Jun 16 2017

Notes from the waiting room: Seeking research access to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS)

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Discussing the ethnography of public institutions, Didier Fassin (2013: 642) has described its dual ability to ‘interrogate the obvious’ and ‘illuminate the unknown’. The All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), a large public teaching hospital in Delhi, represents both of these conditions. This made it an enticing site for my PhD research, but also one that proved particularly challenging to access. While everything hinged on the crucial letter of official permission that was eventually written by the dean of research, personalities and the establishment of rapport…were central to the negotiation of the institutional labyrinth, writes Anna Ruddock

Opened in Delhi in 1956, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) is an enormous government-funded hospital, anomalous in the Indian public healthcare landscape for employing many of India’s most respected doctors, who provide high-standard free or low-cost care to patients of low socioeconomic status. The AIIMS outpatient department (see Figure 2) sees an average of 10,000 people a day. Many of these patients travel from across northern India, seeking competent and affordable treatment that they cannot find at home. AIIMS also occupies an undisputed position atop the hierarchy of Indian medical education. Each May, around 90,000 candidates compete over 72 seats at the college, making for a notorious acceptance rate of less than 0.01%. The tiny minority of successful students are catapulted into an exclusive club, with their achievement celebrated in the national press.

Figure 1. All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) (Photographed by the author)

Figure 2. AIIMS outpatient department (Photographed by the author)

Virtually everyone has an opinion about AIIMS, especially in Delhi. AIIMS is there: embedded in the landscape, and in the imagination of people both within and beyond the city. It is a phenomenon as much as a collection of concrete buildings. This in itself made it a compelling site for my PhD research. Its relative neglect by social scientists added to the appeal. Writing about the challenges and rewards of conducting ethnography in public institutions, Didier Fassin (2013: 642) notes that while ethnography must pay attention to understudied social locales, it also retains salience in ‘spaces saturated by consensual meanings’. In the first circumstance, he writes, ethnography ‘illuminates the unknown; in the second, it interrogates the obvious’ (ibid.). AIIMS encompassed both sets of circumstances, making for a research site that was both enticing and particularly challenging to access.

In April 2014, having listened patiently to the wry and occasionally despairing account of my effort to gain research access to AIIMS, a friend gave me a copy of Kafka’s The Castle. In the novel, K. arrives in a village believing he has been appointed as a Land Surveyor by the authorities that inhabit The Castle, which sits on a hill and pervades the life of the village. The story revolves in increasingly dizzying circles around K’s efforts to have his position recognised by The Castle in order that he may begin work. The challenge of securing access to AIIMS was similarly inflected with moments of comedy, suspicion, despair, and, ultimately, triumph.

…in things of that kind the Castle moves slowly, and the worst of it is that one never knows what this slowness means; it can mean that the matter’s being considered, but it can also mean that it hasn’t yet been taken up … and in the long run it can also mean that the whole thing has been settled, that for some reason or other the promise has been cancelled … One can never find out exactly what is happening, or only a long time afterwards.
– Kafka, The Castle

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Feb 13 2017

Book Review: The Anthropology of China: China as Ethnographic and Theoretical Critique by Charlotte Bruckermann and Stephan Feuchtwang

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In The Anthropology of China: China as Ethnographic and Theoretical Critique, authors Charlotte Bruckermann and Stephan Feuchtwang call for a new approach to the anthropology of China – one that seeks to bring China specialists into closer dialogue with more general anthropological theories to the benefit of both. This is a timely and important contribution to the field that will particularly serve as a valuable resource for new teachers putting together their first courses on the anthropology of China, finds Loretta Ieng Tak Lou.

The Anthropology of China: China as Ethnographic and Theoretical Critique. Charlotte Bruckermann and Stephan Feuchtwang. Imperial College Press. 2016.

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the-anthropology-of-china-coverUnlike many anthropology readers that are as bulky as a phonebook, The Anthropology of China is relatively compact: it is only slightly bigger than a small iPad and is roughly the same length as one of the most widely used anthropology textbooks, Thomas Hylland Eriken’s Small Places, Large Issues. You might wonder: why does the size of the book matter? Considering that this book is to be used in classrooms, both price and portability affect its accessibility. Although the former is on the high side compared to other anthropology books, this is a textbook worth investing in, especially for anthropology teachers starting out on their first course on China.

