From Fieldsite to ‘Fieldsite’: Ethnographic Methods in the Time of COVID

Published date01 December 2020
Date01 December 2020
AuthorThomas Chambers
Subject MatterNotes on Method
Notes on Method
From Fieldsite to ‘Fieldsite’:
Ethnographic Methods in the
Time of COVID
Thomas Chambers1
In a request to develop a contribution to Studies in Indian Politics, I was asked—in the context of
COVID-19—to consider how ethnographers can respond to this new transformation of the field. With a
variety of restrictions being placed on movement, travel and physical interaction, many ethnographers,
researchers and students are finding their fieldwork plans curtailed or even cancelled. For anthropolo-
gists, and others who utilize ethnographic methods, these restrictions pose particularly prominent limita-
tions. Since its inception, ethnography has built its legitimacy on the value of data gathered through
‘being there’. Indeed, the process of undertaking long-term, embedded fieldwork is symbolically con-
structed as a ‘rite of passage’, a ritualized initiation into anthropology as a discipline (Gupta & Ferguson,
1997). Yet, what is seen as constituting an authentic ‘fieldsite’ for ethnographic research has never been
a fixed construct.
Within early anthropological traditions, the legitimacy of the ‘fieldsite’ was often predicated on its
difference, its ‘exoticism’ and the degree to which it could be imagined as ‘primitive’. Such evocations
have, rightly, been criticized as contributing to processes of othering and as becoming entangled in colo-
nial cosmologies of naturalized world orders and racial hierarchies. These issues have also been a field
of contestation among Indian anthropologists and social scientists with postcolonial legacies and/or
other hegemonic hierarchical assumptions feeding through into ongoing classificatory projects which
continue to mark out certain communities as ‘backward’ or ‘primitive’ and entrench forms of govern-
mentality (Basu & De Jong, 2016 Dirks, 2001; Sundar et al. 2000). Yet, there is also a long history of
connection between activism, advocacy and anthropological fieldwork. In its earliest forms, this has
included, among many other interventions, Roy’s (1912, 1915) efforts with regard to the legal recogni-
tion of Oraon and Munda communities in India and the anti-racist collaborations of W. E. B. Dubois and
Frantz Boas in the USA at the start of the twentieth century. Whilst a substantial history of academic
discourse and debate lies between these earlier activities and the contemporary moment, in the context
of this article, the long history of advocacy and activism in anthropology acts to remind us that ‘field-
sites’ are not disassociated spaces of abstract study but are deeply entangled in historical/contemporary
connections and in (often very personal) relationships between ethnographers and ‘the field’.
Studies in Indian Politics
8(2) 290–293, 2020
© 2020 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/2321023020963838
Note: This section is coordinated by Divya Vaid (
1 School of Social Sciences, Social Anthropology, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK.
Corresponding author:
Thomas Chambers, School of Social Sciences, Social Anthropology, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford
OX3 0BP, UK.

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