Abstract: This article explores conducting ethnographic research through a feminist insider-outsider methodology during the COVID-19 pandemic. It examines the researcher’s experience as a queer Indian-American scholar-activist, building relationships with Indian South African activists and organizers and embedding with social movement groups in South Africa. In assessing the challenges of conducting embedded research during a pandemic that has isolated many people and that has enhanced risk for many social movement workers, this article argues for an insider-outsider approach that emphasizes adding rather than extracting labor and focusing on growing trust and nurturing intimacies and kinships in diasporic queer of color spaces. It argues for a form of transnational activist citizenship that both recognizes varied and divergent contexts in particular nation-states, as well as internationalist experiences of globalization, diaspora, and resistance that link feminist and queer of color activists and researchers across constructed borders.
As I write these words, the world is scrambling to react to the spread of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant. Southern Africa, whose labs in South Africa and Botswana were the first to release reports of the new variant, is currently being isolated by travel bans across the globe, though they are far from the only countries who have reported cases of the variant (other countries include many across the Global North as well as the Global South). South Africa, where I am based for my PhD research, is currently in limbo while deciding whether to return to a lockdown in response to the new variant’s spike. The country has already been enforcing a strict daily overnight curfew and restrictions on major gatherings, but the fourth wave seems nigh, not only here in South Africa but globally. In the midst of preparing for face-to-face interviews with potential interlocutors in January and February, these are daunting conditions during which to be positioned as researchers in human-centered disciplines. The past few years under the global wreckage of the COVID-19 pandemic have increased our isolation while also expanding the pain-points of the global capitalist system that many of us study, and the proliferation of online spaces has both made many of us feel more connected globally while also more sectioned-off from human interaction than ever before.
This essay is written in response to these conditions, discussing some themes and tactics for building relationships for collaborative and human-centered academic research under the context of continuing global isolation and late-stage capitalism. Specifically, I’m interested in the realities of conducting multi-sited ethnographic research under the conditions of a global pandemic. In response, I share some strategies that I have employed to build relationships for the purpose of ethnographic research, in my case research on queer South Asian diasporic activism and multiracial solidarities. These strategies align with feminist and queer ethnographic methods, and also draw from my training as a community organizer prior to my time in academia and my identities as a queer South Asian person in diaspora. I offer these stories and strategies to highlight both some possibilities I have encountered for conducting hybrid digital and in-person ethnographic research that leans into queer feminist intimacies in these times, as well as to underscore the challenges that nonetheless remain.
During my first week in South Africa in September 2021, while the pandemic was still brewing and most gatherings were masked but in-person events were still possible, I attended a protest in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. This protest was in support of a group of cleaners in student housing affiliated with the University of the Witwatersrand. These cleaners, like so many others during the global COVID-19 pandemic, who were on strike to demand fair pay and just working conditions from a corporation that made huge profits while the workers completed essential work that kept students and residents healthy and safe. When I arrived, the protest had not yet started, and alongside the cleaners, who were conducting a preparatory meeting outside between the primarily Zulu-speaking workers, were a group of mostly young non-Black students handing out flyers about the strike. I walked up to one of the students, a young Indian South African, to
introduce myself and to learn more about the protest and the cleaners’ demands, and we began chatting. I shared that I had supported similar struggles during my time in worker solidarity organizing in the UK, and we spoke about our mutual experience with student and community activism.
When I mentioned I was also looking for long-term housing as I had just arrived in South Africa to study social movements here, the student told me that they had recently moved into a shared flat in Newtown as they had moved out of their parents’ house after coming out during Pride month in the prior year. This divulging, seemingly out of nowhere, floored me. I hadn’t told this student that I too identified as queer, or that my research was specifically on queer South Asian activism in the diaspora in multiracial and Black-led organizing spaces. When I shared this information with them, a sort of intimacy born out of recognition emerged. It was as if we had just divulged childhood secrets that put us in context for each other. This divulging located us similarly, not only at the juncture of queerness and Indian and South Asian diaspora, but also in shared multiracial struggle and solidarity against racial capitalism and cis-heteropatriarchy. In this moment of meeting, we recognized each other as comrades, and in some ways, as kin.
This serendipitous meeting moved me, but it was by far the first time that such an exchange had occurred. I have had similar chance encounters that reveal kindred spirits in diaspora across the UK, the US, Mexico, and more. Each time these encounters happen, I find myself wondering, “How did I not find these people before?” Sasha, the director of a pan-Asian organizing group in NYC, called this the “oh, you too?” moment. Leaning into this methodology of “oh, you too?” has been at the center of ethnography for me during the pandemic. In many of the movement-building projects I’ve been engaged in – spanning the US, India, Mexico, the UK, Central America, Argentina, Cambodia, and now South Africa – I’ve seen queer feminists of color and from the Global South disproportionately represented at the forefront of internationalist projects. These organizers and activists seem to be reimagining movement-building as relationship-building and creation of alternate worlds, rather than simply wars fueled by rage against the injustice of the status quo. Echoing Gopinath’s (2005) seminal articulation of femme South Asian femme queerness and kinship across diasporic representations, the movement workers I have been building towards are themselves striving towards shared dreams of a transnational, queer, liberated future. These observations are what brought me to my current research on queer South Asian diasporic leftism and multiracial solidarity. This work is deeply personal: as a queer diasporic person myself with deep relationships spread across many countries and continents, many of the social movement workers that I speak to for research are friends, comrades, or organizers whose work I have admired and been connected to from afar. Leaning into these relationships and into the sense of an international community struggling for justice and transformation has deeply enriched my work as a researcher, in ways that interrogate the boundaries between researcher and data, between academia and movement-building, and between the self and the communities with whom I engage.
