Revisiting ethnographic sites as an ongoing knowledge production practice

Is it important for ethnographers to revisit the sites where they conduct their research once their projects have been completed? Returning to the site where I conducted my fieldwork six months later indicated that the answer is both yes and no. It makes me believe that ethnography practice is an ongoing knowledge production project, as people’s perspectives and practices are always evolving.

In January 2020, just before COVID-19 was classified a global pandemic, I made a journey to the site where I did my research six months prior. I had fruitful discussions with those I had engaged with for my research: about their definition of art as a form of activism (a main finding of my research), research as a knowledge production process where researchers and participants can work together, as well as about the dialogue between academic discourse and practices in the field.

When I conducted fieldwork for my Master’s degree at ISS in Pemenang village in Indonesia in July 2019, my ethnographic objective was to explore how a small art community called Pasir Putih navigated life after an earthquake devastated Lombok, the island on which the village is situated, in 2018. I immersed myself in the community for a month, stayed in their houses in order to observe their daily life activities, and conducted semi-structured interviews with them. I consider my study a mini-ethnography because while one month was quite short and what I did cannot be considered an exhaustive ethnography, I did more than interviewing the Pasir Putih artists. I did participant observation to investigate “the strange in the familiar” in the artist’s everyday lives—and to help me understand what’s beyond the things the research participants explicitly mentioned in the interviews.

As an organization, Pasir Putih strongly values knowledge production and knowledge-sharing activities, and so the initial agreement was that because they let me to stay with them for a month, I had to come back and share the research results with them. They often asked me, “What does the outsider think of us? About our conceptions of the arts?” Furthermore, for them it was important to have a conversation about the research that involved them as participants. As Sibawaihi, one of Pasir Putih artists, told the other people in community before I presented the research results, he believed that research would help them to reflect on their position as artists in the village community.

Pasir Putih is a small art community formed in January 2010 by five undergraduate students in Pemenang village and now comprising 13 active members, of which only two are women. Most of the research community members have a Bachelor’s degree in different fields, such as communication and education studies, and none of them have attained an art degree through formal education. They have attained their skills in art by doing. When I was in the field, the artists also contributed to the community as teachers for extracurricular art subjects in junior high schools in North Lombok. On their website, Pasir Putih define themselves as an “…organisasi nirlaba egaliter berbasis di Kecamatan Pemenang, Lombok Utara, Nusa Tenggara Barat oleh pegiat kultural, aktivis media dan seniman sejak tahun 2010” (“an egalitarian non-profit organization initiated and run by cultural and media activists and artists in Pemenang District, North Lombok since 2010”).[1]

After discussing my research with the community, they told me they felt my research encouraged them to define what it is that they do as artists. Sibawaihi mentioned that being involved in the research and hearing about the findings has made them realize that what they do as artists is important for people around them. I saw their work as ‘art as activism’, while the community used art as a way to express their value in the society around them. This idea of ‘art as activism’ was based on the theories I had engaged with during my Master’s research, and it differed from the idea the research participants had of themselves. Yet they found it an interesting observation. For them, art is what they do—not just for the village community, but also from and by the village community. They rejected the term ‘activist’ to avoid being considered superior to other people in the village.

They were also interested in how research could be seen as a part of the “documentation of knowledge” that might be useful now or in the future. They saw my research as “an archive for what we do that can be consulted in the future”. Interestingly, they were curious about what my lecturers at my university thought of art. “Did your teachers agree with our definition of art?” one asked. In other words, Pasir Putih artists were engaged in knowledge production not only during the research process, but also after that.

Oka, one of the artists who was a research participant as he initiated a film screening project to re-engage village communities after the 2018 earthquake, said that he was interested in the term ‘ethnography’. He related the methodology to what they do as community artists, such as staying in different villages to screen films. From Oka’s perspective, living in communities for several months is key to an ethnographic research methodology, because it helps the researcher to understand the research subject by regarding their daily practices as well as through daily conversations. Yet he felt that my stay should have been longer for me to be able to get a better grasp of their activities.

From my perspective, it was fascinating to have follow-up discussions with the research participants and to learn that they also benefited from (if I can use this term) the exchange of knowledge during the research project. As some of them expressed in the discussion, the findings of the research help them to reflect more on their perspectives and practices as artists/activists in the community. In addition, they saw my research as “archiving initiatives” related to what they had been doing, although the language barriers (I wrote the thesis in English) meant most of them could not access what I wrote. I saw the discussion that emerged about their art perspectives and practices among the Pemenang village community when I revisited the site as an interesting dialogue between academic research and practices in the field. Furthermore, ‘revisiting the site’ can be seen as an attempt to create more equal relations between researchers and the research participants in the field.

If I think back to the fieldwork, however, I realize that it was difficult to make the artists fully engaged in the research and vice versa. Given the time constraints, it was difficult for me to be fully involved in their projects. The data mostly came from semi-structured interviews rather than informal conversations with the artists. This means that my initial plan to create more equal relations with the participants was not fully successful. Despite that, the observations of the artists’ daily activities enriched the findings from the interviews.


[1] http://pasirputih.org/tentang-organisasi/, accessed on 27 September 2019


Image: Lize Swartz

About the author:

Daya Sudrajat is a researcher and policy advocate in inclusive education issues based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She has a strong interest in knowledge production in marginalized communities and this led her to write a thesis about art as alternative development practice in North Lombok, Indonesia. She holds a MA degree from ISS Erasmus University of Rotterdam.

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