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From Fieldnotes to Finished Text: Affect and the Labor of Care in Writing Ethnography

By Anusha Hariharan

In 1967, Valetta Malinowska, Bronislaw Malinowski’s partner at the time of his death, published a personal diary that Malinowski had maintained through his fieldwork in the islands of the Melanesian New Guinea. Regarded as one of anthropology’s founding fathers, Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) is canonical within any anthropology graduate curriculum. Anthropological lore has it that A Diary in the Strictest Sense of the Term (1967) caused ripples across the north American academy when published posthumously. It was as if, suddenly a celebrated ancestor’s vulnerabilities during the period of data collection had been laid bare for the world to witness; it intruded into his status of an empirically-rooted positivist social scientist. Regardless of this, Malinowski continues to leave an imprint in every anthropology student’s mind with the ‘kula ring’, a system of exchange between a group of communities in Papua New Guinea to establish political hierarchies. The red shell bead necklaces that Malinowski describes in Argonauts haunted my cohort of graduate peers all through our first semester, and invariably (and unfortunately) became metonymic with any exchange that happened between us through those six months. This, despite being allowed more than a glimpse into Malinowski’s interior thoughts as he documented the exchange of the very same bead necklaces that humanized him. Every few years, the discipline of anthropology reconsiders the dynamic between fieldnotes and the finished text, and the process of ethnographic writing as mediating the relationship between the two. Raw data or field notes are meant to be laden with affect; the process of writing sculpts the notes into a coherent narrative that is the finished text, the latter often marked by critical distance and scientific verity. In this article, I examine this relationship, or this dynamic, in the context of my own work in Tamil Nadu, India, which centers affect as an object of enquiry, making it imperative to pay attention to the affective valences and embodied presence of the researcher in the writing of anthropology.

Texts like Malinowski’s are pedagogical tools in anthropology curricula to familiarize graduate students with how the discipline has evolved. For instance, in class, we were asked to think about the difference in register between the finished text, Argonauts, and Malinowski’s preliminary notes, now fashioned into a completed text, never meant for an audience, A Diary. Through that semester, as we read the canons of anthropology, we constantly revisited Argonauts and A Diary to understand what fieldwork and the field mean to an anthropologist. In the finished text, Malinowski painstakingly portrays the social life of Melanesians elaborating on food customs, modes of production, and the organization of family, a precursor to what anthropology would now call the everyday forms of care. Most importantly, we find him describing in excruciating detail the exchange of the shell and bead necklaces, boats anchored right in the middle of the aquamarine waters, equidistant from the archipelagoes, setting the different tribes in a political hierarchy that will dictate how they interact with each other in the seasons to come. A Diary, on the other hand, was meant only for Malinowski’s eyes. He longs for England, and processes his difficult relationship with the country. He grapples with the political situation in mainland Europe; Poland keeps appearing in his dreams. It is important to remember that Malinowski left for fieldwork to Melanesia from England where he had already been in exile, when Europe was at the brink of the First World War. On days when his efforts to gather data are less than fruitful, his disdain for the natives is no less than what he feels for white missionaries on the island. He confesses to giving up and reading novels, or escaping into a world of daydreams that he often has to prise himself out of. The travails of doing fieldwork in the New Guinea islands, replete with repercussions borne by an altering bodily constitution are all laid bare for the unforeseen reader. We were taught to measure the value of Malinowski’s raw data vis-à-vis the travails he endured to collect them.

What interested me most while reading A Diary, is the preface written by Valetta Malinowska, explaining why she chose to publish her late husband’s personal diary posthumously, with the full awareness of the repercussions it may have. Malinowska says that “through this knowledge of that man as he lived and felt, one is often brought into a closer contact and a greater comprehension of his work” (1967, ix). For her, Malinowski’s academic work would make better sense to his readers if they have a more granular sense of his embodied self, that lived and felt, not just observed and reasoned. Here were Malinowski’s innermost feelings, laid bare and against the grain of political correctness that permeates social science classrooms today. Sitting in that classroom that day, surrounded by white colleagues squirming uncomfortably, some of us who, a century ago, may very well have been the native other in, a Malinowski like, ethnographer’s finished text, felt vindicated.