The past few months have been filled with navigating the norms of interactions in a country still racked by COVID-19. Beyond run of the mill stranger danger, the risk of interacting with a new person in the midst of a pandemic has often created barriers between myself and the movement spaces that I study. But embodying a queer feminist research ethic has required vulnerability and persistence. When attending protests and speaking to attendees, when messaging potential interlocutors on Instagram and Twitter, when sending emails and Whatsapps to friends of friends who don’t know me, sharing about myself and emphasizing our parallel stories of navigating identity, culture, queerness, and movement work has allowed me to build deeper relationships. I participate in the organizing spaces that I study, from joining online meetings to participating in marches and direct actions, to writing drafts of my analysis in journals that my interlocutors and activist comrades run. In these spaces, I am both an insider through diaspora and queerness, but an outside as a foreigner. Embracing these tensions and navigating them through building queer kinship and comradeship has allowed me to prioritize co-production of knowledge as an insider-outsider with fellow activists, echoing Brah’s (1996) research and Wilson’s (2006) work with diasporic South Asian activists and community members. Sharing my history of organizing and activism work, and offering my labor to the movements with whom I research and collaborate in countries that are new to me, has offered a praxis of research that is with, not on, my peers in other countries to whom I am linked through diaspora and queerness.
In emphasizing feminist ethnography and co-production of knowledge, I think of the methodological foundations of many queer and feminist scholar-activists, particularly those of color, who come before. I have particularly been drawing from Minai and Shroff’s (2019) exploration of queer feminist South to South conversations through research as a destabilisation to the impossible expectation of impartiality in academia. Drawing from South Asian languages for this framing, they write that “yaariyan (friendship), gupshup (a mode of speaking), and baithak (a mode of space) [are]…queer feminist care as research practices…affective, conditional, and communal practices.” While conducting my research, I think back to the question that one community organizer and trainer asked me in response to my interview questions: “who is asking you these questions?” In response, by sharing my own story with my interlocutors in sites that are unfamiliar to me, and by revealing the questions and tensions I held about the organizing that we both do and the identities that we both hold, I sought to open space for queer and feminist intimacies in research. My conversations always begin with sharing my own story of identity and activism, and then lead into asking participants to share these. This also echoes the methodology of the one on one, a tool used frequently in leftist movement-building (Ganz 2010) which emphasizes a ratio of 70-80% listening and 20-30% sharing and questioning by the interviewer. These one on ones are framed as conversations that build a relationship and grows space for collaboration through intimacy, truth-telling, and sharing common experiences. Thus, by echoing this style of conversation geared towards relationship building, and by integrating questions not only from myself but that I had heard from other interlocutors, I have been attempting to weave the interviews together by creating a wider conversation with multiple threads. In this way, my interlocuters were asking me the questions as much as I was asking them.
I have also been drawing deeply from Shah’s (2017) exploration of feminist ethnography, particularly in the form of participant observation, as “a potentially revolutionary praxis” (2017:46) that “question our ideas of the world by engaging with those of others; revisiting and revising the questions that we enter the field with, often making our initial ideas redundant” (2017:49). Shah argues that through ethnography, through living and being embedded with our people, by becoming part of these communities rather than researchers who live apart, we can encounter a type of scholarship that “enables us to literally turn things on their head” (2017:56). For me, turning things on our heads means finding shared experiences between South and North; identifying shared stories and points o conjuncture; seeing interlocutors not as data points but as friends and comrades who tell their own stories. Thus, while I am a newcomer and an outsider in South Africa, I am also a transnational activist with prior experience who is here to support local movements as much as I am here to learn and research.
Naturally, these practices haven’t resolved all the difficulties in conducting research in the time of COVID. Especially as cases surge, I’ve found meetings no-showed, organizing activities cancelled, and interest in online gatherings waning after a long two years. As a person with little social credibility in a new country, it is always easier to cancel a meeting with me than with a close comrade or friend. But by continuing to show up as my full diasporic, queer, activist self, by offering labor and sharing research in the spirit of collaboration and feminist transnational relationship-building, I’ve found this persistence to yield results. Instead of extracting information, I continue to begin my conversations with asking, “who are you and how can I help?” Instead of emphasizing the divergences in our experiences between North and South, I have centered my experiences as a transnational comrade, as kin in diasporic queer of color spaces. Last week, a queer South Asian diasporic artist collective that I have been following led a conversation on the impact of indenture, and I brought three new comrades and potential collaborators and interlocutors with me, all queer Indian South African activists themselves. Seeing them vibe and think with each other was an illustration of what transnational queer feminist kinship can look like: sometimes it’s as simple as sharing biriyani over a zoom call, or taking down our masks for a moment to take a joyful picture together. Across the impacts of globalized neoliberalism, we find the points of convergence in our experiences in South Africa, the US, the UK, and elsewhere. In breaking bread or marching together or making art across zoom screens, we find spaces to build our shared dreams of a different future. Despite the isolation of the pandemic, by leaning into transnational kinship, we are able to locate the moveable feast of queer diasporic home.
Author bio: Maya Bhardwaj (she/they) is a queer Indian-American researcher, community organizer, facilitator, trainer, musician, and artist. She has worked transnationally in queer and people of color-led movements and activism for the past 10 years, including in the US, India, the UK, and Mexico. They are currently a PhD candidate at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and holds a Masters from SOAS, University of London, UK. Maya can be contacted at email@example.com and/or at firstname.lastname@example.org.