Concomitants of academic anthropology
By Luisa T. Schneider on June 2, 2016
The following article explores concomitants of academic anthropology by discussing what lies underneath our (In this paper pronouns and unaccompanied adjectives such as ‘our’ refer to social scientists in general and anthropologists in particular) carefully designed research plans. In the course of this, the paper highlights the importance of acknowledging the gap between expectations and realities at universities, in publishing, and fieldwork, draws attention to notions of ‘the other’ and to problematic structural conditions of our discipline, and offers suggestions for improvement.
It was first published in Paradigmata Voll 14. 2017. Special Issue. Int[ter]ventions. link to paradigmata - zeitschirft fuer Menschen und Diskurse
When embarking on fieldwork, writing papers, attending conferences and teaching, ‘the other’ crosses our path in manifold ways. As students, teachers, editors, respondents, readers and many more, others shape numerous features of our enterprises. Their expectations sneak up on us and end up permeating every fibre of our academic life.
During fieldwork we rightfully assume that ‘the others’ are those people whose lives we are trying to understand and write about. However, we are as much ‘other’ to them as they are to us and questions of power and influence are rightfully ambivalent. This distorts the image of anthropologist as a penetrating stranger, eager to learn, but largely unaware of local social and cultural epistemologies and at the same time a dominating counterpart over ‘the other’. Anthropologists frequently exchange their stories from the field. Despite the great diversity of their experiences, they share an overarching detachment from unambiguity and are seldom straightforward. Surprisingly, apart from a few exceptions (e.g. Kulick/Willson 1995, Sharp/Kremer 2006, Enria 2015) the papers resulting from fieldwork, although highly reflexive with regard to methodology and ethics, rarely include personal experiences of anthropologists. This absence likely hinders a reader from gaining a deeper understanding of the data and the processes of its collection. Discussions between anthropologists in corridors and coffee shops portray a different picture of data collection than conscientiously constructed ethnographies written on that data. Rather, such narratives are dominated by various emotions. In such stories, the academic expectations enter into an awkward relationship with the emotional roller-coasters that accompany the realities of fieldwork. During research, an anthropologist is constantly under scrutiny, permanently observing and being observed. Every hour and minute in a day could be considered as research. Such a situation has drastic emotional consequences, the extent of which many realize ONLY after doing fieldwork. Such a loss of control over one’s personal life is often accompanied by changes in their research which begins to adapt to local concerns. This complex mix of expectations, personal circumstances, and local epistemologies provides a significant challenge for an anthropologist.
I experienced similar challenges during my fieldwork. My work focuses on secrecy and violence in Sierra Leone. Prior to my fieldwork I had a carefully designed research proposal including several back-up plans. However, once in the field reality came crushing down on me. My interlocutors had a clear idea of where my research should go and adapted my plans in order to accommodate their views. In the course of this, not only my methodological and theoretical frameworks, but the entire scope of my project shifted. My respondents decided who I would speak to, what and how I should write. Their enthusiasm resulted in a steadily increasing workload. I was never alone and not a day went by without conducting several interviews. There were days in which people lined up to talk to me. I was invited to discuss topics and witness proceedings which are normally subject to strict secrecy. Whilst this certainly leads to unique insights and enhances a deeper and more nuanced understanding of respondents’ lives, several problems occur here.
When respondents are allowed to discuss topics they normally cannot speak about, the cover of secrecy is lifted from them, shifts, and falls slowly but unstoppably onto you. This process changes the power dynamic between the researcher and the interlocutor, with the latter gaining more power over the former.
During my research, many respondents, especially women, started discussing their life stories as soon as the prohibition to speak vanished. These were stories of war and displacement, of violence, suffering and insecurity, but also of resilience and hope; dominated by rumour and gossip, tormented by personal experiences, but silenced by the confinement of secrecy due to the fear of stigma and punishment.
