Tag Archives: Ethnography

Writing About Violence (Part II)

After nearly three years of eating almost nothing but the watery beans and undercooked rice I was served while conducting research in Brazilian prisons, I couldn’t wait to hit the restaurants of New York City when I returned from the field. I was surprised to find that even the spiciest chana masala tasted bland. I was numb. Kind neighbors had to remind me to put on a coat when I left my apartment to walk to the library, even though the sidewalks were covered with ankle-deep snow. My nose didn’t even twitch when I was forced to wait for a train on a piss drenched subway platform.

Well-meaning friends recommended therapy. Graduate advisors suggested writing as a strategy for self-care. I watched movies instead.

One night, I went out to see Ônibus 174, a slick documentary directed by José Padilha that tells the story of a Rio bus robbery that turned into a nationally televised hostage situation. The film manages to vilify poor black youths who turn to violence out of desperation, and the police officers who are tasked with keeping such violence out of the neighborhoods where privileged Brazilians like Padilha live. I left the movie theater with hot tears in my eyes and cried for six hours. Then I opened a brand new notebook and, for four straight hours, wrote about the seemingly endless reasons my fieldwork experiences led me to despise Padilha’s film.

No one but me will ever read those pages. The writing they contain is too raw to share. I confirmed this a few weeks ago, when I pulled out that notebook to verify that the writing was as awful as I remembered; it was. Sure, I’d vividly described a few places and had jotted down the kernels of thoughts that have since ripened, or that I am still cultivating. But, overall, the prose was too emotional and self-absorbed to be ethnographic.

I’ve thought of that private notebook when reading the texts of some emerging ethnographers who have recently studied violence in the field and have rushed to write publicly about their experiences before they’ve had the time to really think them through. While I commend such individuals for having the courage and the discipline to write, I also invite them to pause before publishing. Ethnographic writing can be a therapeutic exercise, but to be effective it must also be more.

Ethnographers of violence who are far, far more accomplished than I have argued that writing can help an anthropologist who has been emotionally taxed by fieldwork to recover. Even as the act of writing plunges the anthropologist back into the field, it also offers him or her a way to move beyond personal experiences of horror or fear to arrive at larger conclusions about the human condition. But the movement from therapy to theory is not as simple as this statement implies. It is only over time, and via multiple drafts, that writing permits the ethnographer to tease out the ways that intensely felt personal experiences of fear or suffering jarred their previous understanding and challenged them to rethink troubling problems and uncomfortable truths from unexpected angles.

When we read Philippe Bourgois, Mick Taussig, or Donna Goldstein—or many, many others who write about violence with style and grace—we don’t always notice the intellectual labor that went into producing their work. The grit and urgency of the writing belies its polish. Many of us aspire to write so vividly, so personally. Yet, it is crucial to note that when we read texts like In Search of Respect, Law in a Lawless Land, or Laughter out of Place, even though we feel the immediacy of the ethnographic encounter by being privy to the author’s thoughts and emotions while in the field, the enduring contribution of these texts lies in what their authors have told us about the people and the places they have studied, not in what the authors have revealed to us about themselves.

Moving from therapy to theory in writing about personal experiences of violence is intellectually demanding work. The difficulty of the task is exacerbated by the imperative to publish quickly and often. When still overwhelmed by the stresses and emotions of recent fieldwork, it is often easier (and more immediately rewarding) to write about the personal effects of what we experienced in the field. But allowing time and reflection to intervene between our ideas and the visceral and the emotional aspects of certain ethnographic encounters can enable us to better think through the ways that personal experiences of fear or suffering can illuminate larger patterns or problems. To put it simply: while ethnographic writing can offer catharsis, it should also offer critique.

References

Bourgois, Philippe. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Goldstein, Donna. Laughter out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown. University of California Press, 2013.

Taussig, Michael. Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Theidon, Kimberly. “‘How was Your Trip?’ Self-care for Researchers Working and Writing on Violence.” Drugs Security and Democracy Program DSD Working Papers in Research Security. New York: Social Science Research Council, 2014.

Reclaiming Detroit: Decolonizing Archaeology in the Postindustrial City

This entry is part 10 of 16 in the Decolonizing Anthropology series.

