The “Anthropology and/of Mental Health” series is a two-part exploration of anthropologists' experiences with mental health. In this episode, Anar expands the conversation about mental health in anthropology through the lenses of attention, grief, and responding to unexpected changes in our fieldwork and research. The interviews and contributions in this episode are the products of conversations that began before the Covid-19 present and the uprisings that have followed the loss of Black lives to police violence and anti-Black racism during the first part of 2020. In various ways, each of these episodes offers perspective and reflection on what it means to make, think, write amid proliferate disruptions that are not only inconvenient and abrupt, but also logistically impossible and traumatic.
Resources on Black Lives Matter, Anti-Black Racism, and Abolition
Abusable Past Collective, eds. 2020. “Reading Towards Abolition: A Reading List on Policing, Rebellion, and the Criminalization of Blackness.” The Abusable Past, a blog of Radical History Review, June 1.
Association of Black Anthropologists. 2020. “ABA Statement Against Police Violence and Anti-Black Racism.” Association of Black Anthropologists (website), a section of the American Anthropological Association. June 6.
Duhé, Bailey J. 2019. Dear White Anthropology Grad Students: A “How To” Guide for Successfully Interacting with Students of Color in Graduate School. Self-published (available on Amazon as e-book and paperback).
Williams, Bianca C., ed. 2015. "#BlackLivesMatter: Anti-Black Racism, Police Violence, and Resistance." Hot Spots series, Fieldsights, June 29.
Nick Seaver is an assistant professor of anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at Tufts University, where he also teaches in the Science, Technology and Society program. He is currently finishing a book about how the makers of algorithmic music recommender systems think about the relationship between culture and technology. His new research examines the technocultural life of "attention" as a value and virtue in marchine learning worlds. He can be found on the web at nickseaver.net or on twitter @npseaver.
Emma Louise Backe is a PhD candidate in medical anthropology at The George Washington University. Her research takes place in Cape Town, South Africa, where she is investigating the temporalities and politics of care for survivors of intimate partner violence, the meanings of empowerment amidst a gender-based violence and intimate femicide emergency, and the forms of quotidian survival and healing afforded to survivors. In her free time, she manages The Geek Anthropologist, thinking about the speculative, the spooky, the haunted, and the haptic in pop culture more broadly. You can follow her on Twitter @EmmaLouiseBacke.
is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Princeton. Based on thirteen
months of ethnographic participant observation with former foster
youth, service providers, child welfare advocates, and policymakers, her
dissertation investigates “aging out” of Kentucky’s child welfare
system. She juxtaposes the political urgency of addressing child abuse
in Kentucky with the daily lived experiences of young people who have
left the custody of the state. Her dissertation attends to the gaps and
misunderstandings between young people, their support networks, and the
regulatory apparatuses that govern child welfare in the commonwealth.
Her direct service experiences with young people inform her methods and
analysis: before coming to Princeton, EB worked for eight months as a youth counselor at a psychiatric residential facility for young women,
followed by a year as an AmeriCorps teaching fellow with an education
nonprofit in Boston.
Anar Parikh is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Brown University. Her research examines South Asian ethnoracial identity and political belonging in the United States. Anar is also Contributing Editor on AnthroPod: The Podcast for the Society for Anthropology and a Contributing Editor.
This episode, as well as the Anthropology and/of Mental Health series was produced by Anar Parikh. Raphaëlle Rabanes is the Associate Producer. Marios Falaris also provided additional production assistance. Josh Rivers transcribed this episode. Special thanks to Rebecca Lester, Beatriz Reyes-Foster, Greg Beckett, Chelsey Carter, Nick Seaver, Emma Backe, and EB Saldana for their time and contributions.
Intro/Outro Music: All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear
Sound Effects: Radio Transition by psyckoze
Musical Transitions: Entwined Oddity by Blue Dot Sessions
Logo designed by Janita van Dyk.
Anar Parikh (AP) [00:00:01] Hi, everyone. Anar here, we'll get to the episode in just a moment, but before we start, I'd like to take a moment of silence and reflection for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Their murders have catalyzed massive protests against police violence and anti-Black racism across the U.S. this week. If you can, please donate to to community bail funds, find out what you can do to provide support to protesters and Black communities in your area and read about police and prison abolition by Black organizers and writers. We've included some links to resources with the episode shownotes on the AnthroPod page at the [Society for] Cultural Anthropology website. I hope you all are resisting, refusing, and resting when you can.
AP [00:01:01] Welcome to AnthroPod. My name is Anar Parikh. I'm one of the contributing editors on the AnthroPod team. And I'm also the producer and host of this two-part series on anthropology and/of mental health. In the first episode published in November 2019, I interviewed professors Rebecca Lester and Beatriz Reyes-Foster about their edited series Trauma and Resilience and Ethnographic Fieldwork, and featured excerpts read by series contributors Greg Beckett and Chelsey Carter. It's impossible to introduce this installment without acknowledging the viral specter that currently hangs over every utterance, thought, and decision, especially those concerning our health and well-being. As I consider the timing for publication, I found myself thinking a lot about the infuriating pressure of productivity that persists during nearly ubiquitous upheaval and disruption and the weight of which is inarguably raced, classed, and gendered. At the same time, I have been asking myself, how do we make, think, and write amid proliferate disruptions that are not only inconvenient and abrupt, but also logistically impossible and traumatic?
AP [00:02:15] This series has been a way for me to explore questions and answers that don't fit neatly into the established discourses of our discipline but are, for me at least, central to what it means to be an anthropologist and to do anthropology. The segments that you're about to hear are products of conversations and contributions that precede the Covid-19 present. They began and in some cases were recorded in the before times, but have taken on different and new valences in recent months.
[00:02:44] [Radio Static Plays]
AP [00:02:50] In this first interview, I talked to Nick Seaver, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Science and Technology Studies at Tufts University, about his current research on the techno cultural life of attention in the United States. On a personal level, attention is a concept that I think about a lot: its fleeting quality, how to channel it, my own relationship with attention vis-à-vis its place in the broader cultural milieu and, in the midst of a global pandemic, I have recently found myself revisiting the questions Nick raises about our collective attentions and how we organize them.
Nick Seaver (NS) [00:03:25] Generally speaking, I'm interested in people who build technologies that have to do with cultural stuff and how those people think about what culture is. And the main project I've done that through so far is my dissertation research, which was on the builders of music recommender systems. So these are systems like Pandora, Spotify, and so on that tried to assess your musical preferences and then recommended music to you based on those assessments.
AP [00:03:51] What came out of that project?
NS [00:03:53] Yes, so that project feels like a long time ago now, but I began at a moment where this public debate about algorithms that's been happening recently wasn't really happening. And one of the things that has come out of my research is that a lot people who work on the sort of social and cultural critique of algorithms don't have a lot of engagement with the people who work within these systems. So one of the things that I return to often is that it really matters who the people are who make the choices inside of these technical systems. And there are lots and lots of human choices that get made. And it matters how they think about the stuff that they're working on. So in my case it means the people who build these music recommender systems, they have their own sometimes idiosyncratic theories about what taste is. You know, they're not Bourdieusians necessarily. They build those theories into the technologies that they make. They sort of form those theories in collaboration with the technologies that they work on. And those theories end up being fairly consequential for how those systems work. So my interest there is in saying, you know, hey, it's not the case that this is a bunch of people who have no idea what society is like and therefore they are screwing this stuff up all the time. It's a much more, I would say, anthropological approach to say, hey, everyone has an idea about what society and culture are. Let's go find out what those local ideas are and try to draw them out from their normal ad hoc framing.
