Online Forum: Data and Fieldwork in Our Present

This online forum, consisted of eleven short essays from students, wraps up the Sawyer Seminar on Precision and Uncertainty in a World of Data. Each contributor reflects on their encounters with data forms, practices, and regimes across the world. Stay tuned for the complete curation of the essays in mid-December!


Bürge Abiral, “Mobilizing Data for Agroecological Futures”

Back-to-landers in Turkey employ and propagate agroecological methods like permaculture and holistic management to reverse the effects of climate change by sequestering carbon into soil. By drawing from ethnographic fieldwork conducted during trainings where they learn these methods, I will discuss how data is mobilized in these events to summon people into action for alternative agroecological futures. 

Marios Falaris, “Unemployment Uncertainties: Definition, Status and Measurement Imprecision”

I consider claims made about “unemployment” in Indian-administered Kashmir – and the uncertainty produced both in measuring such data and in circulating these claims. I track assertions made by the Prime Minister of India and his cabinet ministers, as well as officials in the Union Territory government, alongside village-level discourses that intersect, subvert, and reconstitute these claims. I consider the definitional instability of “employment” in this context, and what zones of uncertainty are produced through enrolling such imprecise data on behalf of development narratives. 

Zeynel Gül, “Paper Lives of Law in Medical Knowledge: The Case of Occupational Diseases in Turkey”

This paper focuses on the documentary practices of doctors in an occupational hospital in Turkey to illustrate how tools of knowledge production embed legal processes within the medical field, moving the ontology of diseases beyond the bedside of the patient. Drawing on an ethnographic research project, I argue that mutual absorption of law and medicine in occupational health is primarily enacted through mundane filing technologies such as barcode labels, medical certificates, and standardized forms used to evaluate respiratory capacities of patients.  

Kunal Joshi, “Power ≠ Knowledge: Tracing “Infopower” in North Indian Pilgrimage Ledgers”

This post will attempt to examine a tendency in some recent work on the “informational self” to trace the origins of evidently ‘modern’ informational techniques. I will do this primarily by contrasting these technologies with genealogical ledgers maintained as part of north-Indian pilgrimage networks—which have long existed parallel to and independently of the state.

Talia Katz, “On ‘Double Consciousness’ and the Borders of Fantasy: Reflections on the Relationship Between Clinical Data and the Construction of Trauma Theory in Early Israeli Psychiatry

In this essay, I draw from my archival research on early Israeli clinical knowledge production on the Holocaust. Focusing on Dr. Ruth Jaffe’s writings from the 1960s, I describe her impulse to interpret traumatic memory through the categories of disassociation and “double consciousness” as opposed to through hysteria or traumatic neurosis. This move opens important questions on subjectivity and the fantastic quality of the real in contexts of catastrophic violence. I argue that a practice of reading Jaffe’s clinical data otherwise offers insight into the violence of what it is to retain an enduring belonging to a form of death.  

Sojung Kim, “Data Collection on Family in the Time of COVID-19: Settlement Surveys and Genealogical Charts of North Korean Migrant Women in South Korea”

This essay explores how data on family life is produced for the government’s annual settlement survey of North Korean migrants in South Korea. The survey data shows that while the level of stress in family life was decreasing, living apart from family was identified as the main source of discontent with living in South Korea. I also examine how I used genealogical charts as a tool of knowledge to understand the family lives of North Korean migrant women, often fell out from the governmental survey. How does data tell about family life in the time of COVID-19?

Youjoung (Yuna) Kim, “An Archive From an Archive: Collecting Jeju 4.3 Records from the US Military Archive”

This short paper is based on my archival research at the National Archive at College Park (NARAII) during the summer 2022 as part of the truth investigation legitimated by the Jeju 4.3 Incident Special Act. I describe how the research was conducted and how I was involved in creating an archive from the military records at NARAII. I also share my reflections on historiography in which ruptures of events constitute a historical narrative.

Perry Maddox, “Without Ever Stepping Into the Forest”: Data, Distance, and the Making of Forest Carbon”

Panama is considered to be one of the only carbon-negative countries in the world. As such, it has become a laboratory for the implementation of the emissions trading programs. Data comes to figure in my work in relation to these programs, which implicate Indigenous and campesino lands as both objects of knowledge and sites of intervention. This paper attempts to understand processes of knowledge production, data collection, and analysis as generative of new relations among various stakeholders distinctively engaged with the forest mosaic landscapes of rural Panama. 

Tushar Mehta, “Taxing Data”

India adopted a new tax code in 2017, named the Goods and Services Tax (GST), thus replacing the extant tax code, Value Added Tax (VAT). This essay argues that the shift in tax administration was facilitated in large part by the digitization of tax documents in such a manner that it called to an end the hand-to-hand production, distribution, and circulation of tax documents. This essay explores the digitization of tax documents in relation to black money, formal and informal economies, and the execution of taxation.

Benita Menezes, “Thinking with Judicial Data to Understand the Spectrum of Litigation around Land Acquisition in Rural India”

The Indian state spearheaded the digital India program towards ease of doing business, and integration into the knowledge economy in 2015. State governments working with the Centre are in the process of digitizing government records across departments and various scales of government. This paper examines the large data sets made available through the repository of e-courts for one district (Raigad) in the state of Maharashtra to develop a visual analysis of land-acquisition related litigation.

Sumin Myung, “Inheriting Data?”

How can scientific data be inherited? What does it mean to inherit data in the context of long-term research on forest ecologies, especially in times of “runaway change”? This essay explores the intellectual and intergenerational stakes of inheriting field data, when both human and nonhuman worlds are experiencing fundamental transformations that often exceed any existing schemes and imaginations.

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