The fieldwork of attending a conference
Blog 14th June 2018
Author: Petra Tjitske Kalshoven, Dalton Research Fellow, School of Social Sciences, The University of Manchester
Presenting at a conference can be part of doing anthropological fieldwork, even when ‘the field’ seems far away. I realised this once again when fellow-panellists offered their perceptions of the nuclear industry as I presented a paper at the Art, Materiality & Representation conference organized by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland at the British Museum in London, 1 – 3 June 2018.
The panel in which I presented, entitled ‘Containers / Containment’, had attracted a fascinating collection of very diverse contributions from different parts of the world, including discussions of religious buildings, dowry chests, archaeological storage boxes, housing developments, and artistic box-assemblages as material wrappings that, all very differently, play a role in making or unmaking social spaces. Speakers suggested that such material wrappings have a certain agency, or power, to achieve things in social or cultural realms.
In my paper, I compared different nuclear waste repositories, arguing that paying attention to practices of containment in the nuclear industry may, perhaps paradoxically, reveal something about industrial self-representation and a move towards more transparency, and about national and cultural preoccupations with public space and public involvement.
During the Q&A, the audience expressed fascination with the power contained in nuclear materials, and marvelled at the expertise, and courage, required to contain these powerful materials. At the same time, their associations with the nuclear were decidedly of secrecy and mistrust.
In such discussions, the power of ethnography lies in the ability to offer observations from a local perspective, grounded in conversations with insiders who are actually involved in doing such work of containment.
To me, this is the interest of doing the kind of ethnographic project I currently work on: to add some subtlety to important debates and to confront general, not always well-founded perceptions (which are in themselves very interesting, and quite real!) with the nuance of fieldwork evidence.
About Petra Tjitske Kalshoven
Petra is a Dalton Research Fellow based in the School of Social Sciences at The University of Manchester where she was previously a Lecturer in Social Anthropology. With The Beam, she pursues her interest in human expertise and the skilled and persuasive ways in which people seek to engage specific materials and landscapes. Read more.