Reviewed by: American Ethnological Society
Of interest to: Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: Ethics
Current debates abound over the theoretical, methodological, and disciplinary-defining value of ethnographic fieldwork in sociocultural anthropology (see recent forums and debates in journals such as HAU, Current Anthropology, and Cultural Anthropology). This roundtable dives into one intriguing, but often under-theorized corner of such conversations about who and what we are as anthropologists: the case of awkward, embarrassing, and unexpected encounters and interactions during fieldwork.
We often teach in our introductory classes that the discomfort, embarrassment, and other outcomes of social blunders are normal, even necessary features of productive ethnographic fieldwork. But what specifically do we gain from awkward encounters? How can we make mistakes well? And what are the stakes of making mistakes poorly, for us and for research participants? Further, how do we responsibly and ethically represent such encounters in our writing and teaching?
In this roundtable, we explore the sometimes-unexpected intellectual, methodological, and political lessons of various “kinds” of fieldwork awkwardness. We will consider both awkward encounters that happen in front of us as observers, those in which we are protagonists, and those in which we are caught in the middle or recruited to one side. Speakers will address issues such as the unexpected benefits of shyness and introversion (our own or our research participants’) in fieldwork, what is revealed in social bumbles and missed cues, unexpected encounters ranging from harassment to solicitations of illegal activity, managing peer pressure to convert to a new religion, and balancing calls to take sides from research participants on opposing sides of conflicts. At times, we learn about particular cultural norms when we as researchers inadvertently violate them, or about the kinds of structural social constraints our research participants face when we ourselves uncomfortably stumble over them. We also refine understandings of identity construction and situational negotiation when research participants hail unexpected elements of our identities. We will discuss these issues in the context of ethnographic projects on environmentalism and conflict in Israel, North American amateur astronomy, Italian antimafia activities, conversion to Islam in Spain, masculinity and sexuality in Mexico, and classroom language use in India. The roundtable will be organized to solicit and ensure time for maximum audience participation in the discussion.