3. Reflexivity, Positionality, and Languages of Collaboration in Feminist Fieldwork
Part 1 of this chapter is an abridged and revised version of a longer piece originally written with Susan Geiger between 1997 and 2001. The original piece was circulated widely in a conference paper format. It was first published in revised and condensed form in 2007, six years after Susan’s death.
When two major journals in feminist studies rejected the original piece authored with Geiger, I continued my attempts to share our argument in feminist and critical geography venues. Part 2 of this chapter is a revised version of an article that first emerged in 2001–2 from one such effort; I deployed the arguments made with Geiger to interpret the responses of three different feminist audiences to a manuscript that I submitted to the journal, Gender, Place and Culture.
Part 3 is a revised version of a chapter that was first written in 2005–6, around the same time part 1 was being revised for publication. It can be seen as a postscript to the discussion on reflexivity and positionality, with attention to language and translation, themes that have continued to acquire increasing prominence in my concerns since then.
Part 1. The Original Argument: Beyond the Impasse?
Richa Nagar and Susan Geiger
Some sort of reflexive identification of the academic writer with the “Other” interpreted, analyzed or written about, is so important in reestablishing critical authority in the rubble of paradigms precisely because the most powerful and paralyzing aspect of the critique of representation has been its ethical implications for the very mode of communication—discursive, impersonal writing—so basic to academic work.
—George Marcus, “Commentary”
Since the late 1980s, the practice of fieldwork has been under heavy scrutiny. Although issues of power, privilege, location, and authorship pervade all research practices, “the crisis of representation”—that is, doubts about the “possibility of truthful portrayals of others” and “the capacity of the subaltern to be heard”—has been particularly paralyzing for those engaged in fieldwork-based research (Ortner 1995, 190). Feminist social scientists in the western academy, especially those focusing on third-world subjects, have responded to this crisis either by abandoning fieldwork, or by engaging in what Marcus calls “a reflexive identification.”1 Here, we argue that neither approach can adequately respond to the challenges posed by the crisis of representation and that discussions about reflexivity, positionality, and identity—the central concepts in feminist interrogation of fieldwork—have reached an impasse. Simply stated, reflexivity involves a “radical consciousness of self in facing the political dimensions of fieldwork and construction of knowledge” (Helen Callaway 1992, quoted in Hertz 1997, viii). In feminist conversations about fieldwork, reflexivity has often implied analyses of ways that ethnographic knowledge is shaped by the shifting, contextual, and relational contours of the researcher’s social identity and her social situatedness or positionality (in terms of gender, race, class, sexuality, and other axes of social difference) with respect to her subjects.
As a way to reframe the discussions on reflexivity, positionality, and identity, we pose two key questions that lie at the heart of feminist research in third-world contexts. First, how can feminists use fieldwork to produce knowledges across multiple divides (of power, geopolitical, and institutional locations, and axes of difference) without reinscribing the interests of the privileged? Second, how can the production of knowledges be tied explicitly to a politics of social change favoring less privileged communities and places?
A widespread engagement with reflexive practices by feminist ethnographers has generated rich dialogues about the methodological and epistemological dilemmas endemic to fieldwork, as well as the challenges associated with identity politics as they affect academic, interpersonal, institutional, and intellectual relationships. Such reflexivity, however, has mainly focused on examining the identities of individual researchers rather than on how such identities intersect with institutional, geopolitical, and material aspects of their positionality. This limited engagement has foreclosed opportunities for grappling with the two key questions posed above. A further problem with existing approaches to reflexivity arises from a failure to distinguish systematically among ethical, ontological, and epistemological aspects of fieldwork dilemmas. Consequently, the epistemological dilemma of whether and how it is possible to represent “accurately” often gets conflated with ethical relationships and choices, and with ontological questions of whether there is a predefined reality about researcher-subject relationship that can be known, represented, challenged, or altered through reflexivity.
Producing knowledge across social divides in ways that are explicitly committed to a transformative politics necessitates that researchers rethink reflexivity, identity, and positionality, as well as the ends toward which these notions are deployed. Below we describe how challenges we faced in our own work led us to reflect on and articulate the current impasse. We then elaborate two interrelated approaches to reflexivity, positionality, and identity—a speaking-with model of research, and crossing boundaries with situated solidarities—for consideration by scholars who, like us, think that there is much to be lost by abandoning this face-to-face and necessarily problematic interactive research practice called fieldwork.
Articulating the Impasse
This essay began in early 1997 as an email conversation in which each of us sought to articulate our struggles with the theoretical and methodological terrain of reflexivity, positionality, and identity in the context of field research for a dissertation (Nagar 1995) and a book (Geiger 1997b) in Tanzania. Our respective projects made us aware of contradictions inherent in a major recent trend in feminist social sciences. While feminists invoke a commitment to challenge pre-given social categories, an emphasis on “positionality” requires reference to those very categories they seek to question. This embodiment of categorical identities in an individual is problematic because the social forces that name and reproduce categorical identities are continually in conflict with the necessary inauthenticity of the experience of those identities (Kawash 1996). In our cases, dismantling the homogenous category Asian—as constructed in a colonial context between “native” African and ruling British in East Africa—was of particular concern for Richa, while the categories and genders of Tanganyikans, supposedly responsible for anticolonial nationalism in the 1950s, were of greatest interest for Susan. Ironically, validation of our work to western feminist academic audiences seemingly made it necessary to position ourselves using the very categories (middle class, upper caste, white, Indian, woman, etc.) that we sought to problematize and disrupt.
There is a difference between an intellectual project that seeks to uncover complexity and a situation where an author feels that her work would be discredited if she is unable to establish herself as a legitimate researcher in the eyes of the experts evaluating her work. This scenario is exemplified by the following comment that Richa received from an anonymous reviewer in 1996 on an essay about marriage, migration, and religious ideologies among Asians in Tanzania that she submitted to a feminist journal: “Without knowing anything about the author, it is difficult to evaluate his/her use of the term Hinduness—a term that is probably insulting to the Hindus. . . . Especially in the light of considerable work on interviewing, [the lack of a self-reflexive account] is simply not acceptable. . . . Is the author male or female? The same goes for religion, caste and interviewing Hindus, Muslims and so forth.” If Richa had merely revealed herself as a “Hindu woman,” the question of legitimacy probably would not have arisen. We want to challenge and resist this demand to uncover ourselves in specific ways for academic consumption, because uncovering ourselves in these terms contradicts the purpose of problematizing the essentialist nature of social categories, which are, in reality, created, enacted, and transformed.
