Gender studies (knowledge) (theory)

Gender studies (knowledge) (theory)

Do your analyzing of this article based on this question :

1) What is mutually beneficial knowledge production? (Nagar) Can you give examples from the readings.


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Gender, Place and Culture, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 179–186, 2002
Footloose Researchers, ‘Traveling’ Theories, and the
Politics of Transnational Feminist Praxis
RICHA NAGAR, University of Minnesota, USA
When feminist scholars from Western countries come here to do their research,
they often try hard to do everything in our local language and idiom. But why
is it that when they return to their institutions, they frequently write in ways
that are totally inaccessible and irrelevant to us? … The question of access is
not just about writing in English. It is about how one chooses to frame things,
how one tells a story … [Suppose] you tell my story in a way that makes no
sense at the conceptual level to me or my community, why would we care what
you have to say about my life? (Group discussion with three feminist scholaractivists
in Pune, India, July 27, 2000)
In the last decade, re exivity, positionality and identity have become keywords in
feminist . eldwork in much of anglophone academia. Indeed, it is now rare to . nd
. eldwork-based feminist research that does not engage to some degree with the ‘politics
of . eldwork,’ i.e. with a reexive analysis ‘of how the production of ethnographic
knowledge is shaped by the shifting contextual, and relational contours of the researcher’s
social identity with respect to her subjects, and by her social situatedness or
positionality in terms of gender, race, class, sexuality and other axes of social difference’
(Nagar & Geiger, 2000, p. 2).
Despite this proliferation of self-re exivity, however, feminist social scientists have
largely avoided the most vexing political questions that lie at the heart of our in/ability
to talk across worlds. The opening quotation vividly illustrates that at the most basic level
these political questions have to do with the theoretical frameworks and languages that
we deploy in our work. But the concern about the utility of theory and theoretical
languages in transnational feminist praxis is entangled with at least three other complex
issues. First is the question of accountability and the speci. c nature of our political
commitments: who are we writing for, how, and why? The second involves a serious
engagement with questions of collaboration: what does it mean to co-produce relevant
knowledge across geographical, institutional, and/or cultural borders? Third, the concern
entails an explicit interrogation of the structure of the academy and the constraints
and values embedded therein, as well as our desire and ability to challenge and reshape
those structures and values.
Existing models of ‘doing’ positionality and re exivity fail to engage adequately with
these issues. This inadequacy recently led Susan Geiger and me to argue that much
Correspondence: Richa Nagar, Department of Women’s Studies, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455,
USA; e-mail: [email protected]
ISSN 0966-369X print/ISSN 1360-052 4 online/02/020179-08 Ó 2002 Taylor & Francis Ltd
DOI 10.1080/0966396022013969 9
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180 R. Nagar
important theoretical work on the concepts of re exivity, positionality and identity has
led to an impasse with respect to feminist research involving . eldwork (Nagar & Geiger,
2000). This impasse is re ected, among other things, in the abandonment of . eldwork
by some researchers in favor of textual analyses and in accusations by critics that
self-re exive exercises amount to mere ‘navel gazing’ and serve either as ‘tropes that
sound like apologies’ or as ‘badges’ worn by researchers to prove their legitimacy (Patai,
1991; Wolf, 1997). By identifying these problems, we do not dismiss the importance of
understanding how our situatedness as researchers and our multiple and shifting
contextual identities and agendas shape the knowledges we produce. Rather, we
maintain that such re exivity does not go far enough in terms of political engagement,
especially when it comes to feminist . eldwork in ‘Third World’ contexts.
In this viewpoint, I reframe and extend some of the arguments that Geiger and I make
about the nature of this impasse by analyzing varying responses that I received in 2000
to my manuscript, ‘Mujhe Jawab Do! (Answer me!)’ (subsequently published in Gender, Place
and Culture) from three very different feminist audiences. These audiences were located
respectively in the US academy and in two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in
India—one being a ‘grass-roots’ organization of women in rural Bundelkhand (North
India) and another a research and documentation center in the city of Pune (western
India). When juxtaposed and compared to each other, the three responses are instructive
in not only rethinking issues of re exivity, positionality and identity in feminist . eldwork,
but also in concretely identifying and grappling with some of the key challenges
associated with transnational feminist praxis. But before I discuss the responses, a few
words about ‘Mujhe Jawab Do! (Answer me!)’ are in order.
