When Classic Ethnographic Work Is Made Impossible: The Human Politics of Research in India



In this personal account, I describe the first days of research I begun in Rajasthan, in India in the winter of 2008. This graphic narrative of my encounters with my research interlocutors includes not only what I learned from my research subjects, a group of multiply marginalized people known as the Banjara. It also depicts my conversations with academic colleagues and assistants, local officials, and translators. It describes the human politics that had, in fact, blocked my ability to carry out classical ethnographic research work that I was so intent on carrying out and offers the readers a look into the scene that is often excluded from ethnographic reports. I propose that these encounters are part and parcel of the learning process in a new setting. I argue that a detailed exploration of my own position in the field—one that exposes the confusion, the ignorance, the struggles, the affection, and the dislike I develop toward a range of people I met in these first days—is necessary for writing in a humanistic way about the process through which we learn what we claim we know. Through this reflexive article, I offer a model for anthropological writing that is intellectually engaging, politically aware, and humane.