This post concludes the tripartite series of lecture summaries from the fieldwork methods class which I co-teach this term at SIT New Delhi.1 It addresses several issues faced by foreigners who do research in India (or elsewhere) as opposed to domestic scholars who research their own culture - and simultaneously problematizes this terminology. The lecture moves from the practical to the conceptual, picking four potential trouble areas: language, field relations, othering, and categories. The remaining posts of this series are here:

Description, interpretation, evaluation
Research questions, interview questions
Doing research as a foreigner

Language: While probably more people in India speak English than in England, these tend to be a very special bread: well educated, rather male, middle class or above, more urban than rural, etc. The implication is that research into questions of development usually needs to incorporate a good junk of fieldwork in Hindi/Urdu or other Indian languages. Unfortunately, interviewing in non-native languages can lead to severe misunderstandings and superficiality (more so than conversations in native tongue), and on top is usually more exhausting as well. Furthermore, you might need a translator or assistant, who costs money and transforms the interview dyad into a triad - you will effectively be "researching through a third party".2 And all this changes the power dynamics of fieldwor: you loose power, your interlocutors and assistants gain.

What can you do about this? Apart from striving to improve your language skills, I think you should ask simple questions, ask for clarifications, and let people explain what they mean by certain terms. Often, direct or seemingly naive questions render surprisingly insightful answers - if your level of language requires you to be naive, try to embrace and use this opportunity rather than attempting in vain to hide it! Similarly, if you are stuck with an assistant, make good use of him or her beyond (and after) the interview as well: discuss question phrasing and analytical ideas, revisit interesting non-verbal interaction in the conversation she or he translated for you, etc. Often, such assistants - if treated as more than just "technical" translators - can become prime informants for your study. Finally, don't worry too much about loosing power vis-a-vis your interlocutors - you can't force them to contribute in any specific manner anyway, even if you were a native speaker. To the contrary: research has shown that empowered interviewees open up more3 - so use this advantage! Too often, the power dynamics in anthropological fieldwork favour the anthropologist4 - it is actually good that language tilts the balance a bit, if you ask me...

Field relations: This leads over to the second potential trouble spot in doing research as a foreigner: how your being a foreigner impacts on field relations. Firstly, you are torn between the need to establish your independence in analysis and argument - while you are at the same time utterly dependent on gate-openers, NGOs, people, to provide you with data. Moreover, all these people might expect different things from you than you expect from them, and you will most likely end up taking more from them (for your paper, for your career, for your learning experience) than they will benefit from you (all honourable and important attempts to the contrary notwithstanding). The resulting feelings should not, however, obstruct your academic integrity.5

How can you go about this conundrum of relational intertwining? To limit the dependence on gate-openers, I would advise you to at least seek out multiple ones. In terms of expectation management: be honest about your intentions and don't make promises you don't intend to fulfil - but do be prepared to share results; this is a matter of professional ethics if not courtesy at large. Finally, in terms of feeling thankful, I can only suggest to express that feeling and accept that people gift you much more than you feel you deserve. But at the same time, make sure to actively seek out counter-narratives to those you acquire from those to whom you feel most obliged - that, too, is part of being professional.

Who is the other? Thirdly, it is however very important to remember that being a foreigner (as opposed to a local) need not be the most important impact (and separation line) in field dynamics at all - even though it is often the most visible one. More likely than not, your gender,6 wealth, educational background, mobility, and above all association with certain powerful gate-openers or NGOs in your field will be more influential than the fact that you are not Indian. Indeed, "being a foreigner" might be a mask for all these things combined. Never assume that the most important social faultline at play is the one between you and them - a point I already made in my first lecture. One reason for this is that, in the end, all politics are local - and most of your interlocutors will care more about the local politics (and thus locally relevant categories, such as gender, or locally influential institutions, such as NGOs) than about the post-colonial geopolitics of academia (i.e. the fact per se that you are a foreigner - more important will thus be what this being a foreigner stands for locally). This is not to say that they (whoever "they" are) are trying to figure you out as soon as you try to figure them out - but they might more likely do so in local frameworks.

How can you go about it? Firstly, try to take the box you are being put into by others (and the fact that you are being boxed) as data rather than offence (take good care of yourself, though - some forms of othering, especially gendered ones, can be too much to stand). Secondly, keep an eye open for class, gender, level of education, political orientation and other such factors and try to figure out how these categories and associated dynamics place you in the field rather than vis-a-vis the field. Finally, watch out for commonality alongside difference and try to preserve a sense of (individual) diversity and of the complexity of lived lives once you write up your paper - knowbody likes to be othered, even though research necessarily means to simplify reality. But know your limits!

Concepts and categories: This finally leads to the last point in how being a foreigner impacts your research: the "post-colonial predicament". In short, you need concepts to make sense of your data, and you will need to categorize people, events, locales, and many other things to tell your story. I think it is important here to enquire about the concepts and categories which are being used in your empirical field - and unpack those. Likewise, however, reflect about the concepts and categories which are being used in your academic field - and unpack those, too. In the end, categories of practice and categories of analysis might overlap or not7 - justify why!

Doing research as a foreigner on Prezi

With this post, the lecture trilogy ends for this term - it has been great joy to teach again, and I hope my comments were (and are) helpful in facilitating your first independent research endeavour. Please let me know (via comment below or privately) whether this was the case, and especially why not (if not)...