Building Online Bridges: Ethnography across “Partitioned” Nation-states during COVID-19

From the Series: A Collaboratory of Indian Ocean Ethnographies

Photo by project team.

As a literary scholar, I have always been fascinated with ethnography as a research method. While literary research normally involves textual, linguistic and/or discourse analysis of a text grounded in a theoretical framework, or library and archival research, I always felt ethnography opened a more generous space for the study of cultures, people, and history. This, I feel, is especially true in the South Asian context in general and the aftermath of the two main partitions that drew the boundaries between India and Pakistan (1947 & 1971). Through this essay, I discuss what I was previously fearful of undertaking due to political pressures from both sides of the border, and how this can now be achieved by connecting with like-minded researchers beyond political borders. My collaborations, through online spaces across India, Pakistan, and the UK more specifically (and globally more generally) during the pandemic, led me to seriously pursue the methodological practicality of digital ethnographic research as a means of connecting the spatial and the virtual. In this post, I reflect on how meeting online in collaborative scholarly spaces during the 2020 and ongoing pandemic might be redefined as digital ethnography.

I do this in three ways. First, I think through my first experience conducting an ethnographic project in 2018. Second, I describe three recent projects that I initiated and/or established during the pandemic as progressive examples of my implementation of digital ethnography. These are all based on the study of peripheral communities creating female role models via ‘Advancing Female Literacy and Empowerment in Pakistan and India through Life Writing’ (GCRF Project), engaging with post-partition connections between historically and politically divided communities (IPAN Project), and establishing a digital archive to promote an ethnolinguistic community (TLSA Project). I will elaborate how I regard these experiences as ethnographic as I discuss them. Further, I argue these collaborative projects were the only possible form of ethnography for me and my co-researchers because of visa restrictions and political standpoints, both of which were made even more difficult due to the pandemic, and that this ethnography is explicitly digital. Third, I discuss and theorize my engagement with digital ethnography to indicate the connection between virtual and physical spaces as a means of remaining connected across political borders.

A Shift From Literary to Field Research (2018)

My initial exposure to ethnographic research was in 2018 when I designed a short-term oral history-based field research project as a Charles Wallace Fellow at the School of Oriental and Africa Studies (SOAS) in London. Titled: “Imparting Mother Language to Second Generation: An Ethnographic Study of the Siraiki Diaspora in London,” this experience was based on physically visiting the field (London), interacting with the community, and dealing with the problems of conducting field research. This experience gave me a sense that connecting with the field is the most significant aspect of ethnographic research, something that seemed bound to being physically in field, as I had been in London.

Fast-forward to 2020. I am no longer in London but am based in Pakistan working as an Associate Professor in English, with the identity of a political activist, at the Forman Christian College of Lahore. Based on my earlier ethnographic experience, while the pandemic offered serious challenges to our research in 2020, I observed online meetings as a liberating means for transcending the restricted mobility caused by the partitions and intensified by the pandemic. Hence, 2020—a year that was remarkably challenging for ethnographers who regard connecting with the field as their most significant research experience—suddenly appeared not completely hopeless for me. The limitations of having severely restricted mobility due to the pandemic, and being unable to undertake field research for our project, was replaced by a strange feeling that 2020 might offer me unlimited opportunities to explore the prospects of digital ethnography.

Global Challenges Research Fund - GCRF Project (2020 -2021)

Our project was titled “Advancing Female Literacy and Empowerment in Pakistan and India through Life Writing” and was in collaboration with Dr. Siobhan Lambert-Hurley (University of Sheffield, UK). This project involved teams collaborating from Pakistan, India, and the UK. Initially, our team’s student-faculty collaboration involved collecting oral histories based on the lives of women who became role models for setting up schools within their communities. On behalf of Forman Christian College University (Lahore), which was at the center of this project in Pakistan, I was leading an ethnographic project funded by the QR Global Challenges Research Fund (GRCF) for 2020-2021. My students had to conduct field research by collecting oral histories of women role models who had successfully established schools; this they had to do with the support of a non-Governmental Organization named Bunyad. Based on these oral histories, the students had to write stories, translate them from English to Urdu, and create complementary visuals to attract young readers. Our objective was to produce six informative educational booklets for primary level schools set up by these women in the peripheries of Lahore, where their lives could be studied by young students belonging to the same community.

