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By Mahmudul Sumon

Few years back I was attending a small seminar on how to survive in the “field” [for my non-anthropology friends, you perhaps know that it is typical to do “fieldwork” for anthropological research.]. A group of anthropology post-graduate students were gathered and the topic was fixed from beforehand: “how to survive in the field?” The seminar was attended by all postgraduate students who were about to embark upon fieldwork soon. A round of discussion revealed that this small group of students had their “field” in places like Amazonian Peru to Cameroon to Brazil to Indonesia. As a participant in the seminar when asked about my “field”, when my turn came of course, I hesitantly tried to say that my “field” was in Bangladesh. On a second thought, I also mentioned that I shall have some work in the archives which is also my “field”. At this the professor chairing the session quipped: perhaps at some point we can talk about that too [i. e. How to survive in the archive?] We all laughed at this, perhaps with a spirited mood to discuss the topic for which we all gathered.

As brain-storming progressed, it appeared that one of the more important issue of fieldwork seemed to be encountering the “cultural difference”. Most people in the seminar found some value in this discussion although it was phrased in different ways by different people in the group. I was perhaps the second member along with a Peruvian student who was doing fieldwork in what we called our “own” society/ country. In short we were doing “anthropology at home” as it is often phrased in our community! For me this meant Bangladesh where I was born and brought up and educated. For me this also meant that I represented the ethnically majority population (Bengali, middle class, Muslim, man) of the country where I was doing my fieldwork amongst the indigenous groups and communities (i.e. the Santals and the Oraons and also some others groups, often categorized as “minority” people in different governmental literature).

For many of my friends attending this session, expectation was high that they would encounter something new and different as most of them did not have the chance to meet the people on whom they would do their research. So they were keen to think about this business of living in a “different” culture. Like when I came to Europe for the first time of course, I must admit that at the beginning I was talking a lot in terms of cultural differences something I wouldn’t do when I am at home. But with the passing of time, I must admit that it has gone in the backgrounds of thought. So this proximity gave me a sensibility of which I was unaware before. I thought that most of my colleagues and would be anthropologists would go through a similar experience once they embark upon their fieldwork. Will they be able to talk in these terms of “cultural difference” after their experience? I wondered although knowing fully that this will not dismantle the giant and grandiose theories of cultural difference. Edward Said has shown how this talk of difference which ultimately dehumanizes and exoticizes the “Orient” was essentially a knowledge instituted power game. I was thinking about that uneven playing field.

From my side though I noticed that I did not have much to say about “cultural difference” as such or could not valorize the concept of difference in the way most of my colleagues could or did. Will it be very different for me if I visit the communities of the adivasi people? I already knew some people from the community. Is “difference” a thing in itself? It is not as recent scholarships tend to show. Instead of cultural difference, a whole lot of work shows how difference is historically constituted. For example B S Cohn writes, that anthropologists are often complicit in positioning the natives as authentic, untouched and aboriginal, and “strives to deny the central historical fact that the people he or she studies are constituted in the historically significant colonial situation..” (p. 30 in di Leonardo). Cultural difference is not a thing in itself. It is the discourse, discursive deployments, texts and its effects which construct “difference” and “otherness”.

In the specific context where I was planning to do fieldwork, I was just thinking whether we should take cultural difference as a priory category. Should it be a point of departure from the very beginning of my fieldwork in Bangladesh? Wouldn’t that be a theoretical closure? And then can that be a starting point for all of us in the room?

Considering these question I found myself somewhat differently positioned from my colleagues who were planning their research among far reaching people and geographic terrains. For me this talk of cultural difference was tantamount to essentializing the “other”. Post colonial theory made me aware that self is not possible without the other. I know of a Bengali poet who after living among the Garos of Bangladesh for some years now looks at him and identifies himself differently. This has been a transformative experience for him. His poems too have some resonance reflecting that shift in terms of identity (this comment is based on news paper interviews of poet Rafiq Azad). But that is an exception.

More often than not, I know people who would go to live among the Santals only to do a research only to discuss it in scholarly articles, seminars and symposiums. For this larger group, the Santals are different people. In anthropological circles, this practice has its long history, stretching back to the colony. Broadly these questions, in the context of my study, led me to a second set of questions. What is “field” in anthropology and how can we conceive of “field” in the present conditions of post-colonial nation state? If difference is historically constituted through discursive strategies then what follows is that the “field” (in the received sense of the term) looses some of its importance as a priory category. It is not the physical space which is the “source”. People are objectified in some specific regimes of truth. For me “field” is then about extending the archive into the physical space and vice versa.

Reference cited
Micaela di Leonarda. 1998. Exotics at Home: Anthropologies, Others, and American Modernity. The University of Chicago Press

(1 June, 2013)

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