Burning the Field

I once overheard an economist suggesting to a political scientist: “We should get him on the committee, he’s got field experience”.

What does that really mean?, I thought to myself.

Over the years, I had heard this sentence uttered too often in academe and in policy-making – used as an accepted and valued benchmark to assess credentials and expertise. That the referred-to colleague was a distinguished sociologist made the remark appear innocuous, indeed flattering.

Yet something was off.

The issue was not the context but the subtext, indeed the acceptability of it and the unseen coded nature of the term – often too as used by those reflexively resorting to the phrase.

For all practical purposes, ‘the field’ is an accepted term of art for the Global South. It presents and represents it as a normal destination of a type of study whose nature is particular. The chosen ‘field’ metaphor conveys a clear idea of open land and nature environment.

Those using it may not realize it. Their work, after all, is in favor of that ‘global south’. Benign humanitarians acquire experience ‘in the field’ before returning to headquarters to display that gained knowledge.

The fact remains that an allegedly scientific term is eminently non-scientific for it is associated with a given destination rather than left open.

Unsurprisingly, the concealed soundscape of the field is the result of its history and the asymmetric power relations it establishes. Eurocentrism travels. Orientalism as well, in imagery and in sound. Most importantly, both constructs do so in language. In this case, the semantics are that the field is that which stands away from the center.

More specifically, the field is Africa, the Middle East, Asia, at times Latin America. It most certainly never is Europe or North America. If it is Western, it is merely in circumscribed places in its midst; troubled, so-called no-go areas, which as it were are inhabited by ‘communities’ ‘whose citizens originally ‘come from’ somewhere else. And so, even in the center, the field is imported periphery.

As dominion, the field can be surveyed. One flies over it romantically as do the characters of Meryl Streep and Robert Redford – hurriedly followed on foot by the helping local Kenyans – in Sidney Pollack’s Out of Africa, with John Barry’s lush violins smoothing that imperial privilege of unquestioned ownership.

Elsewhere in North Africa, the field – also a derivative battlefield in this case as Rommel Afrika Korps squared off with Montgomery’s troops – is similarly the normalized backdrop of colonial ownership and field studies as in The English Patient‘s archeological team. One passes through it safely, in David Lean’s A Passage to India.

For the field is for the taking, that is by the non-fielder so to speak. Historically a playground or dominion, it logically became a place of study and social sciences codified it this way.

The true nature of the field is, however, revealed by the violence such language erases. The field is where the ‘field negro’ lives – in resentment and exploitation – as Malcolm X famously brought it home.

The field can never be another place which can be researched similarly. And therein lies the hypocrisy of the term as used contemporaneously. ‘Field research’ in the corridors of the European Union in Brussels or those of the World Bank in Washington is incongruous. Can one gain field experience in the police precincts of Alabama or the courtrooms of Mississippi? Or are only interviews of tribesmen in Yemen or rebels in Burkina Faso to be listed in vitaes?

If the field can never be in North, it is because by definition that realm has been defined as the center and the field is derivative of an equally identifiable ‘center of power’.

Tired of being paternalistically asked by the wielders of such claimed authority whether he had ‘done field work’, a brilliant and cherished Lebanese friend once retorted: “I was born in the field”.

 


Photo: Tron directed by Steven Lisberger, © 1982, Walt Disney Productions

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou

Politologue et historien, Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou est professeur d'histoire internationale a l'Institut de Hautes études internationales et du développement à Genève. Précédemment à l’Université Harvard, il enseigne également à Sciences Po Paris.