Due to the pandemic, the actual field visits and interviews never materialized and public health measures compelled us to switch to the study of these role models by turning towards well-documented (both online as well as offline) material. While we had initially conducted a seminar and workshops when we initiated the project, during the pandemic we largely relied on digital interactions with the entire team. There were three major and interrelated outcomes. Firstly, our students who purely belonged to Humanities disciplines learned interdisciplinary research (creative writing, visual arts, and ethnography) as they trained to conduct oral history research and field projects. Secondly, they created bilingual (Urdu/English) booklets about the lives of both living as well as historical women role models (with visuals) for young readers belonging to peripheral schools set up by Bunyad around Lahore, which could potentially also be disseminated to other schools and libraries across Pakistan. Finally, a collaborative webinar involving teams from India, Pakistan and the UK enabled all of us to “meet” as a group and have discussions together—something that allowed more participants than those initially anticipated to attend the conference in person at the University of Sheffield in the UK. Hence, in a way the GCRF project enabled me to reflect on the culture of virtual connectivity as complex and enriching as it has given me and my students a sense of being in communication with scholars from across the world. This also enabled me to reflect on the possibility, and indeed richness, of using “digital ethnography” (Horst and Miller 2012).

India Pakistan Academic Network or IPAN (2017 – Present)

If in the previous section I discussed how I identified digital ethnography as a useful means of shifting from literary research methodologies. In this section, I link this experience to study digital and scholarly interactions that may not entirely be ‘ethnographic’ but are observed ethnographically. In 2017, I had initiated a digital forum titled, ‘India Pakistan Academic Network’ (IPAN) with my Indian colleague, Dr. Roshni Sengupta, then based at the University of Leiden, through which we managed to connect academics based in India and Bangladesh (Langah and Sengupta 2021). Initially developed as a Facebook Page, the initiative now attracts over one thousand members who share academic research, discussions, and information related to and beyond partition. The significance of this forum was further highlighted when I realized that there is a persistent vacuum stemming out of the geographical and political divisions due to the partitions of India (1947) and Pakistan (1971), and due to the overpowering role colonial and postcolonial history has played in dividing our intellectual life. Despite our historical and cultural ties, the partition has made it virtually impossible to cross the India-Pakistan (and Bangladesh) border—even for academic purposes as visas for conferences or research often get denied. Meeting via Facebook, LinkedIn, Zoom, Skype, and other social media forums, however, enables us to overcome these limitations by creating a “virtual field” for sharing cultural values and conducting collaborative research. It now feels like the partitioned nations of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh are back in touch through academic channels and online discussions.

COVID-19 has further motivated Dr. Sengupta and myself to extend this newfound “bridge” to other scholars; and more recently, Professor Anjali Gera Roy suggested we could motivate young researchers from across the Indian Ocean to create “Connected Ethnographies” projects to unite digitally those separated in 1947 (Roy 2021). In the context of Roy’s discussion, “ethnography” meant Indian and Pakistani scholars could now conduct collaborative research and collect oral histories across borders. This ethnography can be explicitly digital as the virtual space allowed for the bridge that connected us across political boundaries. Digital linkages make it possible to collect data from their own countries and publish collaborative academic research without the hassle of dealing with the multiple formalities of physical border crossings.

Dr. Anjali Gera Roy's Talk for IPAN. Screen capture by Akhtar Mirza (voluntary assistant for IPAN).

