The daily life of anthropologist?

Anthropologists are known for studying how people go about their every day lives. It may be interesting to turn the tables and ask what a day in the life of an anthropologist looks like.

(This was written for and first published at

I often get asked “What do you actually do?” by friends and acquaintances not familiar with anthropology and academic life. So I thought that it might be worthwhile to briefly sketch some aspects of the everyday life I and most of my fellow- anthropology PhDs actually lead.

In the field

As anthropologists we usually spend part of our lives in the fieldwherever/whatever that is for each of us – Amsterdam community centres, gold mines in Ghana or co-working spaces in Singapore. During the fieldwork we ‘collect data’ by immersing ourselves in the environment that we explore. Thus, when in the field, I spend my days closely interacting with a range of people. I go to the events they attend or organise, take part in meetings and discussions they have, read the books they suggest to me, go shopping together, celebrate birthdays, etc.

In many ways my life ties in with the lives of my informants as we get to know each other as people (see for example Janine Prins’ description of master student Cecile Schimmel’s fieldwork in Indonesia). Over time, through the intensity and quality of these interactions, I can slowly develop an understanding of why and how certain things, activities, and practices make sense.

At the desk

According to David Mosse, “ethnographic method [is] premised on the division of field and desk – the social and the anti-social,” which in practical terms means that after the very socially active time of fieldwork comes the time for reading, thinking, and writing. The fieldwork experiences are re-examined and transformed into a book-length description and analysis. This is a slow and often painstaking process. There are days and even weeks when it feels like you have made no progress at all. “What have I actually done during the past days and why did it take so long?” is a question that I often ask myself when struggling with the fact that reading, writing, and all the thinking and rethinking that goes into the process take time.

Yet, in terms of immersion and intensity, this part in many ways equals the experience in the field. For example, I believe many of my colleagues will admit to having imaginary dialogues with the books they read, with occasional slippages when phrases such as “Ah, how come?”, “No, there must be more to it!”, “Mhm, interesting” escape from the mind and are said out loud. So much for the stereotype of the absent-minded academic!

The borders between field and desk, however, are not necessarily as clear cut either in time or space. Many anthropologists study processes and issues which they cannot ‘leave’ (see Dorien Zandbergen’s article on cyber anthropology) and continue to communicate and stay in touch with their field after the ‘official’ field work period (see Marlous van den Akker on how she followed elections in Kenya glued to her computer screen).

At the University

Even though the ‘read/write/think phase’ is rather solitary, the loneliness is softened by the fact that we work at the university, which imposes certain institutional rhythms and routines. When September comes the university seems to explode – the building becomes alive with chatter and movement, long queues form by elevators, new students get lost and knock on random doors asking for directions, and the hallways are filled with colleagues. This also brings a whole range of seminars, workshops, lectures, administrative meetings and often also teaching responsibilities, filling the agenda with deadline after deadline to calm down only by the end of June.

During summers the university is silent. The students are away and the hallways are empty. Most of the staff is on vacation, at conferences presenting their work, or use the opportunity to immerse themselves in either fieldwork or writing/reading/thinking.

What do you actually do?

While a lot can be (and is) said about how these everyday activities contribute and shape the knowledge anthropologists produce, my aim here was far less ambitious – just to write in simple terms about what shapes the working days of myself and many of my colleagues. This is just one version, mainly based on my experiences as a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at Leiden University. It would be nice to hear more versions — what shapes your days?


Locating Futures: Singapore

This was first published at and most likely in a modified form will be part of my dissertation. Most likely in a chapters where I look at the relationship between space and future. 

During my first, exploratory trip to Southeast Asia in early 2010 I traveled from Indonesia to Singapore, from Malaysia to Burma, in each country meeting people passionate about web technologies. Many of them had started, or were planning to start, their own internet-based businesses. The goal of my visit was to familiarize myself with the environment and get to know the people in technology communities, so that I could start my research project on Future and Technology in Southeast Asia. Fairly quickly I came to realize that Singapore played a crucial role in the experiences and perceptions of technology enthusiasts around the region.

All the roads lead to … Singapore

Technology geeks I met in Indonesia talked excitedly about the times they visited Singapore and were impressed with not only the high rise buildings but also with the technology/business community there, from which they adopted specific organization practices. Malaysian founders of web startups explained to me that it is much more reasonable to incorporate their businesses in Singapore, because the legal processes are much faster there and the tax regime more favorable. One Malaysian founder, who had worked in Silicon Valley before returning to Malaysia and starting his company, explicitly said that running a business in Singapore as compared to Malaysia would be like facing the real world. For him, Singapore has the predatory competition and flow of finance that he associates with business in the real world. Some of the Burmese technology enthusiasts told me how they aspired to move to Singapore and work there in the future, because of the wealth this move could offer.

The sense of Singapore being regarded as at the real-time or more into the future as compared to the rest of region was strong during my initial conversations with people in the field of technology around the region. Many people I spoke to noted that everything happens much faster in Singapore- “Even escalators move faster there,” as one of my friends in Indonesia commented. Of course people also scoffed at the Singaporean laws and noted that Singapore is too organized to be enjoyable. Yet, the general sense was that Singapore is a more achievable version of Silicon Valley, which is often regarded as the ultimate location of technology innovation and business, always one step ahead of the rest of the world.

The epicentre of Asian Century or too sterile for innovation? 

