The Methods are in the Milk

28 January 2015
Work-in-Progress by Ariell Ahearn

[anthropology, field sites, methodology, ethnography, qualitative research, Mongolia]


In this blog, I advocate for a way of doing research that focuses on the experiential aspect of ‘place’ as event or an interface with temporal and spatial coordinates (rather than ‘boundaries’) as a means to help social scientists move beyond practices that construct “the field” as a natural object of study and analysis. While geography as a discipline makes the theoretical claim that ‘place matters,’ the particular inheritance of the disciplinary (and disciplining) approach in anthropology and human geography around the formation of “field sites” distracts from ‘place’ as an inter-subjective experience (see for example Jackson 2013) or “practice of correspondence” (Ingold 2014). What is the methodology connected with the claim that ‘place matters’ and how do we account for the transformative effects of our research ‘places’ on our most sensitive of research instruments: our selves? How can being accountable to place inform the knowledge we produce, and how we produce it?

The social sciences have made great strides in developing theoretical critiques of knowledge production based on a Malinowski-style field site and fieldwork represented by the archetypal lone Euro-American documenting the lives of inhabitants of a village for an extended period of time. Ferguson and Gupta (1997) argue that the problem with the construction of field sites, institutionally (based on funding, peer-review and disciplining of early career academics) and in practice (methods based on maintaining objectivity), is “the uncritical mapping of ‘difference’ onto exotic sites…as well as the implicit presumption that ‘Otherness’ means difference from an unmarked, white, Western “self” (1997: 15). They write: “…even ideas about “the field” that are explicitly disavowed by contemporary anthropologists in intellectual terms continue to be deeply embedded in our professional practices” (1997:12). Despite the dethroning of the archetypal fieldworker theoretically, research in human geography and anthropology continues to hold onto the value of rigorous immersion in a single field site, a research methodology based on participant observation, and the notion that field work is a ‘right of passage’ that enables authority, where “fieldwork-based knowledge as necessarily truer or less-mediated than other types” (Gupta and Ferguson 1997: 34). While there is much value in doing ethnographic research, learning language, and having a co-creative immersive experience in a place, the emphasis on the exclusivity of a researcher fixing an “ethnographic gaze” on so-called ‘informants’ or ‘subjects’ is an artificial positioning that detracts from the value of exploring issues using this form of qualitative research.

Despite great theoretical advances that stimulate, and demand, new ways of thinking about doing research (see for example Appadurai, 1988; Ferguson and Gupta, 1997; Haraway 1988; Ingold 2014; Jackson, 2013; Sidaway, 2000 and many more recently published), it is unclear to what extent these ideas are put into practice. There are few mechanisms for accountability; much research occurs in isolation and without oversight. Last year, for example, the National University of Mongolia’s (NUM) Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology decided to stop supporting student visa applications for American PhD students who never showed up in the department, though it was well known that they were conducting research in the country. Such disrespectful behavior contributes to the construction of boundaries and a perception that scholars from well-funded universities in US and Europe are using their privilege to take advantage of local institutions (personal communication with the NUM administration). These actions reinforce the sense of core-periphery relations that characterize practices of knowledge production and advanced qualifications in academia.

Core-periphery relations are reinforced and literally written into being through the exercise of separating of writing labor between field and home. Gupta and Ferguson’s (1997) description of the spatial and temporal separations between writing field notes and doing analytical work at home is a striking example of how field sites are deliberately created and bounded through the labor of research:

“The former is done in isolation, sometimes on primitive equipment, in difficult conditions, with people talking or peering over one’s shoulder; writing at ‘home’ is done in the academy, in libraries or studies, surrounded by other texts, in the midst of theoretical conversation with other’s of one’s kind” (1997: 12)

The ultimate irony is that theory, no matter how critical of the core-periphery can still operate as an exclusionary exercise and a new way of policing boundaries. For this reason, the development of new theory tasked with deep-tissue critique of “the field” is insufficient. There needs to be a new way of doing things.

Politics and Place-as-Idea: Drawing from the Geographies of Area Workshop on 12 January 2015

The Geographies of Area workshop on 12 January 2015 engaged with these issues by examining the relationship between geography and the study of areas. I. Klinke asked, “Are ‘areas’ an answer to universalization? A relic of the cold war state? A way to provincialize geography? How are areas written into existence?” In R. Powell’s presentation ‘Writing the North: the politics of Circumpolar depiction,’ he highlights how certain regions have been tied to the development of specific social theories. Powell discussed how the notion of the Artic as an inherently “natural region,” has persisted and helped to shape an “ice-as-argument” approach to understanding the environmental and social dynamics of Artic locations. These ideas are mobilized in other debates around resource politics, conservation, or land rights. “Ice-as-argument,” while leveraging specific attention to place, also undermines the politics that contribute to how these places-as-ideas are produced. Appadurai (1986) made a compelling argument based on a similar observation of tie between place and anthropological theory. Like Powell, he argues that regions have maintained a “special authority” over theoretical issues (such as caste/hierarchy in India, reciprocity in Melanesia, etc) but at the same time these frameworks squeeze out the dynamics of place that include experiences of translocality and multiplicity. He writes that there are two implications for the tendency to tie theoretical issues to place:

