ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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"Off the ‘Field’

The Pandemic and Researchers’ Reincarnation

Could the pandemic-led distancing of the researcher from their field herald a new epistemic turn in the social sciences?

The historic expedition of the social scientists of the University of Cambridge to the Torres Strait region in 1898–99, under the leadership of A C Haddon, one of the pioneers of British anthropology, not only opened up a new horizon in the study of human culture—with its emphasis on the systematic collection of data—but also initiated the process that eventually crystallised into the cult of the “respondent.” This emphasis, in fact, can be treated as an epistemological war against those speculative and abstract theorisations of the human social world that reigned for centuries. The University of Cambridge expedition placed the respondents as the most valued actors in the making of knowledge. This was epistemologically radical in the sense that the newly identified category, “respondents,” came in between the “researcher” and the “reality.”

Presuming that the responses of the respondents are the reflections of the realities of their lifeworlds, social scientists like Bronislaw Malinowski and A R Radcliffe-Brown started delving into the cultural and behavioural mysteries of the people of other cultures. They considered these responses as “data” and tried to verify the degree and extent of the meaningfulness of the “data” with their own field experiences. Thus, a new methodology started evolving—after situating the respondents in the context of the field—and the process, known as “emplacement,” changed the trajectory of the social sciences. The connect between “researcher–respondents–field” opened up new vistas of knowledge in the social sciences. “Doing fieldwork” to meet the respondents for face-to-face interactions in order to unveil the facets of reality from their narratives and through their perspectives became the only way to know “the imponder­abilia of actual life,” to use Malinowski’s phrasing.

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Updated On : 19th Feb, 2022
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