Gillian Rose addresses this ontological problem when she argues that the search for positionality through transparent reflexivity is bound to fail because it assumes that the messiness of the research process can be fully understood. Such a search, argues Rose, “depends on certain notions of agency (as conscious) and power (as context), and assumes that both are knowable” (Rose 1997, 311). She sees an inherent contradiction when “a researcher situates both herself and her research subjects in the same landscape of power, which is the context of the research project in question” because “the identity to be situated does not exist in isolation but only through mutually constitutive social relations, and . . . the implications of this relational understanding of position . . . makes the vision of a transparently knowable self and world impossible” (Rose 1997, 312).
Apart from this contradiction, we want to note at least three other problems. First, while many scholars expect ethnographic and life-historical research to be accompanied by a discussion of the author’s identity and positionality, no such expectation applies to scholars using other research methods (e.g., quantitative, archival, and textual analyses). This unevenness assumes that researchers who do not engage in ethnographic or life-historical research do not need to respond to critiques of representation and, at worst, results in further marginalization of personal narratives in producing knowledge. Second, to squeeze into a few paragraphs or pages multifaceted and changing relationships with our subjects in Tanzania or India entails a translation that necessarily does injustice to their complexity. Finally, discussions of reflexivity generate feelings of paralysis among feminist scholars because the politics of representation often results either in a “rather puritanical, competitive assessment among scholars” (Marcus 1992, 490) or in “tropes” that are sometimes seen as “apologies,” and at others as “badges” (Patai 1991, 149). And even these tropes do not always work. For example, Daphne Patai argues that self-reflexivity “does not redistribute income, gain political rights for the powerless, create housing for the homeless, or improve wealth” (Patai 1994, quoted in Wolf 1997, 35). Terms like appropriation, exploitation, and even surveillance are often attached to the very concept of “western” research among “nonwestern” subjects, leading many western scholars, especially students, to conclude that they cannot step into “other” worlds and societies for research purposes, or that it should not be done because it is inherently unethical (Geiger 1997a).
How can we take positionality and reflexivity out of misplaced struggles over legitimacy and transparent reflexivity and turn them into more meaningful conceptual tools that can help us advance transformative politics of difference in relation to our own research agendas? In the next two sections, we elaborate upon two interrelated and complementary approaches to reflexivity: A “speaking-with” approach that treats both reflexivity and positionality as processes evolving over space and time; and crossing borders to build “situated solidarities” rooted in our specific (multiple) contexts and place-based locations.
Speaking with Research Subjects
If the workings of power in fieldwork relationships cannot be fully understood, and the researcher’s complex and shifting identities cannot accurately be captured, revealed, simplified, translated, or transposed across contexts, how can we approach difficult questions of power, privilege, political engagement, and social change? Feminist social scientists have often sought a speaking-with model of engagement between researcher and researched—an approach that involves talking and listening carefully, and openness to influences of people from varied sociocultural locations (De Vault 1999). These insights often remain vague, however, requiring extension of reflexivity from an identity-based focus to a more material and institutional focus. Rather than privileging a reflexivity that emphasizes researcher’s identity, we must discuss more explicitly the economic, political, and institutional processes and structures that provide the context for the fieldwork encounter and shape its effects—an aspect that has often taken a backseat in reflexive exercises. Exploring the overlaps and disjunctures between these two kinds of reflexivities is essential for grappling with the theory/praxis divide, engaging in feminist knowledge production across multiple borders, and moving beyond the impasse.
Feminist scholars engaged in fieldwork are acutely aware of the dilemmas they face (see Wolf, 1997), but the popular practice of writing about these challenges has largely been a post-fieldwork (even post-analysis) exercise—one in which the author critically reflects on the difficulties (including power differentials) pertaining to social relationships, reciprocity, and responsibility encountered in the “field” in an article or a section of a book or dissertation. While this allows researchers to problematize the notions of bias and objectivity, it does not necessarily create spaces for critical reflection on the factors influencing the research process, its relevance to those to whom we are politically committed, the mutual benefits and enrichment exchanged, the use value of the work, etc. In other words, there has been little discussion of how to operationalize a speaking-with approach to research that might help us work through negotiated and partial meanings in our intellectual and political productions. These questions must be addressed by thinking about reflexivity and positionality as processes.
Crossing Borders with Situated Solidarities
The problem of voice (speaking for, to or with) intersects with the problem of place (“speaking from” and “speaking of”).
—Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction”
The challenge [is to redefine and execute] research strategies that move towards a “collaborative knowledge” that is self-consciously representative of border-crossings—of the combined insights of different persons, places, and research contexts . . . which simultaneously embrace different perspectives, voices and places, and which deliberately cross and re-cross multiple spatial, social and economic borders.
—H-NET List for African History.
Crossing borders is on the agenda.2 Foundations wish to fund projects connecting the global with the local, academics with practitioners. Editors are excited by cutting-edge scholarship that blurs disciplinary boundaries, and emphasizes hybridity. This is energizing, but the popularity of these border crossings in the present political climate should give us pause. As Shohat cautions, “A celebration of syncretism and hybridity per se, if not articulated in conjunction with questions of hegemony and neo-colonial power relations, runs the risk of appearing to sanctify the fait accompli of colonial violence” (Shohat 1996, 330). For feminist scholars simultaneously located in institutions and communities of both north and south, it is critical to ask what borders we cross, in whose interests, and how our practices are interwoven with processes of imperialism and neocolonialism.
Feminist fieldworkers have variously grappled with traversing borders, especially those separating the first and third worlds. Ong finds it necessary to “describe a political decentering . . . in Western knowledge as it allows itself to be redefined by discourses from the geopolitical margins” (Ong 1995, 367). Such redefinition involves “a deliberate cultivation of a mobile consciousness,” engaged in a dialectical process of “disowning places that come with overly determined claims and re-owning them according to different (radical democratic) interests” and of “critical agency shifting between transnational sites of power” (Ong 1995, 368; see also Pratt 2004).
