In early 2020, “field” work in the littoral zones of the Indian Ocean (IO) carried out by researchers and practitioners like us from across the world occurred purely through telecommunications and digital mediation. When the first COVID-19 wave started in early 2020, we became interrupted and disconnected workers, scattered across India, Singapore, Germany/Sri Lanka, and Sweden/Thailand. For some of us, international borders were closed right in the middle of fieldwork, while others found themselves unable to access their community partners through remote means. It was a dramatically different disaster—a “post-normal” world in which even physical assistance, social communication, and mobilization for relief efforts were agonizing during the first serial phases of lockdown, especially in this part of the world. Here, we examine the interrupted processes of making scientific knowledge about coastal and marine spaces of the northern Indian Ocean (NIO)—a region comprising the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, the Andaman Sea, and adjacent waters. The term “NIO” performs the work of rendering this vast space as a historically connected geographical unit. In particular, we focus on the many ways in which littoral and maritime scholars and practitioners attempted to (re)create the foundations for a civil society collective for the NIO, which aimed to recover and revise knowledge-production practices through new modalities of epistemic collaboration.
At first glance, it appeared as if the knowledge-production responses to the Covid-19 pandemic across the world and—of special interest to us—across Indian Ocean littoral nations checked all the boxes of a postnormal science (PNS) framework: All knowledge generated during this time was done under conditions of uncertainty, high stakes, and disputes over values and unprecedented urgency. A term originally coined in the 1990s by philosophers of science Silvio Funtowicz and Jerry Ravetz,1Silvio O. Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz, “Science for the Post-normal Age,” Futures 25, no. 7 (1993): 739–755. who saw a new chapter in science marked by the concept of risk exemplified by Chernobyl, the term “postnormal” stuck fast, encompassing wider and newer moments than its original context allowed. What was knowledge production missing in these notions of “normality” and postnormality? What could we, as scholars and practitioners of diverse coastal and marine spaces such as the Indian Ocean, contribute to ideas such as PNS through our own reflexive practice?
Braiding a “Southern Collective” across South and Southeast Asia“The national emergency responses that followed the declaration of the pandemic lacked an integrated view of care and cure for vulnerable communities in this region.”
As scholars from the IO region, we wished to engage with this region’s diversity and explore how we could build hybrid, integrative, and inclusive practices within the social sciences and humanities in response to diverse postnormal experiences across coastal territories. Revising epistemic practices would mean forging new social contracts and engaging with “extended peer communities” by expanding on who we consider equal partners and collaborators. For example, the technoscientific epidemiological response to COVID-19 (such as lockdowns, testing, and mobility protocols) and its impacts across various NIO countries (and among several poorly connected coastal communities) were largely black-boxed2 Harvard University Press, 1987More Info → from public scrutiny and were unsuited for certain social groups, such as marine fishers. The national emergency responses that followed the declaration of the pandemic lacked an integrated view of care and cure for vulnerable communities in this region. We decided to use novel methods to expand on our training as researchers in reading, inscription, and storytelling to spotlight marginalized coastal knowledge and experience across the NIO, especially with respect to forced migration and transboundary marine entities.
Thanks to a generous start-up funding grant awarded by the SSRC, we came together (online) to form the Southern Collective (SC), a Northern Indian Ocean transregional collaboratory. We approach the “collaboratory” as a relatively flexible, continually evolving network spanning the NIO region, which has seen relatively few ocean-inspired science-arts-civil society partnerships compared to the colder northern seas and oceans. Our role was to cocreate a space for broader participation in which members were encouraged to map common interests and to set their own agendas for transboundary subprojects. The initiative brought together underrepresented and politically isolated sites, such as the Lakshadweep Islands and Myanmar, in dialogue with one another. Our partners and collaborators, many of whom had never met, were snowballed in and came to terms with not having physical meetings during the initial partnership-building phase but remained enthusiastic all the same.“We codesigned a few experimental projects not in an attempt to fill the world with more data on migration or coastal land use that would fit into neat models of decision-making, but to incorporate collaborative storytelling and digital platforms in knowledge creation.”
