“Be Careful about Putting your Blinders on when Conducting Ethnographic Research” – 5in10 with Andrew Carruthers

Andrew Carruthers is an anthropologist who studies language, mobilities, and infrastructures in Malay-speaking maritime Southeast Asia. At NUS, he is a Max Weber Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies.

Andrew Carruthers. Picture: Private.

His long-term ethnographic research has centred on the Bugis — a traditionally mobile, seafaring people who consider the Indonesian province of South Sulawesi to be their ancestral home, but have long migrated throughout the sprawling Indonesian archipelago and beyond in search of „moreness.“ He has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Indonesia’s South Sulawesi, East Kalimantan, North Kalimantan, and Riau Islands Provinces, and in the East Malaysian state of Sabah. His ethnographic work is animated by reference to longstanding concerns in linguistic anthropology, semiotics, American pragmatism and continental philosophy, and contemporary and classical social theory. He holds an B.A. from Cornell in Anthropology and Southeast Asian Studies, and an M.Phil. and Ph.D. from Yale in Anthropology. 

How do you explain your current research projects to your students?

Well, I might begin by introducing them to the areal and thematic contours of my research. I’m an anthropologist of Malay-speaking maritime Southeast Asia, studying the relation between language, mobilities, and infrastructures to better understand how people navigate shifting (and potentially hazardous) terrains in their everyday lives.

Then, I might pose a question or provocation to better acquaint students with a particular focus of my recent research and writing: When so-called “illegal immigrants” look, talk, and act like “locals,” how are they policed or surveilled? How might undocumented immigrants navigate state surveillance by exploiting the perceived equivalences or “samenesses” they share with members of an inhospitable host community? These are precisely the questions I ask in two of my recent publications, which centre on the practical challenges faced by the East Malaysian state of Sabah as it seeks to police and “cleanse” (Malay: membersihkan) itself of undocumented immigrants from neighbouring Indonesia. The Bugis — a mobile, seafaring Indonesian people and the subjects of my ethnographic research — have long migrated from their homeland in Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province to Sabah, where they occupied niche positions as labourers in the state’s burgeoning plantation and construction sectors. For decades, their unlawful presence there was more-or-less tolerated, in so far as they were perceived as playing necessary roles in the state’s economic development and could easily assimilate as Malay-speaking Muslim members of Malaysia’s dominant “Malay race.” Recent socio-political and economic forces in Sabah, however, have led to countervailing narratives which portray undocumented Bugis immigrants (alongside ethnically Suluk immigrants from the Southern Philippines) as a frustratingly elusive threat to state sovereignty. The ease with which these undocumented immigrants assimilate or blend into the fabric of everyday life in Sabah has been characterized by a recent Commission of Enquiry into Illegal Immigrants as “an all-encompassing nightmare.” My recent publications examine this “nightmare,” attending to the challenges faced by the state as it seeks to police seemingly invisible migrants. At the same time, I explore how migrants’ assimilatory strategies are changing amidst increasing state crackdowns, examining how they modulate their habits of talk and comportment to better “blend in” in a place where they are actively policed.

Bugis migrants disembark at Tarakan Harbour, Indonesia. Picture: Private.

On a more general level, this work critiques reigning assumptions in the border-crossing or migration literature, which usually portrays the act of border-crossing as a movement between radically different worlds home to radically different people. By examining a place where so-called “illegals” and “locals” are “more-or-less the same” (Malay: lebih kurang sama), I call into question the border-crossing literature’s longstanding analytic and ethnographic focus on “radical difference,” and suggest how we might instead attend to the “radical affinities” or samenesses that obtain across borders.

What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?

The members of my Yale dissertation committee, Joseph Errington, Erik Harms, and Paul Kockelman, helped shape the trajectory of my work. Each offered crucial guidance, while leaving me a wide enough berth to make my own way and find my own footing. Their influence aside, one experience from graduate school stands out in my memory.

In May 2012, a few months before embarking on two years of fieldwork among transnational Bugis migrants, I had the opportunity to work closely with the late Harold C. Conklin (1926-2016), Crosby Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale. Professor Conklin (or Hal) was an anthropologist of Southeast Asia (specifically the Philippines), with longstanding interests in linguistics, ecology, and “ethnoscience” — the systematic study of folk-taxonomies or the various ways in which people categorize their worlds (a focus, I might add, which predates but resonates closely with anthropology’s current preoccupation with all things “ontological”). Hal was no longer teaching in 2012, but he needed a graduate student to help him reorganize his vast personal library, so I offered to help.