When I arrived in Singapore, I was eager to learn how people who supposedly already live in the future think about Singapore and other locations in the world. Many of the Western expatriates I met in technologist circles proclaimed that this is Asian century and Singapore is the location from which to capitalize on the emerging global future. This belief, combined with the good living conditions that English-speaking Singapore offers, was part of the reason why many of them had moved there in the first place. Interestingly, the mere presence of such expatriates in the technology space was also pointed out to me as an indicator that the future of the Singaporean tech space is bright.

Yet, many people in Singapore were also very skeptical about Singapore’s future. They argued that when it comes to technology and entrepreneurship, Singapore needs to catch up with the developed world if it is to compete in the global economy. Singapore was described as too sterile for innovation, too small for starting a high growth business, and/or the people too conservative to be willing to do what it takes to start a truly innovative technology business. In these stories the future was located either as an exclusive property of Silicon Valley, or seen as attainable through cooperation with other countries in the region and/or by major shifts in the norms and values of the society.

Geographies of future(s)

What these encounters highlight is that particular futures (in this case futures related to technology innovation and business) are often imagined as unfolding or already being in effect in particular locations. Echoing science fiction writer William Gibson when he said “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed,” the people I met spoke of a fragmented landscape with a variety of locations, each characterized by its ability to actualize futures conducive to technology business. These geographical imaginaries seem to be not only structured along the lines of what Lucy Suchman has called reproductions of “neocolonial geographies of center and periphery” (2011:2), but also actively inform people’s understandings of the world and the decisions they make with regard to their lives (e.g., moving to a particular location, setting up a business in one location rather than another, engaging in certain activities rather than others, etc.). Thus, in my research on the aspirations linked to the so-called knowledge economy, I try to explore in more detail how such geographical imaginaries inform the lives of technology enthusiasts, and enable as well as disable certain social positions and actions.

References: Suchman, Lucy (2011) “Anthropological Relocations and the Limits of Design.” Annual Review of Anthropology 40: 1-18

Singapore Geek Girls will not leave it to Guys-only

On January 7 I had a wonderful opportunity to take part in the first Singapore Geek Girls meetup organized by Joyce Huang and Mingfei Yan. Being a girl myself I am very interested in what does it mean to be a geek girl in Singapore and I was extremely lucky to arrive in Singapore right on time for it.

I believe it was 2 months ago that the idea of an event was born and it apparently addresses a hot spot here in Singapore, as more than 30 people gathered in the cozy Group Therapy Coffee on Friday afternoon. It wasn’t girls-only event and we had 6 guys who seemed to feel rather comfortable amongst dozens of cheerful and excited girls.

As Joyce in her opening speech explained- the main reason to initiate this coming together was her personal experience of being 1 of the 5 girls vs 30 guys at her her work. “Enough with the dirty jokes!” (‘we know what you mean’ laughter). With some support from guys also girls, can change the world via technology and design. Joyce drafted a perspective where SG Geek Girls organize meetups (1 x 2 months?), talks, workshops, bootcamps and other events. However, she also stressed that what SG Geek Girls become depends on the interests and input of the community itself.

We did a wonderful introduction round where each person explained their interests and motivations for attending and was supported by applause and very often also cheers. Although the event brought together various people, I would say that majority of the girls were recent or soon-to-be graduates of NUS or NTU and were mainly interested in meeting like-minded girls who have interest in technology. While some girls had a technical background, many girls expressed their interest in learning programming. Working in close contact with geeky guys and not understanding the language they talk (programming languages after all are languages, right?) seems to be an issue of control {when he says this can not be done, is it true?} and also empowerment {to make the website the way I feel it should be, I need to know how to make it}Rather few of the girls wanted to start or already had started their own companies.

I had multiple lovely conversations with girls that afternoon and a point that I kept thinking long after the meeting was regarding the acquisition of knowledge. Very often we feel like other people ‘just somehow know it all’- as if magically guys were born with internalized and always up-to date knowledge about gadgets and sports tournaments. I bet that from guys’ perspective it might seem as well that girls are similarly born with  internal knowledge about cosmetics and celebrity weddings. None of which is true. Its all just a matter of practices that we observe and repeat, and the conversations that we have with people around us on every day basis.  Having the experience of being a minority back at Media Tech (we were a group of 20 guys and 4 girls) I can relate to many sentiments shared in the meetup. I truly believe that it is important to create a space where girls can come together, discuss technology in a manner that reflects how they feel about it- including dreams as well as insecurities- and enrich themselves with the support they get from others.

Thumbs up for Joyce and Mingfei for initiating this and I wish SG Geek Girl community grows strong and prospers :) I was very happy to see that a lot of inspiration for this event was stemming from the Hackerspace SG. Even if  building and sustaining a strong community is not an easy task, the atmosphere was full of excitement and that is a good starting point.

PS. Guys are always warmly welcomed to join as long as they bring girls along.

Facebook Page:

geek girls logogeek girl prideJoyce and GwenMingfei YanGroup photoHello Geeks introduction speech by Joyce

SG Geek Girls Meetup, a set on Flickr.

Hello Singapore!

It’s just wonderful to be here again! Even if leaving the Netherlands was the last thing I wanted to do yesterday (saying goodbye to my family and pets was just heart breaking), today I am here and feeling all excited- helllooo Singapore! I’m looking forward to the coming months here.

First impression: Had forgotten how it feels when it’s soo warm outside! Need to adjust a bit. My body seems to be going all crazy now after the 12 hour flight and the rapid change of temperature.

Note: Had my first two cups of ice-coffee. Perfect beginning!