“One is that the discussion of the theoretical issues tends (surreptitiously) to take on a restrictive local cast, while on the other hand the study of other issues in the place in question is retarded, and thus the over-all nature of the anthropological interpretation of the particular society runs the risk of serious distortion.” (Appadurai 1986: 360)

The routine, everyday practices of fieldwork and writing that actively constructs bounded field sites by institutionalizing relations of distance and ‘othering’ is an obstacle to accountability in research practice and to the relations in which research is embedded. T. Jazeel informed the Geographies of Area Workshop that 94.3% of publications in 2013 in the journal Progress in Human Geography were written by authors from the Global North. This figure reminded me of Appadurai’s (1988) idea of the “spatial incarceration of the native,” which again highlights how social theories are tied to regions through a framing of place that constructs ‘natives’ as inextricably bound, physically, morally, and intellectually, to them. As such, “natives are creatures of the anthropological imagination” (Appadurai 1988: 39). Ferguson cited this notion in his discussion of power in a recent interview (Gilman and Ticktin, 2014), but with the added caveat that ‘spatial incarceration’ describes a situation in which some people have the rights to move about the world as they choose, while others are legally constrained from similar practices. As Jazeel implies in his journal statistics, rights to mobility impacts how research is carried out and who can participate in scholarly debates. Appadurai is right to say that ‘natives’ only exist as such in the anthropological imagination, and it is worth investigating to what degree this way of imagining regions has political effects.

Ferguson and Gupta, suggest that the commitment to a bounded construction of “the field” is “a form of political engagement, in terms of both the knowledge it has produced and the kind of disciplinary subject it has created” (1997: 38). It is political in the sense of figuring into relations of power and status. They argue that social scientists should re-orient research practice toward being “attentive to location.” They frame this task in practical terms by emphasizing equal engagement with place and the blurring of boundaries between a distant ‘other’ place and ‘home.’ They write: “We see the political task not as “sharing” knowledge with those who lack it, but as forging links between different knowledges that are possible from different locations and tracing lines of possible alliance and common purpose between them” (Gupta and Ferguson 1997: 39). For links to be forged between different knowledges, there needs to be a change in research practice. As Jazeel’s statistics indicate, our counterparts are excluded from actively engaging in the primary institutional forums where these links are forged.

At the Geographies of Area Workshop, J.D. Sidaway gave a provocative presentation that offered some examples of a new approach to considering place and forging links through collaborative research. The presentation began with three points in large bold font on a single PowerPoint slide: “1) comparative tracks; 2) the crossing of empires; 3) subaltern as a comparative/relational category.” With these three categories, he loosely outlined his position, “space needs to be studied in praxis.” With attention to the first point on the slide, he began by describing how Hegel equivocated reading the newspaper to morning prayers, and followed by sharing his own morning routine of reading major newspapers from the regions where he works. Then he showed three papers written about security and space in different locations (Pitcher et al, 2010; Sidaway et al, 2014) as a way of demonstrating how to “hold places in relation to each other.” On the second point, “the crossing of empires,” he showed an image of a map of the world drawn in place of a face in a jester’s costume, created around 1590. He pointed out the words written across the top of the image: “know yourself” in Latin and briefly discussed a point on the “intertwining of empires” and cited Jane Jacobs and Lisa Doyle’s work on how old empires are reworked into new hybrid forms. Sidaway’s final point in the presentation recalled five academic definitions of “subaltern” but ended with his own example, which drew on his collaborative research on migrant lives and work in Abu Dhabi. Although the authorities denied him permission to talk directly to the migrant construction workers there, he was able to trace the stories of their lives through contact with the lives of others, such as shopkeepers and other middlemen. Walking through the city was part of his methodology as well. He dedicated his talk to a man that he only met through graffiti on the city’s wall that read: “Ali, 01-01-2011, Pakistani, Last day on site,” and called on the audience to “remember the ties that bind.”