Before we set about re-categorizing his books and chucking (or donating) the stuff he no longer needed, Hal sat me down to talk about Southeast Asia. I had assumed he would ask me about my research agenda and the broader questions I wanted to go about answering, but instead, he began talking about rattan — the climbing palm whose stems are used to fashion furniture — and asked me if I knew anything about the various species of rattan growing throughout archipelagic Southeast Asia, which I didn’t. Then he asked about betel chewing and the relative distribution of its practice throughout contemporary Indonesia. Again, I couldn’t answer. Then he asked what kind(s) of kayu or “wood” the Bugis use to build their houses. This question hit closer to home, which made it more embarrassing still when I told him it was something I had never bothered to ask my informants about.

I spent that evening studying up on the various questions I felt I should have been able to answer but couldn’t. Embarrassment aside, I learned an important lesson: be careful about putting your blinders on when conducting ethnographic research. We as ethnographers focus so much on the timely, the emergent, on that which articulates with the “next big thing” in social science, sometimes at the expense of fine-grained attention to the smaller things that may matter so much more in the everyday lives of the people we claim to study. It was a lesson I brought to the field, and one I continue to learn from today.

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)

This a pretty conventional answer, but most of my research is done by way of participant observation, fieldnote taking, and semi-structured interviews. As a linguistic anthropologist, I also record hours upon hours of solicited and naturally situated discourse, which gives me a fine-grained sense of what migrants say and how they say it. I’ve also conducted sociolinguistic surveys in palm oil plantations, and have done a little bit of archival work to get a historical sense of contemporary dynamics.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

For the past few years, I’ve returned again and again to a 1944 piece written by American linguistic anthropologist Edward Sapir entitled “Grading: A Study in Semantics.” One of my committee members who had been using it in his own work suggested I read it, with the caveat that its contents may come across as “decidedly unsexy” (vis-à-vis more contemporary or “emergent” work on allegedly “new” things that anthropologists tend to focus on). At any rate, I’m glad he did, and much of my thinking since then has centred on questions of “grading” — a cognitive process prior to measurement or counting whereby we evaluate qualitative intensities (e.g. thickness, wetness, brightness) along gradients of more-or-less-ness (e.g. “more” or “less” thick, wet, bright, etc.). From Aristotle to Deleuze, philosophers have long explained how qualities vary in their intensity. Sapir’s point was to systematically demonstrate how comparative judgments about the relative intensity or “more-or-less-ness” of these variations (e.g. “It’s cold today”) are made well in advance of more quantitative judgments involving counting or measurement (e.g. “It’s fourteen degrees Fahrenheit”). In a sense, he was suggesting how questions of the “more-or-less-ness” of everyday experience are foundational anthropological questions.

I found that questions about the “moreness” (or “lessness”) of life immediately resonated with my ethnographic work among the Bugis, a people who frequently state that they migrate or move about in search of “moreness” (kelebihaŋ). So, too, and upon reaching a place where they look and talk “more or less the same” (lebih kurang sama) as locals, Bugis migrants must engage in embodied forms of grading such that they look “more” like local Malays and “less” like undocumented immigrants.

I examined these issues in two recent articles, and my current book manuscript centres on questions of “moreness” and “intensity” more generally as objects of ethnographic research.

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

Good question! I think it definitely has. We might consider how enhanced interconnectivity and new communicative technologies have not only shaped the temporality or rhythm of our research agendas, but also our capacities as researchers to continually (re)conceptualize our works-in-progress.

Back in Malinowski’s days, anthropology exercised what we might flippantly call a kind of “Fly in, Fly out, Forget” approach — you go to a faraway place, gather all the data you possibly can in a certain amount of time, and head home, maybe never to return. This is a caricature, of course, but you get the point. At any rate, such a model no longer exists, and nor could it given the current state of global interconnectivity enabled in part by new communicative technologies.

Today, for instance, and while taking into account certain time and budgetary constraints, one might make multiple short- or long-term trips to the field. I’ve done this, and it’s allowed me to synthesize fieldwork material and access secondary sources (e.g. journals, books, etc.) that I didn’t have access to or otherwise know about while doing fieldwork, while giving me the time to build upon or reconceptualise my research questions before heading back for another stint of fieldwork.

Furthermore, most, if not all of my Indonesian and Malaysian interlocutors own and regularly use smartphones. When I’m in the United States, this means I can stay in close contact with friends and informants living on the other side of the world.

Citation: “Be careful about putting your blinders on when conducting ethnographic research” – 5in10 with Andrew Carruthers, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 01.06.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/10016.

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