Mujhe Jawab Do: juggling multiple feminist agendas
After eight years of research and writing on the gendered communal and racial politics
among South Asians in Tanzania, I dramatically shifted the course of my intellectual
journey to North India and embarked on a new research project in Chitrakoot district
of Bundelkhand region (Uttar Pradesh) in 1998. The reasons for this shift were related
to my own struggles with what constitutes politically relevant research, and I address this
topic at length elsewhere (Nagar & Geiger, 2000). For the purposes of my argument here,
it should suf. ce to say that despite the theoretically and empirically exciting nature of my
work in Tanzania, the material, institutional, and ethical constraints associated with this
research seriously limited the spaces available to me for radical collaborative efforts with
socially marginalized Asian and Asian-African communities in Tanzania. These factors
led me to shift my next project to rural women’s activism and social spaces in North
One of the central goals of my new research was to examine the spatial tactics adopted
by rural women in Bundelkhand, often described as one of the most impoverished and
violence ridden areas in the country. Bundeli women’s activism over issues of water and
literacy had made a big splash in Indian newspapers and I was eager to learn about these
struggles, and about the way in which women’s activism on the ground was shaped by
institutions such as the Dutch Government, the World Bank, the Government of India
and state- and district-level governmental and non-governmental organizations.
However, once I became immersed in the two grass-roots organizations working in
this area, activists from one of these organizations, Vanangana, made it clear that they
wanted their emerging street theater on domestic violence to be a major part of my
research inquiry. Accordingly, the . rst publication to come out of this research (Nagar,
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Viewpoint 181
2000) focused on charting the ‘discursive geographies’ (the term is Gerry Pratt’s—see
Pratt, 1999) of women’s resistance through Vanangana’s street theater on domestic
violence. I explored the manner in which activists used a series of social spaces to develop
their political discourses for their own mobilization, and how they creatively used kinship
and gendered materialities of women’s natal and conjugal villages to claim the maledominated
spaces of the community.
The original version of the paper hinged on two main issues. First, it highlighted how
rural women’s activism on issues surrounding access to water and literacy led them to
critique an instrumentalist vision of empowerment in development organizations and
how they theorized and acted upon their understandings of the interconnections between
empowerment, violence, space and politics. Second, it argued that feminist social
scientists located in the ‘Western’/’Northern’ academy cannot choose to remain silent on
marginalized women’s struggles concerning sensitive issues such as domestic violence in
the so-called Third-World simply because there is a messy politics of power and
representation involved in the . eldwork encounter. Rather, they should accept the
challenge of . guring out how to productively engage with and participate in mutually
bene. cial knowledge production about those struggles.
Responses to the Paper
On . nishing the initial version of Mujhe Jawab Do! in March 2000, I sent off one set of
copies to Gender, Place and Culture and another set to the two (and only) Vanangana
members who were  uent in English. Later, when I visited India in July 2000, I
presented the same paper—in a mixture of Hindi and English—to feminist scholar-activists
at Aalochana, a women’s research and documentation center in Pune, Maharashtra.
While the responses from all three audiences were quite positive and enthusiastic,
each group emphasized very different things in relation to the politics of positionality,
re exivity and identity.
Response from Gender, Place and Culture
Two out of the three reviewers of GPC were disturbed because they assumed that my
argument about the need for US-based feminist scholars to engage with sensitive topics
such as domestic violence in the homes of rural women in India was coming from a white
researcher. They wanted to know why the author did not explain how s/he dealt with
cultural and linguistic differences, and why s/he did not highlight the contributions of
Indian feminist scholars who were trying to engage in similar research endeavors. Both
reviewers suggested that I either say more about my personal background and positionality,
or drop the argument about the need for US-based feminists to engage with
marginalized women’s struggles in the ‘Third World.’
