The current global pandemic has made the world strange to us. Massive death tolls, stay-at-home mandates, the shuttering of public life, the intensification of preexisting inequalities, and the emergence of new rules of sociality have thrown into question basic assumptions about how we do what we do and how we know what we know. After all, what does “work” mean as both the nature and place of it shift and recombine with other domestic duties? How do we measure the value of what counts as “essential” in this economy? Where are the borders of the “local” as cities and states develop different strategies to manage public health in the context of pandemic? Thinking ethnographically offers us ways to answer questions like these and navigate social research in pandemic times.“Digital media of the kind to which we’ve quickly turned in this crisis offers a useful communicative tool for conducting interviews or meetings; however, it is neither universally available nor reliable for all researchers and their subjects.”
Studies of our contemporary context have become fraught for researchers used to investigating social phenomena “in the field.” After all, ethnography—the research practice of long-term, immersive fieldwork—has long defined the method that anthropologists like myself have used to make sense of the world. The ethnographer’s embodied experience and sustained engagement with local interlocutors in a particular place have been a valued way to bring together multiple situated knowledges to produce nuanced portraits not just of local cultures, but also of global dynamics like transnational migration, terrorism, social movements, capitalism, and climate change. Digital media of the kind to which we’ve quickly turned in this crisis offers a useful communicative tool for conducting interviews or meetings; however, it is neither universally available nor reliable for all researchers and their subjects. What’s more, digital media erases from view the social context of those conversations, at best complementing rather than substituting in-person exchanges.
Ironically, then, the current global context begs for the very contextualized understanding of changing practices, values, and politics that ethnography can provide, even as it precludes ethnography as a logistical possibility. Nonetheless, I argue that ethnographic thinking on the what, where, and with whom of social research suggests analytical and methodological strategies for addressing the current contingencies of research (im)mobility as well as illuminating important elements of our shifting global reality.
What we study
Central to the project of ethnography is asking, rather than assuming, what constitutes an object of analysis. Whether focusing on policy, community, law, markets, or environment, ethnographers see these phenomena as part of social relations, thus requiring that we study the diverse people, practices, forms of knowledge, and artifacts that constitute them, rather than assuming those phenomena to be a single unified “thing” that can be observed, described, and understood.
Analyses of global dynamics are especially fruitful opportunities for rethinking research in this way. My own work, for example, studies China’s influence on contemporary development politics in Central America. Rather than starting by asking about Chinese state policies, trade, or investment in the region, my question has been “Who or what counts as China in Central America?” This orientation helped to illuminate the multiple forms of China and Chineseness present there, including government officials, state companies, tourists, and migrant laborers from the Peoples’ Republic of China; Taiwanese diplomatic representatives, development professionals, and entrepreneurs; and diasporic Chinese communities made up largely of Cantonese-speakers who have settled in Central America over multiple generations. Glossing all of these actors simply as “China” would obscure more than it would reveal about the politics of this new generation of transpacific developments. It would elide many of the actors, institutions, and practices that constitute China and limit the methods available for engaging them.
By recognizing the multiple forms that China takes in Central America, I had to augment my ethnographic research with digital resources, including historical registries of early twentieth century Chinese immigrants to Central America, company profiles of Mainland and Taiwanese enterprises, social media posts, local journalism as well as state-run media sources, census numbers, commercial advertisements, trade and investment statistics, and real estate data, among others. While such auxiliary documentary work is not uncommon for ethnography, it can play a crucial role in expanding and continuing research in a context of global immobility. And to be most effective, these methods require that we start with a capacious question, rather than a presumed answer, about the focus of our studies.“Even though we may not be able to study the embodied politics of this shift on the ground, we can probe the shifting practices, artifacts, and actors through which nationalism gets expressed in different contexts.”
In addition to expanding our research toolkit, this ethnographic approach can also help us understand the dynamics of the unprecedented moment in which we find ourselves. For example, the tension between globalism and nationalism has emerged as a crucial feature of the current crisis. As leaders race to locate the source of the virus, close borders, regulate domestic movement, and bolster flailing economies, the meaning and shape of nationalism is being refigured. Even though we may not be able to study the embodied politics of this shift on the ground, we can probe the shifting practices, artifacts, and actors through which nationalism gets expressed in different contexts. To that end, we might draw on digital resources to explore localized trends in charity donations, YouTube uploads, passport applications, online shopping preferences, or even movies streamed, as just a few examples, to glean traces of local sentiment, organization, and consumption patterns that can embellish our understanding of what nationalism looks like today. These sources are not substitutes for being in the field, mind you, but they reflect the different domains in which contingent forms and practices of nationalism are unfolding. As such they allow us to build imaginatively on alternative textual and visual sources to make sense of our contemporary moment.