Those of us who believe that the intellectual and political value of engaging in face-to-face learning across borders outweighs the problematic context (global capitalism, northern imperialism, structural inequalities) in which such work necessarily takes place are responsible for developing critical analyses of our multidimensional struggles with such crossings. Tamara Jacka (1994, 663), self-described as a “White, urban Australian woman,” does this by describing the questions and criticisms received from Sinologists and Chinese men on one side, and feminists and postcolonial theorists on the other, as she carried out research on changing gender relations in rural China. Acknowledging that she has drawn on “western” theories as well as a decade of “studying Chinese and things Chinese,” Jacka asserts: “my focus on work and work relations derives as much from my interactions with Chinese women and from the Chinese Marxist emphasis on these issues as from western feminism. . . . from a dialectical shifting between Chinese and western approaches and an attempt to synthesise the insights of each. This moving between cultures, gaining insights from both, is . . . one of the most valuable aspects of the kind of research I am engaged in” (Jacka 1994, 665). Jacka rejects the notion that there is an “insurmountable gap” between her research and “the concerns of rural Chinese women,” not because she believes that all women share common oppression or a common set of needs and values, but because she recognizes “the danger of essentializing the differences between East and West” (Jacka 1994, 665). She insists that her research has been centrally shaped by the concerns and thinking of women with whom she has worked, and refuses to back away from her research findings:
I do think that women in [rural] China are doubly exploited by the peasant family and by socialist patriarchy. . . . And . . ., while this, no doubt, does reflect my concerns as a westerner, I think it also reflects the concerns of Chinese women. In addition, I maintain that while my work may contribute to western discourses on the backwardness of the non-western, non-modern world, it also offers something more positive . . . I think western feminists have much to learn from the experiences of women in eastern societies, and, as Gayatri Spivak asserts, not only must White women do their “homework” and learn about other women’s experiences, their responses to other women’s experiences will also allow White feminists to interrogate their own speaking positions. . . . I recognize that, regardless of my individual motivations, in terms of world power relations, I work from within a dominating and colonising discourse which imposes western, first world values on others, not the least by defining them as “non-western” or “third world.” I would hope, however, that we are not all completely trapped in the “first world” or the “third world”—that there is some possibility of developing counter discourses by sharing and working with others, by repositioning ourselves at least temporarily, both literally by doing fieldwork and metaphorically, and by “smuggling ideas across the lines.” (Jacka 1994, 667)
This kind of effective participation in border crossings necessitates a processual approach to reflexivity and positionality, combined with an acute awareness of the place-based nature of our intellectual praxis. The goal must be to build situated solidarities, which seek to reconfigure our academic fields in relation to the “fields” that our “research subjects” inhabit. Similar to Jodi Dean’s (1995, 69) “reflective solidarities,” situated solidarities aim to understand the larger interconnections produced by globalization of economies and labor forces while challenging the colonialist prioritizing of the West. They are attentive to the ways in which our ability to evoke the global in relation to the intimate, to configure the specific nature of our alliances and commitments, and to participate in processes of social change are significantly shaped by our geographical and socio-institutional locations, and the particular combination of processes, events, and struggles underway in those locations. As Wendy Larner suggests, it is inadequate for us to position ourselves only in theoretical and ideological “place”; we must also recognize our “geographical location, and by implication, the politics of that place” (Larner 1995, 177). Through her involvement in feminist discourses of difference among Maori and Pakeha women in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Larner recognizes that there will probably be multiple situated knowledges rooted in different (and often mutually irreconcilable) epistemological positions in any particular context. Thus, for her, the measure of contemporary feminist theory can neither be “‘Who is making this theory?’ nor ‘What is the epistemological basis for the theory?’ but rather ‘What kinds of struggle does it make possible?’” (Larner 1995, 187).
Importantly, Larner maintains that despite the inevitable disjunctures, working with an understanding of positionality involves developing theoretical and political frameworks that integrate conflicts and contradictions:
The goal is not unity based on common experience, or even experiences, but rather some sort of a workable compromise that will enable us to coalesce around specific issues. . . . If positionality is to be more than a recitation of one’s personal characteristics, or a textual strategy, [we must address the dilemmas that] arise out of . . . the politics of negotiating not just multiple, but discrepant audiences. Moreover, it may be that out of such engagements will come alternative theorisations, generated not out of abstract discussions about theoretical correctness, but rather out of the efforts of academics who are engaged with, and speak to, specific political struggles. (Larner 1995, 187–88)
Moving toward this goal, we would add, requires an ongoing and open dialogue across geographical and disciplinary borders on how alternative theorizations can emerge from speaking to specific political struggles, and how inevitable disjunctures can become necessary pieces of reconfiguring the modes, purposes, and meanings of knowledge production.
Beyond the Impasse?
Dominant definitions of academic research automatically label as “extracurricular” (e.g., service, outreach, or creative work) much intellectual production that falls beyond the sphere of certified university scholarship. In the absence of enduring connections with specific political struggles, and of spaces for critical dialogues with those whose interests progressive research seeks to serve, the sole-conceptualized and sole-authored model of research will have little value for those who live in the fields of academics and NGO workers. Challenging normative definitions of knowledge and knowledge producers inevitably entails the reflexive reshaping of meanings embedded in different sociopolitical contexts, languages, and institutional cultures, as well as meanings that emerge, are stifled, or realign themselves in the course of specific struggles.
The difficulties of speaking with collaborators across borders are rooted in the structural realities of fieldwork—a research practice that frequently entails disjunctures between the sites of face-to-face encounters with people whose stories we want to tell, and the institutional locations from which we produce knowledge about them. For feminist researchers who travel back and forth between structurally unequal worlds, this aspect of fieldwork has to be replaced by innovative and dynamic processes of collective knowledge production that are valued as sociopolitically pertinent by those in the field with whom we share political commitments. Indeed, in our view, the dangers of relinquishing responsibility for acquiring, producing, and disseminating knowledge about and by people inhabiting the rest of the world have never been greater. To leave total control of what is said, and therefore widely “understood” (whether about India, Tanzania, Iraq, or Palestine) to those whose interests lie within the spheres of global capital, an increasingly homogenized media, or the political status quo (as long as it serves U.S. purposes) is to facilitate those very interests. Nor is it enough to simply criticize these processes and interests, and discuss them among ourselves—favorite academic pastimes.