Response from Vanangana, Chitrakoot
The two English-speaking organizers at Vanangana expressed excitement about my
in-depth ethnographic analysis of their street theater and said that it helped them think
about their political and spatial methodologies in a different light. However, they had
reservations about the theoretical section of the paper. While they understood how a
discussion of power and representation, and of relationships between US-based feminist
scholars and poor women’s activism in the ‘Third World’ could be important to other
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182 R. Nagar
(academic) feminists, this subject was the least interesting or relevant for them. This
section, they said, did not help them for two reasons.
First, it was too theoretical and inaccessible for the members of their organization. The
readers suggested that I eliminate the theoretical language and write a shorter version of
the paper in Hindi so that women who were active in the street theater campaign could
read, re ect and respond to my analysis of their movement. Second, they wished to share
my paper (in English) with other feminist organizations in the country and with
prospective funding agencies because they themselves did not have the time or resources
to produce such an analysis. They believed that the paper would serve this purpose much
better if I could substitute the section on representation with a more detailed discussion
of the relationship between empowerment and violence in development thinking and in
women’s social movements in South Asia.
Response from Aalochana, Women’s Research and Documentation Center, Pune
When I presented the paper at Aalochana, an organization comprising feminist thinkers
who are active in women’s development NGOs, its members responded with great
passion and keen enthusiasm. Several of them expressed an interest in building direct
bridges with Vanangana members, in exchanging ideas, and discussing future collaborations
and strategies with them. Most women saw me as belonging to North India, and
did not raise any issues about whether I was an authentic enough researcher to undertake
the project. One scholar activist from New Delhi, however, who was the only other
‘North Indian’ in the room besides me, asked why ‘American’ researchers like me did not
leave such research projects for ‘Indian’ feminists, and choose to do research on Indian
communities living in the USA instead.
Comparing the Responses: implications for transnational feminist praxis
None of the aforementioned groups questioned the relevance of the struggles that I
narrated and analyzed in Mujhe Jawab Do! Yet, the divergent nature of their responses
uncovered the messiness associated with attempts by feminists located in the ‘Western’
academy to talk across worlds—worlds that are separated not just socially, geopolitically
and materially, but also in their understandings of what constitutes relevant theory and
politics. Sorting through this mess necessarily implies making decisions regarding which/
whose understandings about relevant theory matter the most to ‘us’ and why.
Interestingly enough, this messiness also vividly illustrates what Geiger and I label as
‘the impasse.’ For instance, the response from the two GPC reviewers exempli. ed the
central problems that we identify with existing models of doing re exivity. First and
foremost, re exivity in US academic writing has mainly focused on examining the
identities of the individual researcher rather than on the ways in which those identities
intersect with institutional, geopolitical and material aspects of their positionality. This
kind of identity-based re exivity is problematic because it fails to distinguish systematically
among the ethical, ontological and epistemological aspects of . eldwork dilemmas.
Consequently, the epistemological dilemma of whether/how it is possible to represent
‘accurately’ often gets con ated with the issue of ethical relationships and choices, as well
as with the ontological question of whether there is a pre-de. ned reality (about researcher–
subject relationship) that can be known, represented, challenged or altered through
re exivity (Nagar & Geiger, 2000, p. 3). Last, but not least, a simple identity-based
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Viewpoint 183
re exivity demands that we uncover ourselves in terms of certain categories or labels. As
Susan Geiger and I have argued:
This demand needs to be challenged and resisted because uncovering ourselves
in these terms contradicts our purpose of problematizing the dominant meanings
attributed to pre-de. ned social categories—that is, social categories that
are not just essentialist or overly coherent, but a view of categories as existing
prior to and isolated from speci. c interactions, rather than as created, enacted,
transformed in and through those interactions. (Nagar & Geiger, 2000, p. 8)
The response from the scholar-activist at Aalochana proves that the tendency to reduce
re exivity to simply an identity-based re exivity is by no means con. ned to the ‘Western’
academic establishment. In raising questions about who constituted an ‘authentic’
feminist researcher, the aforementioned member of Aalochana was clearly reducing
positionality to the retrogressive kind of identity politics that allows only ‘Xes to speak
to X issues’ (di Leonardo & Lancaster, 1997, p. 5).
