Fieldwork in a time of crisis

Posted on July 14, 2022 by Alison Fox

Today's guest post, by Jayaseelan Raj, discusses just what it's like to be an ethnographer in your own community. His experiences and findings for the basis for his brand new open access book Plantation Crisis:  Ruptures of Dalit life in the Indian tea belt, which publishes today.

Ethnographic accounts are generally written by anthropologists outside their own community. I had the rare opportunity to carry out ethnographic fieldwork in the very micro community into which I was born. While I carried out systematic ethnographic fieldwork, this book also draws on my experience growing up in a workers’ household as a plantation boy. An extended embodiment of the plantation community has shaped my world views and my anthropological approach to the study of human beings. I had the profound advantage of speaking the same language as my interlocutors, their dialect, but also their style of speech, its oratory with all its proverbs, aphorisms and short stories through which the socio-cultural world of the Tamil plantation workers are articulated and transmitted. I was able to grasp subtle and implicit aspects of socio-cultural life which might have gone unnoticed by anthropologists from outside the community. For instance, I was attuned to the differences between people belonging to different castes, which are sometimes transmitted in non-verbal embodied ways through etiquette, politeness, avoidance and abstinence. These can often be difficult for a foreign anthropologist to recognise, although long-term field immersion is intended to overcome this. This does not in any way suggest that my information is necessarily superior to that gained by a non-native anthropologist. However, the quality and sense of significance may be distinct. The importance that I give to identity, to its complexity and to certain principle values, I suggest, derive from my day-to-day experience as a member of the very community that I was studying.

Although there are clear advantages to being a native anthropologist – especially in giving me a deep sensitivity to the economic crisis that the workers confronted – in certain ways I was also restricted in the kinds of information I was able to gather. For the plantation workers, a foreigner is simply a foreigner; they do not care whether the particular researcher is from (another part of) India, North America, Europe or Australia. But the cultural capital of upper-caste urban India, or of whiteness and the colonial heritage, has its own hierarchy within which foreign researchers become positioned. Plantation workers are not concerned about foreign researchers publicising their personal life because they stay in the field for only a short period of time and disseminate the information gathered to a distant and unknown audience.

The fear was that I would share local knowledge (to which I was privy through my web of personal relations), with significant implications for a local audience. The expectation was that information presented in newspapers or academic articles that I wrote would feed back into the local situation, with negative consequences. As such my position was neither neutral nor outside. I was regarded by many as too close, too intimate with the events, and people were concerned that I might divulge too much. My positioning created in certain circumstances an ambivalent caution. People would test me by teasing, responding ironically or being extremely hesitant and even avoiding interaction with me. This became even more true as the workers were increasingly affected by the uncertainty that the crisis in the tea industry had generated.

I realised that, even when I was part of the plantation community, participant observation transformed me, in a way making me more intimate with the life in the tea belt. Over time I realised that I had come to know more about some people than most of their own neighbours did. Many told me stories of poverty that they would not share even with their close relatives or neighbours. Sometimes they described their poverty objectively to others, yet not with the kind of emotion they employed with me. These were organic moments of sharing the inner experience of poverty, not merely the daily routine of collecting information. When I met people in the street after long conversations, the way they greeted me expressed that intimacy, precisely because they had told me many things that they might not have told anyone else. And, as it happened with more and more people in the village, I became something like a sorcerer, one who knows a great deal about everyone – a person who holds the secrets of plantation life. The workers and their families had experiences that were overflowing through my fieldnotes. At the same time, it was paradoxical that those overflowing experiences were indicative of what many of them thought of as the futility of human life. As many workers told me, they had to sustain their lives ‘for their children even if not for themselves’.

I do not presume to speak on behalf of the workers, although I was born and raised in a Tamil Dalit plantation household. My intention is simply to lay out the stories as told to me over years of living and doing fieldwork. As a ‘native’ researcher, my approach to ethnography is mindful of the postmodern critique of participant observation (Geertz 1972; Clifford and Marcus 1986) and also of the importance of Bourdieu’s phenomenologically reflexive approach (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). The significance of this is crucial whether the observer is an outsider (which is Bourdieu’s reference) or an insider. Perhaps there is a greater onus on the native researcher to be cognisant of her or his own common-sense assumptions that may mask the effects of other processes. As the foreign researcher must critically interrogate the nature of her or his positioning, so must the native researcher. I have tried to take both the position of an outsider – where nothing can be taken for granted or assumed – and that of an insider, one who has lived the structures of which she or he may not have hitherto (prior to engaging in anthropological research) been fully aware. My critical approach combines the intimate experience of the insider with the more distanced reflexive orientation of the outsider. Part of such a critical approach is attending to structural processes that are not necessarily reducible to individual subjectivist terms – an emphasis of postcolonial and postmodern perspectives.