The Collective gathered diverse members—coastal community leaders, civil society organizations, and fellow researchers. We codesigned a few experimental projects not in an attempt to fill the world with more data on migration or coastal land use that would fit into neat models of decision-making, but to incorporate collaborative storytelling and digital platforms in knowledge creation. These projects are designed to demonstrate how social decisions are arrived at when the state regresses; how meaning and action are made by coastal communities in everyday life and in a crisis; and importantly, how we, as scholars, reorient our efforts toward democratizing knowledge production in postnormal world(s) by collaborating with diverse experts. The first step was to identify intersecting priorities and thematic interests for the Collective; it was essentially our shot at “connected hope” for an expansive region that could fruitfully experiment with novel collaboration techniques, formal and informal communication, internally driven by core values and norms.3Derrick. L. Cogburn, “HCI in the So-called Developing World: What’s in it for Everyone,” Interactions 10, no. 2 (2003): 80–87. Our objective was the representation of diverse coastal and oceanic knowledge through a reflexive South-South partnership around the IO’s marine environment—our Southern Collective.
Enlivening mobile worlds of the Indian Ocean
Here we offer a brief peek into the Southern Collective’s collaborative experiments.
Connected Ethnographies was the Collective’s reflexive initiative on knowledge-production practices in a crisis. We invited diverse scholars of the NIO to reflect and write about their experiences of attempting “immobile” research in the first year of the pandemic under ubiquitous lockdown announcements and mobility restrictions in the region. What emerged was a beautiful set of essays that offer methodological insights for knowledge-making in conditions of lockdown and across the IO’s digital divides. The collection, put together by Annu Jalais and Aarthi Sridhar, has been published on the Society for Cultural Anthropology website and is titled “A Collaboratory of Indian Ocean Ethnographies.” With 13 essays, authored by 26 scholars, practitioners, schoolteachers, research partners, and field associates, we offer an instance of how to create an extended peer community by collaborating with diverse individuals and forms of expertise. These essays constitute a diversity of academic backgrounds and hierarchies, as well as disciplinary interests: gender, social media use, resilience, schooling without connectivity, building networks, and art collaborations. Also, they range in location from Pakistan in the west, the eastern & western coasts of India (including pieces from the little-known Lakshadweep and Andaman Islands), Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines in the east. Together, these essays disrupt notions of what constitutes knowledge/technique when conducting “connected ethnography.” It also allowed us to return to writing despite interruptions; to make sense of being disconnected and find a way to collaborate, as well as reflect on our experiences of interrupted research.“Migration Diaries is designed to provide insights into processes of ‘distress migration’ through an active engagement with the extended peer community of migrant workers and their support organizations. But our experiment coughed and spluttered.”
Migration Diaries was our idea for an online platform to curate the experiences of coastal migrant communities from across the IO many of whom migrate due to complex conditions of distress. Our team members Madhurima Majumder and Vani Sreekanta organized workshops on storytelling techniques and ethics with partners, including Azhar Jainul Abdeen from Sri Lanka, Moyukh Mahtab from Bangladesh, and Jesu Rethinam and Uttam Guru from India—creating the ability to craft invaluable stories on experiences of migration. On our end of the collaboration as editors, our goal was to amplify the insights of migrants’ experiences and allow the stories to travel digitally. Migration Diaries is designed to provide insights into processes of “distress migration” through an active engagement with the extended peer community of migrant workers and their support organizations. But our experiment coughed and spluttered. Generating stories over phone conversations and precarious internet connectivity was simply not sufficient. We needed to spend physical time with people who migrate to allow for the mediating and relational value of physical presence, which is central to an ethnographic encounter. Presence signals trust and solidarity, especially in moments of doubt and crisis. Storytelling, and its cocreation as a collaboration between privileged and marginalized people, demands sustained proximity without which a shared experience simply does not emerge. It is only when travel restrictions are relaxed and repeated offline encounters become possible that our careful design for Migration Diaries will materialize as richer coauthored stories.