Processual reflexivity and crossing borders with situated solidarities require openness to rethinking dominant standards of academic productivity. Orchestrating such a shift entails challenging traditional academic norms that inhibit collective and collaborative research—except in the classroom; value national and/or western theorizing over the thinking of all but a handful of third-world theorists; and caution graduate students and early career academics against pursuing intellectual interests that coalesce around political concerns, issues, people, and modes of analysis that challenge institutionalized ways of knowing and thinking. Many feminist/women’s studies departments and programs have already celebrated thirty-year anniversaries, signaling more than a generation of scholarship within the academy. Feminist scholars can become important change agents within academic institutions. Anti-disciplinary feminist scholarship can support and facilitate collective and collaborative research across difficult borders, and take the lead in redefining the relationship between scholarship and community-based engagement and how academic merit gets evaluated. It can be critical in moving us beyond the impasse by creating institutional spaces promoting a far broader view of what counts as significant scholarship, and by encouraging graduate students and faculty to take intellectual and political risks—including that highly charged and thoroughly scrutinized practice known as feminist fieldwork.
Part 2. The Reframed Argument: Footloose Researchers, Traveling Theories, and Transnational Feminist Praxis
When feminist scholars from western countries come here to do their research, they often try hard to do everything in our local language and idiom. But why is it that when they return to their institutions, they frequently write in ways that are totally inaccessible and irrelevant to us? . . . The question of access is not just about writing in English. It is about how one chooses to frame things, how one tells a story . . . [Suppose] you tell my story in a way that makes no sense at the conceptual level to me or my community, why would we care what you have to say about my life?
—Discussion with feminist scholar-activists in Pune, 27 July 2000
Reflexivity, positionality, and identity have become keywords in feminist fieldwork in much of Anglophone academia. Indeed, it is now rare to find fieldwork-based feminist research that does not engage to some degree with the “politics of fieldwork.” Despite this proliferation of self-reflexivity, however, feminist social scientists have largely avoided the most vexing political questions that lie at the heart of our in/ ability to talk across worlds. The above quotation suggests that at the most basic level these questions have to do with the theoretical frameworks and languages that we deploy in our work. But the concern about the utility of theory and theoretical languages in transnational feminist praxis is entangled with at least three other complex issues: First is the question of accountability and the specific nature of our political commitments: Who are we writing for, how, and why? Second, it involves a serious engagement with questions of collaboration: What does it mean to coproduce relevant knowledge across geographical, institutional, and/or cultural borders? Third, it entails an explicit interrogation of the structure of the academy and the constraints and values embedded therein, as well as our desire and ability to challenge and reshape those structures and values.
Existing models of “doing” positionality and reflexivity fail to engage adequately with the above issues. This inadequacy led Susan Geiger and me to argue that much important theoretical work on the concepts of reflexivity, positionality, and identity has led to an impasse with respect to feminist research. This impasse is reflected, among other things, in the abandonment of fieldwork by some researchers in favor of textual analyses, and in criticisms that self-reflexive exercises amount to mere “navel gazing” and serve to prove the researchers’ legitimacy (Patai 1991; see also Wolf 1997). By identifying these problems, we do not dismiss the importance of understanding how our situatedness as researchers and our multiple and shifting contextual identities and agendas shape the knowledges we produce. Rather, we maintain that such reflexivity does not go far enough in terms of political engagement, especially when it comes to feminist fieldwork in third-world contexts.
Here, I return to some of the arguments that Geiger and I make about the nature of this impasse by analyzing varying responses that I received in 2000 to my manuscript “Mujhe Jawab Do (Answer Me!)” from three different feminist audiences. These audiences were located respectively in the U.S. academy and in two NGOs in India—one being a grassroots organization of women in rural Bundelkhand, and another a research and documentation center in Pune. When juxtaposed and compared with one another, the three responses are instructive in not only rethinking issues of reflexivity, positionality, and identity in feminist fieldwork, but also in concretely identifying and grappling with some of the key challenges associated with transnational feminist praxis. But before I discuss the responses, a few words about Mujhe Jawab Do are in order.
Mujhe Jawab Do: Juggling Multiple Feminist Agendas
After eight years of research and writing on the gendered community and racial politics among South Asians in Tanzania, I significantly shifted the course of my intellectual journey and embarked in 1998 on a new research project in Chitrakoot district of Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh. The reasons for this shift were related to my own struggles with what constitutes politically relevant research. Despite the theoretically and empirically exciting nature of my work in Tanzania, the material, institutional, and ethical constraints associated with this research seriously limited the spaces available to me for radical collaborative efforts with socially marginalized Asian and Asian African communities in Tanzania. These factors led me to shift my focus to rural women’s activism and social spaces in Uttar Pradesh.
One of my central goals was to examine the spatial tactics adopted by rural women in Bundelkhand, often described as one of the most impoverished and violence-ridden areas in the country. Bundeli women’s activism over issues of water and literacy had made a big splash in Indian newspapers, and I was eager to learn about these struggles and about the ways in which women’s activism on the ground was shaped by institutions such as the Dutch government, the World Bank, the government of India, and the state- and district-level governmental and nongovernmental organizations.
However, as I became immersed in the two grassroots organizations working in this area, activists from one of these organizations, Vanangana, expressed that they wanted their emerging street theater on domestic violence to be a major part of my research inquiry. Accordingly, the first publication to come out of this research focused on charting the discursive geographies of women’s resistance through Vanangana’s street theater (Nagar 2000).3 I explored the manner in which activists used social spaces to analyze the interrelationships among intimacy, marriage, and violence and to develop political discourses for their own mobilization, and how they creatively used kinship and gendered materialities of women’s natal and conjugal villages to trouble the masculinist spaces of their communities.
The original version of the paper hinged on two main issues. First, it highlighted how rural women’s activism on issues surrounding access to water and literacy led them to critique an instrumentalist vision of empowerment in development organizations and how they theorized and acted upon their understandings of the interconnections between empowerment, violence, space, and politics. Second, it argued that feminist social scientists located in the northern academy cannot choose to remain silent on third-world women’s struggles about sensitive issues such as domestic violence simply because there is a messy politics of power and representation involved in the fieldwork encounter. Rather, they should accept the challenge of figuring out how to productively engage with and participate in mutually generative knowledge production about those struggles.
