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The Limits of Emplacement

Early-career researchers from the Society for the Anthropology of Work respond to Mythri Jegathesan's award-winning book Tea and Solidarity.

Published onSep 10, 2021
The Limits of Emplacement

In anthropological research place often becomes a stand-in for community or for people. Because of this, our field site is often the first answer we must give when designing research. Yet Mythri Jegathesan’s Tea and Solidarity reflects a consistent discomfort with the conflation of people and place. Jegathesan expresses caution in assigning a name to the community she works with, although she settles on “Hill Country Tamils,” as this is how members of the community identify. Other names stand out in the colonial archives and in census data. Each does work in binding this community to a place. Hill Country Tamils are either understood as linked to Sri Lanka through the plantation on which they live and labor, or to India, where they are understood to be originally from.

The Sri Lankan tea plantation may be an overstudied location, but this does not mean that researchers typically acknowledge the desires of those who live and labor on plantations. Instead, the figure of the plantation drowns out the life stories of workers that exceed the narratives of violence and trauma that the plantation evokes. Hill Country Tamils, according to Jegathesan, wish to “detach from the plantation as a site of their future labor and valuation” (p. 23). As a result, the focus of Jegathesan’s research is not bound to the form of the plantation but to workers’ desires, as a heuristic positing the plantation as a place and an industrial form that can be refused.

When previous scholarship has represented Hill Country Tamils as bound to the plantation, they have also been understood as bound to certain types of work. Yet Hill Country Tamil working women have desires and social requirements that they cannot attain on their plantation wage. Despite finding home within the lines of the plantation, families must also spread beyond the plantations, serving as domestic workers in Colombo or the Gulf, to earn the wages that allow them to meet kin obligations and self-expectations. Tea and Solidarity thus serves as a corrective to social science research in other contexts that conflates people, place, and work to the benefit of extractive industries. This conflation of people and their labor has been accomplished in Jegathesan’s context by the epithet “coolie.” Despite efforts to reclaim this term, it remains derogatory for Hill Country Tamils in Sri Lanka. Coming from the Tamil kūli, meaning “payment for menial labor” (p. 12), the term prevents workers from being understood apart from their engagement in a particular form of work.

I read Tea and Solidarity while I was on a leave of absence and waiting to conduct my dissertation fieldwork. As the funding clock ticks and the guaranteed health insurance that comes with it threatens to elapse, I realize that I am no longer able to wait for fieldwork and must replace it with an archive. Beyond the archive (a place I am neither comfortable nor familiar with) I struggle to imagine alternatives to the fieldsite, or to imagine how the structures of the dissertation committee, funding agencies, and the job market could ever accept alternatives to the field as such.

How, then, do we work while refusing extractive industries and institutions—the plantation in Jegathesan’s work, the academy in my own example? How do we produce knowledge while refusing to bind people to place? To this end, Jegathesan employs the concept of “contingent solidarities” (p. 178), a sort of imperfect but necessary form of connection hinged on unpredictability and disruption. Perhaps we can begin to link these apparently unrelated questions by asking: where can solidarity be found?

Author Bio

Anabelle Suitor is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Brown University. Her research focuses on labor, the environment, and the unseen in the Bay of Bengal. Much of her work is driven by an interest in the lives that form from rivers' mouths.

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