Pleasures and Perils of Intimate Ethnography: Women’s History Roundtable 3

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Dr. MD Muthukumaraswamy of the National Folklore Support Centre, Chennai, was the third speaker in Prajnya PSW’s Women’s History Roundtable Series on June 13, 2009. The title of his talk ‘Collecting Personal Narratives: Pleasures and Perils of Intimate Ethnography’ presaged a very interesting presentation.

rt3 3M.D.Muthukumaraswamy is the founder director of National Folklore Support Centre since 1997. He holds a double masters in English Literature and Philosophy. His PhD (1996) is on “Semiotic Analysis of Bharathakoothu Performances: A study in Theatrical Communication”. He is currently pursuing D.Philos in University of Oslo on “Social Imaginaries of  Divine: Selves, Spaces and Simulation in Kanchipuram.”  He was an Assistant Professor of Folklore 19987 to 1994,  and Folklore Consultant for the Ford Foundation’s New Delhi office 1994 to 1997. His publications include works in Tamil and English.

Dr. Muthukumaraswamy started by saying that following the classification of Tamil Sangam literature, he likes to classify narratives into ‘Agam’ and ‘Puram,’ broadly signifying personal/private/inner sphere and public/outer sphere respectively. Women’s narratives fall into the first category for the most part, in his view. Discourses about ethnography were largely discourses about ethics and ethics is about aesthetics and philosophy,  he posited as a preface to his talk, which explored the ethical, methodological and personal challenges of conducting ethnographic research.

Drawing on his field research experiences, Dr. Muthukumaraswamy underscored the importance of the researcher bringing something to the table as a way of building confidence with those whose lives are the subject of research.  If the researcher does not share something, the research respondent/informant is unlikely to do so. Once there is trust, there is a second dilemma for the researcher: how much of the narrative shared may be shared with the outside world which is the researcher’s own target audience? In his research, Dr. Muthukumaraswamy has come to depend on gathering several narratives to study the content and meaning of the common elements of the narrative structures rather than the content of individual narratives.

Descriptions of actual research decision-making, processes and conversations were very illuminating.

The discussion drew the speaker out on other issues: how to build confidence? what did he actually do while recording conversations? how are informants prepared for the end-use of the information they share? how to balance the importance given to transparency with regard to the researcher’s own background and process and the need to keep the subject in question front and centre? how to ‘give back’ to the community being researched?

The third Roundtable was held on the day after Lakshmi Krishnamurti passed away. We had always intended to start our Oral History work with her. But that is not to be and it serves to remind us not to dilly-dally over this work, waiting for the perfect funding and the perfect moment. Lakshmi Krishnamurti, social activist and freedom-fighter, RIP and thank you for the difference you made to India.

Round-table: Researching Women, Social Movements and the Politics of Transition

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Prajnya PSW launched an in-house round-table series  on July 21, 2008 with a presentation by Professor Linda Racioppi. The series is intended primarily to provide the PSW team with insights into both the subject matter of women in public affairs and issues and challenges relating to the research process in this field. We hope to have these sessions on a monthly basis.

Dr. Racioppi teaches in the fields of international relations and comparative cultures and politics at Michigan State University’s James Madison College. She is the author of Soviet Policy Towards South Asia Since 1970 and co-author with Professor Katherine O’Sullivan See of Women’s Activism in Contemporary Russia. She has published articles on Soviet arms transfers, women and Russian nationalism, gender and ethnic conflict in Northern Ireland, and on interdisciplinarity.

Dr. Racioppi’s talk at Prajnya drew on her research experiences in Russia, Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka. She provided the audience with a brief overview of the contexts and then discussed a series of practical, methodological and ethical concerns relating to the research process in these settings.