At this moment in my graduate career, I am reminded on a daily basis of Valetta Malinowska’s contention that affect does not take away from, but layers the finished text, adding to how readers would understand it. Having completed the eighth month of dissertation fieldwork, I sometimes take stock of my raw data. They range from journal entries that delve into when I felt uncomfortable or out of place; when I had a prized moment that made my entire PhD seem worthwhile; notes scribbled from interviews that were simultaneously recorded; descriptions of sights, sounds and odors, photographs; sometimes photographs that have been doodled on; all owing to the world of possibilities that a smartphone opens up for the ethnographer. Often, there is raw data that is intrinsic to my affective and visceral understanding of the field, such as sketches, doodles, matchstick figures and hand drawn maps. The meanings and values this data holds for my work is intertwined with its visual form. Sometimes, I am not even sure if this data would continue to hold the same value and meaning if the visual form could be translated into text form. Even so, I am uncertain if it would be possible to conjure up in words what these hand drawn visual contain for me. For example, spider-webs drawn between different people’s names fill reams of notebook paper, reiterating that early Sociological training of Snowball Sampling has not been forgotten. Aural raw data present similar conundrums. My computer holds an entire folder of audio recordings that are imprints of WhatsApp voice notes sent to friends around the world when I am too exhausted to put pen to paper. How would all these elements animate my dissertation, when it has to ultimately be written up as text, in narrative form?

The researcher’s field, then, is something that emerges in what the ethnographer writes and records. Writing is intrinsic to the existence of anthropology, something that Clifford Geertz took up in 1988. However, Geertz’ focus rested on one particular conundrum: how do people know that the anthropologist has been there? It can happen only through the process of writing, or as Geertz would say, through the authorial voice that is intrinsic to the existence of anthropology as a discipline, but often elided in discussions on what makes the discipline what it is. As was said by one of my colleagues in graduate school, we are in the business of synesthesia – good ethnographic writing awakens the senses, the readers smell the odors; sense the subtle change in the physical, social and cultural environment; feel the affects that imbue the ethnographer’s journeys. My colleague’s observation echoes Valetta Malinowska’s contention, that it is through knowing what has been lived and felt that the reader makes sense of the matter that is analyzed in the process of writing. A further drawing out of the nexus between affect, analysis and the production of text also raises a second question: what is an anthropologist’s field? The field does not pre-exist; the ethnographer has to actively bring it into existence. To keep with the discipline’s convention of citing our ancestors, Veena Das would agree that the ethnographer is engaged in “worlding (her) world”. When graduate students say “I am off to the field”, I often wonder if they mean the geographic location, or a demarcated temporal period in their graduate training, or do they actually mean the field as they choose to bring into existence? As the boundaries of each field is mapped by the ethnographer, there exist as many fields as ethnographers. Two people who work in the same location may have completely different fields, even if their object of enquiry is the same. Anthropology students are advised early on to map the boundaries of their field as they write the dissertation. The field cannot comprise of every moment that occurs, and every situation that is encountered, in the twelve months spent gathering data.

To return to my first semester, when Malinowski’s pair of Argonauts and A Diary were put to trial in that graduate classroom, many of my colleagues raised the same concerns that anthropologists did back in the 1960s: that Malinowski’s real feelings about the natives comes through in the raw material. Questions of Eurocentric power to represent, and the role of whiteness in knowledge production precipitated some queasiness in the classroom. Some pointed out that he complains incessantly about fieldwork, and he is present in the text. Less so, in Argonauts, as others pointed out, owing to “ethnographic distance” that white anthropologists invariably practiced in knowledge production about the Other. On re-reading Argonauts, I cannot help but wonder if Malinowski, the living, breathing person has, indeed, been entirely erased out of the finished text. Before he begins his ethnographic narrative, Malinowski writes a section called ‘Subject, Method and Scope’ in Argonauts, where he justifies his methodological imperative: “[…] an ethnographer’s tribulations, as lived through by myself, may throw more light on the question, than any long abstract discussion will do.” Indeed, Malinowski accords primacy to his lived experience of conducting fieldwork over an abstract discussion devoid of empirical detail, in answering “the question”, or his object of enquiry, which is the social and political organization of the New Guinea islanders. Later on, in the same page, he goes on to say,

the feelings of hopelessness and despair after many obstinate and futile attempts had entirely failed to bring me into real touch with the natives… I had periods of despondency, when I buried myself in the reading of novels, as a man might take to drink in a fit of tropical depression and boredom.