Responses to the Paper
On finishing the initial version of Mujhe Jawab Do in March 2000, I sent off one set of copies to Gender, Place and Culture (GPC) and another set to the two (and only) Vanangana members who were fluent in English. Later, when I visited India in July 2000, I presented the same paper—in a mixture of Hindi and English—to feminist scholar-activists at Aalochana, a women’s research and documentation center in Pune. While the overall responses from all three audiences were enthusiastic, each group emphasized quite different things in relation to the politics of positionality, reflexivity, and identity.
Response from Gender, Place and Culture
Two out of the three reviewers of GPC were disturbed because they assumed that my argument about the need for U.S.-based feminist scholars to engage with sensitive topics such as violence in the homes of rural women in India was coming from a white researcher. They wanted to know why the author did not explain how s/he dealt with cultural and linguistic differences, and why s/he did not highlight the contributions of Indian feminist scholars who were trying to engage in similar research endeavors. Both reviewers suggested that I either say more about my personal background and positionality, or drop the argument about why U.S.-based feminist researchers should not turn away from a deep engagement with marginalized women’s struggles in the global south.
Response from Vanangana, Chitrakoot
The two English-speaking organizers at Vanangana expressed excitement about my ethnographic analysis of their street theater campaign and said that it helped them think about their political and spatial methodologies in a different light. However, they had reservations about the theoretical section of the paper. While they understood how a discussion of power and representation and of relationships between U.S.-based feminist scholars and poor women’s activism in the third world could be important to other academic feminists, this subject was not interesting to them for two reasons.
First, it was inaccessible for the members of their organization. The readers suggested that I eliminate the theoretical language and write a shorter version of the paper in Hindi so that women who were active in the street theater campaign could read, reflect, and respond to my analysis of their movement.
Second, they wished to share my paper in English with other women’s organizations in the country and with prospective funding agencies because they themselves did not have the time or resources to produce such an analysis. They believed that the paper would serve this purpose better if I could substitute the section on representation with a more detailed discussion of the relationship between empowerment and violence in development thinking and in women’s social movements in South Asia.
Response from Aalochana, Women’s Research and Documentation Centre, Pune
When I presented the paper at Aalochana, an organization comprising feminist thinkers who are active in women’s development NGOs and social movements, its members responded with passion. Several of them expressed an interest in building bridges with Vanangana members, in exchanging ideas, and in discussing future collaborations or strategies with them. Most women saw me as being from North India, and did not raise any issues about whether I was an authentic enough researcher to undertake the project. One scholar activist from New Delhi, however, who was the only other North Indian in the room besides me, asked why “American” researchers like me did not leave such research projects to “Indian” feminists and choose to do research on Indian communities living in the United States instead.
Comparing the Responses: Implications for Transnational Feminist Praxis
None of the above-mentioned groups questioned the relevance of the struggles that I narrated and analyzed in Mujhe Jawab Do. Yet, the divergent nature of their responses uncovered the messiness associated with attempts by feminists located in the western academy to talk across worlds—worlds that are separated not just socially, geopolitically, and materially, but also in their understandings of what constitutes meaningful theory and politics. Working through this messiness necessarily implies making decisions regarding which—and whose—understandings about meaningful theory matter the most to “us” and why. These divergences also open a space to grapple with what Geiger and I call the impasse. For instance, the response from the two GPC reviewers exemplified the central problems that we identify with existing models of doing reflexivity. Reflexivity in U.S. academic writing has mainly focused on examining the identities of the individual researcher rather than on the ways in which those identities intersect with institutional, geopolitical, and material aspects of their positionality. In so doing, such identity-based reflexivity fails to distinguish systematically among the ethical, ontological, and epistemological aspects of fieldwork dilemmas. Far from viewing social categories as created, enacted, transformed in and through specific encounters, a simple identity-based reflexivity demands that we uncover ourselves in terms of certain predefined and coherent social categories that can exist prior to those interactions. The response from the scholar-activist at Aalochana indicates that the tendency to reduce reflexivity to simply an identity-based reflexivity is by no means confined to the western academic establishment. In raising questions about who constituted an authentic feminist researcher, the above-mentioned member of Aalochana was clearly reducing positionality to the retrogressive kind of identity politics that allows only “Xes to speak to X issues” (di Leonardo and Lancaster 1997, 5).
It was the constructive criticism from the two Vanangana readers that I found to be the most generative for my project at hand, and for further grappling with the two key questions that Geiger and I identified as lying at the heart of feminist research in third-world contexts. First, how can feminists use fieldwork to produce knowledges across multiple divides of power, locations, and axes of difference in ways that do not reflect or reinforce the interests, agendas, and priorities of the more privileged groups and places? Second, how can the production of those knowledges be tied explicitly to a politics of social change in favor of the less privileged people and places?
Like Larner’s work with Maori and Pakeha women in New Zealand, Vanangana’s critique was based in an implicit recognition that in any given context there are likely to be multiple situated knowledges rooted in different and often mutually irreconcilable epistemological positions. The question that Vanangana members posed, then, was neither “Who was making the theoretical claims about power and representation?” nor “What was the epistemological basis for those theoretical claims?,” but rather “What kinds of struggles did my analysis make possible for them?” (paraphrased from Larner 1995, 187). In so doing, Vanangana members circumvented the problems of a simple identity-based reflexivity that characterized the responses by the GPC reviewers and the critic from Aalochana. Instead, they articulated a more complex critique—grounded in a deeper political reflexivity—that pushed me to rethink the sociopolitical implications of my theoretical framework, and how my choices regarding analytical languages were explicitly tied to questions of accountability and responsibility in transnational feminist praxis.
