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

Regular readers of my blog will have noted my fascination with character-faced animals. Usually it's goats, but I am equally fond of water buffaloes. I was therefore very pleased when the Times of India put one magnificient exemplar on their "dance of democracy" pages yesterday, where they cover the upcoming state elections in Uttar Pradesh. Apparently, a certain Dinesh Yadav, candidate from Bakshi ka Talab constituency, went riding on the back of his favourite water buffalo to announce his candidacy do the general public (the full article, for those sharing my fondness of buffaloes, is here).

Once I think about it: Indian newspapers are full of such stories (though it's not always buffaloes). But here is the thing: I was not surprised in the slightest. An electioneering politician on top of a buffalo? But of course - what do you expect? It felt completely normal. Obviously, I have gotten used to the beasts over the last couple of months. As I got used to many other things: clerics screaming their voice out of their head, "Muslim parties" allying with the BJP, restaurants offering all kind of fare but nothing from their menu, and of course bureaucrats honking the soul out of their cars. You see: I even got used to the thought that cars have souls! Have I come to expect the unexpected a little too much? And would that be good or bad in terms of an epistemology of fieldwork?

In the interest of transparency and accountability, I want to start today's blog with a confession. A good week ago, I broke the model code of conduct for the upcoming assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. I did so for my own petty financial benefit, and in cooperation with - in fact instigated by - an assistant manager of a large private-sector bank. Travelling in a humble three-wheeled conveyance to avoid being searched by one of the many police teams on election deputation (who tend to concentrate on wannabe politicians' window-tainted, over-speeding, and seriously-honk-endowed SUVs), I transported a large amount of cash along the width and breadth of Lucknow - without enclosing the officially required, duly signed, stamped, and authorized authorization from the authorities. To my defence, I can say no more than that I intended to use said cash as the minimum required opening balance for my domestic savings account. I know this might sound like a lame excuse, though. The only option left to me now is to at least put this episode to good use ex post - by reflecting upon the complexities of corruption in today's blog. Food for thought:

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...

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.