Interview: Patchwork Ethnography

Disruption. Photo by Michael Dziedzic, licensed under CC BY.

Last year, Member Voices published Gökçe Günel, Saiba Varma, and Chika Watanabe’s “A Manifesto for Patchwork Ethnography.” The authors posted their manifesto ahead of a Wenner-Gren funded webinar, “Patchwork Ethnography,” which will take place on June 24–25, 2021 (click here for more details on the program and registration). This interview follows up with the authors a year on and looks toward their webinar, which we encourage you to attend. This interview is the first part of a longer conversation we hope to have with those who participate in the webinar—look for more posts in the future. The questions were written by Danny Cardoza in collaboration with the Member Voices team, particularly Scott Schnur and Riddhi Pandey, and answered collectively by Gökçe Günel, Saiba Varma, and Chika Watanabe. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Member Voices: How did your working group come about? Which came first, the project with Wenner-Gren or the pandemic? If the former, how did the onset of the pandemic shape your writing of the manifesto? If the latter, why did the pandemic prompt you to organize now?

Patchwork Ethnography: The idea of patchwork ethnography definitely came before the pandemic, and this is an important point for us—it is not a response to conditions created by COVID-19 but by already existing precarious, neoliberal, and disrupted labor conditions, as well as by multiple personal obligations that researchers and ethnographers face. The three of us had been talking informally for years about our various commitments and constraints that make long-term fieldwork impossible. We went to graduate school together and we have been friends for almost fifteen years, and these conversations initially emerged in the intimacy of our friendship. In the fall of 2019, we decided to create a space to think about this issue more formally and collectively by submitting a proposal to a European funder and to the Wenner-Gren workshop grant, the latter of which was funded in March 2020. This grant supports a small group of anthropologists from different countries and in various professional situations to refine the idea together.

Soon after we received the Wenner-Gren Workshop award, we wrote “A Manifesto for Patchwork Ethnography” intending it as an introductory text for workshop participants. In the days following the manifesto’s publication, we received lots of messages from ethnographers across the world. For instance, colleagues in Indonesia translated the text into Indonesian (an Italian translation is also in the works). Colleagues in history, architecture, media studies, political science, and medieval studies also reached out to share personal difficulties and accounts of marginalization within their disciplines and wanted to participate in a patchwork ethnography collective. Faculty, students, and lecturers in precarious conditions shared what the concept has done for them and expressed a desire to discuss its implications for future anthropological research in a context beyond a closed workshop with limited participants. Several volunteered their labor in assembling what patchwork ethnography might mean going forward. Given this wide-ranging interest, combined with how conversations on ethnographic methods were being centered during the pandemic, we decided to organize a webinar on the topic. We felt a responsibility to make space for a broader and more inclusive conversation on patchwork ethnography.

MV: You wrote the manifesto nearly a year ago. Has the prolongation of pandemic life shaped your thinking about patchwork ethnography? If so, how?

PE: As we described above, over the past year, we received many responses to our manifesto from researchers around the world. Many people shared very personal stories, describing how they have long been failing to meet the research goals they have set for themselves. Yes, research projects have been disrupted due to the pandemic, but many people were struggling long before the pandemic. Most of the responses we received foreground the continuities rather than the ruptures the pandemic made apparent.

One of the things that the prolonged pandemic / lockdown life has demonstrated to us is how we have always done patchwork ethnography. For example, Chika realized that, during her PhD fieldwork in Tokyo, she was going back and forth between the NGO office that she studied and “home,” the apartment where she was living with her parents. In many ways, this was not continuous, immersive ethnographic research as one might imagine; every day was broken up into working hours at the NGO office (“the field”), spending evenings with parents (“home”), meeting up with childhood friends (“home”?), and attending NGO-related events based on previous relationships with aid workers and not necessarily with the NGO that was the object of study (“the field”?). Thinking back, there was an arbitrary bounding off of “the field” versus “home,” even within the same “site,” yet these observations did not make it into her dissertation.

The pandemic has heightened our senses toward the kinds of patchwork methods that have become more necessary now, which has helped us understand how patchwork has always already been something we do.

MV: In February you held a workshop where you “brainstormed around the concept and tools of patchwork ethnography.” Can you sum up some of the key ways this workshop developed your thinking about patchwork ethnography? Have you started to answer some of the questions you raise in the manifesto?

PE: Yes! We had nine participants in the workshop, whom we selected based on both their structural position in the university as well as geographic representation. Through the conversation, I think we all learned how specific—and specifically U.S. centered—some of our discussions of fieldwork are! Ethnographers in many other countries do and have done ethnography differently and in more patchworked ways for a long time.

There were several important themes—and ways of thinking of patchwork as a methodological toolkit—that came out of the conversation. At the broadest level, we felt that patchwork provokes a conversation about how to think about fieldwork relations. We had some significant conversations about collaborative research, for example—what kinds of collaborations do we consider to be resistant to, rather than reproductive of, the neoliberal university? How can we draw on the expertise of people on the ground in the places we work but not reproduce hierarchies of knowledge and value based on extraction? Some interesting ideas that came up during the workshop included inviting collaborators or research assistants to be co-authors or co-presenters in professional contexts.