AP [00:05:11] So can you talk a little bit about what you have in mind for your next project?
NS [00:05:16] Yes. So starting from that research, I became really interested in attention in the way that people who build all sorts of computational systems think a lot about something they call attention, right? You make your recommender system work in a particular way because you hope to capture the attention of your users. You hope that they're going to use it more and more. You're playing in this broader what people call an attention economy where you compete for eyeballs or ear holes or whatever. And similarly to the previous project, which was very interested in local theories of taste, I've become really interested in how people think about attention and what attention is. What's the best way to measure it? What does it mean? What's it good for? And my suspicion sort of at this early stage is that attention is kind of a way to talk about what people value. So we talk about, you know, we want to draw attention to this or that thing. We worry that we don't pay attention to the right stuff. And in spite of the fact that we've got a lot of interesting historical scholarship on attention and the values attributed to it, you know, why is it the case that it is good to pay attention and bad to be distracted for instance? There's not a whole lot of work on what exactly attention means to people in the present. So that's what I'm hoping that this new project will get into.
AP [00:06:27] How are you planning on executing that project in terms of who are you planning on talking to or what are the spaces where you're looking?
NS [00:06:36] Yes. So as it happens, you know, your previous projects start to influence the things that you turn to later. And I have developed facility with, you know, talking to computer programmers that I have become really interested in the way that attention works in machine learning in particular. So people tried to develop algorithmic systems that measure people's attention and tried to capture more of it. And in order to do that, you need to formalize the definition of what attention means. Sometimes you need to decide on a calculation that will turn that attentional value, however you measure it, into money. So there are companies that are trying to, you know, produce ad-pricing systems that will determine how much attention you're paying to something and then convert that to a payment in the background that goes between, you know, an advertiser and a platform, something like that. So I'm interested in that. And then on the other side, we have this long history in computer science, thanks to the sort of twinning of computer science and cognitive science, of thinking about computational processes as though they were mental processes and vice versa. So recently, many people have heard of the sort of rise of deep learning of neural networks, of these very complicated computer programs that are supposed to learn kind of like a brain, right? And this is a loose kind of analogy. It's always been a loose analogy in both directions. But one thing that people are doing recently is developing what they call attention mechanisms in these systems. So they're trying to make neural nets in computers that, quote unquote, pay attention. And for me, I'm curious, you know, what does that mean? What does it mean to make a computer that can pay attention? Given that, I think that attention is, generally speaking, a way to index what we value, what kind of multiple values are present in these computational practices?
AP [00:08:11] That's fascinating. I guess that one thing that comes up is: When we talk about concepts in anthropology, one of the things that we're often talking about is that they're kind of culturally or locally constituted by someone or by some group of people who become these like standard bearers of values or of concepts. And in what you've been thinking about in terms of attention so far, where does the kind of normative idea of what attention is and attention as a value? Where does that come from?
NS [00:08:43] That's a great question. So there are a few different places, and I think there are a few competing discourses about attention. Let's say, out in the world right now that are vying for that position of normative authority. So on the one hand, we have the canonical attention economy idea, which is in brief, you know, people used to say we have an information economy, right? People are moving bits around. They're sending information to each other. But according to certain people, this sort of originates with Herbert Simon, who's a big figure in both cognitive science and computer science, the economy is the allocation of scarce resources. Actually, the information economy has no scarcity of information. There's tons of information, but scarce is, in fact, your attention. So we need to look instead of at the circulation of information at the inverse, at the circulation of attention, and attention is the thing that is scarce, that needs to be allocated and so on. And many people in other fields have done economic and all sorts of other kinds of analyses of attention, economy idea like this, right? To say your attention is money. Watching television is working, right. You produce value for advertisers by watching the ads. So maybe we can conceptualize your attention as a kind of labor. There's all these efforts to try to figure out what kind of thing attention might be. And what's become really interesting to me recently is that as many people may be aware, there's been this kind of public backlash against companies, you know, like Facebook and Google and Netflix and these big tech companies that use what they call persuasive or behavioral design to try to capture more user attention, right? They tried to make their apps more addictive so that you will open Facebook. And I always talk to my students about this, you say, you know, remember the experience of being on Facebook, deciding it's time to get off of Facebook, closing the tab in your Web browser, opening a new tab, typing the letter F hitting enter and going right back to Facebook and saying, wait a minute, didn't I just leave? You know, this experience is something that these services try to produce or they try to capture your attention that way. So there's a resistance to this, right. That says you shouldn't do this to us. This is an unfair thing to do to humans. And it has emerged in the form of a few kinds of organizations and people. Broadly speaking, there's an organization called the Center for Humane Technology. There's a few other ones that are interested in reasserting the human against this kind of technological imposition. And as an anthropologist, as soon as someone is like, oh, what about the human? You're all of your alarm bells go off and you think, wait, what? What are you talking about? What is the human? What do you mean? What kind of things are distinctively human? And what I've been finding is that a lot of these folks who are trying to be against the tech companies, although they often had their starts in these tech companies themselves, is that they figure the human, the distinctively human as the person who is capable of controlling their own attention. So what makes you human is what I've been calling attentional sovereignty, right? Your ability to decide what to attend to is what makes you human. And these companies are trying to turn you into an animal. They would say by, you know, interpolating you as a reactive animal mind. Right. By pretending that you're in a Skinner box and that they can make you press that lever over and over and over again to get more pellets. So that's been really interesting to me. On the one hand, you've got attention economies where attention is a kind of currency. You can spend it, you can get paid in it. Maybe you can turn it into other kinds of money. And then on the other side, you have attention as the thing that makes you human. Right, that it shouldn't be taken away from you, that it's dehumanizing to treat you in this way. So those are powerful discourses about what attention is that I find just totally fascinating to watch as people try to reconcile that with each other.
AP [00:12:05] I think the disjuncture or even the point of intersection between a tension as something that tech companies are trying to kind of harness from people and then attention as the thing that makes you human. Something that comes up for me in that is attention as a diagnostic category. How does that or does it at all fit into all of these different ways that people think about what attention is in terms of what it means to be human?
NS [00:12:34] That's a great question. And you're exactly right that the other sort of line in here is the medical aspect of what attention is. And, you know, if you were talking about attention ten years ago, it would be much more common to have as your frame attention deficit, to have this kind of medicalization of attention. And this question of, you know, for lack of a better phrase, kids these days is the way that it often gets framed, this question of what's happening to people's minds. And the great thing about anthropology is that we have so many theoretical traditions on which we can draw. To deal with a question like attention, and I often return to Emily Martin's work, in particular, a book like Bipolar Expeditions, right? Which is about a bipolar disorder. It gets you to this way that a medical diagnosis and all that sort of subject forming things that we know about medical diagnoses, how those intersect with broader cultural concerns, right? So Emily Martin is interested in mania in popular culture, right? How are manic people represented? What qualities do they have that are good and or bad in popular cultural normative terms? And for me, one of the things that's been interesting about working on attention is that, you know, it's often framed, as you would expect, with psychological stuff as a matter of individual minds and the work to be done. And a lot of people have already started to try to do it in a number of fields, is to figure out what it would look like to treat attention not as an individual mental problem, but as a social and cultural concern, right? It's something that happens in situations with other people. Therefore, it's social. It's something that people value and associate with all sorts of other kinds of values. It's cultural. And to my mind, that's the key work to be done, right? So when we talk about attention as a medical problem, I always want to think of, OK, how do we locate these medical diagnoses in the broader context? And anthropology is just a perfect spot to be doing something like that.
