The Self at Stake: Thinking Fieldwork and Sexual Violence

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Alix Johnson]

I don’t intend to write about surveillance and suspicion, but then I spend my first five months of fieldwork feeling watched.  I move to Reykjavík for dissertation research a year after being sexually assaulted there; just in time to testify in the ensuing trial.  I schedule my first interviews between witness preparation.  And in the months before he’s convicted, I get used to seeing my assailant around town.  Our eyes meet at bars and we share aisles at grocery stores; I see or sense or imagine or conjure him a few paces behind me while I’m walking home.  But his are never the only eyes on me – my lawyer says the defense attorney will question my character, so I weigh my decisions, imagine defending them in court.  Later, our case is covered by the tabloids.  They describe exactly what he did to me, and I watch people trying to find it in my face.

Meanwhile, I’m meeting with engineers and developers, talking about data centers and fiber-optic lines.  I’m here to study the making of Iceland as an “information haven”: as John Perry Barlow called it, “the Switzerland of bits.”  A proposal for economic and political recovery, many saw positioning Iceland in this way as the path forward from the  financial crash.  So developers build data storage facilities, officials draft “information friendly” laws, and entrepreneurs found startups to manage it.  I want to trace the physical and conceptual infrastructure that allows Iceland to take on this new role.  Assuming technological connections index other intimacies, I am trying to track how debates over Iceland’s “connectivity” raise questions over sovereignty, identity, and place in the world.  My field notes from this period are hard to read now.  Desperately exhausted by the work of surviving, I’m frustrated that this should interfere with my “real” research.  But a year later, I can see something else there: a way of being that shaped the way I see and do my work.

Being assaulted during preliminary fieldwork was a first position of intimacy I couldn’t shake.  Without choosing it, I was irrevocably tied to someone; both of us were bound to the state.  With law enforcement mobilized in my “best interests” and the legal system speaking in my name, I was assigned a subject position I wouldn’t have had otherwise, as a mixed-race American in Iceland for a year.  I was claimed in ways that felt and feel complicated – to place and to people, for better and worse.  But being assaulted also changed the way I moved in Reykjavík.  Being watched made me watchful, obsessively engaged.  Preparing for a trial, a police report, a confrontation, I was aggressively attuned to my surroundings.  Hungry for detail, I filed facts away: the shifting clientele of downtown establishments; the quality of ice encasing different streets.  The exact setting time of the sun.  This strikes me now as a kind of amplified ethnography: I was overly impacted by the world.  Like a parody or distortion of the openness we aim for, I took it in hungrily but for my own sake.

I think this specific flavor of attention led me to others with peeled eyes and pricked-up ears.  It may be that my paranoia attracted others’ – but in techno-optimistic talk of the future, I learned to listen for things people felt they shouldn’t say.  It turns out that if you ask Icelandic engineers about fiber-optics, they tell you about the “spy cable” built by the United States: a communications line linking the South coast of Iceland to a network of hydrophones tracking Russian subs.  It turns out that much of Iceland’s information infrastructure was developed for the military base built there in the Cold War.  And it turns out that all this public/secret construction worked through watching and being watched.  While Americans used the Reykjanes peninsula to watch Russians, they kept tabs on Icelanders working on the base.  These Icelanders, employed to build and maintain it, felt their attention and sometimes turned it back.  Now-elderly Icelanders who worked for the military describe the conditions of suspicion at work.  Páll, a contractor today in his 60s, is first to tell me a story I come to hear many times: an Icelandic worker is stopped by an American soldier as he’s walking home with a wheelbarrow full of sand.  The soldier sifts through the sand, suspicious, but finds nothing and lets him go on his way.  The next day, the same worker meets the same soldier, whose curiosity again is piqued.  But again he searches him and, finding nothing, reluctantly lets the worker go.  The same interaction continues daily until the soldier accepts the worker’s routine.  “What happened?” asks Páll, hands spread and grinning: the worker was stealing the wheelbarrows, one by one.  When you know they’re watching, give them something to see.