For some participants, patchwork also became a way to rethink the temporality of their fieldwork—it was a mode of reflection, of rewinding or unwinding what they had found in their field notes after the fact. Because it resists fixity and certainty, patchwork offers a way to write with rather than against the interruptions and disruptions of fieldwork. We found that the “crisis” of temporality was itself a product of people’s life trajectories, which are increasingly more precarious. These interrupted or disrupted trajectories were shaped by a range of forces, from managing houselessness, peripatetic lives, and multiple, intersecting, or conflicting personal and professional commitments. Some participants offered patchwork as a way of resisting those temporalizations, as a way of slowing down and resisting the impetus to produce more. Building on the work of Black feminist anthropologists and other scholars on the “Sojourner Syndrome,” Jessica Cattelino offered the really helpful phrase of “intersecting responsibilities” that we juggle and argued that such intersecting responsibilities might have liberatory potentials. We believe it is important to center such intersecting responsibilities in our conversations going forward, while noting that our subject positions shape the ways we experience each of our responsibilities. Not everyone experiences intersecting responsibilities in the same way of course!1

In other conversations, patchwork emerged as a strategy for writing differently. One of our participants, Rihan Yeh, offered the provocative phrase that patchwork helps you “make the seams visible”—it foregrounds and highlights the moves of contextualization/decontextualization, extraction of data, the movement between fieldsite(s) and home, and the various editorial decisions we make when we refine our stories. If seams are visible, a very different ethnographic project and theorization can emerge. For example, for Chika this provoked a question regarding how her fieldwork at OISCA’s headquarters in Tokyo might have looked different had she made the constant back and forth from the office to her family’s home in Tokyo, two places where she had two different roles, a part of her analysis. Would reflecting on that movement between office and home have affected how she theorized OISCA’s work and/or the ethnographic theory she generated?

MV: Due to the pandemic, over the last year, virtual spaces have become part and parcel of academic work and anthropological research generally. How do such spaces and other technologies pose both opportunities and challenges to patchwork ethnography?

PE: As we have mentioned above, we do not want the pandemic to define patchwork ethnography. Most of us have always already been doing patchwork ethnography—this is not a “new” concept per se. What we have done is simply bring it out of the closet. The pandemic has foregrounded the use of communication technologies and increased collaboration, but it is important for us to recognize that many ethnographers have already been doing this, often because of need (e.g., they do not have the resources to conduct continuous long-term fieldwork, they have family commitments that make travel difficult). The pandemic has allowed such researchers to become more visible due to their existing expertise, such as one of our workshop participants, media anthropologist Jordan Kramer.

The current moment might provide an opportunity to legitimize remote ethnographic methods that do not stem from the research topic but rather from the circumstances of a researcher’s life. If we can accept ethnographers using communication technologies and online research due to the pandemic, can we also accept ethnographers who choose those methods because, for instance, their disability makes in-person ethnographic fieldwork difficult? Or because they have caring responsibilities? Or because their precarious employment does not give them enough time or funds for long-term fieldwork? If yes, then how would these methodologies affect, say, the way we ask interview questions? We think that slow, deep ethnographic knowledge of a particular context is still critical, but we want to open up these kinds of questions to find a different and more expansive way of thinking about ethnography even after the pandemic is over. We recognize that research is not going back to, nor has it ever been “normal,” that most of us have always already had to contend with struggles and transformations, which are going to stay with us for the foreseeable future.

On our part, we have also been trying to highlight the work of scholars who have been creatively responding to the struggles they have faced in their research on our website. One of our collaborators, Katie Ulrich, has been interviewing a broad range of scholars, many of whom reached out to us because they were already doing a version of patchwork. The goal for these series of conversations is to bring attention to their approaches and efforts and to create a sense of solidarity and community for those of us who feel isolated in the challenges of living up to institutional standards.

In our efforts to change institutional expectations, we are also seeking to collaborate with the Wenner-Gren Foundation, perhaps evaluating how methodology and budget sections of grant applications can be reconceived and reformatted to reflect the ways in which ethnographers conduct their research, legitimizing these marginalized methods. Danilyn Rutherford, who is currently the president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation, has been an important ally, and we are grateful to her for her openness in rethinking established norms.

MV: A central tension in the manifesto is about the temporality of ethnographic fieldwork. You call into question the “long-term-ness” of so-called “traditional” fieldwork, arguing that patchwork ethnography must be based on commitment to the “field,” drawing a distinction between this method and what you call “one-time, short, instrumental trips and relationships a la consultants.” Contemporary ethnography, however, often happens in fits and starts rather than spending several years doing fieldwork continuously in one sitting (or setting). That said, disciplines adjacent to anthropology (such as human geography, sociology, and cultural, ethnic, and religious studies) also use ethnographic methods and often for much shorter periods of time than anthropologists. Given this, what sets patchwork ethnography apart from these other research practices? Is there anything distinctly “anthropological” about patchwork ethnography? And, perhaps most importantly, how does the ethnographer balance the patchiness of field research with the pitfalls of short-term ethnography?

