There are, sometimes, strange coincidences. I read an article published in Dawn‘s electronic edition by Michael Kugelman (a “Pakistan analyst” working as a Senior Program Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington) and titled “Five challenges faced by Washington’s Pakistan analysts” (http://dawn.com/2012/11/08/five-challenges-faced-by-washingtons-pakistan-analysts), just after coming back from a conference held in Paris where I had precisely resisted being presented as “a Pakistan analyst” (I work on political and social mobilizations in Punjab). I tried to explain that I was not a “specialist of Pakistan” simply because no such thing exists – and fortunately so -, as much as there are obviously no “specialists of France”.
Yet, I made the hypothesis that the very existence of this label, externally ascribed or self-chosen, as well as its inflation in recent years, does tell us something interesting (and worrying): the implicit transformation of “Pakistan” into a scientific object in itself. The “situation of the country” becomes what needs to be explained, or more exactly in the context of the article under review, its “danger” and “perplexities” are transformed into research question.
What is obviously invented in the same token is Pakistan so-called ontological specificity (an old story you might say). And this comes full circle when this specificity is precisely what justifies the existence of “Pakistan analysts”. This is after all how research bunkers are built. In some cases, what is at play is an epistemological bias that French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu had beautifully analyzed: the analyst’s position (be it emotional or judgmental), his/her own perplexities towards his object is placated on the very “object” supposed to study. In other, this “fixation” on the crises that Pakistan does not just experience but somehow personifies is a convenient way to “trivialise the study of Pakistan”, as David Gilmartin has forcefully showed*.
Why the essentialization of Pakistan works so well is the direct result of obvious “high political” reasons as well as “low-politics” ones: the constraints inherent to think-thank funded-research and to the professional field of “expertise” – two compelling issues that the author does recognize -, but also to the lack of a competitive research milieu on Pakistan’s political system, to name just a few possible explanations. Let us note that the process is easier to enforce on some countries than on others. Anyone who would claim to be an authority on China, its political violence, energetic issues, security problems, deforestation, and international relations (the issues addressed in this article), all at once, would certainly be laughed at.
What is even more worrying, and especially for those of us who have founded GRASP listerv and joined it out of our conviction that fieldwork-based research matter, is to read in an article written by a scholar from the Woodrow Wilson Center that… well, at the end of the day, fieldwork is not as important as it is made to be. We are told that “with the proper contacts, and through vehicles such as Twitter and Skype, Pakistan specialists in America can instantaneously gain access to insights from inside Pakistan”. In other words, the medium of expression, face-to-face interactions, sociological milieu, inquiries’ context, you name it, are irrelevant as long as “a Pakistani” talks. How stupid are we, indeed, to spend so much time in the cities, villages and neighborhoods we study, with the people whose thoughts and actions we try to understand, or even in learning vernacular languages for some of us! And if the limits of this Internet-based, cozy social networks type of research are recognized, it’s only because it might have, says M. Klugerman, an elitist bias. No problem: let’s chat with “low-level civilian bureaucrats” and “rural-based youth” visiting the US. We all know that the individuals making up these groups are all interchangeable with one another. If “the real Pakistan” is impossible to reach, we still have the comfort to work on unproblematic social categories, and their so-called individual samples.
These comments should not be read as an attempt to put the professional milieu of expertise under trial or as a claim that only fieldwork-focused academics have some sort of superior right to knowledge. Questioning the epistemological and methodological foundations of our work and that of others, being careful about how we label ourselves and others, are very different from “policing knowledge”. They are the only possible devices we have against the (possible) temptation of becoming demiurge researchers. And if there is a field in which these issues matter the most it is precisely in public policy-oriented expertise because of the greater appeal of this temptation in this professional milieu, because of the greater publicity given to your words and, finally, because of the political responsibility you endorse (if ever you believe that your findings impact on public policy-making). Similarly, “long-distance fieldwork”, sometimes forced upon a researcher, is most certainly legitimate but, again, as long as it is not understood as an inconsequential substitute.
To conclude on another trivial point: To become a serious or just credible and readable researcher on Pakistan (or any other country) does not depend on how “real” are the people you talk to, not even on having passed the test of being once (or twice or even more) to Pakistan, as the author suggests: it starts simply by recognizing the limits of what you can possibly know (and understand).
(My apologies for any Frenglish sentences)
* David Gilmartin. “Living the Tensions of the State, the Nation and Everyday Life”, in Naveeda Khan (ed.), Beyond crisis. Re-evaluating Pakistan (Routledge, 2010, p. 521).
This comment was initially posted on GRASP (Group Group for Research in the Anthropology, Sociology, and Politics of Pakistan, http://groups.google.com/group/graspakistan?hl=en).