What I find striking about Sidaway’s presentation is that is his commentary on “area” turns a comical and critical eye toward ourselves and illustrated the importance of methodology– practice– in “remembering the ties that bind us.” In this sense, ‘area’ is space-in-praxis, which I see as an event that includes but is not limited to space and time. His presentation took a refreshingly humanist approach to research by blurring the boundaries by politicizing the research experience, highlighting the ‘ties that bind’ as a startling contrast to the subaltern position of the migrant laborers, who were all but invisible as a result of constraints that prevented contact, even as he walked the city that they built.

The Problem with Field Sites in Practice

My rallying cry for attention to the ‘event’ emerges from my experience working in a place that is routinely romanticized in the popular media and characterized as an “untamed land,” one often framed as very distant from ‘our’ events and places (see for example The task of tracing this history is too much for the space of this blog. I will attempt to briefly sketch out how the concept of “field site” shaped my research practices in the field, and how I came to value research as an ongoing learning experience or event, which continue to take place regardless of physical location.

“Choosing a field site” in Mongolia was problematic from the outset of my PhD project. Why Mongolia to begin with, people ask? Having studied international traveler discourse as an undergraduate study abroad student in 2004, then shifting to doing research on international development discourse as a Fulbright scholar and later master’s student in 2006-2007, my choice of field sites was informed by a history of working with various institutions, friendships, as well as the expectations and critical review of my research proposal by my reviewers and supervisors in SoGE and the Department of International Development. During my transfer of status presentation at the school, the then head of department cautioned me in no uncertain terms about avoiding a “journalistic” approach by including too many field sites in the study.

The problem with field sites in Mongolia, however, ultimately did not lie in having too many, but in the idea of a bounded field site itself. I wanted to learn about and participate in rural work and pastoralist livelihoods and produce an ethnography of contemporary pastoralism in the context of changing state policies. I quickly became apparent that 1) households were mobile within their region and 2) household members who engaged in herding moved between a variety of urban, semi-urban, rural, and even international spaces at different times. These two features meant that ‘pastoralism’ as a form of work both corresponded to a permanent geographic location (and highly depended on those environmental resources) and also occurred, simultaneously, elsewhere. Also, public administration around the management and regulation of pastoralism as a form of work and the state’s role in enlisting pastoralists as political subjects based on new government frameworks (the World Bank’s “decentralization” theme) that are enmeshed with past forms (central planning and Leninist socialism) re-locates these households in transnational events.

Logistics and managing a research project play a powerful part in the way that field sites become psychologically bounded spaces. It is possible that many researchers cling to maintaining spatial and social separations from the places they work as a way to protect themselves from the discomfort of breaking down boundaries (the food, the isolation, lack of plumbing and electricity, the lack of private space, being disconnected from technology, having a lack of control). Research becomes less experiential and more separation, which the notion of maintaining “objectivity” in research easily justifies.

Maintaining a distant psychological and physical position in the name of “objectivity” is counterproductive. This distance gets smuggled into writing and analysis; it appears in the relations built with host families and communities, and is perpetuated as a research method. Practicing full disclosure with host communities about one’s research questions, methods, and soliciting feedback from them is an important step in removing psychological distance and making research a co-creative experience. By hiding research intentions, a researcher inevitably ‘incarcerates the native,’ and re-creates boundaries that exclude others from joining in the research experience and forging new types of knowledge. The notion that host communities will not understand one’s project is absurd: how can the people that a researcher has gone to consult with about an issue, an issue that is close to their lives, perhaps an issue that they experience everyday, be excluded in the name of ‘objectivity’ from a voice in examining it?

Space-in-Praxis; or, the Event: Methods in the Milk

Despite the problem with the creation of field sites, which on paper seem very artificial, place was important. After sharing my dilemma in “choosing a field site” with my Mongolian friend, who suggested early on that I stay with her extended family in the countryside, she suggested that I consult with the family’s fortune teller for direction. His readings aided decision making and confirmed or corrected intended actions; herders even called him from places far away to inquire where to find a lost herd of horses, or identify a thief, etc. There was always an element of doubt in his abilities, but in the face of a chasm of doubt, we paid him to offer us clear answers in order to reduce the chasm to a fordable stream. I was trying to decide between two places to do work and he instructed: “In one place, your belly will be full but your head will be empty. In the other place, your head will be full but your belly will be empty.” The prospects of an empty head seemed unproductive, and so I chose the place of empty belly/full head. There were a number of other reasons why the “belly empty/head full” place where I wanted to work was an option, and I had consulted with local colleagues and others to gain their opinions. Enlisting my local counterparts in the decision making process of where to work and how to do it further broke down the concept of a bounded field site in Mongolia, as networks of resources, political interests, and mobility between places became exposed through the consultation process.

