05 Jul 2019
– Laurie Denyer Willis – University of Cambridge

Ethnography has always been at the centre of our AMIS research, and ethnographic comparison has always been a significant component of that work. From the start, our research team has always valued thinking across field sites; coming together to discuss our research and thinking through both intersections…and the things that don’t seem to intersect at all!

We knew that in really practical terms, this would involve rethinking the very logistics of how we work and think together. We started off with a yearly meeting in London, which quickly morphed into a monthly group Skype chat where we took turns sharing our field notes and analysing our ongoing findings collectively. This was incredibly productive, but still left us wanting more. To really collaborate, we felt, we’d need to visit each other’s field sites and academic homes. Last year, then, we went back to our funder and asked for funding specifically to fund cross-site visits, allowing the research teams in Uganda to visit Thailand and the Thai research teams to visit Uganda for one week each. These visits were pretty fast, and while we always want more time together, we still found that even in a week we were able to deepen our ability to relate, think, and build theory together in novel and collaborative ways.

These cross-site visits have helped us further strengthen our research as we continue to build what -we hope- is a genuinely collaborative transnational interdisciplinary and ethnographic project, part of a larger intellectual project of reimagining what kinds of anthropology, ways of knowing, and doing ethnography are possible in the field of global health research.

As part of thinking through all of this, I chatted with two of our collaborators, Christine Nabirye and Sittichoke Chawraingern, about their thoughts on the visits. Below is a co-edited account of these discussions:

Chat with Christine Nabirye, Infectious Disease Research Council, Kampala, Uganda:

LDW: Was this a new process for you, visiting a collaborator’s field site? What did you learn from it?

CN: Yes, this was the first time. It was very beneficial to me and the project. It gave me an opportunity to look at things differently. Things that I had taken for granted in the past, all of a sudden you start thinking about them in different ways. In Thailand we saw this incredible archive that has been built, and it was amazing to see the depth of the archival work that anthropologists were engaged in. It made me think about the opportunity for doing that kind of work in Uganda, and how anthropologists could participate in it.

LDW: Did the cross-site visits make you think differently about anthropology?  

CN: I think more than ever I see ethnography as an important and valid method. When I describe my ethnographic work to Ugandan scholars and scientists, they can sometimes be doubtful that the method is useful. This can get under your skin, and make you doubt your anthropological work. This is because anthropology has always seemed like a foreign project, not our own. Seeing this rich program of Thai anthropology, and how they have created anthropology in their own way, well it gives me confidence that we can create an anthropology that is ours here in Uganda too, and that we can make it as we want it. It doesn’t have to belong to foreigners. I now have this vision to hold onto. Thai anthropology is a reference point for me now of what anthropology can be. That we can make it into something that belongs to us.

The visits also gave us provision to think together, and this was so helpful. When the Thai team came here, they brought fresh eyes to our projects, and now I see things in my field site differently. Things that I hadn’t thought were important enough to write about – that I had become accustomed to as ‘normal’ – they now seem like places to start asking questions from instead.

Chat with Sittichoke Chawraingern, Thammasat University, Thailand:

LDW: Was this a new process for you, visiting a collaborator’s field site? What did you learn from it?

SC: Yes, absoulutely. I had never done a project like this. Absolutely Never. This was the first project that included travel to our collaborators’ countries. One of the most important aspects for me was that this has helped me develop my language skills. To be immersed in the English language, in both Uganda and the United Kingdom, was so important. All of a sudden I was communicating freely in English, and engaging with a whole new anthropological language too. The collaboration has exposed me to new theoretical frames, ways of thinking about ethnographic methods, and what theory even is in anthropology. I had always considered myself a medical anthropologist, but these visits opened me up to the interesting ways that anthropologists can work with geographers, historians, urban planners, and alongside scientists too. My definition of medical anthropology became much broader through this process.

LDW: What did you learn about anthropology through your visit to Uganda?

This was also my first opportunity to visit sub-Saharan Africa. Being in Uganda together with all the research teams led me to rethinking so much about Thailand, about its anthropology programs, histories and practices. Spending time at Makerere University made me consider how space, colonial histories, and environment shape knowledge production – across London, Bangkok and Kampala – and how our AMIS comparative project lets us think about how knowledge is shaped by these factors. Being together in these places, and having the opportunity to think together, opened up a real collaborative space to rethink our discipline and how we make theory and carry out our work in the field. One key takeaway for me, for example, was the realisation that I needed to take industrial agribusiness and the practices of consumption seriously as part of my own study of Thailand’s pig farming. I had taken for granted a lot of what was going on in my field site as ‘normal’, and this has allowed me reframe and rescale my own project.

*Header photo is of the National Archives of Public Health, Thailand.

Categories: Knowledge