Thursday, April 13, 2017

The field is not just data: Reflecting on cultural centering


1996.

I began fieldwork in Jangal Mahal, among Santali communities experiencing disenfranchisement both materially and symbolically.

As a scholar interested in health outcomes and community participatory processes for securing health, the lived experiences of community members with extremely limited access to health resources was an entry point for developing communicative spaces where community members could come together and articulate their health needs, and seek out a variety of material solutions for addressing these needs.

Amid the extreme forms of marginalization, disenfranchisement from access to resources, discourses of resistance often appeared in community narratives as strategies for securing access to health.

When these narratives of resistance took material form in 2006, I stopped writing about my field sites as a decision that seemed natural to one of the key tenets of the culture-centered approach: reflexivity.

Reflexivity in this context meant that I had to attend to silence as a method.

Keeping silence was a methodological choice, one that emerged from the voices of community members. These stories were not to be told, as their time had not yet come.

Moreover, as my access to the field had become very limited between 2006 and 2011, I felt limited in making sense of any narrative. Stories flowed in complex and contradictory webs, not seamlessly fitting into the "sandwich" theory or a theory of "pure resistance." 

It is amid this silence that I am struck by the desire of the academic from the metropole to turn these spaces into objects of theorizing. The Kolkata academic sees Jangal Mahal as an artefact that would launch his career.

Once again today, when I received an inquiry from a scholar wanting to collaborate on the question of Maoist violence in Jangal Mahal, my response was simple: No.

The desire of the metropole to study subaltern resistance is the sort of academic voyeurism that breeds and reproduces the inequities that constitute Santali life. A day trip to the Santali community or a few days in a couple of villages become the basis for careers to be made from the exploitation of subaltern life.

This fundamental inequity in the production of knowledge, where the scholar from the metropole, from Kolkata or Chicago, can go into the community, pick up glimpses and then write up journal articles constitutes the very inequity that lies at the heart of the structural disenfranchisement experienced by subaltern communities.

The turning of the field into data that pushes academic careers lies at the heart of the communicative processes of material marginalization.

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