At the same time, my description of my positionality in the field should not be interpreted as a mere addition to the postmodernist ‘anthropological critique’ that has been dominating anthropological writing for the last quarter-century. This critique, rooted in textual analysis of every component of anthropological research, occasionally becomes a self-centred analysis that downplays broader structural hierarchies and inequalities. Some of the recent ‘turns’ in anthropology, such as the ‘ontological turn’, seem to reinforce this self-centric analysis of ethnographic situations. While I agree with the significance of thick descriptions of ethnographic situations, I believe that a holistic approach is required to fully understand the ontological transition, or the repositioning of self of the plantation workers and the changes in the perception of self and others due to structural transformations in the dominant social identities (of class, gender and caste) in the crisis context.

Alienation of the workers is at the centre of this ontological transition. At the same time, in my exposition of this ontological transition and the phenomenology of crisis, I was careful not to deny the social dimensions in which the crisis unravels. It may appear therefore that my focus on the alienation and powerlessness of the workers overshadows their creative engagement, or their ‘agency’. Such celebrations of agency have become a dominant orientation in anthropological literature afterthe ‘crisis of representation’ discourse (Clifford and Marcus 1986; Marcus and Fischer 1986). In my view, the celebration of the workers’ agency, without examining the true liberatory potential of workers’ actions, is myopic and does not allow the fieldwork-based knowledge to examine the structures of exploitation. It is important to understand that the social process goes beyond the rhetoric of agency and individual, which may themselves be produced out of structural forces rather than the other way around – often the perspective of individualist and ego-centred perspectives (Kapferer 2005a). Further, the fieldwork on the lived experience of the tea workers demonstrates that they ‘speak’ of their alienation as the core phenomenon of their lives. They were impassive whenever I tried to ‘appreciate’ them for their ‘creative engagement’ with the crisis. Therefore, not recognising their recognition of alienation would be to deny their agency.

Walking through the crisis was emotionally taxing for me as I have experienced sleepless nights pondering the crisis and the hollowness it produced for the workers’ families. Despite being from a family of plantation workers, the ethnographic fieldwork has radically transformed my own cosmological and ontological understanding of human life in the plantations. Now the difficult part was to come to terms with how I wanted to lay out their lives in the text with the highest regard for their dignity and the ways they experience the dimensions of the economic crisis. Perhaps one thing I paid the utmost attention to was to unpack the crisis in a way that de-naturalises the marginal life of the Tamil Dalits in the plantation frontiers of India.

Doing fieldwork in one’s own community is a challenge not only in terms of how you choose to position yourself in it, but also how you are already positioned within the plantation cosmology and its categorical relationships. As a native anthropologist, I was subjected to structures of social and political significance that were different from those to which a foreign anthropologist might be subjected. Foreign anthropologists would not be personally confronted on a daily basis with the subtleties underpinning the dynamics of identity and relations in the contexts they enter. I was constantly enmeshed in the complexities of identity as I negotiated my path through plantation life. In distant tea estates where I did not know the people, I would be asked leading questions indicative of my caste and social origin (whether my ancestors were from northern or southern Tamil Nadu, for instance). I was often asked by the workers if I had any relatives in the tea estates that I visited. Giving the names of my relatives living in their estate would position me in terms of caste and family reputation.


This was mainly done by the upper-caste managerial staff, trade union leaders, government officials and merchants in the nodal towns, who often wanted to put me in my place. The coerced embodiment of a particular identity ascribed to me by the upper caste occurred through their narratives of incidents in which plantation people from my kinship networks sought their help in sorting out issues with the labour conflicts in the plantations. Their narratives were often filled with sarcasm and stereotypes about Tamil plantation workers. Some would invoke incidents in which they had helped the workers and would link that to my kinship networks, as if I should be obliged for their assistance to the plantation workers. Whenever I left the offices of these non-plantation people who were somehow connected to the plantation business, I would ask myself what the relationship would have been between Sidney Mintz and Don Taso if Mintz had been a Black anthropologist. Or, for that matter, if M.N. Srinivas and André Béteille had been Dalits trying to walk though Brahmin streets to conduct research on caste.

Anthropologists critically discuss their privileged position and the power they hold in ‘re-presenting’ the lives of people they engage with. Such discussions do not pay due attention to the vulnerability of those ethnographers who are not treated on a par with some of the population within the socio-political hierarchies of the society they write about. The precariousness of being a Dalit while doing fieldwork in the Indian countryside is indeed revealing. Such dehumanising experiences push us to be much more intimate to the stories of those who suffer at the bottom. This poses a challenge to the detachment from the field that is supposed to be required to finish writing, for example, this book. This challenge is augmented by the call for reflexivity and positioning of oneself in describing plantation life in a crisis. Perhaps, in the course of becoming an anthropologist, I recognised more the mutuality of being with the plantation community, thus continually becoming a plantation boy.

This post is an excerpt from the new open access book Plantation Crisis:  Ruptures of Dalit life in the Indian tea belt by Jayaseelan Raj, which publishes today.

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