Writing Proposals and Dreaming Fieldwork during Lockdown

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.

“There’s a rumor that we’re headed for a big lockdown” my colleague called from Dakshin Foundation’s field station in coastal Ganjam, Odisha, days before its official announcement in March 2020. She added that it was best to stop work and head home. “What does a lockdown look like?” I wondered. My mind refused to superimpose visuals of Wuhan’s empty streets onto the bustling Indian roads in my neighborhood in Bengaluru. Despite only a vague outline of lockdown’s imminent form or effect, many researchers and field practitioners across India were compelled by its layered uncertainty to abruptly stop fieldwork. Long months (sometimes even years) of on-the-ground engagement, planning, and gearing up for upcoming grant cycles simply stood still. Field projects (such as the one discussed by Namboothri et al. in this series) were reduced to the sum of their central parts—paused activities, suspended surveys, and tentative assurances of a speedy return to pick up dropped conversations, observations, and future plans.

I was at home in Bengaluru, with a long-pending doctoral thesis on my plate and remotely co-supervising the final stages of Dakshin’s field-based project on coastal commons in Odisha, when lockdown was imposed in India. For just one day, I wavered on the cusp of belief and skepticism, seeking cues and clues from friends and neighbors…was this lockdown going to be serious? How would (and how could) more than one billion Indians comply with this sweeping state injunction to stay at home, with all forms of inter- and intrastate transport grinding to a halt, and the economy and work (especially for the daily wage earners) virtually grinding to a halt. For how long would this continue and with what effect? Through the anxiety and uncertainty of the ensuing days, the lockdown’s contours appeared. The gradual picture of the lockdown’s impact on India’s migrant workers and, in particular, marine fishers was shocking. In the first few weeks, fisher families across thousands of hamlets struggled to procure food and rations. Fresh fish was dumped back into the sea, and thousands of stranded migrant fishers lived for weeks on boats and in overcrowded harbors, revealing the invisibility of fishers and the marginality of the sector within state consciousness.

A few social scientist friends shared that they could only write emails soliciting small donations to arrange basic supplies in their field sites in coastal villages. Imagining short- to medium-term grants was proving to be challenging, they said, given the difficulty of predicting field situations in the coming months. Most civil society organizations could only piece together conditions through telephone conversations with their field collaborators and partners. Some mobility returned to coastal hamlets in early May 2020. With the resumption of some fishing and road transportation, community leaders and field partners got a break from the relentless relief needs. It was only then that researchers like myself could even broach the subject of future joint proposals and visualize project time frames beyond the immediate; first, both grant writers and partners needed to overcome the initial existential angst of wondering if they would outlive their project timelines to even create desired deliverables!

Proposal writing is hardly associated with fun or enthusiasm, even in the best of times. It is, however, at its core a deeply social and creative activity. I have never written a proposal without someone’s guidance and assistance, often needing the company of at least one fellow enthusiast offering collegial fuel to the adventure of writing about future outcomes. This structured writing, at its worst, is a less-than-inspiring rendering of uncomfortably tight ‘logical frameworks’ that try to control for the occurrence of random events. At its best, proposal writing is an inviting challenge where you get to balance realism with boundless optimism, as if one were in a lucid dream. Two friends, severely locked down in a university campus themselves, excitedly pointed me to a call for proposals from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) for an ambitious idea—to create a transboundary social science collaboratory in the Indian Ocean. A word that sounds like a grammatical gambit, the notion of a collaboratory, as discussed by Jalais and Sridhar (2021) in the introduction to this series, comes from the idea that academic collaboration is critical to the advancement of knowledge. By combining the notion of collaboration and the functional model of a laboratory, an ideal collaboratory would allow researchers to transcend multiple barriers (geographical, digital and socio-political). In recent times, scholars have placed greater emphasis on the processual aspects that make for a collaboratory, highlighting the structural innovations of communication but also group processes (such as shared values) that make for enduring social relations (Cogburn 2003, 86). “You guys should apply. Don’t worry about the thesis. We’ll help.” Unsure if the words were theirs or just what I wanted to hear, I found myself hurtling towards ten frenzied days of proposal writing. The grant required that we assemble a team of social scientists and practitioner partners from the Indian Ocean region across more than one country.

Assembling a collaborative team and concepts in ten days was audacious, if not reckless, and we have only a lockdown to thank for it. The risks one could not take outdoors, we took in this proposal. I called marine social scientists I knew: Alin from Thailand and Rapti from Sri Lanka, each shut away at home in Sweden and Colombo, Sri Lanka, at the time. We had met at conferences several months ago, exchanging idle gossip about north-south research politics and laconic ideas rather than dreaming of concrete future collaborations. Perhaps lockdown opened a sense of adventure and connection among us. A week before the deadline, we were still missing a qualified senior Principal Investigator (PI), someone not averse to collaborating with risky “unknowns”. When Annu emailed “yes” to us strangers, we spent little time wondering why. She had swiftly culled from our proposal all innocent reference to direct fieldwork in the pandemic year: “trust me, it’s not happening. Let’s just take it all online.” And so began our remotely crafted proposal—co-producing ideas and inviting people onboard to join this proposal to create an experimental collaboratory. It was clear to us that our collaboratory needed to go beyond just the epistemic community of social scientists. We invited, as our partners, individuals from non-governmental organizations and civil society leaders, who were embedded in coastal spaces, communities, and events beyond field seasons and the interruptions of mobility caused by the pandemic. Ours was to be a transdisciplinary collaboratory, and putting it together in the first year of the pandemic required that its inherent sociality moved to an online performance. The optimism of being digitally connected was mediated and tempered by the changes in our respective contained spaces (see essay by Siriwardane-de Zoysa et al.) with each unfolding regulation of mobility.

Some academics initially welcomed being locked down since they could write and read more and take a break from daily commuting and field-work. It had the opposite effect on me. Rather than battle my half-written thesis in “lockdown loneliness” (Shah et al 2020), I gravitated towards human connection, team effort, even if only a risky (but this time successful) gamble (see more on this in my joint essay with Annu Jalais in this series). Was writing a proposal that aimed at furthering research during a pandemic a result of a digitally connected world, or a confidence inspired by stable internet connectivity and a smartphone that seamlessly solicited and cemented connections across oceanic distances?

Grant writing in lockdown was the first step towards resuming field work—on the ground, or online. It was impossible to ignore the irony of how this form of connected work or collaborative writing could continue uninterrupted despite a pandemic, if you had the digital aids and belonged to a social strata that did not need a daily wage based on how much you physically toiled. On the other hand, across the Indian Ocean, workers who depended on daily physical exertion and mobility for their survival paid the cost of this global disruption. Perhaps our collaboratory could create the communicative structures that would allow researchers, coastal community members, and civil society groups distributed across coastal regions of the Indian Ocean to collectively co-produce and share accounts of coastal migration and maritime environmental knowledge, despite and beyond the pandemic. As teamwork, proposal writing, especially during a pandemic, can be as fulfilling as other better well-described aspects of social science research—dreamwork at its best!


Cogburn, Derrick L. 2003. “HCI in the so-called developing world: what's in it for everyone.” Interactions 10, no. 2: 80–87.

Shah, Syed Ghulam Sarwar, David Nogueras, Hugo Cornelis van Woerden, and Vasiliki Kiparoglou. 2020. “The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Pandemic of Lockdown Loneliness and the Role of Digital Technology.” Journal of Medical Internet Research 22, no. 11: e22287.