, processes, evaluation, etc. The CBO’s front-line workers, on the other hand, used more contextual and grounded terms when talking about violence: mudda (issues), soch (thinking, attitudes), and also mobilisations, interventions and field surveys.

In the PL meeting, too, there was a concern with more formalised questions of data, validity, and ethics. The discussion in this case was on how to use certain community learning techniques to elucidate responses that would contribute to an understanding of prevalent norms in the community regarding violence (in this case, Dharavi). They were also looking at case sheets filled by the counsellors as primary data.

The second observation has more to do with my presence in both those meetings.

In the funders’ meeting, I was neither an organisational staff member, nor was I a front-line worker (though I could clearly relate to their CBO workers’ interventions in the meetings).

In the PL meeting I was frankly daunted by the sheer scope of the study – especially the component on developing a theory of change – but also sort of critical of it. In my experience with the pilot study last year, ‘change’ usually was embodied and phenomenological, and extended beyond intimate partner violence. Narratives of ‘change’ (badlaav), in other words, were embedded in everyday negotiations.

In all fairness, their study is a three year long project, and the interactions with the funding agency are aimed to become more participatory over time.

My intention is not to be overly critical of either; my observations are more tentative than conclusive.

But the insights I am trying to develop from them are more representative of certain prevalent phenomenon in social work discourse and social advocacy: that of epistemology, or knowledge.

In my work in Dharavi, I have been able to discern two broad spaces: that of the ‘community’ or the basti – where the front-line workers are engaged in everyday negotiations of violence; and the ‘offices’ (or conference rooms and research meetings), where researchers are engaged in more formalised routines, where the knowledge from the front-lines is translated (or streamlined?) into concepts, outcomes, processes, protocols, and a host of other qualitative jargon (and do not mean so disparagingly or condescendingly – all scientific work by necessity relies on jargon).

The ‘knowledge’ that front-line workers develop and use, on the other hand, is more embodied, contingent and messy. It is subject to improvisations and constraints – rainy days, non-responsive or recalcitrant crowds, cases of violence, ever-growing management tasks, and so forth (yet, I would argue that it is as theoretically and intellectually sophisticated as the terms qualitative researchers, or for that matter, anthropologists, use – perhaps for a later blog post).

The relationship between these two ‘spaces,’ and indeed the forms of knowledge produced therein (i.e., epistemology), is not just processual – of translating data into concepts and theories – but also a hierarchized one.

And this hierarchy is upheld and disrupted by transnational flows of ideas on gender and violence (from the United Nations, for instance). There is thus a constant mediation between global and local understandings of not only violence, but also gender, identity, change, legality, justice, knowledge.

Anthropological research (such as mine), then, cannot be confined to one particular site or space. The ‘field,’ as I explained in a previous post, is fragmented and is a product of anthropological and ethnographic interventions.

And doing participant observation in the bastis, and in the office meetings – as Patrick pointed out – illustrates the multi-sited nature of my research work: the fragmented field site of Dharavi and the NGO; my status as an international student; the presence of transnational scholars like Patrick; foreign funding; the NGO’s reliance on, and contribution to, trans/international concepts.

So, in a sense, the ‘front-line’ of front-line ethnography is a space (for the lack of a better word) where not only the public and private understanding of violence and gender are negotiated, but is also where global and local meanings of violence and gender (among other things) are contested, negotiated, and developed.

Multi-sited epistemology, then, is very much a product of front-line ethnography. And this creates the conditions to develop more nuanced and contextual ethical foundations for anthropological research (something I have argued elsewhere).

***

Where (and what) is the anthropologist’s role among researchers and this increasingly multi-sited terrain of research? (That is, other than that of an awkward observer or participant, as has been the case in my fieldwork this time).

This brings us back to the third example at the beginning of this blog post: the “high-power microscope.”

So, the anthropology joke goes something like this:

Q. If the qualitative researcher is using the high-power microscope to study a very particular social phenomenon, where can one find the anthropologist?