Let me give an example to highlight this key difference in the two kinds of critiques. One of the GPC reviewers (who had assumed that I was white) thought it was pretentious of me to claim that the problems surrounding representations of the subaltern should not deter feminist scholars from getting involved in messy issues such as violence in the intimate lives of poor women in the third world. The reviewer also expressed irritation that at one place I used the term “talking to” instead of “talking with” when elaborating on the need for feminist academics located in the global north to seriously engage with theorizations of grassroots activists working in the global south. In order to please this reviewer, then, all I would have had to do was to claim an authentic status as a “real native” from Uttar Pradesh, and use the correct lingo that replaced “talking to” with “talking with” without changing my argument. Ironically, however, these modifications would have made no difference to the usefulness of my analysis to Vanangana. In fact, it was precisely the abstract discussion of subalternity, representation, and talking with, talking for, and talking to which made it hard for my initial analysis to speak directly to Vanangana’s concerns. The concrete practice of talking with the campaigners, however, led me to reorient my story away from what was fashionable in the academic realm, into the direction of the Bundeli activists’ political and intellectual priorities. This entailed rethinking the ways in which the discussion about the politics of representation could be interwoven with an intersectional analysis of empowerment, violence, space, and gender in South Asian development politics.
Ultimately, however, our ability to talk across worlds—to align our theoretical priorities with the concerns of marginalized communities whose struggles we want to advance—is connected to the opportunities, constraints, and values embedded in our academic institutions. Next, I turn to this structural issue and identify some areas that must be addressed in order to create institutional spaces that can facilitate more productive dialogues among feminists located in materially, geographically, socially, and politically diverse worlds.
Academia, Theory, and Transnational Feminist Praxis
If you ask me what is the object of my work, the object of the work is to always reproduce the concrete in thought—not to generate another good theory, but to give a better-theorized account of concrete historical reality. This is not an anti-theoretical stance. I need theory in order to do this. But the goal is to understand the situation you started out with better than before.
—Stuart Hall, “The Toad in the Garden”
Transnational feminist conversations, especially between worlds as far removed from one another as the ones I have described above, cannot be productive unless feminist academics based in northern institutions produce research agendas and knowledges that do not merely address what is theoretically exciting or trendy in their institutional locations, but also what is considered politically imperative by the communities we work with or are committed to. By making this distinction between theory and politics I am not implying that people who “do” theory are not engaged in political work, or that political activists are not simultaneously engaged in important theory building. Rather, I am echoing the manner in which each group commonly states its priorities: for feminist academics in major research institutions in the United States, the primary concerns are often articulated in terms of theory, while NGOs such as Vanangana or Aalochana are mainly interested in the political and strategic ramifications of a given concept or analysis. In other words, widening the notion of what constitutes theory should form the core of transnational feminist praxis. At a time when our students and colleagues are increasingly drawn to the elegance of “high” theory and the headiness of the abstract, it might be helpful to go back to theorists, such as Stuart Hall, who remind us that concrete political engagement does not translate into an antitheoretical stance.
Equally, it is critical that such knowledge be produced and shared in theoretical languages that are simultaneously accessible to multiple audiences in locations that may seem distant from one another. While many academics accept the idea that working with NGOs or social movements requires producing written products other than scholarly books or articles—for example, workshops, organizational reports, and newspaper articles in local languages—I believe that it is increasingly important for us to also produce scholarly analyses that can be accessed, used, and critiqued by our audiences in multiple social and institutional locations. This kind of scholarship is necessary not only to trouble the existing hierarchies of knowledge but also because, as we know so well, scholars in U.S. research universities are often too overcommitted to devote much time to developing “nonacademic” products.
At the same time, however, we must continue the struggle to create new institutional spaces that favor, facilitate, and give due recognition to alternative research products and to new forms of collaboration. Workshops, organizational reports, newspaper articles, and creative work in local and regional languages that emerge from our work, for instance, must be institutionally recognized—not as extracurricular activities that we do on the side but as research products that require special skills and time and energy commitments, and that are central to scholarly knowledge production. Similarly, we must carry on fighting for institutional recognition that knowledge is never produced by a single individual. This involves troubling the notion of sole authorship with one that genuinely recognizes and encourages knowledge making with actors such as grassroots mobilizers, life historians, and research assistants—not only in shaping the outcome of research—but also in articulating and framing our research priorities and questions. In the context of research that focuses on feminist organizing at the grassroots level, it is also important to interrogate predominant assumptions about “women’s groups” and examine how such groups not only build critical alliances with men, but also the ways in which men, as research assistants and coresearchers, can play a critical role in yielding insights about activism, gender, and space, particularly in gender-segregated contexts.
Finally, I would like to draw upon Cindi Katz’s notion of translocal “counter-topographies that link different places analytically and thereby enhance struggles in the name of common interests” (Katz 2001, 1230). If particular sociopolitical processes can be imagined as contour lines of constant elevation, connecting places that are being shaped through those processes, then conceptualizing new solidarities requires us to trace counter-topographies. This task involves the simultaneous labor of following contour lines across places, while also grappling with the ways that global processes are embedded in particular places (Pratt and Rosner 2012, 18). For feminist research to produce such counter-topographies, researchers must seriously consider how they can serve as useful channels of communication between scholars and activists located in different places. For example, organizations working on environmental and economic policies in Uttar Pradesh may want to understand how local organizations coordinated and developed their strategies during the WTO (World Trade Organization) protests in Seattle, while women’s organizations in Pune may want to examine gender and caste with women’s organizations in Bundelkhand. Combining such concerns in our own reflexive process can be generative in building situated solidarities, while also opening up spaces to dialogically explore the meanings, possibilities, and limitations of our own locational, material, and institutional specificities vis-à-vis the specificities of those with whom we wish to stand and speak.
Part 3: Postscript: Reflexivity, Positionality, and Languages of Collaboration
Berlin of 1884 was effected through the sword and the bullet. But the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard. . . . The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.
—Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “The Language of African Literature”
Is it the inevitable conclusion to the formation of an interpretive community that its constituency, its specialized language, and its concerns tend to get tighter, more self-enclosed as its own self-confirming authority acquires more power, the solid status of orthodoxy, and a stable constituency? What is the acceptable humanistic antidote to what one discovers, say, among sociologists, philosophers and so-called policy scientists who speak only to and for each other in a language oblivious to everything but a well-guarded, constantly shrinking fiefdom forbidden to the uninitiated?