Another way that I experienced place on a daily basis was though milk. It is milk that taught me how ‘place’ can be understood as an event. It consists of an interface with temporal and spatial coordinates, which means that it occurs in a location and time, but is transformational. Milking goats, for example, was an activity that my host family did one to two times per day, or not at all, depending on the season. Milking, as an event that brought together people around a common task in the context of a specific physical environment, constituted ‘place.’ Place had meaning as an event; doing the work of milking (both alone and with others) taught me about pastoralism, politics, and rural economies, gender, and the environment. I realized that conceiving of place as a series of ongoing (routine) and extraordinary events is a necessary part of carefully attending to the multiplicity in relations that make these events possible.

Events are transformational and contain variation, which may be obvious but attention to these elements highlight research as a learning experience. For example, I have been milking goats since the age of nine and invariably one learns a lot about goat behavior in the process. The smells, the texture of hair, the sound of cud being chewed and internal stomach digestion processes, the challenge of milking ill-tempered goats that make it as difficult as possible to extract milk, the feeling of warm sticky milk that is the only relief from freezing temperatures that numb fingers, learning to use goat bodies as protection from rain, wind, and intense sun. I have countless experiences of milking goats both from upstate NY and other places I have visited, each one contributing to my knowledge of livestock husbandry. This description is to make the obvious point that one learns by doing, and there is a tremendous amount of information stored in the act of doing and embodying place through physical work and engagement with the space.

The experiential approach to research breaks down boundaries by removing the separation between those who observe and those who do. Research is an ongoing event and does not stop when one move from one location to the next. For example, recently I read an article that discussed the participation of Mongolian herders in markets. The assumption of the article was that the wealthier the household (in terms of number of livestock), the more the household was expected to sell their produce (including milk). This assumption was flawed because a significant number of households that chose to sell milk in the area where I worked are livestock poor or financially in debt. Participation (and proximity to) markets seemed to increase as herders became less dependent on livestock. Livestock rich households, on the other hand, benefited from living in more remote areas with better access to water and pasture resources and were able to afford transportation to travel to settlements when they were inclined. Milk was consumed in the household and given to friends and family. “Only poor people sell milk” was the consensus, even among the people selling milk.

There is much more to write about on the topic of milk, but these concepts would have remained elusive if the work had not been done. Attention to milking events captures variation in everyday practices and the translocal aspects of the events, such as the role financial institutions and government policies. Comparing household production of milk in Mongolia to China, and the state’s role in regulating how milk is consumed and used by households is the next step in engaging with the milk as an event, simultaneously profoundly informed by the local and transnational.

The methods are in the milk.

This photo depicts goats being milked in Bayanhongor, Mongolia. Summer 2013.

This photo depicts goats being milked in Bayanhongor, Mongolia. Summer 2013.

Pasteurizing milk over the fire in Mongolia. Summer 2013.

Pasteurizing milk over the fire in Mongolia. Summer 2013.


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Appadurai, A. (1988) ‘Putting Hierarchy in Its Place’, Cultural Anthropology (3)1: 36-49.

Appadurai, A. (1986) ‘Theory in Anthropology: Center and Periphery’, Comparative Studies in Science and History 28 (2): 356-361.

Gilman, N. and M. Ticktin (2014) ‘From Antipolitics to Neoliberalism: A Conversation with James Ferguson’, Humanity (5) 2.

Gupta, A. and J. Ferguson, eds (1997). Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science. University of California Press: Berkeley.

Gupta, A. and J. Ferguson (1992) Beyond “Culture”: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference. Cultural Anthropology (7) 1: 6-23.

Haraway, D. (1988) ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, Feminist Studies (14) 3: 575-599.

Ingold, T. (2014) ‘That’s enough about ethnography!’, Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (1),

Husserl, Edmund. The crisis of European sciences and transcendental phenomenology: An introduction to phenomenological philosophy. Northwestern University Press, 1970.

Pitcher, A., Askew, K., Paasche, T. F., & Sidaway, J. D. (2010). Transecting security and space in Maputo. Environment and Planning A, 42, 1555-1576.

Sidaway, J.D. (2000) ‘Recontextualizing Positionality: Geographical Research and Academic Fields of Power’, Antipode (32) 3: 260-270.

Sidaway, J. D., Paasche, T. F., Woon, C. Y., & Keo, P. (2014). Transecting security and space in Phnom Penh. Environment and Planning A, 46(5), 1181-1202.

Whatmore, S. (2006) ‘Materialist returns: practicing cultural geography in a more-than-human world’, cultural geographies 13: 600-609.


About ariell

A GCRF-ESRC postdoctoral fellow in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. Researching changing patterns of work, social relations, and value in rural and suburban Mongolia.
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1 Response to The Methods are in the Milk

  1. Pingback: Why Mongolia? | The Changing Meaning of Work in Rural Mongolia

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