Re:thinking ‘the field’ – or just getting rid of it?

Development is a funny thing: an attempt at global solidarity, and yet, too often, a controversial case of Western hubris. Part of this tension can be found hidden in representations of development. A case in point is the continuing, and unfortunate, use of ‘the field’ in development speak. ‘The field’ is like a bad cliché, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that intelligent and global-minded people had stopped using it. Not quite. ‘The field’ remains a staple of textbooks on development and in works of anthropology.

The stench of missionary colonialism is obvious for anyone with an inquisitive nose. Homi Bhabha famously wrote in his work The Location of Culture on how colonial stereotypes of the Other were characterized by two seemingly contradictory propositions; namely, that the Other is at once unknown and yet somehow perfectly distinct. The idea of ‘the field’ contains much of this ambivalence: ‘the field’ seen as different and distant, far away from the university campuses of Europe and America, yet it exists ‘out there’ to provide researchers with raw material. ‘The field’ is essentially up for grabs.

Of course, I am far from the first person to critically write about it; the anonymous blogger J. published a piece in the WhyDev collective’s e-book about what he called ‘the myth of the field’. J.’s argument basically goes something like this: First, development happens as much in the cubicles of Washington and Brussels as in a cholera clinic in Port-au-Prince. Important decisions on funding, strategy, etc. are, after all, mostly taken in the former. Second, by continuing to invoke “this notion of the field, we reinforce the very divides we say we want to bridge”. Other critics have followed in J’s footsteps. Denskus comments on his blog aidnography that,

The field is not simply where ‘the other’ lives regardless of whether they are called partners, recipients, beneficiaries or customers-we are ‘the field’, too, blogging it, log-framing it, participatory workshopping it or R&Ring it. A multi-sited aid industry with complex aid chains does no longer follow the linear logic of ‘North’, ‘capital city’ and ‘field’. A lot of aid ‘takes place’ elsewhere and we need to be there as well rather than romanticizing a rural ideal.

Clearly, these are good arguments, but what I am missing is a more critical take on the (dare I say philosophical?) assumptions underpinning the continuing use of ‘the field’ among development scholars. ‘The field’ does not just, as Denskus rightly points out, suggest a flawed understanding of where development happens, it also reveals a more problematic perception among mostly Western scholars of who is in need of development. If development research is primarily dependent on so-called fieldwork in countries of the global South, then that would implicitly suggest that the global North is not in need of development, or at least not of particular interest when it comes to (research on) development. This is deeply provocative, echoing the classic developed/developing, modern/traditional binaries. What we need instead is an understanding of development as a global necessity, and the way we conduct our research should of course reflect that. In this sense, ‘the field’ is merely another way of constructing a sort of Here-There dichotomy, which, as I’ve tried to point out, remains as flawed as ever.

I am reminded of Johannes Fabian’s seminal study Time and the Other, where he critiques conventional anthropology’s inability to accord coavelness to ‘the other’; instead, Fabian argues, anthropologists have tended (remember: his work was written in the 80s, things have changed for the better) to situate the subject in a different time zone, a Here-There, if you like. (Interestingly, and admittedly somewhat ironic, Fabian did in fact use the term ‘the field’ in a way that would make him, if only in that regard, a suitable object of criticism for this blog post.) As noted in a blog post by Karavagna, Fabian interpreted these oppositions “as distancing techniques between the subject and object of ethnographic practice, and which he sees in turn as the result of the overarching colonial production of distance between the West and the Rest”. The construction of ‘the field’ joins the same kind of thinking, a similar paradigm, and should not just be reframed, but ultimately dismissed altogether.

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