It was the constructive criticism from the two Vanangana of. cials that I found to be
the most helpful for my project at hand, and to further grapple with the two key questions
that lie at the heart of feminist research in ‘Third World’ contexts:
First, how can feminists use . eldwork to produce knowledges across multiple
divides (of power, geopolitical and institutional locations and axes of difference)
in ways that do not re ect or reinforce the interests, agendas and priorities of
the more privileged groups and places? Second, how can the production of
those knowledges be tied more explicitly to the material politics of social
change in favor of the less privileged communities and places? (Nagar &
Geiger, 2000, p. 2)
Like Wendy Larner’s work on Maori and Pakeha women in New Zealand, Vanangana’s
critique was based in an implicit recognition that in any given context there are likely
to be multiple situated knowledges rooted in different and often mutually irreconcilable
epistemological positions (Larner, 1995, p. 187). The question that Vanangana members
posed, then, was neither ‘Who was making the theoretical claims about power and
representation?’ nor ‘What was the epistemological basis for those theoretical claims?’
but rather, ‘What kinds of struggles did my analysis make possible for them?’ (paraphrased
from Larner, 1995, p. 187). In so doing, Vanangana of. cials circumvented the
problems of a simple identity-based re exivity that characterized the responses by the
GPC reviewers and the critic from Aalochana. Instead, they articulated a more complex
critique—grounded in a deeper political re exivity—that pushed me to rethink the
sociopolitical implications of my theoretical framework, and how my choices regarding
theoretical languages were explicitly tied to questions of accountability and commitments
in transnational feminist praxis.
Let me give a quick example to highlight this key difference in the two kinds of
critiques. One of the GPC reviewers (who had assumed that I was white and wanted me
to say so) thought it was pretentious of me to claim that the problems surrounding
accurate representations of ‘the subaltern’ should not deter feminist scholars from getting
involved in messy issues such as domestic violence in the lives of poor women in the
‘Third World.’ The reviewer also expressed irritation that at one place, I used the term
‘talking to’ instead of ‘talking with’ when elaborating on the need for feminist academics
located ‘here’ to seriously engage with theorizations of grass-roots activists ‘there.’ In
order to please this reviewer, then, all I would have had to do was to claim an authentic
status as a ‘real native’ from Uttar Pradesh, and use the correct lingo that replaced
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184 R. Nagar
‘talking to’ with ‘talking with’ without changing my argument. Ironically, however, these
modi. cations would have made no difference whatsoever to the usefulness of my analysis
to Vanangana. In fact, it was precisely the abstract discussion of subalternity, representation
and talking with/for/to that made it hard for my initial analysis to speak directly
to Vanangana’s concerns. The concrete practice of talking with the campaigners, however,
led me to reorient my story away from what was fashionable in the academic realm of
theory, into the direction of the Bundeli women’s political and intellectual priorities. This
entailed eliminating the ‘jargon’ about politics of representation and replacing it with an
analysis of the intersections among empowerment, violence, space and gender in South
Asian development politics.
Ultimately, however, our ability to talk across worlds—to align our theoretical
priorities with the concerns of marginalized communities whose struggles we want to
advance—is connected to the opportunities, constraints and values embedded in our
academic institutions. In the concluding part of this viewpoint, I turn to this structural
issue and identify some of the key areas we need to reshape in order to create
institutional spaces that can facilitate more productive dialogues among feminists located
in materially, geographically, socially and politically diverse worlds.
Academia, Theory, and Transnational Feminist Praxis: Some Conclusions
If you ask me what is the object of my work, the object of the work is to always
reproduce the concrete in thought—not to generate another good theory, but
to give a better-theorized account of concrete historical reality. This is not an
anti-theoretical stance. I need theory in order to do this. But the goal is to
understand the situation you started out with better than before. (Hall, 1988,
pp. 69–70) [1]
Transnational feminist conversations, especially between worlds as far removed from
each other as the ones I have described, cannot be productive unless feminist academics
based in Western/Northern institutions produce research agendas and knowledges that
do not merely address what is theoretically exciting or trendy here, but also what is
considered politically imperative by the communities we work with or are committed to
over there. By making this distinction between theory and politics I am not implying that
people who ‘do’ theory are not engaged in political work, or that political activists are
not simultaneously engaged in important theory building. Rather, I am echoing the
manner in which each group commonly states its priorities: for feminist academics in
major research institutions in the USA, the primary concerns are often articulated in
terms of theory, while NGOs such as Vanangana or Aalochana are mainly interested in
the political and strategic rami. cations of a given concept or analysis. In other words,
widening the notion of what constitutes theory should form the core of transnational
feminist praxis. At a time when our students and colleagues are increasingly drawn to the
elegance of ‘high’ theory and the headiness of the abstract, we need to go back to
theorists like Stuart Hall who remind us that concrete political engagement does not
translate into an anti-theoretical stance.
