Opto-haptic Fieldwork Encounters in Pandemic Southeast Asia

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.

Much has been written on the promises and paradoxes of mobility and “being there” and on the necessity of warm-hearted intimacies that enrich the community-based fieldwork encounter (Lee and Ingold 2006; Borneman and Hammoudi 2009; Parvez 2017). Yet, what of moments in which social containment and non-movement—as opposed to immobility—become the very prerogative in mediating such field encounters?

In this essay, we explore the notion of social containment, which organically emerged during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic (February-March 2020). We ask how containment practices intersect with bodily and sensory encounters of doing/living ethnographic “fieldwork” (Hopwood 2015) in two diverse coastal cities of Singapore and Jakarta, Indonesia. These uniquely different littoral urbanities provide an opportunity to reflect on how racialized and classed identities are reproduced, amplified, and contested in containment practices. Singapore, with its hyper-technologized, capsular air-conditioned interiors—spaces of mobility and fast capital—is far removed from a regional archipelagic seaward imaginary in its everyday life; Jakarta, too, remains a historic city port, only that it bears witness to many kinds of antipodal shorelines and coastal life—from its towering condominiums on the fringes of Jakarta Bay to the open air of its rapidly subsiding kampungs, informal communal settlements that make for lively tidal margins along the Java Sea.

Socio-spatial containment practices, whether it be colonially enforced quarantine islands or contemporary sites of ‘islanded’ internment such as camps and isolation centers, impose corporeal boundaries in multiple ways through sensory angst ascribed to perceptions of sterility, dirt and circulation, narratives of contagion, and infrastructures of exclusion and dataveillance. Yet, such practices also necessitate the co-production of particular sensory spaces and social rituals for maintaining pandemic regulations, however contradictory, erratic, or piecemeal they may be. For example, consider the flimsy promise of security that an omnipresent thermo gun can have in mediating spatial access and belonging, particularly for one it is pointed at.

The three of us form a broader consortium of a two-phased German Science Foundation funded initiative (EMERSA and BlueUrban) that critically explores how coastal cities envision and enact their infrastructural futures against the backdrop of socio-ecological change. Arif, an urban planner and resident of Jakarta, witnessed severe flooding in December 2019. Irene and Rapti both marked new arrivals: Rapti, a “flying ethnographer” and an anthropologist, and Irene, a visiting doctoral candidate and sociology lecturer—our insider-outsider status manifesting in varied ways as a team.

Our invocation of the haptic not only includes sensibilities of touch and closeness (Volvey 2012), but also includes legitimacies around presence and absence of classed and racialized bodies that are experienced during ethnographic encounters. While being cognizant of how space itself is enacted and governed during pandemic times, we bore witness to these newly emerging sensibilities of touch, distancing, and bodily (b)ordering. We focused on coastal settlements and primarily kampungs in northern Jakarta, and institutional offices and public waterfront spaces in Singapore. Indeed, the medicalization of race and the racialization of disease has been understood with respect to historic epidemics, from the bubonic plague and cholera to AIDS and Ebola. COVID-19 has been no different, as global media representations of metrics, rankings, and figures serve to "re-inscribe race as a biological fact" (Sikki 2020) through associational claims and metrics, and narratives of origin, circulation, and contagion both in public spaces and places where access and presence is tacitly mediated. The original naming of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” and subsequent attacks on Asian-Americans in America persisted and spread to other ethnicities with the more recent emergence of variants that were first imbued with distinct racialized and regionalized national identities (replete with concomitant fears of virulency). This marked yet another unsurprising turning point in this historically shared, yet uneven trajectory as the pandemic realities unfold(ed).

Our arrival in Singapore in early February 2020 coincided with narratives of contagion, encompassed in a peculiar arrival story in the media implicating a tour group of mainland Chinese that crossed borders at the Malaysian-Singapore land bridge (Zhuo 2020). Unbeknownst to the authorities, they had previously been in Wuhan, where coronavirus was first identified. There were reports of Chinese returnees living in Singapore who were promptly evicted by homeowners following their travel from China after the Chinese New Year. A year into the pandemic, narratives of contagion and revulsion were inscribed on brown bodies. This is because those who were most affected by COVID-19 in this small city-state were its largely neglected migrant workers from South Asia. Further, the other variant, “Indian” Delta strain, was discursively framed as a super-spreader, which unleashed a new wave of panic and heightened surveillance after a period of relative calm. These narratives have played upon Singapore’s prevailing brown migrant anxieties and have amplified when infection clusters were discovered in overcrowded blue-collar worker dorms housing the brown male bodies of its South Asian “third world” other. Starting with anti-mainland Chinese racism, narratives on social media turned their gaze upon the apuneneh coronavirus (a derogatory term for people of Tamil-speaking origin), often playing out in spaces of public transport.

During our early days of fieldwork in Singapore, we witnessed new sensory regimes of orderly presence, light, and body heat, replete with technological objects of uncertain discernment. Electronic heat detectors marked points of legitimate entry to any mall or other enclosed public spaces, including the libraries at the National University of Singapore or its cafeteria, where one would only be entertained after a post-temperature pass. If circulations—of people, capital, goods and services—were to be maintained in the name of economic productivity, such objects assumed greater influence in differentiating bodies that were marked secure, as opposed to those that were seen as unruly and feral enough to be excluded, and possibly reported. Never perhaps had a sticker economy flourished so, for every body pronounced “safe” by a laser beam was marked with a rounded-colored dot to be worn indoors, including public buildings, malls, hospitals, and universities. Our ethnographic bodies became the very site of field practice.

