Introduction: A Collaboratory of Indian Ocean Ethnographies

From the Series: A Collaboratory of Indian Ocean Ethnographies

Float Boat and Floats by Dale Chihuly. "Glass in bloom" exhibition at Gardens by the Bay, Singapore, July 2021. Photo by Jehan Desikan.

In the thick of pandemic immobility, a few scholars working on environmental justice with coastal communities in the northern Indian Ocean and locked down in different continents came together to overcome the impact of motionlessness in their research lives. Their field sites covered the littoral and marine expanses of the northern “Indian Ocean community” (Kirk 1951), a space not only deeply integrated into global social, economic, and geopolitical concerns, but also profoundly unequal within and between its nations (Grare 2012). The pandemic had not just caused immobility, but also brought down an unsettling fog of silence in news media and within research communities. There was no (and in many cases still is no) way for researchers to know what was/is really happening in the various coastal communities connected by the Indian Ocean: a region known for its long and vibrant history of movement, migration, and cultural exchange. The immobility therefore felt particularly intense, and we wondered how, in these circumstances, does one conduct “immobile” research?

While scholars could not travel, neither could they suspend their curiosity and concern about field sites and their digitally disconnected collaborators. One of the markers of an enduring North-South divide in scientific productivity and development has been the digital divide. It shapes power configurations and invites familiar questions about the unequal transmission of knowledge, and relations of hegemony and dependence in research (Mbembe 2006). While Aarthi Sridhar’s essay questions this unequal configuration in the realm of being able to co-write research grants, Madhurima Majumder and Vani Sreekanta’s essay explores these power differentials in specific communities, exploring how women along the east coast of India came together to form empowering partnerships. Trying to overcome the pitfalls linked to undertaking remote ethnography among the digitally disconnected, the authors of this series of essays came to appreciate the value of shared ways of co-producing knowledge on subjects that concern the littoral spaces of the northern Indian Ocean region. Essays by Marvin Joseph Fonacier Montefrio and Alin Kadfak et al. show us that virtual ethnography via Facebook can stand in, at least temporarily, for ethnography; the essays also suggest that these might offer possibilities of exploring what may be going on behind the “closed doors” of informants’ lives far from the prying eyes of family and governments. Nukhbah Taj Langah similarly experienced a degree of relative freedom from borders, one that enabled her to work on transnational aspects of literature and culture. This was made possible for her students, her associates, and for her by the digital connections forged (or forced) by the pandemic and its subsequent lockdown.

On the other hand, essays by Moyukh Mahtab, Naveen Namboothri et al., and Lakshmi Pradeep point to the limitations of the digital promise. They report on the futility of attempting to conduct digital fieldwork in places where relations depend centrally on presence, and not (just) on digital connection. How do scholars navigate sensitive issues when discussing charged historical events with informants on the telephone? asks Mahtab. How does one explain stalled research to communities and to donors who might not necessarily understand the challenges involved in long-term partnerships? asks Namboothri et al. What happens, not just to the research, but also to the newcomer Ph.D. researcher with institutional affiliations, who needs to “get on with fieldwork," in these circumstances? asks Pradeep. Does research come to a complete standstill, or are there ways of remaining sensitive to our changed circumstances and still manage to produce knowledge? Ultimately, all of these essays, directly or indirectly, ask the question “what counts as research?”

Miriam Jaehn’s essay furthers the reflection on what it means to take fieldwork to digital space, focusing mainly on its effect on herself—a young Ph.D. researcher—and the contours of (gendered) intimacy when undertaking digital fieldwork. How does one not only “stay” but also “feel” connected when we no longer share a sensory-rich environment and worlds are now so distant that there is little in common? How does one draw lines between ethnographic responsibilities and flirtatious acts, between informant and friend? Like Mahtab, Jaehn asks how does one remain intimate when communication has to be intentional rather than situational? This researcher-informant differential takes a darker turn in Lorea et al.’s essay, where societal configurations of communalism and hierarchized gender conspire to make online ethnographic research among the Matuas a fraught affair (for instance, where a Muslim male researcher struggles to interview a Hindu female interviewee). What Jaehn and Lorea argue is that even when it might be possible to undertake virtual or digital fieldwork, what is rarely taken into account is the deeply unequal gendered engagements with digital technologies. Taking the researchers’ bodies seriously as literal field sites, Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa et al. discuss the hierarchical arrangement and racial policing of bodies and spaces through different experiences around the containing of the pandemic across Southeast Asia (specifically in Singapore and in the coastal regions of Jakarta). These essays, thus, urge us not just to rethink collective relationships—in particular, the classic relationships between the researcher and people in the field (family members, entire communities, even governments)—but also deeply personal ones, ones which might be physically remote but which remain close in memory.

