Blog | April 2010

Windows to a virtual field

by Jovan Maud


I begin my blog post with a look out my window. I have a view of the garden behind the Max Planck villa which houses the Religious Diversity department. Trees are blossoming. Workers are out there, landscaping a Japanese garden. It's a peaceful scene. Good for writing you would say. And this is what I am my main task is at the moment: writing up my research on popular Buddhism and transnational religion in southern Thailand. My days involve sitting at my desk, at my computer, reading and writing. I spend a lot of that time looking out this office window, waiting for my brain to come up with the goods.

What a dull routine, I've thought to myself as I've cast around for something to blog about. I've been tempted ignore my current situation and instead reflect on some aspect of my fieldwork. Surely there's more of interest to say about mythical Buddhist saints, sacred sites, exotic rituals, religious tourism, and amulets and magical tattoos that perform miracles and grant protection from danger!

Call this the anthropologist's dilemma. When asked to talk about "our research" we naturally turn to our fieldwork, seen as the essence of research proper. However, we spend a greater proportion of our time "writing up". Our worlds are split, in a sense, between the site of fieldwork and the site of writing. But when we talk about our research the former gets a lot more attention while the latter remains largely invisible.

I might be accused of being a little naïve to evoke this dichotomy. After all, critical anthropologists have long pointed out that such an outlook helps to reproduce the myth of culture as bounded and spatially delimited, or they have noted that fieldwork itself is characterised by multiple practices of writing. By and large, anthropologists today are very conscious of the tendency of our research matter to overflow all sorts of boundaries, including our methodological ones.

And yet, looking over the research blogs up to now I've been struck by the fact that most are concerned with discussing aspects of fieldwork, especially methodological issues, e.g. how to gain access to informants, how to get "into" the field, how to conduct effective research. Those that haven't discussed fieldwork itself have often focused on the distinction between "the field" and "the office", where the former tends to be characterised as sensuously rich, challenging and difficult, while the office is presented as relatively dull and predictable. The motif of looking out the office window, which several of us have used to set the scene of our blog posts is indicative of this dichotomy. It places us in the office, notionally a site of withdrawal and detached contemplation. Indeed the gaze through the window connotes observation of, but not engagement with, the world. It is the inverse of fieldwork, which tends to be written about in the language of phenomenological closeness and immersion.

I don't, however, make these points in order to suggest that this dichotomy can be "transcended". Rather than being an artefact of outmoded models of culture, I think some sort of process of immersion and withdrawal is vital to producing anthropology. However, I would argue that the distinction between site of fieldwork and site of writing is not nearly as stable as we routinely assume. And I would suggest that even when "writing", new media technologies make it increasingly likely that anthropologists continue to do a sort of fieldwork even when at home. I'd like to briefly contrast the detached gaze out the window with engagement with another window – or rather Windows – that I spend a lot of my time staring at.

My PhD research on popular religion in southern Thailand focused to a large degree on a semi-mythical Buddhist saint called Luang Pho Thuat (pictured). I investigated the importance of this saint for production of southern Thailand as a Buddhist space, but I was also interested in his increasingly transnational character, and especially his popularity among ethnic Chinese Malaysians and Singaporeans. While Luang Pho Thuat was becoming an increasingly transnational figure, I argued, the pathways along which this charisma travelled were quite specific and reasonably localised. Stories and images were certainly circulating but these were still mainly "hard" copies, as amulets and statues, posters, flyers, temple brochures, calendars and in magazines aimed at amulet collectors. Thus although my research involved analysis of a range of media, these were generally only accessible to me "in the field".

As some recent web searches have shown me, over the last few years following my fieldwork this situation has changed significantly. Web content devoted to Luang Pho Thuat has expanded a great deal. There is an ever-increasing range of websites – usually connected to the thriving amulet trade – dedicated to famous Thai monks. Such sites regularly circulate hagiographies and stories of miracles performed by monks or objects associated with them. More interesting from my point of view is the proliferation of so-called Web 2.0 content. For example, Luang Pho Thuat now has his own "Facebook fan sites" in which enthusiasts discuss amulets and their provenances, post stories about his miracles, or share photos of sites they have visited or religious rites they have attended. Tourists, pilgrims and devotees have provided videos purporting to depict miraculous events associated with the saint (such as a strange object hovering over a religious ceremony in southern Thailand, or a section of an solid concrete stupa apparently rotating during a ceremony in northern Malaysia). Other videos show the development of tourist sites in Thailand featuring his image, or demonstrate his ongoing popularity in Malaysia, such as ceremony installing a statue of Luang Pho Thuat and two other famous Thai monks at a Buddhist monastery in Melaka.

I have not yet done any systematic online research, but it is clear that there is a great deal of material being produced by people and posted online which provides a rich resource of material on the Luang Pho Thuat "cult". What I want to emphasise though is that these productions do not just provide a window onto a distant world, allowing a researcher to observe it from afar. Rather, these media themselves become a part of the social reality to be studied. In this case, these websites and social networking platforms become part of the diffuse social mechanisms through which sacred charisma is produced and transmitted. And because it's on the web, this reality is not simply "over there" but is, in a sense, "here" as well.

Finally, it should be noted that this "collapse of distance" also happens in reverse. Because this blog post too is online, it becomes part of the discursive field it attempts to describe. This is one of the levelling effects of search engines such as Google: my own reflections here will eventually show up in the same search engine results as I used in order to carry out my own online survey. Devotees of Luang Pho Thuat may also find their way here and learn of a new dimension of their saint's spreading international fame.

These are issues that I have only just begun to think about. It seems clear to me though that media developments of this kind make it harder for us to assume that we are gaining distance from the field just by retreating to the office. Does the web mean that our anthropology increasingly becomes, as Keith Hart has recently suggested, a "24/7" activity, harder and harder to distinguish from journalism? Well, perhaps not, but I do think the ability to stare out the window in detached contemplation is more of an achievement than a given.


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