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

Two weeks ago, the calendar turned 2012 - and I turned back to work. One of the highlights among last year's many little amusements was a typo in a belated email I received from a very distinguished professor - who excused himself by blaming the delay on his having been "busy with odd thinks [sic]". On second thought: what a superb metaphor for a true scholar's quest! Being involved with thought processes at once eclective, assorted - and slightly weird...

Thus "being busy with odd thinks" soon turned into one of my favourite explanations for what fieldwork might be all about. Many of my own thoughts about Lucknow, Muslims and belonging in 2011, for example, were clearly odd - so much so that even I myself did rarely understand them. At the same time, some of these thoughts brought me seriously at odds with my surroundings and led me to cross horns with established wisdom (a move elegantly demonstrated by the two anthropological goats in today's picture). Last year's concluding post, for instance, in which I insinuated that the famed Tehzeeb of Lucknow might actually denote little more than a singularly hollow nothingness, did not go down well with everybody here...

Those of you patiently reading my blog every week know that I try since weeks to write a follow-up on the Rifah-e-Aam Club - and yet, I don't seem to find the time to even sort my thoughts. I guess it's called the fieldwork overdose - a disease particularly rampant these days that Muharram began...

So rather than thinking things through til the end, I find myself busy with frantic note-taking on anything that is available - be it napkins in a restaurant, visiting cards of people I just met, a recording on my tape recorder or mobile, or even a text message to my wife if all these options prove impractical because I sit in a noisy Rickshaw, or lost my wallet (as I did last week), or am in midst of a meeting. On good days, I might still find enough energy during late evenings to consolidate these scribblings in the actual field journal, maybe even to save (and subsequently backup) images, recordings and GPS tracks from at least four different gadgets. But I find that these good days are an increasingly rare occurance. And then there was this other guy whom I have to meet, the publication contract which awaits posting since a week, an overdue abstract and of course the everyday pains of running a household in India. And I did not even have Chai with the local boys for three days in a row!

In sum: I would love to write about something more meaningful, yet I am terribly caught up in work these days. Please forgive my brevity today - and to all colleagues on a similar mission: tell me, how do you manage the overdose?

These two lovely goats, hanging out close to our new home in Lucknow, got me thinking about epistemology again.1 Or rather of epistemologies, since there are at least two kinds: one is the thinking-inside-the-box variety, exemplified by the goat to the right. His head bumps against the wall, and he has no space to move. As a result, he can think as hard as he likes - it won't help him. Only stepping out of the box would help. Which incidentally his fellow goat to the left did. As a result, she relaxes comfortably, her thoughts can float freely, and her sight can glance over this world without obstruction.2

  • 1. Yes, you non-academic readers: that's how my mind works...
  • 2. I am, by the way, pretty sure she is an anthropologist - given that, as David Gellner once put it: anthropological method is not hanging out, as many believe - it's in fact deep hanging out...