Taj Langah Siraiki Archive or TLSA (2021)

This exposure to understanding ethnography in relation to partition has also made me reflect on my research on Siraiki identity. Collecting oral histories of the Siraiki community that migrated to India needed to be undertaken. Creating a digital archive focused on oral histories, cultural explorations, and an in-depth study of an ethnic and linguistic community with the support of several friends across boundaries suddenly became possible in 2020. Hence, I was able to introduce a Siraiki archive (named after my father who was an activist) to preserve information about Siraiki language, culture, and history (Taj Langah Siraiki Archive | Facebook). The objective of this archive is to connect the speakers of Siriaki and those interested in Siraiki cultural identity internationally by conducting monthly webinars, collecting oral histories of people across borders, sharing educational and academic resources, and creating forums for dialogue. As a researcher, this forum is also providing me an opportunity to collect primary sources for a future research project based on Siraiki identity.

Hence, through COVID-19, I embraced the hope to overcome this fear of political borders through the possibility of creating a new “field” that combines the virtual and the physical. I regard these online interactions (particularly through IPAN and TLSA) as ethnography (Boellstroff 2012) because, as the organizer of these forums, my research is through a participant-observation strategy, which I was able to undertake by exploring “virtual fields'' and has offered a means of transcending the political borders created through partition.

Conclusion: Engagement with Digital Ethnography During the Pandemic

The three examples of engagement in various projects that I discussed above indicate that, during the pandemic, we were forced to divert our efforts towards creating online linkages with both South Asian scholars and scholars working on South Asia, primarily with reference to India and Pakistan. As a matter of fact, this experience of “adapting” ourselves (Boellstroff 2012, 54) and proceeding with these projects by bridging the physical and the virtual space connected many people and opened various possibilities, which I had never imagined before. Hence, despite all kinds of divides and complexities (economic and urban rural divide as written about by Moyukh Mahtab in Bangladesh, Guru et al. for West Bengal, India; and gendered as Carola E. Lorea et al. point out—all essays in this series) in my experience, these virtual interactions have felt real as opposed to being just an illusion or abstraction (Horst and Miller 2012, 13). The open access to broader information (Horst and Miller 2012, 17-21) and the making of the “virtual as profane as physical” (Boellstroff 2012, 42) was a crucial part of my experience. I regard these online interactions and connectivity as a highly gratifying experience which opens opportunities for social engagements, observation of perceptions, and behaviors of various communities by allowing a shift beyond our own cultures, while also sharing our context-based field research.

In many ways, our 2020-2021 halted lives have forced us to reflect on immersing ourselves in the culture of online connectivity: both as “field,” as well as “borderless space.” Despite missing physical interactions, our virtual connectivity not only turned into a fruitful ethnographic and intellectual experience but also enabled real interactions which would not have been possible outside the digital space. By this I mean that despite immobility, we have gained broader outreach, transculturality, empathy, and dialogue based on knowledge-sharing across and beyond our restricting nation-states. This virtual space has importantly also involved the student community through diverse online forums (webinars, WhatsApp groups, virtual dialogues), while also encouraging student-faculty collaborations which are perhaps less hierarchical than if they were held in the setting of a classroom. This represents another effort at transcending hierarchies and socially constructed borders. Most importantly, the reliance on an “embedded” and “collaborative” approach has turned virtual connectivity (Lewis and Russell 2011) into a significant reality.

An Online Meeting of all the participants collaborating with the 'The Southern Collective' team. Screen capture by 'The Southern Collective' coordinating team.

References

Boellstroff, Tom. 2012. “Rethinking Digital Anthropology.” In Digital Anthropology, edited by Heather A. Horst and Daniel Miller, 39-60. New York: Routledge.

Horst, Heather and Daniel Miller, eds. 2012. Digital Anthropology. New York: Routledge.

Langah, Nukhbah Taj, and Roshni Sengupta. 2021. Film, Media, and Representations in Postcolonial South Asia: Beyond Partition. New York: Routledge.

Lewis, Susan Jane, and Andrew J. Russell. 2011. “Being Embedded: A Way Forward for Ethnographic Research.” Ethnography 12, no. 3: 398–416.

Roy, Anjali Gera. 2021. “Partition: Testimony, Fiction and Narrative”, Talk presented on the India Pakistan Academic Network (IPAN). Accessed January 15 2021.