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

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Notes on Compassion and Debt in the Field

This researcher reflects on how the principle of maitri transformed the field and his relationship with the research participants.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt academic research across the globe, posing an ethical dilemma and a practical challenge before the researchers: How to not compound participants’ heightened vulnerability while also not stalling one’s research? I have been working with north Indian Dalits in the Govandi and Mankhurd suburbs of Mumbai for my doctoral project since the beginning of 2019, exploring their non-singular, ambiguous, and secretive religious life. Using an ethnographic approach, I deploy participant observation as a method to observe social life and sense the materiality of the “field.” The COVID-19 pandemic has made “being” in the field and continuing the physical mode of research impossible due to the threat of risk to our individual and collective health. In such a situation, what can I do that will not stall my research but also use my privileged position as a researcher to be of use to the participants who are equal research partners? I wanted to avoid turning into what is popularly known as a “disaster tourist” in the field, being mindful of the ethical considerations of my actions. The restrictions on physical mobility further forced me to reconsider the concept of “field,” going beyond the traditional understanding of a geographic setting and to include all interactions occurring across space and time. And so, I altered my methods, interacting with participants via phone calls and text messages.

On 12 April 2020, I received a call from Manish, 23, a Pasi youth I have known since the beginning of my research, about his family’s inability to leave the city as their savings had been exhausted. While not in a position to support his family financially, I was able to put him in touch with another participant, Dhananjay, 43, a Jaiswar, who had told me of his plan to go back to his native village in Uttar Pradesh with his family, in a mini tempo. Luckily, Dhananjay was accommodating, and together both families reached Uttar Pradesh after travelling for three days. On the fourth day, speaking over the phone, Manish suddenly began calling me bhaiyya (brother) instead of his usual “sir.” Several times earlier, I had asked him not to call me “sir,” but it had never worked, until that day. His parents and grandmother too spoke to me, deeply emotional. Back in Mumbai almost a year later, he had brought sweets for me from his village. Now, whenever I visit Manish’s home, his mother does not allow me to leave without having tea. He calls me bhaiyya now, a term now filled with affection and brotherhood.

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Updated On : 12th Dec, 2021
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