In conveying what his lived experience consists of, Malinowski did not omit the myriad feelings and affects that saturate his diary, from the finished text. However, he positions his affective responses as part of collected data – rather than as an addendum of feelings – that tell the reader how he engaged methodological challenges. Reading closely, Malinowski is, indeed, present in his ethnographic narrative, in embodied and corporeal form. He legitimizes ethnographic methods, and accords value to anthropological knowledge production by illuminating the travails he endured to bring to the world Argonauts, or the finished text. This is the context and the caveat he provides to a reader who may challenge the scientific verity of the text he produced.

In the same classroom that required us to read Malinowski’s two texts, we were asked to think carefully about how we chose to represent our subjects, or to use a polite term that is now ubiquitous among critical social scientists, interlocutors. However, because anthropology as a discipline comes into existence only through ethnographic writing, issues of representation are always tied to how writing mediates the construction of interlocutors’ realities. To echo Geertz, it is the ethnographer’s authorial voice that accords legitimacy to the lives observed. Regardless of what is observed and recorded in the ethnographer’s fieldnotes, authorial voice emerges from observing conventions and knowing how to process raw data into a seamless ethnographic narrative that is the finished text. Indeed, this is often the focus of institutionalized anthropological training, as well. The average doctoral scholar’s authorial voice is shaped by a significant period of time spent on growing into expertise, and learning how to produce a finished text that can be in dialogue with other anthropologists; this necessarily means that learning to write within anthropology involves acquaintance with a specific register of ethnographic writing.

Anthropological expertise, that manifests in the ethnographer’s labor in cultivating an authorial voice in the finished text, is a concern that has been revisited frequently within anthropology since the 1960s. Critical turns in the social science and humanities academies have emerged hand-in-glove with the entry of scholars who are Black, indigenous, queer, feminist, Dalit, and from formerly colonized parts of the world. In fact, this shift in register can be owed precisely to these scholars’ presence in academia; their affective relationships with colleagues; and materials they engage; and the particular locations from which they engage their materials. These scholars have located authorial voice in a field of power, by interrogating who has the power to represent, and the politics of privilege that the ethnographic authorial voice holds in knowledge production. In examining these concerns in terms of power, these scholars have recognized that the ethnographer’s location and subjectivity vis-à-vis their field and interlocutors, shapes authorial voice in ethnographic writing. Drawing on these shifts in methods of knowledge production, and writing, these scholars have also called for a shift in anthropological curricula and to reconfigure what we think of as the canons.

These shifts – in register and authorial voice – are crucial to anthropology, where scholars are able to tease out the tensions that emerge from power dynamics and exchanges, and interrogate their location through the process of writing. For example, anthropologist Lucinda Ramberg, while introducing the landscape of northern Karnataka in her monograph, recalls a moment when she coos at a child on a bus, who starts bawling as if he had seen a pale, white ghost. She also recalls school-aged boys in the village she lived in yelling “America, America!” at her as she walked past. She works through her feelings of disconcertedness that this was all happening in the wake of the United States bombing Afghanistan. Ethnographic writing, then, does not just open up a space to state where you are located. It offers the anthropologist an opportunity to work through the tensions of how you are located, and how that animates the field for each one of us, in the process of writing and producing the finished text.

If a graduate program is attentive to all these shifts in the discipline, another text that invariably makes its way into formal curricula: Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men (1935), one of the earliest works – within the north American canon – by a Black feminist scholar detailing the lives of the community she is from. Hurston, in her text was making the familiar strange, to recall an old anthropological aphorism, as much as she was making the strange familiar to an American audience. Hurston begins by saying:

When I was pitched headforemost I landed in the crib of negroism… it was fitting me like a right chemise. I couldn’t see it for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment. Then I had to have the spy-glass of Anthropology to look through at that.