I followed these stories of surveillance in Reykjanes out of selfish interest and self-preservation.  I was drawn into talk of the skills that I needed; I was being trained by experts in being watched and watching back.  But I learned that such overlapping networks of secrets kept up the Icelandic-American surveillance machine (about which — more forthcoming).  And today, as this infrastructure is turned into an “information haven,” championed as transparency’s cutting edge, some of these conditions of secrecy persist.  Former employees asked to consult on the project have been surprisingly, decidedly unhelpful: as one developer dejectedly explains it, “in Reykjanes information isn’t just given away.”  Today, then, Iceland’s most promising techno-futures are actively engaged with this particular past – not only in the form of its physical remnants, but also in these practices and affects of secrecy that persist amidst the supposedly shiny and new.  I’m not suggesting that my experience of surveillance allowed me a direct understanding of theirs.  But I do think it knocked askance my original angle, directing my attention somewhere other than head-on.  Doing so  allowed access to less obvious connections, giving my analysis a different kind of ground.


I remember being trained in ethnographic research.  Being told to open myself, radically, to the world.  I remember fretting about belonging, discussing strategies for accessing different social space.  Fieldwork was once framed as “penetrating intellect” (Killick 1995); more recently, “immersion” has been the goal (c.f. Helmreich 2007).  Though these ideals have been critiqued soundly (for example, Gupta and Ferguson 1997; Helmreich 2007; Mahmud 2013), they’re alive in aims and anxieties we develop for ourselves.  But we as anthropologists are differentially porous; those of us already marginalized subject to different kinds of claims.

After I’m attacked in Iceland, I tell everyone.  And everyone tells me how it happened to them – being stalked or harassed, followed or assaulted.  A handful of studies, such as Kate Clancy’s, qualify, quantify, the situation as dire.  But these still rarely public conversations tend to stop at the fact that it happens and should not.  I want for us to be safe from sexual violence happening; I want for us to have healing and accountability when it does.  But I also want to hear what it does to and for us.  If it still matters to talk about the shape of our engagement (no less than our ethnographic methods, after all), and sexual violence in anthropology is so widespread, I am stunned by how unprepared we are to discuss it.  When I do, I’m lucky to be believed but I’m pitied: it’s seen as an unfortunate limitation to my work.  It’s true there were things I couldn’t access because of violence, but there were other things I had to learn – I’ve tried to point to a few of them here.  It’s remarkable that we’re allowed just one relationship to violence, when we – as anthropologists but also human beings – know that there are so many more.  An advisor once challenged me to interrogate precisely the things that immobilize my imagination; I’ve never seen such paralysis as when we talk about assault.  Why is it that the conditions we choose are good to think with, while the things that happen to us are not?

Eva Moreno (notably, a pseudonym) claimed in “Rape in the Field” that “Anthropologists don’t get harassed or raped.  Women do” (Moreno 1995: 246).  We know it’s not only women who are assaulted.  But as Kulick and Wilson suggest in the same volume, sex “puts the self at stake” (22).  Our embodiment conditions our capacity for knowledge production – the old argument for reflexivity, perhaps overdone or out of style.  But if better engagement with sexual violence has not been made pressing as a feminist question, I suggest it is an epistemological one, too.




Gupta, A. and J. Ferguson. Discipline and practice: ‘the field’ as site, method, and location in anthropology. In Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science. Ed. A. Gupta and J. Ferguson. Pp 1-46.

Heimreich, S. 2007. An anthropologist underwater: immersive soundscapes, submarine cyborgs, and transductive ethnography. American Ethnologist, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 621-641.

Killick, A. 1995. The penetrating intellect: on being white, straight, and male in Korea. In Taboo: Sex, Identity, and Erotic Subjectivity in Fieldwork. Ed. D. Kulick and M. Wilson. London: Routledge. Pp 76-106.

Kulick, D. and M. Wilson, eds. 1995. Taboo: Sex, Identity, and Erotic Subjectivity in Fieldwork. London: Routledge.

Mahmud, Lilith. 2013. The profane ethnographer: fieldwork with a secretive organization. In Organizational Anthropology: Doing Ethnography in and among Complex Organizations. Ed. C. Carsten and A. Nyqvist.  London: Pluto. Pp 189-207.

Moreno, Eva. 1995. Rape in the field: reflections from a survivor. In Taboo: Sex, Identity, and Erotic Subjectivity in Fieldwork. Ed. D. Kulick and M. Wilson. London: Routledge. Pp 219-249.


Alix Johnson is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and graduate research assistant at the Center for Emerging Worlds.

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