One of the most satisfying moment for me lately has been about doing a field study and then returning to the desk to rigorously engage with the subject, in a way that the field observations actually test the theory. In this case, I return from an exploration of hawkers’ livelihoods to the political framework that Partha Chatterjee proposes – of a ‘civil society and a ‘political society’ in a nation-state.
The following is a presentation which draws a theoretical parallel between Partha Chatterjee’s work and our field observations.
The field study on vegetable hawkers from Kuppam has been an interesting experience on several fronts. From a traveller who went a little beyond what he saw to an anthropology enthusiast who wanted to explore how Clifford Geertz’s ant’s eye view of development can be effectively employed in multi-layered study like this one, it has been a valuable experience.
The second set of field notes (first set here) reflect the sort of titration point that we reached in striking relationship with the hawkers. The rapidity that sets from day 5 onwards is a pattern that I have seen in our earlier works as well. A lesson that comes home again is that in field studies and investigations where several factors are not known or are uncertain, one must still persevere. It is important not to get disheartened or drop out of interest in the first week of a field study because the difficulties of the first days are the very same which at first look insurmountable challenge but later become a key theme in the study. And surviving that first week sets you free. For example, in our study it got very difficult for us to gain a sense of physical and social spread of the town we were living in. Adding to this was the fact that we did not know if there are a sizeable number of hawkers from this town. Both these unknowns in the later part of the study reveal themselves in a manner that it strengthens the study in terms of insights. Once this sets in the disjoint observations from earlier days suddenly start making sense and we have multiple layers of the entire study taking shape.
So, here is the second set with which we ended our study. Back in the university, we set up a small poster exhibition which highlights some parts of our study.
First in series is this ongoing field research (a descriptive sort) that I am doing with a team in Kuppam, a town near Bangalore. A detailed write up got to wait for a later time. Meanwhile, here is a short slidedeck about it (and this is team work).
(Updated on 07/11/12. An excerpt from the field report)
My team has been interested in experiencing the multi-layered interactions – law, livelihoods, rights and assertion of spaces, which play out in everyday life in India. A simpler question that we posed from an experiential point of view was “how does it feel to earn a livelihood selling wares on the streets or on trains?” and how do such apparently “insecure”, “uncertain” livelihoods exist in hundreds of towns across the country. A nearer case was that of hawkers on trains which our team had often noticed. This in a way gave us a ready ground to go out, experience and have a close quarter look at these individuals who haven’t probably meant much to people other than providing a service which again not many seem to care for. It is an early experiment in conducting a quick backyard variety of anthropological study. We were cognizant of the requirement that this exercise of field immersion required us to do. And in that vein, we only see ourselves furthering the goals and improving the potential outcomes of such an activity so that it is rewarding for us individually as well apart from serving the academic requirement.
The contested space as we see is located between the Indian Railways as an institution, which is asserting its right over property and hawkers who flout this property right every day to earn their livelihood. It was a conscious decision to venture out and strike alliances with the people on our own. Any mediation (via NGO, activists etc) we reasoned might dilute the nature of our experience and desire to test if we can take a green field approach and execute it or not. We focussed on the hawkers on the Bangalore-Chennai section of Southern Railways.
The hypothesis with which we begin with is:
- Is criminalization of an act of plying livelihood on trains just? What are the underlying determinants of such a relationship?
- Who are the claimants of this system?
- What IS the nature of access rights in this form of livelihood?