Sunday, March 20, 2016

Unequal acaedemic labour: Time and work in culture-centered projects




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In 2004, I wrote 15 peer reviewed articles drawing upon quantitative large-scale survey data that I had "not" gathered. I had not done the field work for this research (mostly conducted by large survey companies).

Also, in 2004, I published 14 peer-reviewed journal articles, mostly in top tier disciplinary and sub-disciplinary journals. Once again, most of these articles were quantitative articles, drawing upon quantitative analysis of data I had not myself gathered.

A couple of these pieces are among my most highly cited pieces, one of them putting forth a theory I had developed on the basis of my quantitative analysis.

Something else also happened in 2004.

It was the year that I published my first ethnography in the journal Communication Theory. The piece titled "The unheard voices of Santalis" was drawn from my ethnographic fieldwork started in 1998.

Dutta‐Bergman, M. J. (2004). The unheard voices of Santalis: Communicating about health from the margins of India. Communication Theory, 14(3), 237-263.

My almost two-decade-long ethnography in Jangalmahal has only seen three journal articles, in spite of the many grueling hours in the field and in spite of the many vulnerabilities of doing this work (not to be romanticized). The rich stories, many of them shared through collaborative processes of attempting to develop solutions, many of them shared amid resistance and violence (between 2008 and 2012, large areas of Jangalmahal were sites of resistance, state sponsored violence, and Maoist violence), are often unwritten.

The impetus to publish these pieces in journal articles is overpowered by the desire to save the stories, to respect their incompleteness, and to recognize that their time has not yet come.

The impetus to publish the pieces is taken over by a commitment of the CCA to not publish culture-centered work till community members feel that change has been achieved in some small way and that entry points have been created.

Most importantly, the impetus of writing the stories is taken over by the joys and struggles of academic-community partnerships in working on potential solutions, albeit fragmented and contingent.

What is salient in these experiences is the fundamental difference between quantitative and qualitative research and the differential forms of labour that go into these practices of generating academic scholarship.

More importantly even, the slowness of CCA projects is grounded in the anchoring of the CCA in structure and structural transformation.

To publish any ethnographic work, and especially culture-centered work that seeks to see change in structures through participatory processes, it takes me a minimum of three  to five years (with the first one to two years on fieldwork, second and third year on developing the change processes, and fourth and fifth year to the process of academic writing). 

The writing of culturally-centered projects thus is slow, taking the depth of turns, the richness of layered narratives, and the incompleteness of fragmented and contingent dialogues. 

Anchored in an axis of structural transformation, the value of this work is measured in the meaning it brings about for the communities it works with, and the changes in structures it introduces.

By its nature, this work is contingent, incomplete, and slow.

To invite spaces for such work is to recognize the fundamental difference of culture-centered projects of social change from quantitative data driven projects. The criteria of commitment and reflexivity we expect from culture-centered scholars mark an altogether different register for the design, practice, and evaluation of research.

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