AP [00:14:24] Right. But in order to have a deficit of attention, there has to be some idea, an adequate amount of attention.
NS [00:14:30] And that's plainly a social expectation. Right? There's a reason why, you know, people might not experience problems with attention in one part of their life and then might experience it a lot in some other part. And that's where I start to get, you know, hazy around this distinction of, you know, is it something that's that's in the mind? Is it something that's outside of the mind? Obviously, it's sort of both at the same time and I don't think the fact that it has to do with your situation necessarily lowers the usefulness of something like medication for dealing with these kinds of problems right? There's no reason that has to be the case. But it certainly is true that often the medicalization of attention is associated with both an individualizing of the problem of saying attention is just a matter of individuals and their capacities and medications specifically. So I think there's room for a lot of different approaches to this. Absolutely. And I should say, I guess I've been I've been teaching a seminar for a few years called How to Pay Attention, which is trying to do this cultural analysis of attention, which has been fun to do because it involves teaching a lot of stuff from beyond anthropology, because anthropologists haven't, generally speaking, focalized. So there's an attention metaphor for you. We haven't really focalized attention as the thing that we are concerned with. And so there's not a whole lot of anthropology of attention specifically, although there's some new exciting stuff getting worked on. And so doing that has been really interesting because you see things like, you know, I teach an ethnographic article about how first graders learn to demonstrate that they're paying attention in a classroom setting, right? And what it means to look like you're paying attention and to learn to do that kind of performance of attention that's expected of a student in a classroom. Right. And when you're teaching, of course, attention is a huge issue at the university level as well. And I always manage to turn the class itself into a moment for reflecting on, you know, how are we organizing our attentions collectively? What does it feel like to not be able to attend in the way we might want to or the way that other people might expect us to? And there's really, you know, there's no attention deficit in the absence of some expectation of normative attentional practices. Right. I mean, that's kind of low hanging fruit for anthropologists, but it's true. Right. And it's easy to forget. And it's one of those ironic things that when we encounter a sort of potent cultural concept that feels like it's from, quote unquote home like ADHD or something like that, it's not always easy for people to keep the sort of anthropological relativizing approach on.
AP [00:16:51] You talked earlier about how your first projects kind of led into this project. But I was also curious about maybe how your own relationship to attention has informed this project.
NS [00:17:03] Yeah. So there's a sort of standard trope for an adult ADHD diagnosis, which goes that someone's child is getting an ADHD diagnosis and that person reads the sort of list of symptoms and recognizes themselves in them. As we anthropologists or medical anthropologists know, right? That's a thing that happens. We sort of format our mental experience in that way. We say, wait a minute, that looks like me. And then you end up with parents getting adult ADHD diagnoses at the same time as their kids. And you have this sort of reformulation of experience where it's like, hey, maybe I had this all along. So what happened for me, which was ironic and I thought sort of hysterical at the time, was that I was teaching this class called How to Pay Attention for the first time and was reading all of this stuff and was reading part of the cultural materials, reading the kind of set of like self-help books that are out there for people with with ADHD. And I read through the list of symptoms and I said, oh, that's funny. That looks like me. And so while I was teaching that class for the first time, I ended up getting an adult ADHD diagnosis, which was really fascinating for me as someone who had never really identified with or had to reckon with this kind of thing in my life before. You know, I had had my own mental health stuff, but this was like a very specific, you know, go to the cognitive neurology people, take the test, see what happens. And as an anthropologist, you know, you learn a kind of generic skepticism about this kind of stuff. And I was bringing that with me, but also said, hey, you know, if it helps, it helps. Let's just see what happens. So I picked up this adult ADHD diagnosis during this class. And in the last week of my seminar, we have a day that's specifically about the medical aspects, we actually sort of save that until the end. And there's this article that we've been reading in this class by someone named Mikka Nielsen. It's in Ethnos from 2017. It's called "Structuring the Self: The Moral Implications of Getting an ADHD Diagnosis." And it's about people getting adult diagnoses. And I thought, how terrific. I can understand my own life through the graphic articles that I'm reciting in class, which is, you know, for better or worse, I think a common way that anthropologists make sense of their own personal experiences. And she has all of this interesting stuff in here about how her interlocutors, you know, reframe their mental experience through the diagnosis, how, you know, it makes them think more highly of themselves. Right. They have an excuse now for something they used to feel embarrassed about. It just focalizes attention in their life in a way that it's very easy to not otherwise, right? We think about attention very rarely, but we use our attention all the time. And so getting a diagnosis like this is one way of making it into a kind of topic and a thing that you think about way more often than you might otherwise. And that's very much to my mind what ethnographic fieldwork is like. Right. You say, hey, you never noticed this before. Now you're going to notice it all the time. Congratulations.
AP [00:19:50] Yeah, I got very emotional when I eventually got an ADHD diagnosis as an adult. I kind of felt like maybe reflecting some of the things that were in that article in terms of being able to read all of your experiences through that diagnosis kind of really resonated with me. And I guess that that kind of leads me to a follow up question about attention as a mental health issue. I think that that is related to the question of diagnostics and medicalization, but it's also kind of separate in terms of how people experience attention and their perceived deficit of it in the cultural milieu or cultural space that they occupy kind of feeling this deficit of attention, vis-à-vis what the expectation is of the kind of attention that you have. And what kinds of relationships to mental health or mental illness that that can create.
NS [00:20:44] Yeah. So I obviously can't speak on behalf of, you know, everyone who experiences this. But I think for myself, something that's been really interesting is like I was saying, that if attention is a way of talking about what we value. Right. It's got a very kind of generic quality actually in most discussions. Attention deficit is stigmatized. Right. And having less of the valuable thing in some sense. Right. And being in in academia in particular, just the sort of locus classicus for the emergence of attention deficit. Right. The problem with attention is that you're in a classroom and you're not doing some other thing that might be easier to deal with given your attentional capacities. It's really been interesting for me to think about how attention is valued and that the lack of it is stigmatized in academic work. Right. We talk a lot about how our students do or don't pay attention to us. That gets caught up in the question of using technology in the classroom across purposes too. Right. Oh, you shouldn't be allowed to use computers in the classroom because it will distract you from work. However, maybe students who have attention deficit issues need to use a computer in order to take their notes. If these things go back and forth, my take generally is a fairly loose one to say let people do what they're gonna do with their attentions and try to not contribute to the stigmas that are out there. But as an ethnographer, I am interested in what those stigmas are. Right. So I think you mentioned there's this question of the anthropology of something that's a mental health issue and anthropology and that mental health issue. And it's you know, sometimes you want to keep them apart. Sometimes they come together. I have to say, you know, an anthropological approach to many, many phenomena tends to make those phenomena disappear. Right. There's a line that Alfred Gell uses about art. The other part of art that I think about all the time in terms of the anthropology of you know, of anything, is that the ultimate aim of the anthropology of something should be the ultimate dissolution of that thing. Right. This idea that if we pay enough attention to something ethnographically and it kind of ripples away into nothingness. Because you're like, wait, what was that? What does this really mean? Oh, God. Does it does it even exist? And that often happens with the things we talk about, like I've been doing this anthropology of algorithms. And I can't tell you that, you know, algorithms mean even less to me now than they did when I began because they can mean so many things. Attention similarly kind of disappears. And that's not the most useful way to deal with your own personal mental experience, I've found so on that side, I tend to be more pragmatic and say, hey, whatever works works. But, you know, let's recognize that people have different attentional capacities at different moments in their lives, at different times of the day and different situations. And it's not just the case that you have some people who have a deficit and some people have enough. Right. If you look at this socially, you really do need to think about the context for lack of a better word.