—Edward W. Said, “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies and Communities”
Language resides at the core of any struggle that seeks to decolonize and reconfigure the agendas, mechanics, and purposes of knowledge production. I juxtapose the above statements by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Edward Said to connect two forms of discussion around language that often remain isolated: those in the realm of cultural and identity politics and those about the inclusiveness or exclusiveness of sites from which knowledge and norms of expertise and professionalism are produced. Here, I reflect on how these two struggles around language inform my ongoing intellectual and political journeys as a feminist thinker and writer located in the northern academy who works with nonacademic actors in the global south. Specifically, I consider how transborder collaborations can create critical opportunities to seek liberation from the “spiritual subjugation” of dominating languages, and help to carve out alternative interpretive communities that challenge the “fiefdoms” generally forbidden to the uninitiated.
Two Fields, Two Worlds?
My intellectual commitment and attachment to the question of language are rooted in my own battles since childhood with disjunctures between the worlds of elite and vernacular languages. With the beginning of an academic career as a geographer in the United States, the landscape of the same struggle that I associated with my lower-middle-class upbringing in old Lucknow became wider and more complex. In the context of my critical ethnographic research in Tanzania and India, the implications of this reality were sobering: On the one hand, academics in the north who read and critiqued my work were automatically deemed as intellectuals worthy of the right to use and evaluate the knowledge I produced. On the other hand, the life historians, interviewees, and public intellectuals in the fields (located in the south) who enabled me to produce “new” knowledges for northern academia were automatically classified at worst as sources and at best as research subjects without having much power to access, evaluate, or demand revision of my ideas or the knowledge that I produced about them.
This, in turn, created further splits between the field inhabited by the members of the discipline(s) and the field inhabited by the research subjects: if I cared to make the latter a salient part of my interpretive community to which I wanted to be accountable, I was free to record any such work in my faculty annual report as service, outreach, or creative work. But such efforts could not legitimately guide my research agenda in the eyes of the northern research university if I wanted to be seen as a respectable scholar. Conversely, from the perspective of those located in the global south, north-based researchers mostly used the south as a source of raw materials (data) to be processed, packaged, and marketed according to the demands of their professional fields, with little or no engagement with the sociopolitical and intellectual debates or struggles that are considered pertinent in the places that their research sources and subjects inhabit.
The overlapping dichotomies between the field versus academic discipline, and sources or subjects versus intellectuals, emanate from a categorical distinction between production and popularization of knowledge that serves to accelerate professionalization while disregarding how “the very process of making knowledge is coterminous with the diffusion of knowledge” (Bender 1998, 21). When the north/ south divides get intertwined with this general phenomenon of estrangement between production and use of knowledge, the problem becomes even more serious. First, there is little opportunity to grapple with questions such as, Who controls the production and distribution of the knowledges produced? Who forms its intended and actual audiences? How do these productions intersect with the political economy of publishing, literacy, access to and distribution of literature, and implied and empirical audiences (Williams and Chrisman 1994, 373)? Second, it impairs our ability to confront the basic problem of the production of knowledge in and for the West where the very act of writing for the West about the Other implicates us in projects that establish western authority and cultural difference (Abu-Lughod 2001, 105).
Commu(nica)ting across “Fields”
My struggle with these interrelated issues of “real” and theoretical languages in the production and dissemination of knowledge began in 1996–97 with two quite different collaborative articles, neither of which got published until much later due to the resistance they encountered from academic reviewers in development studies and feminist studies. One was a preliminary exploration of how the politics of English-medium schooling was shaped by processes of modernization and social fracturing in postcolonial India. It suggested that the very existence and well-being of an English-speaking techno-managerial and professional elite (considered as experts) hinged on the presence of sociopolitical and discursive divides between the worlds of English and the vernacular (Faust and Nagar 2001). The other essay written with Geiger (which constitutes the first part of this chapter) argued for a need to extend academic reflexivity in feminist fieldwork beyond the realm of the individual researcher’s personal identities to the sociopolitical and institutional locations in which researchers were operating. Such reflexivity, we argued, could become a basis for forming situated solidarities with third-world subjects to produce potentially (more) meaningful knowledges across geographical, institutional, and sociopolitical borders. As my research on communal and racial politics among Asians in Tanzania gained visibility and I received invitations to display my credentials as a specialist on the South Asian diaspora in East Africa, my immersion in the above-mentioned concerns translated into an active distancing from the label of “expert” on that subject.
Thus began the search for long-term partnerships with grassroots activists in India to push at the definitions of cutting-edge knowledge in U.S. feminist studies, and to highlight a need to produce frameworks that can meaningfully travel across the two fields identified above. This project of expanding the idea of “the cutting edge” also required another type of transnational partnership: that between academic feminists who collaborated with community members in different parts of the global south to complicate dominant discourses about key concepts such as intersectionality, empowerment, and sexual politics (Nagar and Swarr 2004, Swarr and Nagar 2004).
While these projects gave me intellectual stimulus and sparked productive conversations with academic colleagues and students, my increasing involvement in yet another field—the field of women’s NGOs in North India—was helping me unpack three additional layers in the global politics of knowledge production. First, the race for professionalization and estrangement of “experts” from ordinary people and their struggles is not confined to the northern academy; NGOs in the global south are in the grip of the same processes. What Bender remarks in the context of academic disciplines in the nineteenth century, then, can also be applied to the twenty-first-century NGOs: “Professionalized disciplines or the modern service professions that imitated them [did not become] socially irresponsible. But their contributions to society began to flow from their own self-definitions rather than from a reciprocal engagement with general public discourse” (Bender 1993, 10).
Second, as officials, consultants, trainers, and specialists (who conduct case studies, run workshops, write reports, formulate grant proposals, etc.) have come to occupy a center stage in the donor-driven NGO sector, northern academics are no longer the only experts who have the means to go into the southern fields with funding from international donors (Benson and Nagar, 2006). Knowledge production about the majority who inhabit the margins of the south has become part of a globalized network of institutions and actors who share ideas, collaborate, and make critical decisions in international conferences and planning meetings. This implies that practices of both academic institutions and NGOs need to be subjected to scrutiny and redefinition so that dominating knowledges that can travel globally do not end up stifling other frameworks and languages that interpret and explain social realities and struggles from more local or translocal perspectives. Collaboration across multiple institutional sites and socioeconomic locations and in multiple languages and genres can play a critical role in undoing and remaking various layers that constitute transnational politics of knowledge production, and in interrogating and expanding the notions of skills and expertise in intellectual productions.