Equally, it is critical that such knowledge be produced and shared in theoretical
languages that are simultaneously accessible and relevant to multiple audiences here and
there. While many academics accept the idea that working with NGOs or social
movements requires producing written products other than scholarly books or articles—
for example, workshops, organizational reports, and newspaper articles in local lan-
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Viewpoint 185
guages—I believe that it is increasingly important for us to produce scholarly analyses that
can be accessed, used and critiqued by our audiences in multiple geographical, social and
institutional locations. This kind of scholarship is necessary not only to dismantle the
existing hierarchies of knowledge but also because, as we know so well, scholars in US
research universities are often too overcommitted to devote much time to developing
workshops, organizational reports, or other ‘non-academic’ products.
At the same time, however, we must continue the struggle to create new institutional
spaces that favor, facilitate, and give due recognition to alternative research products and
to new forms of collaboration. Workshops, organizational reports, or newspaper articles
in local/non-local languages that emerge from our work, for instance, must be institutionally
recognized—not as extra-curricular activities that we do on the side—but as
research products that require special skills and time and energy commitments, and that
are central to scholarly knowledge production. Similarly, we must carry on . ghting for
institutional recognition that knowledge is never produced by a single individual. This
involves replacing the notion of sole authorship with one that genuinely recognizes and
encourages collaboration with actors such as NGO workers, life-historians, and research
assistants—not only in shaping the outcome of research—but also in articulating and
framing our research priorities and questions. In the context of research that focuses on
feminist organizing at the grass-roots level, it is also important to consider how women’s
groups are building alliances with men and the ways in which male research assistants
and co-researchers can play a critical role in yielding insights about activism, gender and
space, particularly in gender-segregated social contexts.
Finally, I would like to draw upon Cindi Katz’s notion of translocal ‘countertopographies
that link different places analytically and thereby enhance struggles in the name of
common interests’ (Katz, 2001, p. 1230). For transnational feminist research to produce
such ‘countertopographies’, researchers must seriously consider how we can serve as
useful channels of communication between scholars and activists located in different
places who are not as mobile as we are. For example, organizations working on
environmental issues and economic policies in India want to know about how local
organizations coordinated and developed their strategies during the World Trade
Organization protest in Seattle. Similarly, women’s organizations in Pune want to . nd
out how they can build bridges with women’s organizations in Bundelkhand. And
feminist researchers working in New Delhi want to know how they can link up with
feminists working on similar issues in Dar es Salaam and Cape Town. Combining this
concern in our own re exive process can help us use our locational, material and
institutional privileges to develop more politically effective feminist research strategies in
the context of globalization.

I dedicate this essay to the memory of Susan Geiger, who never got a chance to read
this piece, but who instilled in me the passion and inspiration for the issues I raise here.
Discussions with David Faust, Naomi Scheman, and Mary Jo Maynes, and comments
from an anonymous reviewer were critical in helping me articulate several of the points
I make here about re exivity, political engagement, collaborative knowledge, and
relevant theory, and I thank them for generously sharing their time and ideas with me.
Last but not least, I am grateful to Lynn Staeheli for her interest, encouragement, and
vision, for her excellent feedback on an earlier version of this article, and for making this
viewpoints section happen.
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186 R. Nagar
[1] I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out this quotation by Stuart Hall to me. The reviewer
also adds (a` la Marx), and I agree completely, that after understanding ‘the situation you started out with
better than before,’ the goal is to change that situation.
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