Diasporic Fields of Belonging

I collect stories about U.S. anthropology graduate training experience from racially minoritized individuals across color lines and borders. I document these narratives emerging from this broad collective and yet dispersed diasporic group in a hope to find collaborative strategies for equitable anthropology graduate training. I do so through via web-video interviews (such as Skype and Google Hangouts), combined with multi-sited in-person interviews and communal conversations. Web-video interviews have been surprisingly fruitful, generating powerful and inspirational dialogues for intersectional and multiracial solidarity.

When collecting these stories turned into a part of my dissertation project (where I continue to examine everyday injustice in U.S. anthropology graduate training), it became a problem because web-video interviews in particular do not fit in the usual framework of ethnographic fieldwork, where the researcher is supposed to do long-term immersion in a geographically tangible location far away from one’s home. While my physical travel for finding these stories does not get subjected to severe methodological scrutiny, web-video interviews as one of my story-collecting strategies seem to irk some anthropologists. My dissertation committee, while strongly supporting my method, made it clear that I would have to find ways to convince my anthropologist audience why web-video interviews are important for my project. In a grant writing workshop, someone even described me as a creepy person who sits in a dark room and chats away with a stranger on a bright computer screen. Suddenly, I am required to ‘justify’ this virtual ethnographic method in my project proposal and grant applications, as if I were an outlawry (or lazy) researcher.

But I am not that much of a renegade ethnographer. I am just following my predecessors, such as the contributors to Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson’s edited volume “Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Ground of a Field Science” (1997), who amply show us that the Malinowskian fieldwork tradition does not cut it any longer for projects informed by global dynamics, decoloniality, anti-EuroAmerican epistemology.

And yet, that eerie image of myself given by a fellow workshop participant was still freaking me out. The urgency to ‘justify’ my method never ceased to exist. I had to fill the hole in my method section with some justification for web-video interviews. I mulled over the question, “How do I justify it?” Sure, web-video interviews facilitate widening the range of my sampling, as long as I continue to expand my network. But the term ‘justify’ felt like a massive fish bone in my throat. I kept on asking myself: “Why ‘justify’? To prove that my project is worthy of an anthropological investigation? To show the potential that my project will be successful? Success for who? Aren’t I collecting these stories, whether via web-video or in person, because it’s meaningful for us racially minoritized people to share our stories?”

Switching the language of ‘justifiable’ to that of ‘meaningful’ gave me self-reflexive opportunities to look back to the moments when I viscerally felt the sense of belonging. One scene is from my departmental get-togethers, where I always end up congregating with other non-white students from diverse backgrounds. It is not that we delve into convoluted theoretical discussions or serious social critiques, but rather that we simply exchange each other’s mundane daily dramas. Another scene is from a breakfast meeting with a Syrian immigrant artist visiting my department, where we joked about our strange encounters with ‘white America,’ despite the breakfast attendees coming from different roots and routes. In these small conversations, the differences among us are openly and comfortably expressed and accentuated – often with mutual laughter – and evolve into another conversation. As odd as it may sound, our differences are our common thread. These spontaneous moments in temporary spaces become the sites of belonging for us situated in white dominant institutions. These sites are in constant flux in time and space, and so is our sense of belonging. They could pop up in a hallway, outside of a conference site, over the phone, or on a Skype chat.

But what word can describe these intangible times and spaces, in which multiple individuals with multiple identities from different roots and routes come to share differences and find some sense of belonging?

Diaspora.

Gunther Dietz (2009) argues that “[d]iasporas … do not represent entities such as communities, but articulate identities in processes of community formation. The resulting multidimensionality of identity unleashes and promotes new processes of cultural hybridization” (98-99). Similarly, Stuart Hall (in Osbourne and Segal 1991) suggests that the notion of diaspora does not signify some “collective home,” but instead differences that are “constantly open to repositioning” (402). He further adds:

[Diaspora is] connected with the idea of movement – there is no single origin – and the movement outwards, from narrower to wider, is never reversed. It’s connected with the notion of hybridity. … The history depends on the routes. It’s the replacement of ‘roots’ with ‘routes.’ There are no routes which are unified. The further back you go, something else is always present, historically, … So I certainly don’t mean diaspora … [as] some umbilical connection to the holy land – quite definitely not! … That’s the most dangerous notion of all. (402)

Dietz and Hall’s conceptualizations of ‘diaspora’ offers an ontological framework for the ambiguous times and spaces, in which individuals across color lines and borders find comfort in sharing their differences – like web-video interviews that I do to collect their stories. In the end, I told whoever was going to review my proposal and grant applications: “While web-video interviews are not circumscribed in geographical ‘fieldsites,’ I argue that my collaborators’ storytelling occurs in momentary ‘diasporic’ fields of belonging, where multi-dimensional identities and hybrids roots and routes take center stage in sharing life experiences.”

The institutional language of instructions for writing research proposals and grant applications seems contradictory to what anthropologists have been debating – power dichotomy between the ‘researcher’ and the ‘researched’ and the problems of ‘othering’ research participants. Or does the language work as a trap for those who are uncritical about objectification of research subjects? This is starting to sound like a conspiracy theory, but my take-home lesson from this is to remember that my fieldwork is not for my own success, but that it is “homework for political action” (Williams 1995:39). Research method is not a distinct subsection in a research proposal. It can tell how the homework is done for political action. It can tell how to gather information about and for the people with whom the researcher works in ways that are meaningful to them. If stories about anthropology graduate training from racially marginalized individuals remain hidden and silenced because of institutional barriers, then our methods for collecting these stories need to break the same barriers and to go outside anthropology’s conventional boundaries of fieldwork. Virtual methods like web-video interviews as diasporic times and spaces can be one of these unsettling methods. And we need to continuously search for more unsettling methods.

Thank you, Ryan Anderson and Dick Powis, for your thoughtful comments on my earlier drafts.

References:

Dietz, Gunther. 2009. Multiculturalism, Interculturality and Diversity in Education: An Anthropological Approach. Munster, Germany: Waxmann.

Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson, eds. 1997. Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds for a Field Science. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Osbourne, Peter, and Lynne Segal. 1999. “Interview with Stuart Hall: Culture and Power” in Race, Identity, and Citizenship: A Reader. Rodolfo D. Torres, Louis F. Miron, and Jonathan Xavier Inda, eds. Pp.389-412. Malden, MA: Blackwell

Wiiliams, Brackette F. 1995. “The Public I/Eye: Conducting Fieldwork to Do Homework on Homelessness and Begging in Two U.S. Cities.” Current Anthropology 36(1):25-51

 

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