Navigating Bureaucracy During Fieldwork

Files_Philipp Zehmisch

Navigating Bureaucracy: Legal Constraints and Professional Transformations During Fieldwork

As a unique, contextual and exclusive form of representation, ethnography is inextricably tied to the subjectivity of the fieldworker. The fieldworker is her or his own medium of sensory perception, interpretation, categorisation, memorisation, communication and, lastly, textual production. Writing an ethnography as a subjective account of a certain “field” is not only determined by the quality and quantity of relationships between fieldworkers and their interlocutors, but also by state laws and regulations inhibiting or enabling them to work in a certain region or site of fieldwork. This contribution seeks to discuss how my legal status as a foreign Ph.D. student influenced the way in which I conducted fieldwork in the Andaman Islands, a Union Territory of India. For reasons of security, foreign researchers’ access to this strategically important archipelago in the Bay of Bengal–located in geographical proximity to Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia–is severely restricted and regulated. In what follows, I develop an autobiographical narrative stretching over two periods of fieldwork between 2009 and 2011 to demonstrate that my subjective “navigation” around and through some of the bureaucratic constraints I encountered eventually triggered certain professional transformations that, in turn, determined my own positionality in the field.

Dealing with Bureaucratic Impediments

11am, 9 June 2009, Haddo Jetty, Port Blair, South Andaman: After disembarking from the passenger ship M.V. Nicobar, I spent several hours in the waiting hall to get my documents cleared by immigration. I was waiting amidst a long queue of passengers, sitting and standing amidst large amounts of luggage. It was my fourth arrival by ship during that phase of fieldwork. As a German anthropologist working on migration and postcolonial statehood in the Andaman Islands, I had to comply with the rules governing the access of foreign citizens since the early 1980s: the issuance of a Restricted Area Permit (RAP) allows foreign tourists a maximum stay of four weeks (extendable to six weeks with a confirmed return ticket) and constrains their movement to a limited number of islands.

In spite of having a valid research visa, the rules of the RAP applied to me. As a consequence, I faced considerable problems realising my plan to conduct long-term ethnographic fieldwork. Every couple of weeks I had to go back to the so-called Indian “mainland” and return to the Andamans a couple of days later to obtain a “fresh” RAP. Out of necessity, I made four such trips to the mainland and back on board of big passenger ships, like the M.V. Nicobar. During these journeys, which usually lasted four days, I continued my fieldwork by talking to migrant passengers about their movement to and from the port towns of Chennai, Kolkata, and Vishakhapatnam.

Though I had followed the advice of an immigration officer on how to proceed, this particular arrival turned out to be problematic: my documents were checked by a young, ambitious immigration officer who objected to the issue of an RAP, reasoning that my stay in the Andamans had already exceeded ninety days in that calendar year. He declared that I had come illegally and that he would pursue the persons responsible for allowing me to immigrate the previous times. Soon, I was brought to the police headquarters, where I spoke to a senior officer. Explaining my research project to him, the police officer asked me if I believed that there was any difference between the communities living in the islands and those on the mainland. When I started to give a detailed answer elaborating on the many cultural specificities I had identified, he interrupted me, saying: “there are no cultural differences.”

The officer argued that doing extended fieldwork in the Andamans was not necessary because my research topic was “too simple.” According to him, it would only require a couple of months to do research and to write a Ph.D. thesis about the Andaman society. All the data, he said, was available with the administration, and, on top of that, there were books in the library. He referred to an Act of 1963, according to which I was an illegal alien and had to leave the islands immediately. Instead, the police officer suggested, I should go to the mainland and do fieldwork there. After a short discussion, however, this person of authority showed his “soft corner,” as he expressed it, and allowed me to write a letter to his senior officer arguing that I required another thirty-day permit to finish my fieldwork. The application turned out to be successful and I was able to continue my fieldwork for another month in 2009.

This incident demonstrates that bureaucratic procedures, apart from being complicated and time-consuming, can seriously restrict or even inhibit field research. The particular impression derived from my personal interactions with government servants in the Andamans is that almost all bureaucrats refuse to take over the responsibility of legalising a foreigner in any respect. Even in offices directly concerned with matters relating to my legal status or my requests for gaining access to administrative data, I was regularly told to approach another institution or to write a letter to a senior officer. As a consequence, I learned that, when entering an office, I always had to carry a big folder of original documents with me in order to be ready to identify myself and write an application in an instant. And I knew that bureaucrats could arbitrarily stretch the applicability of rules and regulations.

In 2009, official roadblocks to my fieldwork seemed particularly obvious. Once, a written application to photocopy archive files that I had previously accessed and evaluated was even denied to me. The perception that bureaucrats have come to impede research consciously in recent years has been confirmed by senior researchers working in other parts of the subcontinent. In a personal conversation, one academic attributed this reluctance to a characteristic change of attitudes towards foreigners in the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008. Indeed, I personally came across several bureaucrats who justified their refusal to cooperate with me by invoking the countrywide anti-terror alert.