AP [00:23:20] Right. Because although as anthropologists, we can recognize that something is socially or culturally constructed that doesn't eliminate the ways in which people still have both individual experiences and those individual experiences are kind of situated in a social or cultural space that informs those experiences. So while you can say that it doesn't exist because it is constructed by people, that people still have those experiences.
NS [00:23:48] That's exactly right. And I think, you know, is attention a social construct? Yes, of course it is. But does that mean it's fake? No. Right. Is it attention deficit disorder a social construct? Yes. And, you know, I just taught in my other class the other day the canonical line that we like to use, at least in the STS side of things to say, hey, you know, your house is constructed too and that's why it's real. That's just the way that we go about that. I think the other thing that maybe we would want to talk about is the role that attention plays in how anthropologists talk about our methods. I don't know if that would be interesting.
AP [00:24:17] Yeah. Absolutely.
NS [00:24:18] So when I started doing this project on attention, I sent emails out to a bunch of folks that I know and some who I don't across the disciplines say, hey, I'm thinking of doing this project on attention. I think your work is kind of close to it. Do you know of anything on it? And generally speaking, they said, you know, no, I don't have a lot of work on it, but I think about it all the time. And I think it's it's it's a common feature of ethnographic fieldwork that the kind of experience that people have as an ethnographer is one of being very concerned about the kind of attention that we're paying to the world around us. Right. There's some idea that when you're a field worker, you're paying a different kind of attention than an ordinary person would pay. Right. You're paying kind of meta attention. Is that attention better? People usually talk about it that way, but it doesn't have to be better. Of course, it's different. And there's some idea that, you know, you're paying really close attention to things that otherwise might not be attended to or recognized. And that, I think, is, you know, a decent accounting of what ethnographic fieldwork is usually like. But there is this expectation of a certain kind of attentional subject in it. Right. Someone who can sit in a boring town center and just attend to the imponderabilia of everyday life or what have you and write it down. And that's exactly the kind of thing that you would expect someone with ADHD to have a hard time with, sort of stereotypically. And I have to say, as someone who's done long-term ethnographic fieldwork, it's something that I found incredibly difficult. And I think a lot of people find it difficult. It's not necessarily unique to people with this kind of diagnosis but getting the adult diagnosis well after this helped me put my experiences in the field for the past into a new kind of context to say, hey, you know what? That was really hard. And maybe you can find other forms of fieldwork or find other bits of things that you've already done that might suit your own attentional proclivities better. Right. So as I'm putting together this new project, I'm thinking, OK, what kinds of fieldwork suit me? Right. You know, as studying technologists, I had to be in offices. And you can only imagine how boring it would be to sit at a desk in an office all day and feel like you're supposed be paying attention to some vaguely defined ambiance and to just not be able to do it right. You should see, I think everyone has these sort of shameful field notes. But some of these days it's so, you know, there's one sentence in that page that is that's it. And it says nothing interesting has happened or something like that. And it's a tough experience. I mean, people, you know, who are especially being trained and doing fieldwork often have experiences of depression in the field for a variety of reasons. And one of those can be this sense of, you know, I'm not doing the right thing. I don't know how to attend in this way I'm supposed to. And when anthropologist talk about their methods, we often talk quite uncritically about it as a kind of magical, hyper attentive experience and thinking very closely about how exactly we're attending in those experiences, I think would be really useful for me personally as someone who has a hard time with it, but also more generally, methodologically, for thinking about what it is to be an ethnographer today.
AP [00:27:18] Yeah. I mean, I think that for me, beyond the fact that sitting in these spaces and not having a kind of directed set of tasks or goals was not only boring, but deeply anxiety inducing and that a lot of that anxiety is related to productivity and that in the field that is around not having these sort of specific things to do and setting myself at the directive of just examining imponderabilia as it occurred in front of me, was anxiety inducing in terms of what am I meant to do with this stuff that kind of seems undirected. And that was definitely a part of what I struggled with in terms of making a field plan for myself that was a little bit more directed in terms of who I was working with or building relationships with institutions in which I was contributing in some way. Also, that ADHD is related to other executive functioning. And that's a social thing as well in terms of how you reach out to people. Whereas another aspect of the romantic myth of fieldwork is that you're just supposed to talk to random people, which I found debilitating in terms of cold calling people without any other impetus than my research itself. And those are all things that contributed to how I thought about doing fieldwork and often thought about the fact that I needed a therapist that specifically understood anthropology in addition to all of these other mental health things as a way to kind of make sense of those different things coming together.
NS [00:28:45] Oh, gosh. I would imagine that an anthropologically savvy therapy business could be quite useful for folks going out into the field. And I think you're right, this question about, you know, the kind of aimless and ambient attention that's expected of the fieldworker. It's an interesting style and tension in its own right. I think it's something we can sort of investigate as part of what I think of as an attentional subjecthood, right? Like what is the idealized fieldworker and how are they supposed to be attending to the world? The fact that the aimlessness is, you know, hard for a particular set of executive function disorders is part of it. And the anxiety of not being able to do the thing that you're supposed to do, to feel like you're not getting whatever that je ne sais quoi of the field is, right, is, I think, totally normal and again, not exclusive to people with attention deficit diagnoses. But one of the classic sort of ADD help books from the 90s is called You Mean I'm Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy? And a lot of the sort of self-help literature on this and self-help books are an incredible resource for analyzing, you know, discursive formulations. Right. Is around this idea of, yeah, the anxiety and stigma around not being able to be productive, not being able to turn your attention into whatever the product is that you're supposed to be making, whether that's money or not. I mean, if you look at like Capital, for instance, Marx talks about how factory workers have a really hard time paying attention because part of the process of proletarianization is making your job extremely boring. Right. You have to do the same thing over and over again. But your boss has a vested interest in training your attention to cope with that, because if you don't, the machine might break, you might get injured and no longer be able to work and so on and so forth. So you have this kind of attention and capitalism and productivity thing, the protestant ethic, all of that tied together that, you know, in the present sort of manifests, I think, as a kind of anxiety about productivity in fieldworkers, even those who would say, I know what the Protestant ethic is and I'm not a sucker for that.
AP [00:30:44] That's really fascinating and I think unless you have any sort of final thoughts, I think this is a great place to stop. Thank you so much. And thank you for your time.
NS [00:30:54] Yeah. I think that that is terrific. Thank you so much. This was really interesting.