Where we study
Ethnography’s focus on the politics of location—i.e., the “where” of our studies—also offers important lessons for contemporary social research. Rather than presuming that a certain phenomenon lives in a particular physical place, this orientation asks that we acknowledge how the things we study are assembled in ways that are not tied to a single point on the map. Those phenomena therefore require that we investigate how they take shape in and are connected to processes in multiple places that require different methods of study to ascertain.
Rethinking the place of ethnography can mean engaging phenomena closer to home than our research subject might originally suggest. For example, during my research, I investigated the development projects the Chinese state has sponsored in Central America, as well as Chinese community events, commercial expos, language institutes, and urban initiatives, among other things. However, identifying the multiple forms of China and Chineseness in Central America also meant rethinking the place where those projects are conjured, executed, and negotiated. To that end, I have studied real estate speculation by Hong Kong investors in Seattle (my neighboring city), the network of Taiwanese-owned textile maquilas producing for US markets, and the pursuit of higher education in the United States by Chinese Central Americans following a transcontinental project of intergenerational upward mobility. These dynamics are not all physically located in Central America; instead, they reference a set of translocal practices and connections that transcend national boundaries or bilateral relations. They require a translocal methodology not limited to traditional fieldwork in one or even multiple places, but rather grounded in a larger repertoire of research practices that cross disciplinary borders and registers.
With whom we study
At least two decades ago, the recognition that our objects of study were located in and connected to multiple sites spurred anthropologists’ move toward multisited transnational research. At that time, anthropologists Gupta and Ferguson pushed us to shift the focus of fieldwork from localities to what they call location work, which includes an “attentiveness to epistemological and political location” while “forging links between different knowledges that are possible from different locations and tracing lines of possible alliance and common purpose between them.”1Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, “Discipline and Practice: ‘The Field’ as Site, Method and Location in Anthropology,” in Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science, Gupta and Ferguson, eds. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), 39. That stance makes possible the pivot toward research methods like those described above, which bring together different visual and textual resources from multiple places, including the digital world, as important reflections of local realities. It has also promoted the decentering of traditional Western-centric, single-researcher projects in favor of transnational research collaborations that seek to capture both the multiple places where phenomena are assembled and the multiple perspectives that differently positioned researchers can bring to their interpretation.“Transnational collaboration cannot mean outsourcing data collection or extracting knowledge from unequally positioned local researchers who absorb more risk.”
The ethics of these collaborative initiatives raise additional questions to which we must attend, especially in pandemic times. After all, ethnographers have long identified the unequal vulnerabilities that shape research by certain subjects (i.e., women), certain contexts (i.e., war zones), and/or certain topics (i.e., corruption). The pandemic has in many ways generalized these vulnerabilities, albeit unevenly, such that no one can assume the position of the universal masculine subject who can unproblematically enter spaces of danger and operate with authority; nonetheless, some populations still face less security and more risk than others. Therefore, transnational collaboration cannot mean outsourcing data collection or extracting knowledge from unequally positioned local researchers who absorb more risk. Instead, we must structure these collaborations in ways that recognize the unique contributions that each researcher can bring to the table based on the particular kind of location work they can do in their own localities. Who can safely access public spaces and engage in-person interviews? Who has access to stable internet? Whose online searches are subject to censorship and surveillance? Collaboration means recognizing the different conditions that shape how we do what we do and how we know what we know and working to mitigate the varying levels of risk assumed by individual collaborators.
These uncertain and unsettling times require that we find innovative ways to make sense of the shifting forms values, practices, ideas, and relations that are reshaping our world. In this context, ethnography and its ability to know through embedded, embodied experience in particular localities is more valuable than ever. Nonetheless, the global pandemic has exploded the illusion that we can rely upon our global research mobility as a fundamental prerequisite for research, asking us to imagine a world in which immersive, intersubjective research is not the first or only research tool deployed to understand a given social phenomenon. For now, ethnography’s critical insights on the what, where, and with whom of social research can help us productively reorient our work in the face of the current global immobility that will inevitably continue to shape social life and research even in postpandemic times.
Banner photo courtesy of Monica DeHart.