Also, most of the material cannot be used because not only anonymity, but also secrecy has to be promised and because these topics are not covered by the ethics clearance obtained prior to fieldwork. Moreover, whilst it is self-evident that interviews only commence after a procedure of informed consent during which the aims and the limitations of the research are clearly stated, there is an often unbridgeable tension between the research output and participant’s hopes (Enria 2015). The disparity between researchers’ and respondents’ socio-economic benefits heightens an awareness of the extractive nature of research with vulnerable communities (ibid.). The different places we occupy in a socio-economic, racial and structural continuum, as we collect other people’s personal stories to further our careers, calls for great sensitivity. The arising problems of representation become more pressing as we construct an expert status with the experiences of our interlocutors. Consequently, research needs to be accompanied by a thorough reflection of such inequalities with the aim to deconstruct them. Sadly, whilst we can counter ‘the otherness’ imposed by a stranger visiting, extracting information and then disappearing, by returning to the field and building long-lasting personal relationships - thereby making the exchange more reciprocal- there are many ways of ‘otherness’ we cannot overcome (Enria 2015). When the lines between our personal and professional lives start to fade during fieldwork, far more complex layers of responsibility arise. Anthropologists need to be careful to respect their respondents’ privacy and remember that their curiosity does not give them the right to make all stories the subject of their investigations. Especially when friendships between the researcher and the researched develop over time, anthropologists have to be careful to respect the difference between an interview and a private conversation.
Moreover, beside the personal challenges posed by an immersion into a foreign habitat, research on sensitive topics in precarious environments is often accompanied with a complex and demanding appendage. Researching violence in particular can lead to a researcher experiencing various forms of violence at close proximity. By identifying one’s privilege and questioning one’s position, researchers run the risk of neglecting the authority of those they research. However, overlooking personal vulnerabilities does not protect an anthropologist from manipulation, intimidation, and violence. During my research my powerlessness was all too clear on many occasions. Not only did I struggle to get accustomed to having no say over my daily routine, very little power over my research project and my workload, I was also blackmailed, manhandled, beaten, and experienced sexual violence. Additionally, listening to my interlocutors’ experiences of violence was difficult. I am neither a qualified psychologist able to offer the emotional support many respondents were looking for, nor am I capable of listening to narratives of violence without being personally affected. It took me a month to develop a reference system through which I could refer vulnerable respondents to qualified institutions. It took me years to come to terms with my experiences and I am still working on this.
Yet my case is not unique. The frequency of such experiences raises the following questions: Why do such narratives only seldom find access into ethnographies? Why, if at all, are most researchers writing about them only after completing their dissertations? Here, another notion of ‘the other’ comes in through the expectations of universities and research institutions, (tenured) professors and supervisors, examiners, publishers, and (potential) employers.
In order to pass our initiations into the ranks of accepted researchers we need to satisfy certain expectations. Unique research projects, theoretical and methodological competence and the ability to combine them are in demand. However, dimensions of gender, emotion and vulnerability are frequently ignored. Although critical feminist and queer studies blossom, academia to a large extent still upholds a picture of the gender neutral researcher. Eva Moreno who wrote about being raped in the field only years after her experience explains how female anthropologist are wary of discussing gender specific topics in their work for the risk of doing damage to their identities as anthropologists and states: ‘After all who wants to be a female anthropologist when it seems possible to be a “real” anthropologist? (Moreono 1995:246 original emphasis)
However, whilst these conditions are deeply intertwined with present academic anthropology, the responsibility to determine the future of our discipline is in our hands. Let’s use the reflexivity we have gained through the crises of representation and the ontological turns and interweave them with our personal experiences. Our academic curricula could then better prepare students for fieldwork. Also, the quality of teaching, writing and publishing would be enhanced. Voicing our experiences, combined with our methodological and theoretical backgrounds could raise anthropology to another level and turn today’s concomitants into lessons learned.
Enria, L. (2015): Co-producing knowledge through participatory theatre: reflections on ethnography, empathy and power. In: Qualitative Research. Special Issue: Feminist Participatory Methodologies, 1-11.
Kulick, D.; Willson M. (1995): Taboo: sex, identity, and erotic subjectivity in anthropological fieldwork. London: Routledge.
Moreno, E. (1995): Rape in the field. Reflections from a survivor. In: Kulick, D. and M. Willson: Taboo: sex, identity, and erotic subjectivity in anthropological fieldwork. London: Routledge.
Sharp, G.; Kremer E. (2006): 4. The Safety Dance: Confronting Harassment, Intimidation, and Violence in the Field. In: Sociological methodology, 36(1), 317-327.