Recently, a friend called me an armchair anthropologist on Facebook, alleging somewhat pre-Malinowskian leanings. It wasn't quite meant as a compliment.1 But she certainly had a point: these days, I am more often out of Lucknow than in town. I keep busy teaching, touring visitors, or attending workshops and conferences. And when I am home for a few days, I can indeed more often be seen on the verandah, in my swingchair, scribbling notes or scrutinizing the latest book on Lucknow2 than going out "in the field". Her mocking comment thus reminded me how easily we scholars - and anthropologists in particular - can be made feeling guilty of neglecting "the field" - both when attending to other academic tasks, and even more so if one is sneaking out into real holidays.

On second thought, I however decided to own up her allegation. I found that I indeed need to balance engagement and disengagement with "the field" to retain my creativity and curiosity. Unless I am able to swing, as it were, between fieldwork overdose and "deep hanging out", I find it hard to produce quality work. In fact, I think one can make the argument that engagement beyond a point in fact prevents rather than eases good ethnographic writing.

My own eyes were opened to this point while reading Craig Jeffrey's rather exemplary ethnography "Timepass".3 I read it in my swingchair, on the balcony, feeling slightly guilty. And then I came across the section where Jeffrey candidly reflects upon his own productivity anxieties as a PhD candidate on fieldwork "out there". He reported feeling guilty for spending merely one to two hours per day on average "doing fieldwork" - and distributing the rest of his time among writing, thinking, and organizing daily life. Well: if that's the standard (and it's a good standard if one considers his career path), I figured, I should not worry - and many others out there should not worry either. While we are told rather frequently that extensive fieldwork is the key to successful ethnography, it is less often acknowledged that "fieldwork" need not necessarily mean observing, participating, and interviewing only. I thus fully admit to my pre-Malinowskian leanings: while swinging back and forth between engagement and disengagement, I feel proud to be an armchair anthropologist once in a while!

  • 1. I admit that I might have hurt her feelings by posting a rather sunny picture - shown to the right - of my beautiful new swingchair back to freezing Europe...
  • 2. Definitely worth a read: Jones, J. (2012). Shi'a Islam in colonial India. Cambridge: Univ. Press.
  • 3. Jeffrey, C. (2010). Timepass. Stanford: Univ. Press.