Participant Observation and PTSD

One of an ethnographer’s most important instruments is his or her body. What has been called an “affective turn” in the social sciences has entailed thinking of the body as more than a set of significations in the performance of an identity. Writing in anthropology along these lines has provided a refreshing appreciation of how discursive approaches do not adequately capture the body that lives, moves, and senses. “From a phenomenological perspective, the living body is considered the existential null point from which our various engagements with the world—whether social, eventful, or physical—are transacted.” 1

Doing fieldwork with people displaced within Ukraine this summer has taught me a lot in this regard. When I most fully appreciated this was last night. I noticed as I was going to sleep that it was raining. Then, as I was dozing off, I heard what I thought was bombing. Gunfire. Then car alarms in my neighborhood began going off.

With my heart pounding, I leapt out of bed, and started to climb under it. Then I thought better of that idea, threw on my clothes, and grabbed my wallet and passport with the thought that I do not want to die in pile of rubble here and now. I ran around the room in circles a few times thinking about what else to take before deciding my belongings were, at that moment in time, irrelevant. Then, as I was breathing rapidly and turning the key in the lock, I stopped to think about what I was hearing.

Thunder. It’s raining. I hear thunder. I took off my street clothes and went back to bed. As an ethnographer, I know this is a “good” sign: I am sensitive enough to not only empathize with the people who choose to share with me, but also to feel, inside my own skin, something of this protracted “hybrid” war.

Even though I was at that time far from the conflict zone, my body understood rain and thunder as armed conflict because I had been listening carefully to people who had escaped the fighting, or expected war to come to their region. In psychological language this is called “vicarious post-traumatic stress disorder.” In anthropological language, this is called “participant observation.” I have several other symptoms, and I don’t know whether to call them disordered or ordered, but that is beside my point.

The point has to do with how attention to the body may complement other approaches. Phenomenologists argue that even our most basic experiences of physical objects provided evidence of a foundational inter-subjectivity. This is really the only way I can understand all of the shifts in my own embodied experience. The foods that taste good and bad; the perfumes and scents that appeal and repel; the objects that elicit fear and calm, are different.

Balaclavas, because they obstruct recognition, and weapons for obvious reasons, used to terrify. Now I have a very different physical and emotional response.

For readers who don’t follow the conflict in this region, those who objected to the Russian Federation’s territorial incursions into Ukraine (primarily but not exclusively Crimean Tatars) began to blockade Crimea. This is where weapons and balaclavas come back in. They set up and have maintained what they call a “citizen blockade” since Fall 2015 because Ukrainian products (entire semi-trailers full of Ukrainian goods) flowed into and changed hands in the Russian-controlled territory, even after the unlawful occupation. Obviously, this undermined the effectiveness of Western sanctions, and made it easier for the occupational authorities to maintain their control of the peninsula.

In this context, balaclavas protect the men and women who have taken matters into their own hands. They cover their faces because if Russian security services recognize them as working to free Crimea, whether that is in the capital or some other part of Ukraine, their family members and loved ones living across the border in the occupied territory could be become the targets of violence. War and kinship are linked here, and both are highly tactical.

uehling 2016
uehling 2016

In what Rigi (2012) called, describing Russia, “a corrupt state of exception,” guns and balaclavas are part of my everyday. The image of tea time, showing my university-issued audio recorder, notebook, and a machine gun (not mine) captures, from phenomenological perspective, the flow of fieldwork around contested territory. In a place where many things don’t make sense, and where “fear” and “safety” collide, my body is my guide.

1 Desjarlis, Robert and C. Jason Throop. 2011. “Phenomenological Approaches in Anthropology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 40: 89.

RIgi, Jakob. 2012. “The Corrupt State of Exception: Agamben in Light of Putin,” Social Analysis Vol. 56: 3: 69-88.

Greta Uehling is Fulbright scholar currently based in Ukraine. She teaches in the Program on International and Comparative Studies and is an associate faculty member with the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.