Hurston gestures to something important here. She turns an ethnographic lens on much more than her field; she is turning the lens on herself and the institutionalized academy. In the process of writing her text, she teases out her particular location as a Black woman from the American south, in terms of what it means to journey, both to the American north-east, that boasts a liberalism distant from histories of slavery and segregation in the south, as well as the academy. In Hurston’s writing, the working out of ideas, location and affect, seeps into the finished text, and is performed consciously. She uses the space afforded by ethnographic writing to interrogate anthropological conventions of critical ethnographic distance. The shift in the register of her writing departs from Malinowski’s, eliminating the need to unearth fieldnotes and have them published posthumously. Undeniably, both Malinowski and Hurston have brought themselves into their writing, but in very different ways. Malinowski traverses the space of the finished text as a default presence where his affective world provides the function of legitimizing the data collected. Hurston, however, puts herself, the academy, and the field, that is also home, under ethnographic scrutiny; accordingly, her field is constructed in her working through of the relationships these different elements hold out through the process of writing the text.

Unlike Malinowski, Hurston’s ethnographic imperative was personal; she wanted to record folklore of Black communities of the American south – narratives passed on orally, that may disappear if not recorded in text and through writing. It was not that scholars were not in the business of documenting folklore; in fact, Franz Boas, another anthropological ancestor, and Hurston’s mentor, as well as his white contemporaries were in business of recording folklore and people’s narratives all over the continent. Hurston conducted her work at a time when there were very few Black scholars in the academy, and only a handful of Black women. Her location vis-à-vis power and the time at which she wrote also demanded a foray into the personal, to signpost how identity shapes ethnographic work and writing about the world. Like Malinowski, Hurston also pays attention to detail. However, apart from documenting folklore narratives as they are told to her, Hurston shows us how they animate the context in which they are told; the social exchanges that engender their telling; the squabbles people have over truth-values; the kinds of food eaten in the event of the telling; and whose narrative prevails. She sketches an entire lifeworld through her text. As someone who belongs, she is privy to how Black communities perceive anthropologists who, at that time, were invariably white: “The white man is always trying to know into somebody else’s business. Alright, I’ll set something outside the door of my mind for him to play with and handle. He can read my writing but he sho’ can’t read my mind. I’ll put this play toy in his hand, and he will seize it and go away.” Offering this caveat already structures for the reader what to expect of Hurston’s field, and how its existence is at relative distance from how a white anthropologist constructs it.

Navigating the field when it is also home, as Hurston did, throws up many challenges that lacks a rulebook or template that serves as a guide which is not surprising. Home means different things to different people; as does this elusive, boundless category called the field. As I have already observed, it is only through ethnographic writing that the field acquires a sense of definition; it is the anthropologist who maps the parameters and boundaries of their field, and it can only be constructed in the act of writing a narrative. It is the ethnographer’s presence that animates their field, as they live, breathe, feel their way through the lifeworlds they traverse. Located in Tamil Nadu in southern India, my work engages women’s activism in the region between the 1970s and 1990s. Needless to say, what I see, hear and experience, brings up questions of memory, feminist socialities and the temporal value to journeying with feminist comrades over time. Affect is not something I will integrate into my text, in how I write my ethnography, but is my object of enquiry. Given that, most of what I encounter in the field are affective bonds, friendship, love, humor, care, and so on. There exist very few written works in the anthropological canon that attend to how this could be written up, as centering affect as an object of enquiry already requires the ethnographer to locate herself through terms of constantly shifting intimacies. It is in her embodied presence that care, love or friendship is observed, and felt. Ethnographic writing, then, ceases to be merely synesthetic, as my colleague had once said.

Like Hurston, and so many others who succeeded her, the lifeworlds we are privy to are not just a function of our status as an anthropologist; they are also our location as both an insider and outsider, in a space that we also call home. Ethnographic writing, here, becomes particularly tricky: what is my data? And what becomes of moments that we were allowed the privilege of observing because we are trusted as an insider? How can they be written up such that bonds of trust and codes of privacy remain unviolated, while simultaneously acquiring the status of the fulcrum that the ethnography hinges on? One such instance emerges from a fairly recent fieldwork trip to another city in Tamil Nadu. I was staying with someone whom I was doing a range of oral history interviews with. The reason her home had been opened up to me is not solely because of the work I do, or because she will feature in my ethnography. She was already a feminist comrade before I started doing fieldwork. I have known her child – now a teenager – since she was a toddler. More often than not, I have wondered if it is appropriate to keep my audio recorder on as my comrade, or my friend, as I have begun to think of her, speaks. Much of what I am privy to has nothing to do with my role as an ethnographer, or the object of enquiry I am pursuing. It is a function of being adequately embedded in a context, forging proximity to and intimacy with others she trusts, and eventually, the trust that has built between us. Writing about intimacy, then, would necessarily demand that I work through my own intimacies with these interlocutors. For instance, I need to think about what the conversations are that allowed both people to enter spaces of vulnerability. I need to make a distinction between stories told nonchalantly and those told with an acknowledgement that the very act of sharing it is forging our intimacy.

