September 22, 2017
09:30 – 11:00
Room D0.03, main campus Bolzano-Bozen


This paper reflects on the consequences of reversing the direction of the anthropological encounter by having anthropologists from the Global South work among populations in the Global North. The purpose of doing so is not merely to correct historical imbalances of anthropological knowledge production, thereby changing the substance of that knowledge itself, although of course that is a goal worth pursuing, as has cogently been pointed out by the ‘world anthropologies’ critique of hegemonic disciplinary practices. Using insights drawn from my own research site in the US heartland, with which I have been associated for over 25 years, I would like to suggest that such scholarship goes beyond gathering the new kinds of perspectives and data that only ‘studying up’ (to use Laura Nader’s phrase) can uncover. It may help reveal dimensions of the practice of ethnography that would otherwise remain obscured. Going against the grain of the colonial encounter can rob the anthropologist of the cloak of expertise and prestige that comes from being a (typically reluctant) emissary of a dominant collectivity in the global order. What are the kinds of things that this nakedness enables one to discover? Anthropologists have reflected previously on fieldwork by postcolonial anthropologists in other postcolonial spaces. Writing in Granta in 1986, Amitav Ghosh mused about an argument that had erupted between himself, an Indian anthropologist in the making, and an Imam in rural Egypt, where Ghosh was conducting his fieldwork. Provoked by the Imam, Ghosh was astonished to find himself making boastful assertions about India’s bomb-making capacities, insisting that they were superior to those of Egypt. "So there we were, the Imam and I, delegates from two superseded civilisations vying to lay claim to the violence of the West" (Ghosh 1986). This incident has been beautifully reinterpreted by David Scott (Scott 1989), but I would like to suggest a different line of enquiry, viz. what are the implications for the practice of ethnography when the anthropologist-delegate from one of these “superseded civilisations” undertakes fieldwork in the US heartland? Does completing the ethnographic circuit in this manner have something to tell us about ethnography itself? This formulation of naked ethnography -- ethnography in the strict sense of the term -- is an allusion, of course, to Malinowskian exposure, complete with the possibility that nothing especially earth-shattering may be opened up through this process! I first arrived in the town of Newburgh in Indiana to begin my fieldwork in the world-changing year of 1989. This was the year that marked the momentous end of the era of the Cold War, celebrated ever since in media images of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. I stayed there until the summer of 1991, after the local Fourth of July parade had celebrated the US victory at the end of the Gulf War -- the first large-scale conflict of the new world order. Starting from the premise that cultural processes in the United States cannot be adequately understood without grappling with the symbols, structures and practices of contemporary capitalism, I had arrived with a particular interest in the defining material conditions of the area. In the immediate vicinity, these were determined principally by the flagship Alcoa (Aluminum Company of America) plant that had stood outside of Newburgh since the early 1960s and the surrounding coal mines that had lured it there in the first place. As a woman scholar from India, I had initially been drawn to the project by the paucity of studies of Western societies by anthropologists from my part of the world. I realised only later that spending nearly two years in the American heartland at the end of the 20th century has taught me invaluable and unlovely truths that may have been less accessible elsewhere or at another time. I went back to Newburgh again for further fieldwork in the summer of 2015, and am again back in touch with the majority of the research participants I had known decades ago. The findings that I had stumbled upon during the 1989-91 period of fieldwork -- arguably at a key moment in the process of systemic transformation –- and had revisited and discussed with research participants in 2015, are concerned with the nature of work, collective memory, masculinity and nationalism. They seem enormously significant today for this is, of course, classic Trump country as per the standard depiction – with out-of-work coal miners and factory workers inhabiting a landscape of vanishing opportunities and a labour movement in its death throes. Thus, this paper also wishes to speak to the peculiarly contemporary relevance of long-term ethnography. In a polarised world rife with violence and majoritarianism, anthropologists will perforce find themselves among group-thinking populations driven by fear and hate. Are our empathetic methods of research well suited to this endeavour? Can ethnography enable us to understand those with whom we fundamentally disagree? Or could it be the case that even when we do not understand except at a purely descriptive level, the very process of long-term ethnographic research itself becomes part of a movement towards mutuality? I will argue that it is the narrow and enduring chinks of dialogue enabled by committed fieldwork that will set ethnography apart from other forms of knowledge-making, especially when the goal is to understand the dynamics of majoritarianism.   Ghosh, Amitav. “The Imam and the Indian.” Granta 20 (1986): 135-146. Scott, David “Locating the anthropological subject: Postcolonial anthropologists in other places” Inscriptions 5:" Traveling theories, traveling theorists, 1989