Ethnographic Disruption in the Time of COVID-19

If there is one thing stable about ethnography, it is its instability. Most anthropologists are not only resigned to the fact of instability, they revel in its possibilities. Advisors will gently caution as you begin fieldwork that change and disruption are integral to the fieldwork experience. If one door closes, another opens, and so on. Because ethnographers are invested in the social dynamics of the contemporary, which is by default ever-changing, they must constantly contend with interruptions to their fieldwork plans. This can range from the inconvenience of an interlocutor not turning up for an interview to a rapidly changing socio-political landscape that profoundly and deeply impact their sites and collaborators, and thus their research. Ethnographers are encouraged to view disruption as a learning moment, even a rite of passage of the discipline. “What does this moment tell you (or better yet, obscure) about your ethnographic object?” is a question I’ve heard too often and found useful.

If we were always treading the thin line between certainty and uncertainty by the sheer nature of our discipline, the uncertainty of the future has never been more stark.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, every single one of us has had our life upended in some way, from existential threats to suddenly having to make life decisions based on material and practical considerations. As a researcher who was in the midst of fieldwork in India, I’ve had to suddenly hit the brakes. All the interlocutors I have come to know and befriend over the past few years have been dislocated from places and sites most familiar and dear to them, with many separated from their loved ones. Of course, the “social” still exists—only made more obvious by calls to replace a now ubiquitous term, “social distancing,” with the more precise “physical distancing”—even if it has drastically shifted from whatever it was pre-pandemic in almost all contexts across the world. But if so much of ethnography is still about face-to-face encounters and gatherings, how do we confront a disruption of this scale, where physical distance, not proximity, is imperative, especially when proximity could likely threaten, even kill, an immunocompromised person?

In recent decades, anthropologists have been thinking critically about non-face-to-face encounters; in an era of increased internet connectivity the world over, debates around familiar anthropological concepts such as the public and the private have gained new currency. However, unless one’s ethnography is conducted only in and through the virtual world, much of ethnographic practice still heavily relies on on-the-ground, in-person encounters and observations. I say this neither to valorize a particular method or to take away from anthropological research that use a variety of other methods, but to ask where we go from here when a fundamental aspect of doing anthropological research is no longer feasible, and we’re unsure of when and how it might resume.

If we were always treading the thin line between certainty and uncertainty by the sheer nature of our discipline, the uncertainty of the future—our daily lives, research, the already precarious academic job market—has never been more stark. To be sure, things were already dire on many fronts, but this crisis has exposed more brazenly the sheer incompetence of those in power as well as the fragility of those lives that were always already precarious. Many are seeing this moment as a wake-up call to reflect on what kind of society we want to live in going forward. In our individual capacities many of us are already thinking about these things, wary of over-intellectualizing this moment, trying to stay as grounded as possible when the ground beneath us is shifting every day. Trying to take it one day at a time, looking out for each other, our students, teachers, and families.

Anthropology has never been the discipline to provide answers to society’s challenges, but at its best, it strives to understand the complexities of human existence and the ethical and moral dilemmas and choices that face us. If we are to reflect seriously about an individual and collective future, we have to think with and beyond our craft and training as some anthropologists have been doing in recent years. The discipline that is invested in documenting societal change will have to formulate ways to work through an event that is unprecedented in most of our lifetimes. How can we contribute to a more robust understanding of the challenges that lie ahead when the current moment is forcing us to reimagine the “field” in which we do our research? What kinds of ethnographies will be possible going forward, and what can be gained by thinking beyond dominant methodologies of the discipline?

Harini Kumar is a PhD candidate in the anthropology department at the University of Chicago

Cite as: Kumar, Harini. 2020. “Ethnographic Disruption in the Time of COVID-19.” Anthropology News website, May 22, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1406

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