Doing Fieldwork on Informal Politics

 One of the main challenges of studying informal dimensions of politics is that the things you are looking for are largely invisible. At least at first. The way in which a businessman uses personal connections to secure a government contract, the informal authority that party workers exert in his neighbourhood or the ways in which the police responds to pressure from politicians: these things are not ‘out there’ ready to observe when a researcher walks in. How much easier is life for students of, say, voting behavior when you just have to download the election results from a website!

Yet making the unobservable observable, and the invisible visible is actually a nice challenge. It constitutes an important reason why fieldwork on informal politics takes time. Not only do you need to build trust to get people to talk about these sensitive things. You also need to find ways to ‘be there’ at the right place at the right moment when previously invisible networks or practices suddenly become visible. You might call these moments ‘network-instantiations’ in the sense that they suddenly reveal what networks connect people and how people use these networks. No supervisor can tell their students what these moments exactly are. In fact, it requires quite some fieldwork to be able to recognize that you are actually in the middle of such a ‘network-instantiation-moment’. Looking back on my fieldwork in India, I realized I had missed many of them. Often I had not fully written down what was happening as I did not realize how important, illustrative or insightful the moment actually was. I was more perceptive in the latter half of the fieldwork, and that had largely to do with the fact that I knew more people, and I could see the significance of these people meeting up at a particular moment.

Below is one example of such a ‘network-instantiation-moment’. I was driving my scooter through a neighbourhood in Ahmedabad – perhaps coming from an interview – when I spotted a group of men standing next the road, engaged in a lively discussion. I knew some them, and had met them separately during interviews. I was surprised to see them together, and even more to learn the purpose of their meeting. I stopped the scooter and joined the group. This is how I later described the meeting:


‘On one of those blazing hot afternoons in June, a small group of men is standing around a kitli (tea-stall) near a police post in Isanpur. While drinking their tea the men are talking loudly and gesticulating vehemently; they seem to be engaged in a fierce debate. The passers-by turn their heads to look at the noisy tea-drinkers. They might be curious about the composition of the group: standing around the kitli are some of Isanpur’s most prominent inhabitants. They are, as people put it, aagal padeto manaso: they are the ones ‘fallen in front’, the well-known residents of the neighbourhood. Most prominent among them is Ahmed Faraz, the municipal councilor from Congress, who is flanked by some of his workers. He is talking to Jagdishbhai and Akashbhai, two neighbourhood leaders known to be ‘social workers’. Standing next to Jagdishbhai is another famous – and feared – resident: Dilipbhai, the notorious addawallah – liquortrader – and brother of another municipal councilor, Vinodbhai.

As I approach the group, the discussion seemed to have come to an end. “We have found a solution”, Ahmed Faraz tells me, looking relieved. They were engaged in ‘doing a samodhan’, they were compromising. A relatively well-off resident had been renovating his house, and in the process he had moved one wall five inches on the land of his poorer neighbour. The poorer neighbour felt offended, and demanded the wall to be removed. As his richer neighbour declined, the dispute had led to a complaint at the police station. “Now we are here because the police called us”, Jagdishbhai explains. “I had told the poorer man that it would be stupid to go to the police. I told him not to spoil relations. Now the police called us to find a compromise.” They had been going over the case: five inhabitants, representing the poorer inhabitant, argued that the wall should be removed while others had reasoned that the buildings in this area are not measured properly anyway, and that removing the wall would be very expensive. When I joined the group, they had just agreed on a compromise: the wall could stay, but the richer inhabitant should give a written promise that the remaining construction work would be done properly. The representatives of both sides moved off to convey this compromise to the disputants’.


The dispute about the new wall brought together a diverse group of people, each of whom played their part: the call from the police had brought together party workers, social workers, a politician and a local goonda who all seemed eager to contribute to finding a compromise. In this way this meeting showed me how the police interacted with local leaders to solve local problems (and alleviate their workload). The discussion also gave some indication of who was considered to have enough local authority to actually settle a dispute. I was surprised to see a local bootlegger (‘goonda’) there. Through such meetings I gradually realized how local authority is also bound up with a capacity to threaten and use violence. Their capacity for violence enables these goondas (sometimes) to become influential leaders. That became an important theme in an article I later wrote about goondas and politics in India.


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