Emma Backe (EB) [00:31:16] What is the space for thought that we call imagination? Is this creative capacity equally shared, equally distributed? Do we all have the cognitive, social, and speculative infrastructure to be creative in the midst of a crisis? Or does the mind founder, short circuit in that imaginative leap necessary to move from the present to the possible, especially when apocalyptic and possibility seemed to proliferate on the horizon? I carried my grief with me into the field, held it close against my heart, not recognizing how it changed the way I interacted with my field site. Renato Rosaldo has written how grief opened up new affective worlds for him in the Philippines, an emotional register only accessed through acute grief, a sudden and unexpected loss. This presumes, perhaps, that grief may be generative, leading to ethnopoetic innovations with genre and anthropological closeness, a proximity to pathos which might verge into a novel kind of theory. But for me, however, emotion retreated, benumbed, but not necessarily becalmed, my body and brain only allowed me to process so much. The shock of grief left me feeling flat, and yet, I'd have moments when my heart would begin racing, suddenly short of breath. I'd come to Cape Town to study how rape crisis advocates responded to the long-term needs of survivors of gender-based violence while managing their own emotional equanimity. This necessarily involved encounters with others' trauma. Many described the communities they worked with as being, "stuck in trauma," a constant state of hyper vigilance, stress, and precarity as survivors navigated a complex system of services that often failed to account for these prolonged experiences of emotional disregulation and disruption. I'd also arrived a year after the South African government had declared gender-based violence and intimate femicide, a national crisis. Among South African colleagues and care providers, questions of gendered security proliferated. Over a burger and a beer at a local bar and observatory, a rugby match playing in the background, a fellow PhD student, originally from KwaZulu-Natal, told me she felt that there was, "no safe place in South Africa." It was sometimes hard to know where my grief response ended and a pervasive yet numinous awareness of potential peril began. Everything about me felt exposed. This hyper vigilance, both personal and environmental, was not particularly good to think with. The gnawing sense of dread did not seem to awaken new vistas of understanding, but to foreclose other possibilities of movement, whether physical or psychological. Perhaps I did not feel secure in the ontological or epistemological sense and letting my mind wander to the what ifs. My intention instead seemed to gravitate to the ominous sense of vulnerability. What little imagination I had dwelt upon the futures that had been suddenly undermined after my father's death, the rapidity with which such productive presentiments of tomorrow became disasters of the dirt of present. Today we are operating in multiple registers and forms of grief. I think of those whose friends or family members are suddenly gone, their deaths another statistic in the mortality rates associated with the coronavirus. The graduate students whose projects have been put on hold for the foreseeable future, the fieldsites that had been cultivated over months, if not years of steady engagement, longing and planning, or the faculty members seeking tenure or job security suddenly cut adrift in this digital learning transition. We're trained to be opportunistic during these periods of crisis that emergencies also promulgate possibilities for emergence, unexpected beginnings, and insouciant forms of resilience. Yet the pivot to rethink, reframe, reknow the world while in the middle of a crisis, presumes that we all quite literally have the requisite privileges of time and headspace. Sudden loss can shatter traditional orientations of time. The trauma response scrambling how we make sense of one moment to the next, what subjects our minds will settle upon with any certainty or comfort. The stimulus to immediately shift our professional and personal lives. The timelines of our research, the location of our intellectual and methodological trajectory, also leaves no time for grief, sadness, anger or immobility. Rather than casting into an uncertain future, we should be allowed to give space for loss and to not count that space as lost time, a useless day. I wait and I wait and I wait for my heart to beat a little bit slower. It may take some time for my body to adjust, to breathe deeply in this emerging situation when the air feels a little more dense. But once it does, only then will I turn to what comes next rather than what is happening right now.
[00:36:55] [Calm Music Interlude]
Anar Parikh (AP) [00:37:08] The reading you just heard was written and recited by Emma Backe, a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at George Washington University. Emma's research explores the temporalities of trauma and recovery for survivors and examines the politics of emergency and crisis in South Africa's response to gender-based violence.
[00:37:28] [Static Plays]
AP [00:37:34] Finally, in this last segment, I talked to EB Saldaña. She is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University. Her dissertation research investigates life after care for young people who age out of Kentucky's child welfare system, focusing especially on their moral and ethical development. EB and I started talking about this episode in January 2019. During one of our early conversations, EB was in the process of reconfiguring her plans for fieldwork after the Institutional Review Board at Kentucky's Cabinet for Health and Family Services rejected her initial research proposal. EB's fieldwork was disrupted again by the halt to in-person ethnographic fieldwork during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States. I caught up with EB in April to talk about handling these unexpected challenges and the ways in which they're both similar and meaningfully different.
AP [00:38:28] EB, how's it going?
EB Saldaña (EBS) [00:38:30] Hi, Anar. Thanks so much for having me. It's going . . . not bad. I had a bit of a delayed start on fieldwork late in March of last year and in April, when I got the news that I wasn't gonna be allowed into clinical settings and into foster care, you know, to work with people who are actually in the system. So I had a moment of panic where I cried a little bit and had to pick myself up and rethink what I was doing. But since then, it's been quite a fruitful and productive year, a transformative one. You know, doing fieldwork always is. So I'm doing OK and the project was progressing for the most part and that was really nice to see.
AP [00:39:14] So I thought we could talk a little bit about something that has been a part of your project almost from its start or at least since you started doing fieldwork but that has become ubiquitous in the past couple of months and that is: having to respond to circumstances that are out of our control. Many of us are doing this in different parts of our lives, including our research and scholarly work.
EBS [00:39:37] Yeah, I can talk about that. It was stressful, to say the least. I was really disappointed that I wasn't going to be able to do the project that I had really come to grad school to do. And I had first started thinking about this almost six years ago now when I was working in a residential facility in Kentucky and was really struck by how attentive young people were to issues of fairness and justice and how articulate they were about making claims about that. And so I had been thinking about what it would be like to do a project in clinical settings for young people for a very long time, through two years prior to graduate school and then two years of preliminary work in the summer when I was in between classes. And so to get the news that, you know, four years of thinking about it and wondering what new findings might be possible in a project like that, it was a lot of work to sort of recover from the blow of not being able to do what I had planned to do, and especially because, you know, not to knock the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, they have incredibly good reasons for saying no, which is that kids in the foster system are some of the most vulnerable people on the planet in terms of who is in charge of what happens to them and the sorts of experiences that they're facing. I can totally understand not wanting to have a researcher from Princeton just come in and say, "What's up?" So that makes perfect sense to me. But it was still a loss and having to change those research plans meant having to go back to what it was that I was interested in thinking about and who I was interested in talking to and why, what I expected to find and really sort of sitting with all of those questions. And that was a productive exercise, particularly because I was in the process of applying for grants at the time and grant proposals are a very special genre of having to sit and think with what it is you want out of doing a project and how to make that legible and compelling to people who are not your committee or your friends, to people you don't know how to persuade them that what you're doing has value. And so to hear no from an institutional review board and then after that to hear several No's from grants, was definitely . . . I always hear people say, like good writers always expect to hear the "No," and that is part of the process is getting rejected over and over again. But it's still awful and it's not a fun experience to reckon with something as sort of fundamental level. I think it's a very good thing. I think at the end that was really helpful for me to really find what I thought was valuable about the project and what I was hoping to get out of it. It was transformative, I would have to say in all of the ways that are really terrible to experience and then good when you come out the other side. And obviously, I was still adapting as all good projects do, you have to take what you think is going on and let people surprise you. And I think on that front, once fieldwork actually started in earnest late in the summer of last year, that it was good to have that practice of reflection on what I was doing and what I hope to get out of it and what I thought the value was.