Sea Lexicon emerged from a proposal by doctoral student Lakshmi Pradeep, who, while conducting fieldwork in the Lakshadweep Islands, came up with the idea of putting together a lexicon of coastal terms in the islands. The idea bloomed into the Indian Ocean “Sea Lexicon,” which would enable researchers and coastal communities across the NIO to share the subjective meaning of elements from their coastal worlds across borders. An online Lexicon, we hoped it could serve as a “tool-oriented communication system”4Sara Bly, “Special Section on Collaboratories,” Interactions 5, no. 3 (1998): 31. to support social scientific collaboration on the IO. We began by gathering descriptive field accounts (ours and those of our field partners) associated with specific words such as “coconut tree,” “monsoon,” and “tuna” to draw insights into the diverse and connected cultural and social life of the Indian Ocean. IO languages themselves encode the historical interconnectedness of the region in terms of mobility, navigation knowledge, trade, acculturation, and relations with myriad flora, fauna, and environments.
Confronting ICT inequities in the IO became imperative under conditions of lockdown as it meant our collaboratory had to be conceptualized and built under these constraints. Sridhar Anantha helped the Collective map the gaps and opportunities posed by information and communication technology (ICT) in coastal spaces of the IO. We relied entirely on telephonic interviews and Zoom meetings to communicate and collaborate with our partners, build the Collective’s online platform, and cocreate various tools. We mapped the digital divide with the help of our partners in Bangladesh, creating a simple survey tool for anyone in the NIO to fill up; this, we hope, will add to a crowd-sourced way to see ICT usage and inequities, spatially and temporally.
Our ICAS-12 double-panel conference was another step we took to form a more conventional epistemic interest group: riverine- and estuarine-oriented critical scholars in the region. Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa and Alin Kadfak convened a research panel at the online ICAS 12 Conference (International Convention of Asia Scholars), a spectacular online treat replete with VR and XD enhanced experiences. This was part of a double panel with Chitra Venkataramani and Anthony Medrano and consisted of ten scholars, both social and natural scientists, working on coastal aspects of the Indian Ocean region. As a next step, a proposal for a special journal issue will be put together warranting an open call on the many lived meanings, poetics, politics, and everyday practices of “southern” waterfronts, disengaging this topic from its conventional, singularly planning-centric framing.
Beyond the funding line: Sustaining an epistemic community“Our network of virtual strangers has attempted to value practice-centered reflexivity by foregrounding this in our experiments to overcome immobility and its social effects.”
As the Southern Collective enters the next phase of its existence, it cannot but be steered by the epistemological and pedagogical shifts demanded by postnormal societal realities. While the term “new normal” might well signal a return to a pre-pandemic status quo or business-as-usual capitalist modes of living, collaborative ethnographies, for us, are here to stay, in line with the IO’s reformist and transformative epistemic traditions. Our network of virtual strangers has attempted to value practice-centered reflexivity by foregrounding this in our experiments to overcome immobility and its social effects. With the DFG-funded BlueUrban project, the Collective will continue exploring “resource” contestations on archipelagic Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, the pandemic itself has recentered the zoonotic in our very existence. After obtaining funding from a UParis-NUS joint grant, the Southern Collective hosted an online Asian Bestiary, and the exhibition “Imagining ‘Asian’ Nonhumans” on this region’s relationship with nonhumans, whether megafauna or microbial.
By opening up practices of generating and circulating stories about nature and culture, plural knowledge can be generated. However, it is by building research networks of solidarity and value consensus that such knowledge turns into “facts” that can find their way into decisions that steer us in postnormal futures. So onward ho, Southern Collective!
Banner photo: Jakob Owens/Unsplash.