Before returning to the Andamans in 2011 for another period of fieldwork, and in light of my previous RAP problems, I decided to apply for a long-term RAP in the hope of being granted a continuous stay of one year in the islands. Some well-connected local friends with whom I had previously discussed this plan had advised me not to waste time and energy on such an application, because my chances of getting this long-term RAP were almost nil. Luckily, I did not follow their advice. At the end of my fieldwork in July 2009, I went to the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi and handed over my application to the authorities. In December 2010, after eighteen months of waiting and innumerable letters written to the concerned authorities, I finally received a positive reply to my request. Securing a permission that seemed previously impossible to get was most probably a consequence of the strong support of several institutions–diplomatic and academic–and some influential local friends. As far as I know, I was the first foreign researcher ever to be given a long-term RAP. From this odyssey of paperwork and waiting, I learned that the best way to interact with the Indian bureaucracy is to follow a top-down hierarchy and that the support of personal connections is absolutely essential to get any bureaucratic task done.

A Professional Transformation

Although I had been granted a continuous stay of one year in the Andamans in 2011, all RAP rules regulating foreign tourists’ freedom of movement still applied to me. This posed no problem when I went to the few designated tourist destinations on the islands, where most of the roughly twenty-thousand foreign visitors per year are concentrated. My plan for this research period, however, was to conduct research in remote villages located on forest land or on separate islands. Going to these places required following minute bureaucratic procedures: I had to detect insider information about the appropriate way of getting permits, write application letters to concerned authorities, sit patiently in offices to submit them, and wait for some days or weeks to receive a reply. After a long and painful process, I finally succeeded in learning to write the specific “prose” of official letters–considering hierarchies, formulations, and necessary personal data and so on–in order to obtain the necessary permissions to carry out my research.

When arriving at government offices, I could not just produce the documents and leave, but had to meet and interact with the senior officers. Often I had to drink tea and chat with several government servants while waiting for their senior counterparts to become available. Having spent many days in these offices, I intensively observed the bodily and verbal practices of bureaucrats. I learned, for example, that a polite, factual and almost submissive request was to be followed by building up a personal relationship. In these conversations, we usually exchanged information about each other’s family and career, as well as discussing cultural, economic and social differences between Germany and India. Many times, and against my liking, I was praised for being a German national and had to talk about National Socialism. Increasingly immersed in the routine of these personal transactions, I came to instrumentalize my status as an entitled researcher who had been sent by two universities and two governments to indicate to my interlocutors that I was a babu like them.

The stereotypical figure of the babu can be defined as a complacent bureaucrat using her or his institutional authority as a source of personal gain. The insignia of the male babu are a motorcycle or scooter on which he rides because he does not walk. The babu wears a good shirt that covers a corpulent belly, the size of which stands as testament to the vast amount of money he has “swallowed.” The “belly” metaphor can be paralleled to the “politics of the belly” that Jean-Francois Bayart describes in his study of the appropriation of state resources through corruption and maladministration in Cameroon and other African countries (Jean-Francois Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly. London: Longman, 1993).

My transformation into a German babu involved dressing increasingly like an Indian babu when I went on “official mission:” I entered government offices only freshly shaved, wearing leather shoes, a steamed shirt and ironed trousers with crease. The most important details of my babu dress were a small notebook and a pen poking out of my shirt pocket, indicating the agency of the literate government servant. Noting down information, I took over the symbolism of writing as a practice of government servants and a fundamental signifier of state power (Akhil Gupta, Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2012, pp. 35-36). My conscious performance of the “power of the pen” served to show that I “fought with the same weapons” as the local babus. As a result, I believe that my dealings with bureaucrats were more successful because I created an impression that I was worthy of their respect.

The personal transformation into a babu might be interpreted as a coping strategy for my general uneasiness about local authorities. I knew many stories of other foreigners who had been imprisoned and deported for not complying with formal or informal rules. It was thus mandatory not to misbehave, either socially or legally. After receiving the long-term RAP in 2011, a police officer revealed that my movements would be subject to surveillance. Through a rash comment by another officer, I learnt hat they also had to write a monthly report about me. Once, when I was outside the mobile network for several weeks, some concerned officers started looking for me. Predicting my movements, they even searched for me at one place before I actually arrived there. Adding to the unpleasant awareness of being surveyed, my authenticity as researcher was tested in the course of two interrogations.

In retrospect, being observed left me with a continuous, irrational feeling of insecurity and danger. However, over the course of that year, I became accustomed to it and my anxiety slowly subsided, giving way to a feeling of entitlement. I increasingly came to regard it as a privilege to do research in the Andamans. Finally, two days before my departure, I received a phone call from the police officer who was responsible for my file. He called me for the purpose of “friendship,” as he expressed it, and asked me if I had already made plans to leave. His phone call was meant to communicate indirectly that the observation was officially concluded.

I suggest that, in most contexts around the globe, dealings with bureaucrats while doing fieldwork requires a learning process that entails becoming a personality according to the requirements of the field site. This includes, first, acquiring knowledge of the rules and laws affecting the researcher’s legal position towards the bureaucracy. Second, to address the appropriate bureaucrat correctly—which means fieldworkers need to be aware of administrative hierarchies. Third, to find common topics of conversation in order to build up good relations to local bureaucrats. Fourth, to interpret certain bodily practices and adapt to the dress codes in government offices. Finally, researchers facing complex bureaucratic impediments might need to develop specific writing skills according to the characteristic style of administrative language.

Philipp Zehmisch
Center for Advanced Studies
Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich

Image: Photograph by Author.

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