I’ve been deep in grant writing for the past two weeks (a big anthropological fieldwork grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation was due today) so while I have been furiously reading, it’s of a different sort of reading than it would/will be for development of my orals documents. Nonetheless, while part of me detests the genre of grant writing for its wholeness and attempt to lay out exactly what the researcher will do (hmmm, interesting to think about the genre as a particular mode of “futurism” where you are basically writing yourself into the future field…; how does that affect what you actually think of/see in the “field”?), I have found it a useful exercise in helping me to simply grasp a better sense of the boundaries/borders of literatures within which I am playing (for the time being). I am copy-pasting below the latest version of my grant application in response to the questions: “How does your research build on existing scholarship in anthropology and closely related disciplines? Give specific examples of this scholarship and its findings.” You can see that I ended up drawing largely on anthropology of development, critical humanitarianism, and STS (social study of knowledge). I had an entire section on feminist scholarship around embodied knowledge (also copy-pasted below for anyone interested – please cite if you use any of this for something…), but given space constraints, upon advice of my advisor, she suggested that my discussion of “embodied knowledge” was more my underlying premise than an argument I was advancing. I’m not entirely convinced that I am solely using the concept as a core premise… in fact, I think I am actually questioning the potentially problematic uptake of the concept by those who take the body as a natural category. As I’ve noted earlier, something that I am observing is how the feminist concept of “embodied knowledge” is being taken up in conjunction with postcolonial concepts of decolonizing knowledge to call for claims to knowing based on different aspects of solidarity (shared historical oppression based on social category of race, etc.) but since these are based on, as we know, very unstable social categories, how do concepts of the body intersect with claims for knowledge. As I am writing this, I am thinking I need to read more on mutuality and intersectionality and find out if there is more out there on explicitly thinking through these concepts in light of epistemological/ontological frameworks. I am still muddling through this all and obviously can’t fully articulate it yet, but this is why I could not include it in my grant proposal (because the grant proposal genre is not where you figure things out that you don’t know how to do yet!). I am appreciating how this class is allowing me to muddle through it though… any suggestions for more readings on this would be appreciated!
My initial grant material on embodied knowledge:
“My work traces the mutual imbrication between the body and knowledge. While the performance of “disembodied researcher” in some disciplines still continues to function as a set of naturalized norms that privilege a masculine mode of being, feminist theory has long established that bodies are both discursively and materially shaped, configured, and constructed according to social, historical, and geographically specific times and spaces (Beauvoir 1949; Butler 1990; Haraway 1988). In more contemporary feminist work, such socio-material approaches have been applied to study laboratory studies (Fujimura 2006, 1996; Rapp 1999). Such studies have found that scientists’ socio-historically located normative assumptions influence experimental designs and analytic frames, often setting the stage for reproducing their own taken-for-granted categories (Fujimura 2006). Yet, even under such conditions, the material world can produce novel data leading to new insights. Applying such a socio-material approach towards the practice of social sciences in “the field” will broaden my understanding of not only discursive and performative aspects of the sociality of development research, but also of the materiality of society writ large (Latour 2005). Particularly important for my research is Barad’s (2007) work which offers “agential realism” as both an epistemological and ontological theory that emphasizes that practices of knowing are in themselves specific material engagements that reconfigure the world. My work puts this feminist literature into sustained conversation with critical approaches to digital development research that have looked at the rise of digital technology in development through the lens of moral claims of cooperation (Rottenburg 2009) and “for good” (Pal 2017), idioms for national politics (Poggiali 2017), and postcolonial computing (Irani et al. 2010). My project will contribute to this growing body of critical scholarship with an empirically grounded study of not only ideological discourse of digital development, but also the genuine performative efficacy of ideology (Mazzarella 2010). Such work will broaden the possibilities for forms of claim-making about expertise, technological and otherwise, and enable the capture of a range of other desires, including economic mobility and political recognition (Poggiali 2016) to understand how researchers and those they work with use and also subvert hegemonic discourse (Cooper and Stoler 1997).”
Eventual Q2 for my Wenner-Gren application (2017)[Please cite if you use this material in any way, thank you!]
“My research draws upon development anthropology, science and technology studies and critical humanitarianism in postcolonial Africa to contribute to scholarship on ethnographic research ethics, relevance and relationships “in the field”.
