Author: Mamta Sachan Kumar is a PhD student in Gender Studies at the School of Culture, History and Language, under Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. Her PhD project is an elaborate scheme of self-discovery, where she returns to her childhood hometown of Kobe, Japan, to study the lives of Sindhi housewives. Her work aims to analyse the roles that women have played in the broader narrative of Japan’s Sindhi merchant diasporic history. Mamta intends to apply a multi-sensory framework in her research in order to personify the ‘nothing’ that the housewives claim to do. She is keen to present her findings as a series of short stories and incorporate original poetry in her thesis as well. Mamta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The ‘personal’ as opposed to ‘professional’, ‘objective’, ‘outsider’
Time and again, I am confronted by the alleged odds that polarise the ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ in the context of academia. Involving any element of the ‘personal’ is problematic because it compromises the work’s ‘academic legitimacy’.
Where the matter concerns one’s positionality in the field, this mutually exclusive rendering of ‘personal’/‘professional’ re-emerges as the conflicting avatars of ‘insider’ vs. ‘outsider’. These categories are still often spoken about as insular, with both differently involving the presumption of ‘monopolistic or privileged access to social truth’, and they persist in academic discourse even as greater value is recognized to be in their ‘interactive roles in the process of truth seeking’ (Merton 1972: 36, italics emphasis mine). These roles are multiple, situational and therefore highly fluid in nature. This plurality necessitates the revision of absolute ‘insider’ with that of ‘partial insider’ – an identity more accurately reflective of the struggles experienced on site and which anthropologist Kirin Narayan (1993) uses to unravel the fallacy of the ‘native anthropologist’.
The ‘personal’ just as easily embodies the ‘subjective’, invoking that worn yet lurking dichotomy suspended by the illusory ‘objective’. This great divide endures even after four decades of the reflexive turn in anthropology and in spite of pivotal works like Clifford and Marcus’ Writing Culture (1986) that have effectively risen in contest. Yet, the rejected ‘objectivity’ rears its head repeatedly and is striven for as a self-evident ideal even as it remains frustratingly elusive. On the other hand, engaging the ‘subjective’ is lambasted as a ‘fetishizing’ and dismissed – on grounds of its diametrically opposed placement to the ‘objective’ – for its abandonment of the principles of ‘sound’ research (Matthews 2022).
Needless to say, these dichotomies are problematic but have also survived rigorous debate across generations of scholars. And while this notion of ‘legitimate knowledge production’, i.e. a ‘professional’ activity undertaken ‘objectively’ by the ‘outsider’, is undoubtedly rooted in positivist thinking, its manifestations have long and far transcended the confines of a positivist framework or mode of inquiry. In fact, the ‘scientific proper-ness’ of knowledge production is a conditioning that seems to have pervaded rhetoric in academia in general; is omnipresent in conversations among scholars today; and, an ages-old battle that anthropology – the most ‘human(e)’ of the sciences, continues to fight. Here, I share a few stories of my own struggles in anchoring the ‘personal’ as a legitimate device across my academic journey. These are real encounters that occurred during my years as an honours, masters and now PhD student, and they interpret the ‘personal’ in at least two ways – as purpose and approach.
The ‘personal’ as purpose
‘Do you like the women you’re studying?’
It was a startling question.
The two of us were parked at a bench on campus – myself and a professor I admired greatly for her ability to marry creative non-fiction and ethnographic writing. I had landed at the ANU in pursuit of her mentorship and this was our first meeting, my first time discussing my PhD project with her.
I had just admitted to the torturous process of getting through my honour’s thesis, having prioritised my keenness to work with popular faculty at the expense of a personal interest in the topic. It was only natural that she would question my commitment to my current project – an ethnography of upper-class housewives in a merchant diaspora, one that I was born into.
It was an important question, a necessary question. It was also a profound question, as it not only probed my ability to commit to the topic but relatedly and more fundamentally, also inquired into why I had chosen to study these women in the first place. She had asked the question so casually and frankly and I suppose the combined effect of it coming from her, whose impression mattered so much to me, left me reeling in self-doubt about my motivations, my purpose, my choice of topic. Mostly, it left me wondering whether, quite literally, I ‘like’ the women I am studying.
It took me a few moments to gather my thoughts and stop myself from launching into a defensive justification. What I ended up saying surprised me.
‘No, not really. I’m actually quite averse to them’.
I didn’t manage to say much further. In awe of her presence, struck dumb by her question, my brain felt frozen.
