- Caught in Collaboration
The Field in Pieces
"Lecherous thoughts, marvelous sunset, walk around the island," amazon. com tells us are among the "statistically improbable phrases"—not keywords but the "most distinctive phrases in the text of books" identified by its Search Inside!™ program—by which to tag Malinowski's posthumously published Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. Indeed, these seemingly unlikely tags are hardly off the mark: throughout the Diary , the lore and allure of in situ fieldwork dissipate variously into a sense of meandering boredom, agitation, irritation, preoccupation with other fascinations, work, the need for escape. The "statistically improbable," it quickly becomes evident, is not even so much distinctive as quotidian. The following passage provides a taste:
Then lunch with a fellow and talk—about what?—In the afternoon: I lay down for a quarter of an hour, and started work—bwaga'u business. At about 5 stopped, was fed up. Excited, impossible to concentrate. Ate pineapple, drank tea, wrote E.R.M., took a walk; intensive gymnastics. Gymnastics should be a time of concentration and solitude; something that gives me an opportunity to escape from the [blacks] and my own agitation. Supper with a fellow who told me stupid anecdotes, not interesting at all.(Malinowski  1989, 188)
Such narratives about the field and fieldwork (and Malinowski's is not by any means the only example), render even the most mythic conceptualizations of ethnographic fieldwork incoherent—not without meaning, that is, but disjointed, comprised of parts that must be painstakingly identified, sifted through, and organized to become analytically [End Page 51] intelligible. With "villages" and "communities" now either dissipated by their own transformations within nation-states or rejected as questionable projections of wholeness by anthropologists, it seems less and less possible to speak of the field in a single breath, as a single place to which the lone anthropologist travels to undergo his or her rites of professional passage. So this essay is concerned with the "field" as an almost random assemblage of sites that come into coherence through the processes of fieldwork itself: the field as deterritorialized and reterritorialized, as it were, by the questions brought to bear on it in the course of research. This process necessarily entails much movement, as much between physical locations closer or farther apart as between ideological positionings or frames of reference (as I call them). Tracking this movement and understanding the relationships between sites, one's own positioning within each, and the demands placed on the ethnographer coming-into-being—these, I believe are the means by which the field is made, quite alongside the objects of study that it yields then to ethnographic attention.
The narrative of Malinowski's Diary suggests that this condition of the ethnographic field is nothing new—and yet, as I am about to suggest, the character of the deterritorialized field is in transition, and the demands it consequently makes of ethnography have fresh implications for how anthropologists can move about in it. To explain this further in the sections that follow, I use the example of my most recent ethnographic work on a National Institutes of Health/National Human Genome Research Institute (NIH/NHGRI)–sponsored "community consultation" project to research "Indian and Hindu perspectives on genetic variation research" in Houston (henceforth the ELSI-HapMap project, ELSI being the acronym for Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues in genetics). My role in ELSI-HapMap was largely prewritten—with some flexibility and room for innovation, but still largely given, and drawing my expertise as Indianist specifically into the frame of a bioethics initiative. Not only because this is urban anthropology par excellence and Houston is a vast, sprawling metropolis with a large and diverse Indian community, then, but even more as a result of the framing of this research as interdisciplinary and collaborative, the field seemed a bewildering assortment of pieces: a bric-a-brac assortment of people, institutions, interests, ideologies, skepticisms, locations, and expertise all forced into specific modes of contact with one another. And the [End Page 52] field demanded piecing together via various prescriptive collaborative means, all toward an end—"understanding Indian and Hindu perspectives on genetic variation...