PE: Yes, you bring up a really important point. We think this has to do with how we imagine fieldwork relations/relationships.

One of the areas we are continuing to think through is how patchwork is different from other research methods that prioritize short-term fieldwork, such as rapid assessments, for example. Unlike those techniques, patchwork remains committed to a deeply grounded, intimate, and relational approach to doing ethnography. There is no substitute for allowing relationships to thicken and develop over time, gaining flavor and depth like a delicious stew! Yet we insist on countering the fetishization of face-to-face fieldwork. We insist that meaningful relationships do not have to develop only in face-to-face encounters or through uninterrupted fieldwork. In all our projects, research relationships are increasingly taking place over WhatsApp, Twitter, and Instagram. We have had surprising collaborations emerge through those mediums that would not otherwise have been possible because we have allowed the relationships (rather than the product of those relationships, i.e., academic knowledge) to take priority.

For example, in the last eighteen months, Saiba has been working collaboratively with a photojournalist in Kashmir, whom she met while she was in Kashmir. Their relationship has grown into a friendship over long distance. Gökçe has been working with an energy expert in Accra, looking for ways in which they can develop a collaborative analysis of energy excess there. For Chika, relationships with collaborators in Chile and Japan—researchers, city officials, and NGO workers—have strengthened over the years, despite the gap between research trips. In this context, patchwork depends on collaborations growing out of friendships, and vice versa.

In other fieldwork sites—such as when we are working with people with whom we might have serious political or ethical disagreements, for example—friendship might not be the modality of relation. It might be necessary for the researcher to inhabit a more “patchworked” identity (Chua 2021), in which they have to be selective about which parts of themselves to reveal or not. Patchwork is about making those decisions and negotiations visible in the work. What is important is keeping hold of the relational work that is at the heart of ethnographic research—work that can be intimate, upsetting, secretive, or otherwise.

Patchwork does not only come out of scarcity and limitations, but also out of our strengths. For example, it is not accidental that we developed patchwork! All three of us are immigrants (to the United States and the United Kingdom) and have been living transnational lives for a long time. This condition of living somewhere and maintaining relations through long distances and expanses of time has become an integral rhythm in our lives. It is how we experience and locate ourselves in the world. We have learned to make the patchiness of our presence be meaningful and to work for us. In many ways we seek to extend those techniques, those ways of maintaining long-distance and long-term relationships, with our interlocutors.

MV: As you point out, many of the critiques made in the manifesto have been made by other anthropologists. Is patchwork ethnography innovative ethnographic theory or a culmination and public acknowledgment of ethnography as it is now practiced but that we’re just not talking about? You touch on a lot of other ethnographic theories, but what is different in the way you’re approaching ethnography? As you argue in the manifesto, is the difference located in the idea that patchwork ethnography focuses on the patchiness of the lived realities of researchers rather than research subjects?

PE: We think it is both. Feminist, decolonial, and BIPOC scholars have been theorizing patchwork for a long time and we are definitely drawing on a lot of work that has already happened in our discipline—much of which has been forgotten or not as widely read as they should be (e.g., Kumar 1992; Mullings and Wali 2001; Wali, Roberts, and Suzukovich 2018).

We argue that by “making the seams visible”—to reiterate Rihan’s quote—we allow new insights, knowledges, and practices to emerge. For example, Saiba’s fieldwork in Kashmir was disrupted due to political violence and instability. Nine months into fieldwork, there were three months of continuous protests, state violence, curfews, and a siege that prevented her from accessing her field site. She spent that time mostly sitting in her room, watching Bollywood movies and reading novels—not doing “fieldwork.” For a long time, she hid that aspect of fieldwork, because she was embarrassed to have “wasted” time. Even when she would go into the clinic, she would be unable to access even the most basic “facts” about psychiatry or medicine because people would only tell stories about the gaps or absences of care. For a long time, she thought these gaps were her own ethnographic failures, that she was not gathering the right kind of data. But in writing her book, finally, Saiba confronted these aporias as part of the texture of both ethnography and practices of care. In doing that, she was able to theorize disruption and political violence as not external, but internal to care. This theory of violence and care was only possible by embracing and acknowledging that patchwork was not only a characteristic of ethnography alone, but also a way of seeing what was around her. In this sense, patchwork as a method was also incredibly theoretically generative.


1. Studies that have come out during the pandemic show gendered discrepancies in productivity among academics during this time (see, for example, Flaherty 2020).


Chua, Liana. 2021. "Selfies and Self-Fictions: Calibrating Co-presence in and of 'the Field'." Social Analysis, 65, no. 1, 151-61.

Flaherty, Colleen. 2020. “Women Are Falling Behind.” Inside Higher Ed, October 20.

Kumar, Nita. 1992. Friends, Brothers, and Informants: Fieldwork Memoirs of Banaras. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mullings, Leith, and Alaka Wali. 2001. Stress and Resilience: The Social Context of Reproduction in Central Harlem. New York: Springer.

Wali, Alaka, Meranda Roberts, and Eli Suzukovich. 2018. “Making Room for Native American Voices.” Field Museum (blog), November 8.