One of the pleasures of Islamabad is to shop at Saeed Book Bank; and part of that pleasure is to marvel at the idiosyncratic filing approach through which they organize their offers: you find sound scholarly studies next to dusty volumes of oriental British officers, you find the latest epistemological critique of Hadith exegesis next to coffee-table selections of the "true sayings of the Prophet". What I found, among all this, is Sadaf Ahmad's study of Al-Huda and upper-class urban Pakistani women.1Much of what she wrote chimed well with my own project in Lucknow, but these lines in particular stuck (12f):

Rubina, whom I had known most of my life, listened as I told her about my research plans, and then quietly informed me that she had joined Al-Huda the month before. The time I spent in Islamabad was the time Rubina took the one-year diploma course there, which allowed me to get a very close look at the process she went through over time and to see what changes the Islam she learned about and engaged with at Al-Huda brought to her ideology, her behavior, and her relationships. one of the relationships that changes was our own. She was the only "subject" I allowed myself to argue with freely.

The following are notes from a lecture on fieldwork in conflict settings which I delivered last week at the School for Politics and International Relations, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad (my other lecture in Pakistan by the way resembled this talk, thus no separate notes). I am thankful for the invitation and the engaging discussion with fellow PhD candidates and MPhil students; some of the points they raised are included below.

Before I begin, however, a brief explanation of the picture for today's post: this ambiguously dapper and nonetheless threateningly armed fellow is depicted on the cover of Faisal Devji's highly recommended essay on terrorism and humanitarianism;1 it was originally collected by Thomas Dworzack in Kabul in 2001 (see here). Why do I put it here? Mainly because the picture is a good reminder that social scientists should do their best to refrain from the ready temptation to render those we dislike (such as violent Taliban) as the ultimate and essential other (forgetting, for instance, the same Talibans' aesthetic desires, which they share with all other human beings). Which, of course, leads straight into the thick of my lecture. Here you go:

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.

  • 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.

This post is the first in a tripartite series of lecture summaries from the fieldwork methods class which I co-teach this term at SIT New Delhi.1 The post also sums up my individual take on the venerable "DIE Exercise", a pedagogical tool originally developed in the context of intercultural education and applied here in slightly more academic form to the youtube phenomenon "Where the hell is Matt?". Links to the next two lectures follow here once they go online:

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

  • 1. More on this class here, more on the challenge of coaching undergrad research here

A title with two cryptic terms, really? I am sorry, but it has to be that way: "phenomenology" is in essence what anthropologists do, while "Tehzeeb" is an Urdu word for "culture", which in turn marks the discipline's pinnacle (or obstacle, depending on your perspective).12 No flexibility in titling, thus...

More to the point, however, Tehzeeb is also the pinnacle (and maybe obstacle?) of popular and academic imaginaries of Lucknow, where I am about to enter the third month of my fieldwork. Two major events just passed which inspired today's reflection: the culmination of Muharram in Ashura, and the last day of the Lucknow Mahotsav (pictured, in all its dusty beauty, to the right). The latter is marketed by UP tourism as the definite "festival of Awadh culture", while many a signboard in town in contrast celebrates Muharram as the "essence of Tehzeeb". I am not just interested in these events, though: in fact ever since I arrived in Lucknow, the city's famed "lost culture" seems both omnipresent and elusive. Everybody here talks about it (or rather: about its absence). But what's behind it - that proves surprisingly hard to come by.

  • 1. Clifford J, Marcus GE (Eds.). (1986). Writing culture. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
  • 2. Abu-Lughod, L. (1991). Writing against culture. In R.G. Fox (Ed.), Recapturing anthropology: Working in the present. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.