Blog series #10: The intricacies of anthropological field work during a pandemic

Dr. Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa is a postdoc at ZMT – Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research. As an anthropologist and geographer, she investigates how coastal cities in Southeast Asia adapt for the future in a warming world. During the first half of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Siriwardane-de Zoysa reflects on changing transregional partnerships, while moving between her field-site countries, third spaces, and physical workplace in Bremen. In the tenth interview of our blog series, she tells us about this unique experience.

Name / Institute:
Dr. Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa
ZMT – Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research, Bremen
Leibniz Section E

Research topic:
Infrastructural futures of urbanizing shorelines

Main featured instrument or technique:
Virtual multimodal ethnography (online qualitative interviews and transect walking through participatory film and other modes of visualizing).   

“I aim to rethink transregional research partnerships to foster new practices of engagement during times of immobility.”

  • What was your main research topic in the last 1-2 years before spring 2020?

Since 2017, I’ve been tracing how the coastal cities of Jakarta, Manila, and Singapore – in their own diverse ways – have been infrastructurally shaping their densely-built shoreline edges in the face of relative sea level change, erosion and land subsidence.  

As an environmental anthropologist, I am particularly interested in the speculative futures and ‘afterlives’ of engineered coastal adaptation interventions. These include seawalls and artificial islands, and the ways in which they pattern social inequalities and transform urban practices of land use and placemaking.

  • What are the main findings of your work on COVID; and did the results surprise you?

We found ourselves in the midst of fieldwork in Jakarta, as the pandemic was unravelling in March 2020. At the time Indonesia was not internationally red-listed and much of our interviewing was done among urban informal fisher-settlers living around the Java Sea.

Moments such as these gave us a glimpse into how impoverished and socially marginalised coastal zones are also imagined as spaces of communal retreat and solidarity far distanced from the contagion of urban centers, despite being heavily policed as illicit sites of sea-based mobility.

We were also prompted to rethink modes of fieldwork praxis (and meanings of the „field“) as collaborative researchers atomised from one another across continents, and the opto-haptics of doing fieldwork in early pandemic settings which we’ve collectively published in the Fieldsights series of the Society for Cultural Anthropology.

  • How has COVID affected your life?

At first, the novelty of professional life in-lockdown was intriguing as it meant more time for immersive deep work, as I live on my own. All at once, access to institution-based events around the world that were often closed to non-members became possible in ways that were once unimaginable. Yet, the uncanny melding of work and home environments finally caught up as months rolled by. I even found myself renting a co-working space for a month or two, simply to shake off the monotony and stagnation.

As a positive spin-off, being grounded in place also opened up expansive spaces for project partners to take on more initiative in practice, given if co-creation and joint ownership is often built into the design of projects.

We’ve also been relying more on remote digital modes of research that have also enabled participants to ‘tell their own stories’ (without the presence of researchers) through walk-abouts and in ways that can be directly archived, while being cognizant our own ethics of inquiry.

  • Does the COVID situation in your host country influence your research?

It was uncanny to say the least, because during the first global lockdown in spring 2020 I flew from Jakarta to Colombo were I’d planned on visiting my parents during a short Easter break.

Sri Lanka, despite the low infection rates at the time, had iron-clad national quarantine policy spanning several months, and of course all flights were grounded. It felt like being in double or triple exile – remotely writing about and theorising on a part of the world (the Indo-Malay archipelago) that you’d have no access to, while inhabiting another city a continent away from your professional base, and all the while having to explain to bewildered audiences at online events why you inhabited different time zones.

  • You have managed to hook your research into the incalculable emerging pandemic. What is your advice for postdocs that want to embrace such a challenging research topic? 

At the height of the first lockdown, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) launched a funding call for projects that fostered collaboratories in the Indian Ocean region. It was here that we first seeded our idea for a ‚Southern Collective‘ (led by my colleague Annu Jalais) on democratising the production of marine knowledge through south-south partnerships, connecting across 8 countries.

Creating a knowledge network in these times of geographic fixity (particularly among institutional strangers) seemed an odd idea. Yet, the initiative itself was woven around experimenting with multimodal forms of storytelling and narrative research among pandemic-impacted coastal communities in precisely moments of disconnection, and we’re still picking up lessons on transoceanic partnership – building along the way!   

  • What would be the one take-home message of your research? 

While the pandemic – as well as the climate emergency – seemingly rupture old ways of doing business-as-usual, the underlying structures that enabled seem more durable and reticent to progressive change. Therefore, debates around paradigm shifts and systemic transformation will gain even more ground particularly in the wake of COP26, begging the question how far a “crisis” needs to be devastatingly so, for whom, and in which ways, for real actionable change to be felt across scales and regions.  

  • How does your perfect day off work look like? 

A technological detox (sans Netflix!). A weekend away somewhere in the Niedersachsen countryside. Or evenings spent running in the parklands, pottering around with plants, or meeting friends.

We would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr. Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa for supporting our blog interview format with active participation.

Find out more about Dr. Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa and her work:

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