In Singapore, spaces marked by closed forms of membership and belonging, such as institutes and offices, were abruptly rendered out-of-bounds, leaving one scrambling to find spaces of legitimate entry. The openness of public spaces themselves were reconfigured. The stickers not only differentiated screened insiders from outsiders who were yet-to-be-marked, but capsulized circulations of insider bodies within micro-confined spaces, such as office lobbies, through the power of marker color, limiting the crossing of not just macro-boundaries (with countries shutting out aliens) but also micro-sites. Thus, walking from one air-conditioned building interior to another would call for a re-enactment of the same process, a ritual that, in the end, seemed futile for a mass of asymptomatic bodies that were later perceived as unrecognizable objects of anxiety.

Jakarta’s kampungs can be seen as micro-urban islands. Kampungs, like Singapore’s neoliberal offices, appear as metaphorical tribal enclaves. Unlike the Singaporean biopolitics of contagion, the social closeness of kampung life with respect to their close-knit living quarters, augmented perceptions of impermeability and thus, by extension, safety. This was long before any form of physical distancing was mandated. Non-verbal cues and extra-sensory meanings often mediated social intimacies where objects, such as sunglasses or hats, augment insider-outsider distance; masks further dehumanized human encounters, particularly with regard to soliciting permission to enter communal spaces. Both metaphorically and in everyday life, masks have been used to conceal identity and perform duplicity, and to enact political violence and massacres through their popular association with Indonesia’s post-Independence death squads, particularly black-clad masked gangs during the Suharto dictatorship. In a contemporary context, closely guarded solidarities in kampung life were often referenced in terms of warding off the unwanted, the invasive. These intimacies mediated who entered compounds from the outside world of the kampungs and potentially brought the risk of infection.

Resilience itself was recast in classed terms—reserved for those who’d survived through seasonal bouts of vector-borne disease, such as dengue. Coronaviruses caused diseases that industrialized nations were more susceptible to. Contagion was perceived to flourish in the confines of closed, air-conditioned places, spaces of affluence and hyper-mobility, such as university complexes and malls where metropolitan and kinetic elites thronged. Kampung life and its proximity to the ocean made bodies “not only kuat” (hardy, Indonesian) but also less porous or contagious, many believed. The shoreline, as a liminal edge between land and sea, was perceived to blow contaminated air away seawards. These natural circulations were deemed to be far less hostile than the sterile interiors of high-rises and other modernist buildings.

In sum, tracing the (re)making of haptic regimes offers ways to unpacking pandemic dualisms around contagion and bodies, and how particular (unstable) intersectional racialized and classed identities are evoked and deployed in relation to these. Such regimes are also rife with contradictions—of asymptomatic bodies living in squalor versus the contagious bodies circulating in sterilized settings. As ethnographers, activists, and action researchers, we inhabit multiple spaces of interstices in our own diverse ways—between science and policy, academia and field, and our own fluid insider-outsider status. Arguably then, one of the most enduring facets of post-normal pandemic life has been the ever-shifting micro-economies of care and attention that profoundly redefine friendship and bodily trust, as container practices and boundaries of intimacy continue to be redrawn between family, friends, acquaintances, allies, and strangers (see in this regard Miriam Jaehn’s perceptive essay on intimacies and Montefrio’s insights on the socialites made visible by engaging with online ethnographic sites—both in this series). It is left to be seen whose ‘bubble’ of camaraderie and corporeal contact we are both welcomed and disallowed into, why, and in what ways.


An earlier draft was presented at the Political Ecology Network (POLLEN) Biennial Conference in September 2020, under the panel “Invasion/contagion : Entanglements of racialization and biology in the making of policed natures.” We would like to thank our fellow panelists together with Patricia Lopez, Naomi Millner, and Yvonne Kunz for their invaluable comments.


Borneman, John, and Abdellah Hammoudi, eds. 2009. Being There: The Fieldwork Encounter and the Making of Truth. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lee, Jo, and Tim Ingold. 2006. “Fieldwork on foot: Perceiving, Routing, Socializing.” In Locating the Field: Space, Place and Context in Anthropology, edited by Simon Coleman and Peter Collins, 67-86. New York: Routledge.

Parvez, Z. Fareen. 2017. The Sorrow of Parting: Ethnographic Depth and the Role of Emotions. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 47, no. 4: 454-483.

Sikka, Tina. 2020. “Racialisation, COVID-19 and Bioessentialism.” Transforming Society. May 29, 2020.

Volvey, Anne. 2012. “Fieldwork: How to Get in(to) Touch. Towards a Haptic Regime of Knowledge in Geography.” In Touching Space, Placing Touch, edited by Mark Paterson and and Martin Dodge, 103-130. New York: Routledge.

Zhuo, Tee. 2020. “Coronavirus: China Tour Group Linked to Local Transmission Visited at Least Six Places in Singapore.” The Straits Times. February 5, 2020.