Third, rather than seeing elite research institutions and foundations as powerhouses from where knowledge about the so-called underprivileged emanates and then trickles downwards, it is important to disrupt and complicate the routes of circulation by which knowledges are produced and disseminated: vernacular and/ or nonelite languages that have been unevenly empowered or systematically impoverished through processes of globalization and professionalization in both the academy and NGOs have important roles to play in shaping the nature and outcomes of this disruption.
Critique, Coauthorship, and Translations in the Journey with Sangtins
Even as I began to write for academic venues on the class, caste, and gender politics of NGOization and knowledge production (Nagar and Raju 2003, Nagar and Swarr 2004), I realized that such critical analysis was more or less meaningless for the NGO workers in rural Uttar Pradesh with whom I had been having sustained conversations on these issues since 1996. If the goal of critique was to find resonance on the “other” side, it could not happen merely through the efforts of academic collaborators writing for academic outlets. It had to emerge from a collective process of reflection and analysis with those who were being inserted in processes of professionalization and NGOization at the lowest rungs of the NGO ladder, with an explicit aim of generating dialogues in sites where everyday struggles with those issues were being articulated and enacted.
These churnings sowed the seeds of collaboration with eight members of Sangtin, a small collective of women in the Sitapur district of Uttar Pradesh, which was trying to define its goals by critically reflecting on the NGO-driven field of women’s empowerment. Seven of these collaborators—Anupamlata, Reshma Ansari, Vibha Bajpayee, Ramsheela, Shashibala, Shashi Vaishya, and Surbala—made a living as village-level NGO workers, and the eighth, Richa Singh, as a district-level NGO activist in Sitapur. We began in 2002 by focusing on internal processes and politics of NGO work and the labor of activism, social change, and knowledge production from the perspective of the village-level NGO workers who undertake the main labor of translating donor-funded projects of empowerment on the ground. This collective analysis resulted in writing and publishing Sangtin Yatra, which braids autobiographical narratives of the seven rural activists to highlight how caste, class, religion, and gender enmesh with the processes of rural development and underdevelopment, empowerment and disempowerment (Anupamlata et al. 2004).4 Sangtin Yatra was warmly received by progressive intellectuals and activists, but the authors were also subjected to an angry backlash from the director of Mahila Samakhya, Uttar Pradesh (MSUP), the state headquarters of the organization where seven of the nine authors were employed. An analysis of these contrasting sets of responses to Sangtin Yatra and our struggle to fight the backlash offered us another critical opportunity—this time in English with a countrywide and international readership in mind—to explore the themes of NGOization and global feminisms, while also suggesting new possibilities for (re)imagining transnational feminist interventions and globalization from below (see chapter 5; also, Sangtin Writers 2006).
But the aftermath of critique revealed to us, in jarring ways, the differential price that must be paid by people located at different places in the global hierarchy of knowledge for claiming a space as valid knowledge producers. At the individual level, it pushed us to seek allies and linked us with supporters in multiple institutions whose sociopolitical concerns intersected with ours. At the institutional level, it marked the beginning of new relationships and exchanges with educational organizations, publishers, and aid workers in India and the United States. These new encounters made us recognize that the structures and processes of elitism, classism, and casteism that we highlighted in the context of donor-driven empowerment projects are present in varying configurations in all institutional spaces. Reimagining and reconfiguring them requires critical dialogues in all the sites—including our collective—where intellectual and political work is being carried out (see chapter 5).
Within Sangtin, there have been several dimensions of internal critical reflexivity: One concerns the varied roles, social locations, and privileges enjoyed by different members of the collective and how these shape the politics of skills and labor within the group. Another pertains to the personal struggles of each member with her own casteist, communalistic, and/ or heterosexist values, and how these affect our collective work. Finally, our collective imagination tends to get constrained by the same frameworks of donor-sponsored empowerment projects that we identified in Sangtin Yatra as NGOization of grassroots politics.
As the nine authors scrutinized prevailing discourses about what and who constitutes so-called legitimate knowledges and knowledge producers, we saw tight connections with the same cult of professionalism and expertise whose exclusionary and paralyzing effects we had highlighted in Sangtin Yatra. We could only continue the collaboration by establishing our labor and enterprise as simultaneously activist and academic. The decision to write Playing with Fire and to publish it with Zubaan Press in New Delhi and University of Minnesota Press in Minneapolis emerged from these struggles.
The issue of coauthorship was peripheral and somewhat artificial for the collective in the early phase of our partnership. At this time, some members of the collective felt that the need for coauthorship was emerging from my disciplinary ethical and political anxieties, rather than from the goals of our collaboration. However, when we embarked on a journey that was invested in imagining Sangtin’s future by reflecting on the activists’ own lives, coauthorship was embraced and fought for by each member of the collective—sometimes in the face of grave social and economic risks, and sometimes as a way to resist assumptions (or market considerations) of publishers and scholars about who could appear as authors of expert knowledge.
However, our ongoing journey is also teaching us that what is coauthored as a result of an evolving struggle is never set in stone and is forever changing with political and social exigencies. Ideologies that seek to dismantle casteism, classism, heterosexism, or communalism cannot be forced on a dynamic collective just to pursue a desire for consensus. Like collaborative writing, formulation of political ideas and intellectual concepts in a collective with open membership is a constantly evolving process. It is only by making space and nurturing this dynamism (which includes the risk of moving backward at times) that we can appreciate knowledge as being produced in both place and time, drawing upon diverse sources of experience and expertise, in ways that the fields of the academy, NGOs, and social movements can become means, not ends. Such efforts might also give birth to new conceptual languages that are equipped to undertake what Abu-Lughod calls a fearless examination of “the processes of entanglement” (Abu-Lughod 1998, 16). Modernization projects that seek to emancipate and empower poor women can be creatively and collectively reinterpreted across multiple institutional sites through cultural and intellectual productions that resonate at the intertwined scales of the intimate, the local, the translocal, and the transnational. Such productions have a better chance of simultaneously challenging, in multiple fields, the binary constructions of modernity/tradition and East/West, while also uncovering how so-called liberation projects operate through an active politics of class under the label of feminist solidarity (Abu-Lughod 1998, Sangtin Writers 2006).
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