A Manifesto for Patchwork Ethnography

Photo by Diane Helentjaris, licensed under CC BY.

Even prior to the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, “traditional” anthropological fieldwork was in trouble. For some time now, ethnographers have been questioning fieldwork truisms: separations between “field” and “home,” the gendered (masculinist) assumptions of the always available and up-for-anything fieldworker, and anthropology’s proclivities toward suffering subjects (Anjaria and Anjaria 2020; Robbins 2013). At the same time, neoliberal university labor conditions, the “feminization” of anthropology, expectations of work-life balance, environmental concerns, and feminist and decolonial critiques of anthropology have demanded a rethinking of fieldwork as a process that entails spending a year or longer in a faraway place. Family obligations, precarity, other hidden, stigmatized, or unspoken factors—and now Covid-19—have made long-term, in-person fieldwork difficult, if not impossible, for many scholars. The pandemic has evaporated many a future fieldwork plan and the prospect of continued ethnographic research in the same vein seems uncertain. A growing number of medical experts and observers believe that we might never return to “normal,” suggesting that long-term “traditional” fieldwork could become an impossibility.

While ethnographers have been adapting to various fieldwork challenges through methods such as online research, multi-sited fieldwork, auto-ethnography, and by attending to research subjects who are mobile, familiar, or themselves experts (Harrison 1991; Marcus 1995; Gupta and Ferguson 1997; Amit 2000; Burawoy 2000; Faubion 2009; Faubion and Marcus 2009; Nagar 2014; Papacharissi 2015; Huang 2016), these innovations have largely been based on the needs of research subjects. Few ethnographers have attended to how ethnographic practices are being reshaped by researchers’ own lives and our multiple professional and personal commitments—from childcare and health concerns, to financial, environmental, political, and temporal constraints, to relationship commitments at “home,” to the transience of particular research subjects.

We argue for consolidating the innovations that are already happening in anthropology out of necessity but remain black boxed. We build on long-held feminist and decolonial theorizations of the intertwining of the personal and professional, the theoretical and the methodological in research. Despite the feminization of many social scientific and humanities disciplines, research and home life remain gendered and the (feminine) domestic labor that allows theorizing to take place is often erased (Ahmed 2006); ableist assumptions undergird productivity in academia and mental health impacts research and writing (Pollard 2009; Cvetkovich 2013; Pinto 2014; Johnson 2016; Platzer and Allison 2018); extra service demands disproportionately fall on queer faculty and faculty of color (Ahmed 2012; Matthew 2016); frictions between family and university life impede productivity (Bothwell 2018; Lundquist and Misra 2015); and fraught political climates and unwelcome tenure and promotion guidelines devalue public or activist anthropology (McGranahan 2006). Despite their richness, however, these works do not explicitly attend to how anthropologists have been innovating methods and epistemologies to contend with intimate, personal, political, or material concerns.

We thus find it imperative to conceptualize a new methodological and theoretical approach to ethnography we are calling patchwork ethnography. Patchwork ethnography begins from the acknowledgement that recombinations of “home” and “field” have now become necessities—more so in the face of the current pandemic. By patchwork ethnography, we refer to ethnographic processes and protocols designed around short-term field visits, using fragmentary yet rigorous data, and other innovations that resist the fixity, holism, and certainty demanded in the publication process. Patchwork ethnography refers not to one-time, short, instrumental trips and relationships à la consultants, but rather, to research efforts that maintain the long-term commitments, language proficiency, contextual knowledge, and slow thinking that characterizes so-called traditional fieldwork (Faubion 2009; Pigg 2013; Adams, Burke, and Whitmarsh 2014), while fully attending to how changing living and working conditions are profoundly and irrevocably changing knowledge production. Patchwork ethnography is not an excuse to be more productive. Instead, it is an effective, but kinder and gentler way to do research because it expands what we consider acceptable materials, tools, and objects of our analyses.

In early 2021, with the support of the Wenner-Gren Foundation, we will bring together a diverse group of anthropologists from different countries contending with diverse professional and work-life conditions to build on these decolonial and feminist insights. Rather than see the multiple commitments of researchers as constraints, we will reflect on what forms of knowledge and methodologies emerge in and through researchers’ life and work commitments. The methodological innovation of patchwork ethnography reconceptualizes research as working with rather than against the gaps, constraints, partial knowledge, and diverse commitments that characterize all knowledge production (Haraway 1988; Cerwonka and Malkki 2007).

Our approach examines all phases of the ethnographic process and asks how each is reshaped by the new realities confronting us. First, how must we reconceptualize notions of going or traveling to the field? How do researchers construct field sites and visits when they face personal, financial, and political constraints? How do we ensure travel to field sites, and what do we do when travel is impossible? How do these pressures redefine “home” and “field”? As ethnographers, is our primary goal to “go out to confront the radically unknown . . . rendering it understandable, indeed probable” (Howell 2017, 18) or is there something else that patchwork ethnography could offer? Second, we focus on the need to accommodate new modes of “being there” when long-term fieldwork is no longer possible: what are the modes of doing research in short temporal spurts or remotely? How do we learn? How do we develop and maintain relations? How do we contend with the gaps in our findings? Third, how do our lives and commitments demand new ways of collecting data: what kinds of new archives do we construct when we do research in fragmented, patchworked ways, and when the objects of our research (such as spaces of violent conflict or transnational migration pathways) are themselves constituted by fragments, gaps, and absences? What modes of analysis and representation lean into, rather than avoid, these aporias? Fourth, how does the method of patchwork ethnography rethink the temporalization of data collection and analysis? The typical model of writing assumes researchers follow a linear timeline. However, under publication pressures, many researchers today construct their analyses as they are doing fieldwork (Cerwonka and Malkki 2007). How does this change the way we think? And finally, what new engagements and commitments must we attune ourselves to in contexts of neoliberal austerity and labor constraints, which demand greater teaching and administrative responsibilities as well as the shifting “political economy of knowledge” (Nagar 2014)? How might we offer models or templates of patchwork ethnography to students and others interested in the method?

Patchwork ethnography offers a new way to acknowledge and accommodate how researchers’ lives in their full complexity shape knowledge production. In the process, we argue that anthropological knowledge itself must be transformed. Patchwork ethnography helps us refigure what counts as knowledge and what does not, what counts as research and what does not, and how we can transform realities that have been described to us as “limitations” and “constraints” into openings for new insights. We hope this intervention provides a methodological framework and theoretical armor for those about to embark on research projects or others who may feel as if their research has reached an endpoint due to personal, financial, or practical reasons. Patchwork ethnography does not react to the externalities of the world by demanding more productivity. Instead, it seeks to remake that world by erasing pre-given categories and boundaries between our personal and professional lives. We offer it as a resource for a changed world after the pandemic.

Editors' Note

This essay was translated into Indonesian by Anton Novenanto, in consultation with Hatib Abdul Kadir and Dédé Oetomo. Read the Indonesian translation at Eutenika.

This essay was translated into Arabic by Abdullah Sami. Read the Arabic translation at Hekmah.org.


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