"The turn towards decolonizing anthropology over the last decade can only be undertaken if we begin to pay attention to how deeply dependent we are on the nuanced stories, lived politics, and polysemic realities of the communities we work with"

Taken together, these essays argue that the co-production of knowledge about the Indian Ocean must adopt “oceanic thinking as method” (Hofmeyr 2012; Burton et al. 2013), alongside a subaltern sociological imagination that takes seriously the digital divide and the repercussions of climate change in the Indian Ocean region (Savage and Lin 2020). Such an approach, we believe, provides a fuller account of the meaning and experiences of the pandemic lockdowns of 2020 and early 2021 and the severity of its effects on vulnerable coastal migrants and their distressed communities. How does one, when one is an educator, carry on teaching despite not being able to do so digitally? These questions are explored by Uttam Guru et al. in the context of schooling, highlighting the importance of face-to-face presence in the process of learning. They argue that the West Bengal government could support continued teaching in this region by deploying the pragmatic measure of government-trained “barefoot teachers” in the rural sector. So in these poorly connected clusters of the Indian Ocean, ones that persistently reproduces class-caste distinctions, gender hierarchies, and rural-urban divides as far as digital access and virtual possibilities are concerned, how do we bridge gaps and continue collaborating? We present these essays as accounts of hope and persistence which speak of the transformative power of working together but are also critical of the conduct of ethnographic practice in spaces presenting deeply worrisome societal transformations.

The pandemic has generated intense debate about the ethics and practices of knowledge production. While some argue for an ethics of care in epistemic work (Corbera et al 2020), others have argued that COVID-19 immobility and interruptions present an opportunity to radically revise relations between knower and known, theorizer-thinker, and data gatherer-doer within the co-production of knowledge (Dunia et al. 2020). Within academia there are diverse forms of inequality, starting with the festering inequalities in existing North-South research relations (Mwambari and Owor 2019) and which carries on into academic writing which “continues to reflect historical biases against women, Indigenous and racialized scholars” (Henry et al 2017, 279). The turn towards decolonizing anthropology over the last decade can only be undertaken if we begin to pay attention to how deeply dependent we are on the nuanced stories, lived politics, and polysemic realities of the communities we work with. The essays in this series underscore the co-dependence between researcher and interlocutor by centering the diverse actors from our field sites within the processes of ethnographic thinking-writing. Thus, this is a collection of curated essays from isolated scholars and social activists who decided to reflexively build on the power of collectives and partnerships to pursue producing narratives from the field, while negotiating digital, class, caste, gender, and urban/rural divides.

The essays cover reflections on gender and the use of social media, on overcoming the “digital silence” of coastal communities, on schooling without connectivity, on remote media and collaborations via social media. The authors “demand clarity about the research process”, as Dunia et al. (2020) argue, starting with themselves, seen in the deliberate autoethnographic inflections in each of this series’ compelling essays. This reflexivity comes alive as “hardcore” anthropologists, social activists, and local researchers have assembled a co-creating “collaboratory” on the Indian Ocean region while locked down separately and removed from each other. Through these epistemic collaborations, we find an opportunity to extend what counts as ethnography, why in the gridlocked age of the pandemic reaching out to those who are not on the digital map to create ethnography is academically restorative (since it enables conversation with the field and its actors in “immobile” moments), generative (offers us a range of personal synergistic cognitive expressions), as well as deeply shared (between committed ethnographers, generous and cooperative partners, and resolute interlocutors). Together, we attempt to redraw the theoretical contours of what constitutes knowledge and technique in conducting connected ethnography against the backdrop of suspended immobility in the northern Indian Ocean.


Burton, Antoinette M., Madhavi Kale, Isabel Hofmeyr, Clare Anderson, Christopher J. Lee, and Nile Green. 2013. “Sea tracks and trails: Indian Ocean worlds as method.” History Compass 11, no. 7: 497–502.

Corbera, Esteve, Isabelle Anguelovski, Jordi Honey-Rosés, and Isabel Ruiz-Mallén. 2020. “Academia in the Time of COVID-19: Towards an Ethics of Care.” Planning Theory & Practice 21, no. 2: 191–199.

Dunia, Oscar Abedi, Maria Eriksson Baaz, David Mwambari, Swati Parashar, Anju Oseema Maria Toppo, and James B.M. Vincent. 2020. “The Covid-19 Opportunity: Creating More Ethical and Sustainable Research Practices.” Items: Insights from the Social Sciences (blog), June 18, 2020.

Henry, Frances, Enakshi Dua, Carl E. James, Audrey Kobayashi, Peter Li, Howard Ramos, and Malinda S. Smith. 2017. The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Mwambari, David, and Arthur Owor. 2019. “The black market of knowledge production.” Governance in Conflict Network (blog), April 2, 2019.

Grare, Frédéric. 2012. “Océan Indien : la quête d’unité.” Hérodote 145, no. 2: 6–20.

Hofmeyr, Isabel. 2012. “The complicating sea: the Indian Ocean as method.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 32, no. 3: 584–590.

Kirk, William. 1951. “Indian Ocean Community.” Scottish Geographical Magazine 67, no. 3–4: 161–177.

Mbembe, Achille. 2006. “Nécropolitique.” Raisons politiques 1, no. 21: 29–60.

Savage, Victor R. and Lin Qi Feng. 2020. “Climate change adaptation: the need for an Indian Ocean regional metamorphosis.” Journal of the Indian Ocean Region 16, no. 1: 6–26.