During one such fieldwork trip, I was witness to a playful skirmish between my friend and her husband. It started off jovially, as she commented on appropriate attire for women outside the home, and how that becomes a marker of prestige and honor for the men they are in a relationship with. Unintentionally, she had cited her husband – who was present – in this observation. The husband responded with frustration to her observation, tired that male partners of feminist women always harbor the risk of being accused of holding patriarchal values, and conventionally masculine behavior. These exchanges between husband and wife seemed to emerge from an existing dynamic; of the husband constantly feeling watched for a slip, that may indicate both his inability to incorporate feminist ideals in how he approaches an equal partnership with his wife, and the couple’s relationship as indicative of the wife’s feminist politics and practices. For an ethnographer trying to understand how women negotiate traditional kinship as they evolve feminist subjectivities, this situation was rife with fieldwork moments. And as an ethnographer, I later made detailed notes about the various exchanges between the partners, the transactions being alluded to, the care and caution with which they navigated a range of issues that had to do with gender and domesticity. I later looked back at those notes and wondered how they would make it into my dissertation. These details teeter at the edge of that slippery-slope that bring home and field together. It is likely I may never have witnessed this had it not been for my location; or rather, it matters how I am located. I am not an insider in the conventional sense. Unlike many others, I did not inhabit activist lifeworlds as I was growing up in Chennai. When I started looking for feminist spaces and lifeworlds to be part of, I was in college. Neither am I an outsider, as already discussed. This is not the only incident that has precipitated these questions. Stories of feminist friendships in strife, of wilful forgetting, of activists feeling resentful of a comrade, of women nurturing age-old grudges animate my fieldnotes. The affects that structure joy, discord, unease and forgetfulness lie are the epicenter of my work, not the context that buttress it.

I started this piece by metaphorically measuring the distance between Malinowski’s diary and his finished piece. For Malinowski, affective responses acquired a legitimating function; an index that allows us to gauge the worth of his finished text. Hurston’s text engages affect – hers, as well as her interlocutors’ – to flesh out the context and the lifeworlds within which oral narratives circulate. In doing so, affect mediates her relationship with her interlocutors, and their relationships with each other. However, my worlding-the-world is not merely mediated by affect; the world I am trying to write into reality is affect itself. My field notes that currently exist in different forms and across media, are, to cite Ann Cvetkovich, an “archive of feelings”. To sculpt this archive into a legible narrative requires analysis in the form of a finished text. I suspect that in this case, care will mediate how I write about affect and my interlocutors who experience them. My concluding thoughts on writing affect opens up a space to imagine how the process of writing extends care to one’s interlocutors. How do I mirror the care I have been shown when my interviewees open themselves up to scrutiny? How do I represent them with integrity, and without being intrusive? What would the field in ethnographic writing mean in these circumstances?

What stands out most starkly for me is the instability of ethnography itself, and the labor that goes into constantly defining its methodological value to knowing and understanding the world. My interlocutors have shown an immense amount of care, to each other, to themselves, and in narrating and trusting me with their stories. What does a form of care that mediates how affect is analyzed in the process of writing the finished text look like? I imagine that the care extended would lie in being generous to one’s interlocutors, in bringing in every possible layer of complexity that make – and break – their affective ties, legible to a reader. To do that, I also suspect that we would need to forge a different ethnographic register that does not simply insert the scholar as an embodied being in the field, but one that seeks to reimagine how we – scholars and our interlocutors – (re)construct our worlds.

“Malinowski Doing Fieldwork” Image Source Pinterest

Anusha Hariharan
is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her doctoral work examines feminist activism in southern India, particularly with reference to anti-caste struggles. Before she entered the institutionalized academy, Anusha conducted research on the role of Dalit social entrepreneurship in effecting long term socio-economic change, and worked with college students on issues of gender, sexuality and queerness.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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