A. Why, in the petri dish, of course! Because that’s where the culture is after all.

(My thesis supervisor, interestingly, had once remarked that anthropologists cannot quite study petri dishes. I don’t quite remember if the ‘culture’ bit was a part of his remark – or my humour. Anyway, I’m digressing).

Of course, the anthropologist’s presence in the petri dish is more than just her or his location amidst a culture. It also refers to a political and ethical position.

The rest of my presentation outlined the various challenges that anthropologists have engaged in over the last few decades (since most qualitative researchers are usually unaware of this history – and this history undoubtedly affects our positions today).

It wasn’t easy: some of the people in the meeting were still concerned with protocols and structure for interventions, arguing that these are essential in front-line work. They undoubtedly are. But they are continually negotiated by the front-line workers. And in the process, these workers also develop highly sophisticated but grounded and nuanced epistemologies which do not always reflect in the protocols and outcomes.

Amidst this, the idea of ‘barefoot counselling’ came up (in that, it also adheres to certain protocols), albeit in a misplaced sense. Because the ‘barefoot’ in ‘barefoot counselling,’ I would argue, is not the adherence to certain protocols (or formulating them); it is the negotiation of them, and that of the front-line conditions that these counsellors are embedded in.

Similarly, the discussion on ‘change’ (badlaav) also goes beyond (intimate partner) violence, which means that the organisational focus on indicators and outcomes, as important as they are, are actually partial understandings of the dynamic and complex realities of everyday lives.

In simpler words, with a high-power microscope you only observe what you’re looking for. And society, as my supervisor explained, is not a petri dish.

Once again, this is not to say that these partial understandings are in anyway less than what an ethnographer would bring to the table.

My own experiences tend to dwarf in comparison to that of several other researchers and the NGO’s coordinators and directors. For that matter, I am thoroughly incompetent in most domains outside of violence, and also unfamiliar with several qualitative research techniques which are both credible and critical.

But by main concern here, following multi-sited epistemology, is this: social work and social research, as a practice, often do not question the assumptions they are based on. And the production of knowledge in these spaces actually sometimes tends to be microscopic – it tends to leave out the messiness, the negotiations, the improvisations, and the ambiguities in inherent in the petri dish. Or, that it tends to be macroscopic with its generalisations and statistical trends (the more quantitative studies). And that is precisely the kind of challenge that front-line ethnography hopes to respond to.

***

To conclude, let me return to a point that I had kept in parenthesis in the very beginning of this essay: the difference between the anthropologist and the researcher.

Are there any differences – or any significant ones at least – between the two?

I would say no.

During the pilot study was more of a researcher than an ethnographer, and even now I wouldn’t say that I am fully an ethnographer, partly because I am not living in the same community (although it is possible to do ethnography without full cultural immersion in the style of Malinowski or Radcliffe-Brown).

Over the last several decades anthropologists have worked outside the academy – and even within it, conditions of precarity tend to prevail at the sidelines of anthropology, as this series of guest posts on the anthropology blog Savage Minds discusses.

In my view – and again, this is a tentative thought – what makes our work anthropological is exactly that interplay between the contexts we work in, and nuances we’re able to glean from them. This is not a romantic position, but a pragmatic one. Anthropological work can be frustrating, especially in places like Mumbai, where there is considerable lack of scope and support for trained ethnographers (most would find employment in qualitative work, though. This also includes a crucial element of mentoring and networks, which I will discuss in a future blog post).

As with the field of anthropological research, then, the professional and academic work we’re engaged in is also fragmented. We work among researchers, front-line workers, bureaucrats, and every other possible group of actors that one could think of.

Clifford Geertz had written that anthropologists study in villages, rather than studying them. A more contextual and contemporary rendition of that phrase would be: anthropologists study in petri dishes, rather than observing them under a microscope.

***

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

 

Works Cited

Clifford Geertz. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays.

David Mills. 2006. Trust me, I’m an Anthropologist. Anthropology Today (April, 2006).

George E. Marcus & James D. Faubion, (Eds.). 2009. Field-Work Is Not What It Used To Be: Learning Anthropology’s Method in a Time of Transition.

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