Despite its modest length, The Anthropology of China is packed with useful references and valuable insights. Most importantly, it is the first book that tries to embed ethnographic studies of China in some of the major debates in anthropology. Anthropologists of other regions might ask: what is special about this approach? After all, isn’t anthropology about uncovering ‘the commonalities and specificities of humanity’ through studying particular people and representing ‘their lives through a type of writing called ethnography’ (9)? The problem is that traditionally anthropologists of China are more interested in particularities than commonalities. The tendency to give more weight to Chinese specificities stems from the field’s close affinity with sinology, which until recently was deemed ‘anti-theory’ by some critics. And for those who are interested in both the commonalities and the specificities, the fear of being seen as a reductionist or cultural essentialist silences any attempt to compare and generalise, the necessary processes of theory production. In the midst of this long-standing and unresolved debate about how far insights can be extended to more general principles (9), some anthropologists of China have retreated into writing ethnographies of the particular.


Image Credit: Suzhou main railway station, China (Alexander Mueller CC BY 2.0)

This is why the The Anthropology of China makes a timely and important contribution to the field. Instead of clamouring ‘enough about ethnography’, as eminent anthropologist Tim Ingold sarcastically did in his ‘anti-ethnography’ manifesto, Charlotte Bruckermann and Stephan Feuchtwang take notice of the discipline’s constant resort to ‘ethnographically oriented particularism’ (McLean 2013) and call for ‘a new way of studying the anthropology of China, namely one based on anthropology as much as on China’ (263). The authors hope that by bringing ‘anthropological studies of China into the field of general anthropology’ (263), it could open up new dialogues for anthropological and ethnographic theories. Likewise, in bringing theories back to the study of China, Bruckermann and Feuchtwang challenge specialists of China to stop navel-glazing and reconsider the ‘value of comparison’ (van der Veer 2016).

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Feb 7 2017

Semi-quantitative mapping in comparative case-study research: Resources, constraints and research design adaptation

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This blog entry discusses the use of a ‘quasi-quantitative’ mapping method as part of comparative case-study research for a PhD, in the context of (unforeseen) constraints and scarce resources. Specifically, I present the challenges I faced working in different contexts, with different resources and in different temporal windows – and the subsequent processes of adaptation of the research design. First, I introduce the PhD research to ground the decision to use maps. Second, I discuss how a method designed for the city where I carried out my PhD (Palermo, Italy) was partially delusional in the city where I developed a second case-study (Lisbon, Portugal) and how I had to steer the research design as a consequence. Third, I reflect on the implications of a (too?) ambitious research design and summarise the lessons I have learnt with broader relevance for comparative case-study research, writes Simone Tulumello


Researching urban fear and planning practice

The main goal of my PhD research (University of Palermo; defended March 2012) was building a comprehensive, critical and exploratory theory of the relationships between urban fear, rhetoric discourses about security, the spatialities of contemporary cities and urban planning practice (see Tulumello 2017). From a planning policy perspective, the aim was to understand if, and how, fear shapes, and is shaped in turn by, planning practice, in between global security discourses and local power relationships. From a spatial perspective, I was interested in unravelling connections between (growing) feelings of urban fear and spatial transformations in neoliberal times. This post focuses on the spatial perspective.

Infrastructural fragmentation in Palermo (photo from the author)

Infrastructural fragmentation in Palermo (photo from the author)

Since 1990s, critical urban scholarship has explored how feelings of fear and rhetoric of security have intertwined with processes of restructuring of urban space, including residential fortification, socio-spatial seclusion, fortification/privatization of public space, exclusionary urban renewal and so forth. Among the theoretical concepts developed are ‘ecologies of fear’ (Davis, 1998), the geopolitics of ‘military urbanism’ (Graham, 2010) and the ‘thematisation’ of urban space (Sorkin, 1992). Such rich literature has nonetheless given limited attention to big-scale, cumulated spatial effects – as noted by Roitman et al. (2010) about works on gated communities. Scarce evidence exists, which reveals the way, and the extent to which, the summation of processes has been segmenting, polarising, fragmenting and clustering wider urban fabrics in ‘ordinary’ cities (cf. Robinson, 2011) – i.e. cities not at the core of globalising trends like Los Angeles, New York, London, Dubai or Johannesburg.

