Researchers during lockdown (5)
I work at the intersections of history and anthropology. Over the last few years, I have worked on the histories of late colonialism and decolonization in the Global South, especially in Mozambique. I have also worked on transnational and intellectual histories of “race” and (anti-racism) in the decolonization era, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. Over the last two years, I have been increasingly engaging histories of gender and sexuality in Southern Africa as well, especially queer histories in Mozambique.
The social sciences are, by and large, disciplines of close contact. In the twentieth century, in particular, we saw the demise of “armchair” scholarship, a form of remote thinking by which (historically European male) intellectuals theorized and wrote about contexts, people and societies they had not necessarily met. This was displaced by the increasing empiricism of the social sciences. By the mid-century, the “fieldwork” triumphally emerged as one of the most legitimate and perfected methods of producing knowledge about the social. Largely adopted in social and cultural anthropology, the “fieldwork” works as a metaphor of “deep contact”: of a researcher immersed in a given context of study, in direct relationship to sources, people, and information. In history, archival research – the physical immersion in an archive of papers, diaries, images, etc. – plays a similar role, that of authorizing a researcher’s claims. Of course, that “contact” and “co-presence” became the rule in social sciences research was not devoid of tensions. We now have a robust critical literature highlighting how, in the colonial situation, for instance, the “fieldwork” often reproduced the power hierarchies of colonialism itself. Here, the proximity between researcher and researched was not innocent. Still, now that social sciences are both institutionalized and professionalized, it is difficult to think of social research without “contact,” (except, of course, for projects researching precisely virtual realities and relations).
I am digressing into these background questions so we can better appreciate the many challenges posed by COVID-19 and the resultant social distancing measures for social science research. In my own experience, there are three elements to consider.
- The logistics of research: the halt in circulation and proximity imposed by lockdowns and social distance around the world is bound to affect social scientists everywhere. I will simply not be able to travel to Mozambique, my research site, or visit the National and Diplomatic Archives in Pretoria in the foreseeable future. Even as we prepare to soon go into a less strict version of the lockdown in South Africa, the palpable future of my research is still uncertain. As universities are closed, we are also deprived from various valuable resources, such as the wealth of historical publications available at the Cullen Library (Wits University) for consultation. For the moment, I have been trying to work with the materials I have in my personal library and digitized archives.
- The epistemology of research: the social sciences are collective disciplines. Even if we think that the labor of writing is individual and often solitary, the process of research is fundamentally attached to a researcher’s social relations, relations to their peers or to their informants. Especially in anthropology, one often develops strong and at times lasting social relationships during fieldwork. This “social life” of knowledge production has been increasingly acknowledged by researchers, especially in our current moment, when we speak of decolonial epistemologies and try to devise creative ways to avoid or subvert power relations in the context of research. In historical research, physically being in an archive also has a pedagogical function, as we learn from reading, looking at, touching, documents. As we are quickly moving into digital forms of research and teaching, it is hard to imagine the full impact the lack of “co-presence” will play. In my case, it is clear that the promise of digitality is partial, as archives in the Global South have less resources at their disposal to invest in digitization at the rate that would be required. By the same token, while online interviews could be a resource available to social scientists, and one that I am considering at the moment, we must think that not everyone is virtually connected in the same way.
- The politics of location: social researchers have been increasingly open to admit that their social, political and geographical location shapes the knowledge they produce. I am foreign researcher in South Africa. My visa is due to expire soon, and I am not sure I am sure I will not be able to renew it in time to join my new post at the University of Cape Town. The situation of foreign workers in South Africa – researchers included – is particularly uncertain at the moment. Of course, in the current situation, uncertainty is shared by everyone, citizens or not. But, as in other creative industries, the academic work of writing requires a certain frame of mind. Mental health, a critical problem that has for long been overlooked in academia, is becoming increasingly pressing as social researchers have to deal with uncertainty and anxiety.
The current pandemic necessarily raises critical questions related to power, life and death. I am finding it useful to go back to a few foundational works in our understanding of the bio-political order, or the ways in which life itself, the human body, is politicized. I am particularly interested in those authors engaging Foucault’s early notion of biopolitics and taking it to the Global South, especially Achille Mbembe in Necropolitics (Public Culture, 2003).
Here, it is also interesting to read Christopher Lee’s reading of this idea in the current context, in a short text on “The necropolitics of COVID-19”, published in Africa is a Country.
In addition, I think fiction can be a powerful tool, a lens through which we can rethink our current predicament. I think José Saramago’s Blindness is today as powerful as ever. The book describes how a world falls apart after a mysterious epidemic of blindness spreads. It is a both intriguing and touching narrative of human nature in a time of cataclysmic crisis.