Society for Cultural Anthropology
Volunteered - Oral Presentation Session
My fieldwork with different kinds of activist in West Bengal, India reveals some of the limits of participant-observation as a guiding methodological paradigm for anthropological research. In the paper, I reflect upon my engagements with (i) left-wing political activists in suburban Kolkata and (ii) educational activists in rural West Bengal, paying particular attention to the affordances and constraints of my positionality as a white male researcher from the UK and how this continually shaped my approach to fieldwork.
I argue that the ways in which we frame our research to our interlocutors "in the field" has political-legal, cultural and ethical dimensions which can limit the extent of our participation as fieldworkers. Firstly, we must consider the political and legal implications of participation both for our interlocutors' and our own safety. Secondly, our methodology should be culturally intelligible to our interlocutors. I describe how a culture of hospitality along with caste and class dimensions would define the parameters of my participation in distinct ways in the city and the village. Finally, we must ask ourselves: how might participant-observation impact the way our interlocutors see themselves and what they are doing?
Based on my fieldwork experiences in West Bengal, I propose a methodological adaptability on the part of the researcher which gives due consideration to these three dimensions. Ultimately, an attention to the limits of participant-observation can provide insights in its own right, in ways which are congruent with the socio-cultural contexts in which we work.