Is your research fieldwork or homework? Kamala Visweswaran’s ideas about decolonization, anthropology, and ethnography

Theoretical Musings is an occasional series where I explore some of the significant theoretical foundations and turning points in my academic journey. See the first installment here.

When I ask students to identify their theoretical framework(s) or paradigm(s), they often become what I call intellectually frozen. For many students, theories seem too broad, too abstract, or too academic to be useful and their brains (and typing fingers) become paralyzed. One common misconception they have about theory is that they have to pick just one and follow it. While it is true that some academics and policy makers pick a single theoretical approach and stick with it, most of us are theoretically pluralistic, finding nuggets of insight in many different places. This is particularly important for students who come from different cultural backgrounds with their own cultural paradigms about knowledge and learning. For me, one of those theoretical nuggets was Kamala Visweswaran’s ideas about fieldwork and homework.[i]

When I began my Ph.D. program in anthropology in 1995, I was preparing to join through marriage my intended research community. Within the common paradigms of Western scientific inquiry, this created an obvious and immediate conflict: I had become too close to the community and culture of my study. I was no longer “in the field,’ but “at home.”

Historically, in anthropology “the field’ has been both a location of transformation and a location of separation, a rite of passage through which the student passes, a vessel of concepts, theories, and methods waiting to be filled with cultural grist for the anthropological mill. For the budding anthropological scholar, the field is the location of their transformation from student to practitioner, a transformation marked preferably by physical and mental challenge, with a bit of hazing thrown in.   The field is also a location of knowledge transformation, where so-labeled traditional and cultural knowledge collected by the researcher begins that mystic transformation into academic knowledge in a dissertation or publication. These transformations depend upon and reinforce the field as a location of separation, a place that enhances boundaries between the anthropological self and exotic other, between culture A and culture B, between “cultural” knowledge and “acultural“[ii] knowledge. By becoming a part of my intended field I had at least partially collapsed those boundaries and took my transformation in a potentially unscholarly direction.

I needed to explore my new positionality and place it in context and so began to look at approaches to ethnography and oral history that explored the relationships between researcher and researched in ways that went beyond the traditional Western dichotomy. Fortunately, many feminist and postcolonial anthropologists were already working with and writing about this issue. One of those was Kamala Visweswaran, a cultural anthropologist by training who is now a professor in the Ethnic Studies department at UC San Diego.

Fictions of Feminist Ethnography was Visweswaran’s first book, a collection of essays exploring feminist theory and practice in ethnography. While her discussion of the potential nature and textual forms of feminist ethnography was useful, it was her theorizing about the nature of fieldwork and homework that gave me a piece of theoretical foundation that I use to this day: Viswesaran linked the decolonization of anthropology with the notion of homework,  an “anthropology in reverse’ that speaks “from the place one is located’ (1994, 104).

I have argued for the convergence of two distinct epistemological shifts, one where gender ceases to hold the center of feminist theory, and one where the field fails to hold the center of anthropology.   One shift signals the failure of feminist thinking, and the other, the failure of ethnography.   Both shifts, I believe, mark decolonization as an active, ongoing process — incomplete, and certainly not one to be memorialized as past historical moment…if I have strategically theorized home in order to unearth the hegemonic “field’ of feminist anthropology, I also recognize that field and home are dependent, not mutually exclusive, terms, and that the lines between fieldwork and homework are not always distinct (1994, 113).

As this quote illustrates, her arguments were highly theoretical – broad, somewhat abstract, and academic — but her core notion, that research from a place of belonging (or partial belonging) was not just a legitimate, but a necessary anthropological endeavor, helped me understand my place and has continued to help me as I work with students who are doing their own homework of some kind.

So, for your research or project, in what ways are you doing homework? In what ways are you doing fieldwork? Does it help you to think about your research as homework instead of fieldwork? Do you think it would help you explain your work to others? If so, you have a little piece of theory that supports your approach to your own work and places you within an academic tradition. Congratulations!

Next up in Theoretical Musings:

This particular theoretical idea deals with positionality — the ways in which our culture, gender, class, ethnicity, and locations in time and place influence how we understand the world. It falls under epistemology, the branch of philosophy that is concerned with theories of knowledge. In terms of research paradigms, epistemology looks at the nature of the relationship between the knower and what can be known. Establishing an understanding of your relationship to your research is important, but it (usually) will not be the only theoretical perspective you need for your work. For example, you might need to decide whether to focus on “needs’ or “assets’ for a community development project and find a framework that explains and organizes your approach. For our next installment I will look at two different types of assets based theoretical approaches, Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach and Cordelia Flora and Jan Flora’s Community Capitals Framework.

[i] Twenty-four years later her ideas still resonate within feminist anthropology circles, as this 2018 post in Anthropology News attests.

[ii] As Western academic knowledge is often presumed to be.

Fictions of Feminist Ethnography can be read online by UAF students through the Rasmussen Library website.

Visweswaran, Kamala. 1994. Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.