The ‘awkward surplus’: the complexities, contradictions, and embodied racialized and gendered experiences of ‘studying up’ in (post)colonial India

Authors: Devra Waldman*, Rutgers University
Topics: Qualitative Research, Feminist Geographies, Urban Geography
Keywords: postcolonial ethnography, gendered politics, sexual politics of research
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 15
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In this paper, I hope to engage in what Wanda Pillow terms ‘uncomfortable reflexivity’ – the discussion of the uncertainties, unfamiliarities, and complexities of positionality instead of packaging of one’s subject position in palatable and typical ways. As scholars such as Hanson and Richards (2019) have argued, female researchers often sanitize discussions of positionality in ethnographic research, wiping them clean of experiences of harassment, sexual assault, fear, or threats of violence. Becoming ‘awkward surplus’ (Fujimura, 2006), these accounts are often omitted because they are difficult to fit into narratives about findings and theoretical framings, and because ethnographic fieldwork continues to be bound by masculinist and patriarchal traditions.
I aim to re-insert the ‘awkward surplus’ into discussions of my experiences conducting ethnographic fieldwork with the corporate elite of the National Capital Region of India through the practice of engaging in uncomfortable reflexivity. Following Gonzalez (2003) and her arguments for ethical postcolonial ethnographies, I intend to ‘account’ – to explain and contextualize the decisions that were made in the field, who is featured in my research and why, and related gendered experiences of threat and violence. Simultaneously, and drawing on Ahmed’s (2000), I unpack how my white and female body was read as a sign by those in the field, and how those readings were shaped by colonial pasts and presents that give it its meaning and shapes interactions I have with others. I conclude by discussing the gendered politics, contradictions, and embodied costs (Hoang, 2015) of ethnographic fieldwork.

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