AP [00:43:10] OK, so you've been talking a little bit about how you had to change your project after four years of having this idea in your mind of the kinds of questions that you want to ask. What were some of those things that you had to go back to or what were some of the questions that you had to go back to as you were thinking about now working with your transition out of the foster care system?
EBS [00:43:31] So obviously, the first thing that comes to mind was a question of access and that I was not going to be allowed into clinical settings. I had originally planned to be in residential facilities in Kentucky, and I had been in the process of talking with people at those facilities to see if I could be in them. There are so many studies in anthropology that are taken in clinical settings, including ones that have been done in residential facilities and with young people. So it isn't new for anthropologists to have to deal with the ethical issues that are often raised by institutional review boards like: "What are you going to do about parental permission? What are you going to do with the assumption that minors cannot consent to something as a legal restriction around consent? Was definitely a thorny issue as I was going through not one, but two institutional review processes, one at my home institution and then one here in Kentucky or there in Kentucky because I'm not in the field anymore. So that question of access and how you get it and what ethical expectations or questions you have to answer in order to be able to actually interact with human beings, many of those were off the table because I wasn't going to be allowed to work with youth in clinical settings. And actually, in their letter to me, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services told me that I wasn't going to have access to any kids in the foster system. So it wasn't only a matter of the specific kinds of facilities that were now off the table. Any young person under 18 who was still in the system, I was not gonna be allowed to talk to. So I couldn't go to foster parent meetings or whatever and ask to talk to their kids, right? I couldn't do any of the work with people who were currently in the custody of the state, which was an interesting problem, right? Part of what I was interested in asking once I sat down and really thought about it was about this sort of changing relationship between young people and the people who govern them. If the state had made a decision that, you know, through a social worker that that family situation you're in, is not good or safe or healthy, they're taking on the responsibility for taking care of you. And that responsibility for raising a kid then becomes split between family members and social workers and caregivers and facilities and whoever is in charge of all of coordinating all of those things. And so there's a whole slew of people who get brought into the family unit in the process of kids being in care. And so I was really interested in how people were thinking about that relationship. But that changes when kids are no longer the responsibility of either their parents legally or of the state once they turn eighteen. And so there was something really interesting that I was hoping to follow, which was how does that relationship get worked out when they're young, when those legal questions are sort of subtle, that someone has to be responsible for the kid who's sixteen, seventeen, even though they're gonna be eighteen in a year. How you prepare someone to not have someone else looking out for them once they're an adult was an interesting question for me that I wasn't going to be able to answer without talking to service providers. But I could talk to the kids once they aged out. And so, as far as access goes, I had called the Cabinet afterwards, the people who had basically said no contact with any of these young people. And I asked: Can I talk to people who have aged out of the system? And they said we don't have any jurisdiction over that. So . . . Which is not an encouragement. They were not like, you should talk to those people. But they were actually good at directing my attention to nonprofit organizations that do direct care work with people who had aged out but were no longer in the custody of the state. And so part of the project, as far as access goes, was understanding where the boundaries were or learning them in the process of trying to get access and respecting the social fact of, like, kids can't consent to research and people who are in the custody of the state are there because something terrible has happened to them and they do not want researchers going in. So it raised those issues for me about understanding what the boundaries were as far as research goes and a number of meta questions, too, about how do you get external evaluators, for example, into foster systems, which is something that came up often because there have been so many changes to child welfare in the last couple of years that those labels require some kind of external evaluation. And so if you're not allowing researchers into your system, how do you then get the data or get the evidence for whatever it is you're doing being effective? So those were, you know, further questions, further areas of research, further areas of concern, I think, for people who are doing research in very highly contentious fields and for municipal and county seats and state governments and for federal governments who are sort of slowly shifting to this demand for evidence based anything. You know, access offers a lot of insights into when someone tells you, "No," being able to sit with it, figure out why and what is learnable from it, which I think everybody has to go through when they first meet refusal in the field and also sparked lots of new questions and a very different population than I had originally intended to study. I was curious about collective responsibility for young people, which is still at the core of what I'm doing, but also now they are legally accountable for themselves in ways that they might not have been before and having to sit with them. But they are working out those questions for themselves with a really interesting process. In addition to access as far as like recovering from being told, "No," after four years of preparing for something, I mean, that's a loss. It was a very I mean, I had to sit and mourn the project that could have been that I had wanted to do and the investments that I had made. It was hard. I like, cried at my parents a lot and I cried at my boyfriend a lot. And I did the normal things that you do when you lose something that you cared a lot about. And I was really sad. Like, I was just really devastated that what I wanted to do wasn't a possibility. And angry, obviously very frustrated with the circumstances that sort of arose as fieldwork just had started. I just moved away from my partner and was having to be in a new place with no friends and staying at my parents' house and having to sort of be like, well, you did all of that for a project that's never going to happen. And I laugh about it now, but it was really devastating at the time because it's hard to feel invested in something when all of the work you had done and all of the sacrifices that you had made for that project suddenly don't seem to have paid off. And that was hard to cope with. Fortunately, I had a very good therapist in the field who was super supportive and very understanding. She had also gone through the PhD process and was amazing at helping me to be OK with being upset about it.
AP [00:50:43] I think that even the piece that you're talking about in terms of warning is really poignant.
EBS [00:50:50] Yeah, I think this is an ongoing problem, actually, not only in terms of lost projects or limited access to things that you needed, but I think right now with the pandemic, there's almost no real way to collectively mourn. And that is in part because it's unsafe to be around other people. Or it could be. We don't know. Going back to this theme of uncertainty, but we don't have mourning rituals for an age where we can't be social. And that's that's very deeply unsettling, I think, for many people to imagine the loss of a loved one and not be able to be at the hospital with them. I think that fear of being by ourselves is sort of underlying a lot of the ways that we're approaching mourning right now. And I think for graduate students who are at any phase of the sort of doctoral process, we don't we've never really gotten time to mourn things that we've lost. And we have to really make a case for doing it. And maybe now is the time to practice mourning and grieving. But I do think that making space for loss and for being sad about the things that we don't have anymore, it's a really essential part of like being a person in graduate school that . . . but being alone in the field was one of those times where if you're already grieving something, you're grieving the loss of your support networks or what have you. But it's even harder to mourn in a way that feels satisfying.
AP [00:52:30] So your fieldwork was disrupted a second time this spring because Princeton, like most institutions, has indefinitely suspended all person-to-person research. What has it been like? What has it been like to put a halt on fieldwork again and move into quarantine situations over the past couple months.