Against this background, my exploratory proposal is twofold. From a theoretical perspective, I have set out a taxonomy to emphasise the cumulative impacts of urban spatialities connected with fear, which I term ‘fearscapes’ to stress the coexistence of political-economic, social and cultural dimensions in their production (Tulumello, 2015): enclosure as spaces of exclusion/seclusion; post-public space for privatization and fortification of public space(s) and buildings; and barrier as fragmentation produced by infrastructural nets. From an empirical perspective, I decided to map the presence of fearscapes in concrete, ordinary urban territories.
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May 23 2016

Flexibility in the field: Reflections on letting go of expectations and learning to work with unofficial research support

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I planned to conduct fieldwork in rural China with the help of research assistants.  I knew I needed advice and translation and hoped that I would find partners and friends to go into the field with me, as I didn’t really want to be alone.  However, I never found reliable research assistants.  I learned to think of my research subjects as my friends and research assistants.  They had as much to teach me as any other graduate student, professor, or guide.  By the end of 10 months of fieldwork, I came to prefer working without official assistants but with local villagers and village leaders.  This post shares some reflections on the challenges of finding reliable research assistants and how to rethink and appreciate the assistance available, writes Elise Pizzi

Working with research assistants, translators, and collaborators is common. The acknowledgements sections of books, papers, and dissertations are filled with thanks for the help received from local colleagues and assistants. When I started my fieldwork in China, I too intended to work with research assistants, co-authors, and collaborators. But I came to prefer conducting fieldwork alone.

I spent 10 months in rural China investigating drinking water management practices. Guizhou Province, in southwest China, is relatively water abundant, but many villages still do not have safe and reliable sources of drinking water. My dissertation explains why water-rich areas sometimes don’t have enough drinking water.

I did not expect to work alone or feel isolated because of my choice of methods when I conducted my fieldwork. In planning my research, most of the people who gave me advice or who had done research in China had a research assistant or a team who went into the field with them. Previous research (Thunø 2006) and posts on this blog (most recently Aurelie Brockerhoff) have effectively discussed the challenges of working with research assistants and local colleagues. But they ultimately benefit from the collaborative experience.

Research assistants can help with translation and interpretation. They provide insights into the community, language, and culture. They help find contacts and convince those contacts to talk to a foreigner. They help with data collection and analysis. They become research collaborators, coauthors, and friends. When I began my research, knowing that my Chinese was imperfect and I could benefit from help and guidance, I did not even consider the possibility of conducting fieldwork without ongoing collaboration. Continue reading

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Feb 27 2015

Between ‘Wizards of Oz’, Madagascari Lemur and Megalomaniac Presidents: The Amusements of Research in Post-Socialist Spaces

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When mentioning that my work involves dealing with several former USSR countries I often get questions on the kind of dangers my research entails. Whilst I do not see particular dangers in what I do, I have to admit that I had asked myself the same questions before my first fieldwork. I stopped worrying only after working out some automatisms, attitudes and gaining an understanding of certain realities that permit me, to a decent extent, to ‘stay safe’. This blog entry shares some experience-based reflections can be useful to minimise risks but it is also intended to discuss why dangers in some ‘exotic’ states are much less than one could think, writes Abel Polese

The former USSR is possibly the largest world area that has opened up to researchers in the past years. Visited by a few fortunate scholars during the cold war, it is now an immense live laboratory offering material for case studies and comparative research where urban studies researchers, inter alia, have been able to mingle for some time now. It is, although to different degrees and with a few exceptions, a widely accessible region and most of the permissions needed to conduct research in the past are now a fading memory.

Odessa, 1 May picnic, making post-socialist spaces accessible (Photographed by the author in 2006)

Odessa, 1 May picnic, making post-socialist spaces accessible (Photographed by the author in 2006)

This, however, does not mean that postsocialism lacks ‘exotic’ features or characters; the three mentioned in the title refer to: 1) the abundance of political elites – Heads of State are the most visible ones but their entourage tries hard to catch up with them – with, let’s say, unconventional habits and taste; 2) the possibility to find a ruling elite completely disjointed from reality, as in the case of the lemur chiefs of the ‘Madagascar’ animation movie and 3) the fascination of the ‘Wizard of Oz’ (Verdery 2005), this pointing at the fact that in an officially strictly controlled system there is a large margin of manoeuvre and officers will often make decisions on the basis of their personal perspective advantage, or lack thereof.

After more than ten years of fieldwork between the Caucasus, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, I wanted to share a reflection or two that could be useful to those visiting it for the first time or are simply curious to read about other colleagues’ experiences. I will refrain from mentioning the place where things happened for two reasons. The first is to guarantee the safety of informants, of people that have helped me, and possibly my own. The second is because most of the examples may apply to a wide range of situations and geographical locations. The difference is not the approach but the degree to which this may be used.

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