Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: American Ethnological Society
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: Identity and Equity
Secondary Theme: Inequality
Descriptions of the discomforts and dangers of fieldwork are tropes of ethnographic writing, from the Trobriand islands to the US-Mexican border (Malinowski, Holmes, Bourgeois). Mary Louis Pratt has described the fieldwork encounter as one in which the figure of the ethnographer has much in common with the figure of the captive, both characterized by “the sense of dependency, lack of control, the vulnerability to being isolated completely or never left alone” (1986, 38). Discomfort, danger, and exposure are thus foundational elements of the ethnographic endeavor, central to both establishing the researcher’s authority as well as to constructing the narrative in which comfort, knowledge, and acceptance are the denouement of the ethnographic narrative.
The reflexive turn drew attention to the forms of epistemic violence reproduced in ethnographic writing about dangers in the field and in encounters with the Other. With these critiques in mind, this panel asks how we can nonetheless collectively recognize and make sense of the violence and harassment faced by anthropologists doing fieldwork, as they are living with people who may be similarly or unequally harassed. Many anthropologists, especially graduate students, do face dangers and traumas during fieldwork for which they are ill prepared. The vulnerabilities and dangers faced by researchers, moreover, are differently distributed and experienced according to the different identities—race, gender, class, nationality, ability, and sexuality—that we carry with us in our lives and in our work.
What does it mean to be safe, physically and psychologically, during fieldwork, or subsequently writing, teaching, making films, or working outside of the academy? One of our goals is to work towards and critically engage Elaine Scarry’s idea that “it is only when the body is comfortable, when it has ceased to be an obsessive object of perception and concern, that consciousness develops other objects,” (Scarry 1985: 39): is a body ever fully comfortable? Where is the boundary between the productive discomfort which is a trope of the ethnographic encounter, and the harassment or violence which researchers may experience in the field? How can we incorporate reckonings with the dangers of fieldwork into ethnographic writing and in conversations within our discipline? How can we do so without recurring to tropes of the dangerous Other, or without reproducing assumptions that some lives (namely, the researchers’) are worth more than others? What are the ethical and epistemic challenges of such an endeavor? To what extent is it even our right to expect safety when we leave the confines of the familiar, or enter zones of conflict or violence?
We invite submissions that consider these and other questions from a variety of theoretical perspectives. More than a collection of testimonials on personal experiences, we encourage submissions that focus on the ethical, epistemic, and theoretical problems posed by the problem of how to discuss and deal with safety and danger in the field.