But the question lingered and over time, the full weight of its meaning began to sink in, prompting deeper reflection – why study women I don’t like? What do I actually mean when I think and say that I’m ‘averse’ to them? The answer, as it turns out, was embedded in this very discovery – I am studying them precisely because I don’t like them, in order to figure out why and what this ‘not liking’ means. At the heart of it all lies the desire to understand my mother’s life story and the stories of women of her generation, with whom I have difficulty relating.
This desire to understand the root of my aversion comes on the heels of both a painful lesson learnt from my honour’s thesis debacle and the subsequent fulfillment I felt in discovering my father’s story as a young merchant in Japan. As a result, the singular point of clarity that I now carry, having embarked on a PhD course 10 years after completing my master’s programme, is that my projects are all necessarily personal. It is this personal investment that secures my commitment to my current project. Ironically, it is also this very proximity to my project that informs a constant awareness to exercise critical distancing, in order to effectively pursue it to fruition.
The ‘personal’ as approach
The ‘personal’ also features as a stylistic device in one’s approach to presenting research. Here I do not mean ‘style’ as superficial – as embellishment; I mean it substantively as, say, a narrative device. This manner of the ‘personal’ is oftentimes frowned upon – if not outright dismissed – depending on one’s writing style and choice of method, especially in more conservative institutions where ‘creative’ may be used as an insult for one’s writing style, a sardonic commentary/criticism on writing that does not conform to certain stylistic conventions present in some academic spaces. Put simply, my stylistic choice of prose when melding academic analysis with ‘creative’ writing would not be taken seriously.
Intending to animate the dehumanising effects of home detention within Singapore’s prison system, I crafted a vivid ‘thick’ description of the dehumanising practices in my honour’s thesis. This particular section received a “better suited to novel-writing or journalism” comment from my thesis examiner, which implied that I should consider pursuing career options beyond academia.
A couple of years later, while drafting my master’s thesis, my writing was praised as ‘lyrical’ (read: ‘creative’) only to be met with a warning in the same breath: tone it down for now, for the exam review board that is, and ‘experiment’ later… praise then, was it?
I listened and got my degree. Then, I ‘experimented’ with a narrative approach for a conference paper soon after and got cut from the volume to be published. More recently, in order to address my reviewers’ comments for a high-stakes journal article, I’ve been advised to italicise the portions of my storytelling to distinguish my analysis for a clearer argument.
This time, politely and resolutely, I said no.
In my view, having had to contend repeatedly with the misfit that is my ‘personalised’ writing style, the matter of italicising runs much deeper than stylistic choice. It runs counter to my very intent of using storytelling as a method of integrating – as seamlessly as possible – the story and the analytical insight.
My point is in fact not to separate the two. This is not an easy feat to achieve however, and this is why I was perched in such feverish excitement on the edge of that bench while in conversation with the celebrity professor. I am keen to learn from those who have honed the great skill of using personal stories to write creatively and expressly for academic contribution.
The ‘personal’ as reflexive – a probing of the ‘objective’
I conceive of the ‘personal’ as a reflexive device that is aligned with the outcome of empirically based observation. As I have stated, my awareness of my aversion towards the women I study works as a check on my personal biases and these biases may potentially function as points of access to analytical insight.
Further, while I acknowledge the gendered crux of my project and a more seamless adoption of the ‘personal is political’, I am also wary of the inadvertent implication of equating the ‘personal’ with the ‘feminist’. The ‘personal’ does not only concern work that adopts a feminist lens or a gendered perspective. Rather, my urge is for the ‘personal’ to be considered an unravelling of the fetishizing of the ‘objective’ itself; a tool to duly explore and attempt a definition of constructed bounds that must be deliberate. Acknowledging the inescapably subjective nature of research is perhaps the much-needed uncomfortable jab at unveiling the garb of professionalism that, so entitled, dangerously presumes critical distance and does so without much thought.
Clifford, James and George E. Marcus. (1986). Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Merton, Robert K. (1972). ‘Insiders and Outsiders: A Chapter in the Sociology of Knowledge.’ The American Journal of Sociology 78(1): 9-47.
Matthews, William. (2022). ‘Masturbation Journal Paper Exposes Deeper Problems in Research.’ Times Higher Education. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/masturbation-journal-paper-exposes-deeper-problems-research. Published August 19, 2022. Retrieved September 8, 2022.
Narayan, Kirin. (1993). ‘How Native is a “Native” Anthropologist?’ American Anthropologist 95(3): 671-686.