EBS [00:52:56] Deeply distressing. Right? A you laugh, you don't cry kind of thing. So I spent about a month in Kentucky quarantining alone and in many cases, talking to the young people was working with trying to convince them to stay home with variable results. I had other people to worry about and that was really an interesting sort of phenomenon. One of the things that I noticed immediately was that even though I cherish and really value my in-person time with the people I worked with, I spent a good chunk of time with young people in person. And young people love social media. Right? That's the stereotype, right? And so all of our interactions just shifted to text, where I was FaceTiming kids regularly. I was on Instagram with people. I was constantly getting messages and texts from from young people I was working with. And so that didn't really change that much. They would text me anyway. It was kind of nice to know that I could do fieldwork remotely, at least with one group of young people. And then I spent a huge other chunk of my time while I was in the field with nonprofit organizations who immediately shifted to Zoom calls. So I was still getting to participate and do fieldwork. But I had this conversation actually with a group of organizers who do work on incarceration in Kentucky. We were doing the fourth in a four part series of workshops around how to incorporate art into organizing. And we sat and talked a little bit about how hard it was to do it over Zoom because we had been working for months together and we missed our coffee break conversations and like our meals that we got to eat together. And so even though, like, work could continue the social aspect of what anthropological fieldwork was supposed to feel like was missing. And so the fact that I could shift to remote fieldwork, loosely construed, right? Where I was still learning things about my research questions, I was missing out very much on the relational pieces of it and had to make up for that in other ways. And so sometimes I was doing work with my interlocutors but other times it was just like FaceTime check ins with people I met in the last year. And so that was tough, you know, and I eventually decided that because I could do remote work, I didn't need to be in Kentucky anymore, and so I made the decision to come home to Rhode Island to be with my partner. That happened a week ago, so I've been here, I've been home in Providence for about a week and that was really hard. I was a little nervous about doing the podcast because I didn't know if I was going to start crying about having to leave. But it was a very unceremonious end to fieldwork or perhaps a pause, right? And it wasn't nice. I didn't get to wrap up or say goodbye to any of the people that I worked with. And I was very fortunate to have good relationships with most of the folks that I have been speaking with over the last year where I was, you know, I told them very nervous, like I'm leaving. And they were like, I'm so glad you're going home. You get to be with your partner. You're not going to be quarantining by yourself. It's so great. You should have left weeks ago. I got like an extraordinary amount of support from both like the young people and the adults that I was working with, people who were very happy that I was going to be back in a place that was . . . Going home, even though I know that it was hard for everybody involved to be like, oh, yeah, we're just not going to say goodbye, we're not going to see each other as I'm like closing up. And they were all very encouraging about, like, you'll be back, right? Yes. At some point I will come back and see you, I promise. Which I intend to keep that promise but I don't know when and I don't know for how long. I don't know like what contact will be possible in the coming years, coming months even. And that's really tough to not know how to close a period of your life where you were and not getting to break it off in a way that felt like there was closure, I guess. So that was really tough and I'm still going through the process of, like, mourning that. I really did feel like I owed it to people to wrap up and prepare for leaving in a way that felt like, I was sort of fulfilling whatever moral obligations we have to the people we work with. And I think this wasn't ideal; packing up my apartment in a week and getting a truck and driving across the country was not how I really expected to leave the field. Wasn't fun, wasn't cute. I felt pretty terrible and so I'm still processing that and I think that's OK. I think there's always a moment of adjustment once you are like closing up shop for fieldwork, that, even in ideal circumstances, would have been really tough. And the substance of how coronavirus changed that goodbye. . . I'm going to be processing probably for years and it's fine that it's going to take time. I'm like sitting with it. I'm going to be OK. But it's not too horrible. Did not like it. Can't recommend.
AP [00:58:40] I mean, it happened for all intents and purposes, like yesterday. So I don't think that. . . There are a range of answers over the course of time, right, to that question. So as you're talking, I was thinking about this question of like what we owe to our interlocutors. And I personally think a lot about that in terms of like we're going into this place only to leave again. That's a part of one of my dilemmas about what I owe to the people that I work, no matter how rich these relationships were politically and interpersonally and intellectually. When I was doing fieldwork, I ultimately ended up leaving, right? Like this community that precedes and exceeds me is something that I kind of like came into and dropped out of, you know? And leaving was hard at all, and the idea of leaving abruptly, it seems so jarring. I can only imagine what that has been like.
EBS [00:59:43] Not great. Not great. Yeah. I had prepared for the fact that it was going to be difficult to leave at any point. I had set up a pretty good little . . . you know, I had integrated right into the city I was living in and I grew up in Kentucky. I grew up in Louisville, so I was familiar with it. But the process of making something really familiar, a little strange and then re-adjusting to a new normal about, that is the whole fieldwork process, right? And it's accelerated and then stopped immediately by having to leave the field during a pandemic to say nothing of how surreal it was to drive across the country without any cars on the road. But, yeah, it's always a little gut wrenching to leave the field, I think for many people, unless you had a terrible experience in the field and you just couldn't wait to leave, which was not my experience. But I also know that that is some people's experience where horrible things happen to them in the field or they just could not get on the right timezone to be in touch with family or support network. And so, you know, I imagine that for people who were not necessarily happy in the field where field work was really traumatic or alienating or depressing for them, that leaving the field abruptly might have been a bit of a relief. Getting a break might have been really nice for people, even though this is sort of probably the worst way to leave the field regardless, because even if you're not having, like, a great time during what you're doing, you have to travel during a pandemic, which is very scary.
AP [01:01:27] Thank you for sharing that. And I'm saying this not even at the end of the interview, but I mean, these are hard things to talk about and hard, especially when they're raw. So I appreciate that you're willing to have this conversation.
EBS [01:01:42] I think it's an important one I think. Part of what I appreciate about the first episode of this podcast, which I listened to and enjoyed, was the effort to address that these are normal parts of the grad school experience, or at least of the anthropological ones since being in the field and being very unwilling to type up field notes even on a good day. It's an arduous task, ok? Keeping up is very difficult. I'd rather be out talking to people. But it's an essential one. You know, one of the things that I've been doing the last couple of months is trying to prepare for moving into the next phase, which is going to be writing and obviously because fieldwork was disrupted, I have a really good reason to go back, collect more data. But in the meantime, I think I've got a couple of months and like, I can write something with what I've got, probably. So I'm going to go ahead and start writing but in preparation for doing that, over the last couple of months, I've been looking a lot at trying to coordinate or try to talk to graduate students across disciplines and across stages. And so graduate students should be talking to each other about how hard graduate school is. It seems quite obvious that we should be doing that and I know that I have been advised by many people to build networks of colleagues both in my field and across disciplines that workshopping with other people who are at the same stage as you or roughly the same stage as you and people who are further along, behind you. . . That that is where you get a good chunk of how to's, right? And so talking with other graduate students about how their work's been disrupted and how challenging it is to adjust to moving from one part of the process to another and all the attending collective screening that has to happen in that process has been really good for me. So I appreciate the project of opening the conversation up with an eye to anthropology, both as a discipline and as a method for answering some of the questions that arise when you have these kinds of conversations. I think what you're doing is a really important thing. I left under pretty ideal conditions and they were still kind of terrible and I was like in the field under pretty ideal conditions and it was still really hard. So there have to be those conversations starting and that has to come both from people who are in pretty dire circumstances and pretty good ones because it's hard across the board. So thank you!
AP [01:04:22] Yeah, I mean, I've been thinking about why I wanted to do this project at all. Mostly because I get self-conscious that it's basic. Not. . . Even if it is, then I think that's OK but that we're trained to look for something that is so intricately constructed that it shouldn't be apparent at the outset, which is just to say that part of it is definitely about mental health as in, like, "What are the things that we're dealing with?" But another part of it is that this series has been a way for me to think about and for me to talk with other anthropologists about how we make meaning of our own work and of our own lives and that is the thing that anthropologists do with other people's lives, I guess, so . . . yeah, I mean, I think it's been really generative.