Since its inception, the discipline of Anthropology has had a complicated relationship with the question of for whom and for what purposes anthropological knowledge is in service. As both a beneficiary and critic of the project of colonialism (Stocking 1991; Malinowski 1961), anthropology continues to be enmeshed in this paradox—at once inextricably wedded to Western historical and epistemological dominance and to a radical principle of critique of the same. This paradox has been long discussed, first as part of debates about “decolonizing anthropology” (Harrison 1991) and more recently under “engaged anthropology” (Sillitoe 2015). It is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the field of development where the debate over a theory of practice versus a practice of theory rages on (Escobar 1997; Mosse 2013); some critical scholars even suggest researchers may be perpetuating the colonial project through exploitation of indigenous knowledge (Janes and Corbett 2009; Farmer 1999), fueled by the growth of academic capitalism and demand for new data, insights, and expanding knowledge frontiers (Cantwell and Kauppinen 2014). The unease set up by this tension—working for the alleviation of poverty and inequality, to the benefit of one’s career—is particularly acute around three anthropological themes:
RELATIONSHIPS: Ethnographic relationships between individual researchers and interlocutors have highlighted potentials for collaboration (Marcus and Mascarenhas 2005), solidarity (Mohanty 2003), betrayal (Visweswaran 1994), deception (Bleek 1987), and intimacy (Blackwood 1995). Ethnographies of the social life of development workers have focused on tracing aspects of development knowledge to their sociality, especially looking at motivations and moral meaning making (Malkki 2015; Lewis et al. 2008), hyper-mobility (Redfield 2012), and racialized relations with locals (Benton 2016). Especially relevant for my project is recent work looking at post-colonial power dynamics of overseas clinical trials and the politics of international collaboration between African research scientists and Western partners (Farmer 2002; Fairhead et al. 2006) which may include lack of access to data (Crane 2013), little opportunity for recognition through co-authorship on research publications, and institutional inequalities (Peterson and Folayan 2017).
RELEVANCE: While digital development social scientists derive much of their authority from the power of understanding the “end-user” through ethnographic approaches, critiques of explicitly bottom-up participatory approaches have highlighted how these approaches continue to be structured by, rather than changing, relations of power (Cooke and Kothari 2001; Hickey and Mohan 2004). Feminist ethnographers have also raised concerns about “whether the appearance of greater respect for and equality with research subjects in the ethnographic approach masks a deeper, more dangerous form of exploitation” (Stacey 1988, 22), suggesting that new relational forms are still needed. Given the unique relationship of anthropological theory to “the field”—with concepts and theories built from those of its subjects and found partners in fieldwork—contemporary anthropology has the unique opportunity and challenge to explore the possibilities for such forms in our construction of “the field of fieldwork” (Marcus 2015). Building on experimental approaches to reformulate the research encounter advanced over the last few decades by anthropologists (Marcus 1997, 2006; Holmes and Marcus 2008), feminist ethnographers (Lather 2001; Visweswaran 1994), and indigenous studies (Cervone 2015; Sillitoe 2015; Smith 1999), this project will engage head-on with these long-standing debates and interventions around the ethnographic approach and its relationship to fieldwork and subjects.
RESEARCH ETHICS: In spite of particular commitments to moral responsibility and well-aware of critiques of the aid industry (De Waal 1997; Ferguson 1990), anthropologists working in critical humanitarianism are nonetheless also often implicated in similar social and material conditions as overseas aid workers (Mosse 2011, 2013). This has raised questions about the moral responsibility for developmental outcomes of ethnographic engagement as well as tensions over what is expected of the anthropologist both materially and socially. While institutional practices such as the institutional review board (IRB) have been designed to delineate clear and universal ethical boundaries for research, work by medical anthropologists across Africa has revealed the complexity of putting such processes into practice when working with context-specific vulnerable populations (Abadie 2010; Geissler 2011; Brada 2016). Additional frameworks are needed for rethinking research ethics beyond simply project-based parameters that take into consideration local histories and political economies in which projects (and ethics) are situated (Biruk 2017).
Finally, my work is deeply informed by the analytics and insights of STS. The social study of knowledge has particularly influenced me with its emphasis on the inter-subjectivity of observation, interpretation, and consensus (Bloor 1991; Barnes and Bloor 1996), and documented cultural specificities of supposedly universal sciences captured through attention to “epistemic cultures” (Knorr-Cetina 1999). In my research, these insights will contribute to understanding the everyday negotiations enacted in translation, performance, and material exchanges between digital development researchers and those they study. I am committed to bringing an analytical lens informed by STS literature into a postcolonial African setting and asking what these contexts reveal about the received literature.
Building on these studies, my work insists that holding development researchers and their research participants in the same analytical frame can broaden the scope of knowledge work to also understand informants’ self-conscious engagement in research. Such a symmetrical approach of studying the meaning making and material realities of “doing research” for both groups in tandem can do more than critique dominant analytic dichotomies; it can broaden and denaturalize our inherited ways of knowing and talking about others and ourselves (Nader 1972) through attention to the rhythms, pragmatics, and horizons of the array of knowledge production actors in Africa.”