EBS [01:05:19] Especially something that is like relatively extraneous to the doctorate, right? It's something that you're doing as part of an intellectual community and a discipline that has sometimes been very good about like reflexivity and self-criticism and engaging in a practice of thinking through what they're doing, what their place in the world is. And there's room for this kind of conversation in anthropology because we had some of those practices as sort of standards and that may not be true of other disciplines. I'm not in other disciplines, so I have no idea. I can't speak to what they're up to, but, I do think that you're right that we make meaning out of other people's lives and that turning that sort of critical eye to our own, even if it's just to revisit things that we've already seen to glean any kind of new meaning from it. You know, repeat studies are important. Longitudinal analysis is very significant and a useful exercise. There's a reason that we don't just stop it at a year or two years and that people go back to fieldsites, it's that we think there's something important, not only in the comparison of us and them, like self and other, but also of like past self current self. What did we used to do when grad students were dealing with terrible things in the field? And how are we dealing with it now? How might we make plans for the future? Those are really timely questions, not only because of the pandemic but because it is a good moment always to consider these kinds of questions.
AP [01:07:00] I guess one thing that I'm thinking about and that you talked a little bit about at the start, is that our plans and projects change in a variety of big and small ways all the time. And that's part of what our training encourages us to do, what you are calling retooling or reworking. And that includes letting ourselves be moved by things that we can expect, right? Like there's an inquiry that comes from noticing something that we didn't predict or that we didn't expect. So, I'm wondering, is there something different about what's happening now and how that calls us, how that requires us to do shifting and responding and reworking of our plans or ideas or questions?
EBS [01:07:58] I do. It seems to me that there is something different about what's happening now with all the caveats about we've seen crises before and we've seen all of the ways that they become sort of political fodder for what people really want. But I also think that as far as having to adapt to not being there, which is a requirement of the moment that has thrown anthropology, whose primary method of inquiry into high relief as something we need to be thinking very concretely about. I'm really fortunate that I had good relationships with people from the field, that I can continue to be a part of their lives, even from far away. I am really fortunate that I spent a lot of time with people getting to know them, letting them get to know me, and building something really interesting and important enough that when things go wrong, I am still interpolated into their world. And so it wasn't hard for me to sort of retool what I'm doing. But that was after months of a literal year of being in the field. And that was also after doing that in-person before this all happened. And so I am really concerned about anthropology as primary method of inquiry for like everybody who is either on the cusp of starting fieldwork or in fieldwork or trying to plan out field projects for the next couple of years. I think we had talked a little bit about uncertainty earlier in our conversation and the complete lack of knowing when stuff is going to be safe to be in person. And it's not completely absent, but it is hard to get training in ethnographic methods that are virtual or technologically mediated. If we are going to expect that graduate students are redoing projects to be virtual ethnographies, there needs to be like a whole conversation about how those people are going to get jobs if there is a job market at the end of this. There needs to be a whole conversation about what sort of ethical data issues are going to be on the horizon, right? If everything you're doing is on Zoom like, who has access to that, and I mean, that's just one example, there needs to be a whole conversation about getting access virtually. These are all things that if this were a year ago for me and this all happened, I would have no idea how to do. And so to say nothing of how challenging it is to build trust over the Internet. I mean, there are some pretty remarkable ethnographies of people who were almost entirely technologically mediated and like kudos to those people. I don't know if I can do it right now. And everybody I work with is technologically equipped to continue doing remote field work. And I still don't know if I would have been able to do the same project if this had happened at the beginning of fieldwork and I don't really know what the consequences are going to be for anthropology as a discipline going forward. What is there for people who are done with coursework, who are getting ready to be in the field? What is there for them to do in the next couple of months? And who is responsible for walking them through that process? I think those are very timely and difficult questions that I think are different than our normal, like, you have to rework or you have to adapt in the field.
EBS [01:11:31] There's always an element of that, but the sort of indefinite length of the pandemic, I think it's throwing all of that into high relief and how uneven it is. So, like, if you were doing a project in the U.S., even state by state, there are different restrictions on who can be where. And if you have some people who are going to be in Italy doing fieldwork, for example, or China figuring out what is fair in terms of evaluating the work that they're able to do, given that not every place is available for travel. I am really concerned about those questions, which I think is what feels different to me about this moment compared to all of our other moments of having to rethink our projects. There are just some things we can no longer do because we can't go where we need to go to do those things. And we have to talk about standards of evaluation for dissertations. If people can't go to the field for years on end, what does that do to a whole generation of scholars?
AP [01:12:38] And I mean, evaluating dissertations of people who are writing them right now. It just in general, I mean, basically my add on to what you're saying is that: if what we run on is evaluating scholarly production, how do you evaluate what has been produced? Right now, basically. And that's in terms of the fieldwork, you know, the ethnography. But also in terms of like, how do you acknowledge the distress that people are experiencing as they attempt to produce scholarship in, like, various places. So that's something that I have definitely been thinking about. And I think that's a good lead into my last question: Tips or thoughts for people who are reconfiguring their projects and work right now? I mean, you're one of those people, too, so that could be practical or even just about how to think about what's happening.
EBS [01:13:54] I do think we talked a little bit about this in terms of mourning, but I think that has to be the first step. You know, graduate programs take years, especially in our field. And we're in the field for a long time because we understand that to really get a sense of something takes time. And so not everyone has time. I think of people who are defending this semester, they don't really have time to mourn. They got to get a job, right? For people who were TAing or teaching this semester, like they don't really have time to mourn. They have to rethink all of the stuff they were doing. And so, I mean, my first thought is that, like, there has to be time to grieve with all of the caveats about the ways that people are very precariously positioned and just can't. And so I guess, like in terms of thinking about: What to do right now? The first thing for me was just like I got to sit with how sad I am about having to leave this way and having to not be able to say goodbye to anybody, like I had to sit with those things. I'm still thinking about them. And I'm not really beating myself up for letting it run its course because that's just how it has to be. I've been doing a little bit of writing every day. Fifteen, thirty minutes, pretty minimal amounts and that feels really good. I've been trying to read and discovered that I can't read anymore. I have lost the ability to read, I am admitting on a podcast that I am now illiterate as a graduate student and it's not a good situation. But I've also tried really hard not to beat myself up for the things that I can't do. And that's a really good place for me to start, I think, is that I am sufficiently privileged to be able to take time to not have to feel like I need to rush things. And truth be told, I got bored pretty quickly with not doing anything, with not working. I tried to take a couple of days of just like letting myself be sad and I was like, "This sucks, I want to do stuff." And I think that part of what I was saying earlier about fieldwork being time consuming and graduate school being time consuming is that we build in that time because we know that boredom is productive, and stillness is productive, and that quiet and nothing's happening moments are also really, really good for us. That rest is important.
Anar Parikh (AP) [01:16:51] Thank you for listening to AnthroPod, the podcast for the Society for Cultural Anthropology. I would like to extend my utmost gratitude to Nick Seaver, EB Sardaña, and Emma Backe for their time and thoughtfulness. A big thank you as well to everyone who has been a part of making this series come to life at various points in time: Marios Falaris, Beth Derderian, Josh Rivers, Rebecca Lester, Beatriz Reyes-Foster, Chelsey Carter, and Greg Beckett. Finally, I'm endlessly thankful to Raphaelle Rabanes, the associate producer of this series, for her close listening and overall support in seeing these episodes to publication.