By Krysta Ryzewski

Detroit moves quickly; issues of scale and pace in a city of this size pose major challenge to contemporary archaeological practice. I’m not sure what a decolonizing archaeology should look like here, but it’s happening nonetheless. It is grassroots. It connects with communities. It shares the skills we have as social scientists with people, places, and collections. The goals are simple – to tell stories that matter, to empower memory, to increase participation, and, hopefully, to spur action against destructive forces of erasure and exclusion. We don’t have the luxury of time and protracted theoretical deliberation on our side; this work is done in a climate of rapid late capitalist development and privatization, where most of places we encounter are at the mercy of irreversible decay from ruination or demolition by developers.
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Suggestions for Summer Reading: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Struggle to Write

For the past couple of years I’ve been addicted to a series of books by the  Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard.  Presented as fiction,  these explore in minute detail the everyday life experiences of the author  from his childhood in the 1970’s to his relationships with his friends, his family and his children.

Knausgaard presents a vivid picture of the world around him  as  it  is affected by, and affects, the  constantly evolving  interior world of his own perception and consciousness. The writing is phenomenological. It evocatively captures the materiality of  ordinary living through its various locations and artifacts, as well as the intensity of  the embodied feelings and sensations which make up life as it is lived.  The reader experiences what it was  like to grow up on an  island in Norway, to ride a bike aged thirteen on a summer evening and the click of  inserting  a cassette tape into a tape recorder in the 1980’s.

These evocations of   what   anthropologists would  recognize  as  ‘ordinary affect’  are profoundly moving. The  first book in the series deals with the emotional repercussions of the death of the author’s father, a violent alcoholic. The  most recent, published in English translation in 2016,  describes a visit to  his  elderly  grandfather in a city hospital.  While the interior orientation of these books and the emphasis on the narrow consciousness of the author seems at first sight to be in sharp contrast to the  exterior orientation of  an ethnographic approach,  it  generates astute insights into the wider cultural and social worlds which he inhabits. Reflecting on the organization of the hospital in which his grandfather is a cardiac patient, and by extension all hospitals, Knausgaard observes how the medical categorization of disease  as afflicting specific organs organizes social relations and the space within it.  The personal identity of his grandfather is rendered insignificant through this process of classification. `For hospitals all hearts are the same’.

I love reading  Knausgaard’s books  because such close accounts of every day life and relationships are  fascinating.  These  are, after all, the staple diet of  anthropology.  But  I think these books are good for anthropological thinking beyond this, prompting a  reflection on anthropological practice as comprising  both participation and representation.   Knausgaard’s books  offer a situated perspective on what it is to be a social actor in a specific time and place.   They  provide access to a position usually inaccessible to  an anthropologist.  They allow the reader to experience `being there’  as an observant participant, from the inside looking out,   and as a person who is  changed by these experiences.

Knausgaard  is not solely concerned  with  thinking about participation. He takes us one step further as he  explores  the difficulties of capturing this in writing.   Representation is explored practically through the  structuring of the texts  and as a  social practice. Knausgaard’s  life effort which he recounts in this series  is his struggle to become a writer. This struggle is not simply intellectual.  It entails getting the time and space to sit alone and write uninterrupted, managing the demands of   other work,  of partners and children and dealing with the  unsightly by products  literary production in the form of  wasted effort, rejections and negative reviews.

A key insight, over the five books so far published in English (there are six in all), is that good writing takes time. Time to actually do writing, time to develop the skills to write well and, importantly, time to develop a voice. Recommended summer reading.

Are nuances like curry leaves?

The title of this post – and its contents – was inspired by an anecdote I wrote about in an earlier post in my field blog. Before I proceed, I want to recapitulate it.

It was late-August, and towards the end of my fieldwork. Sanjay, Pankaj, Jagdish,* and I were having lunch in the NGO’s field office in Dharavi. After we finished lunch – a combination of coriander chicken curry and rice, made by Pankaj – Sanjay said introspectively, “We field staff, who work on the ground level, we are like curry leaves.” He asked us if we knew what he meant by that. I shook my head, no. Pankaj said that it is perhaps so because the field staff, like curry leaves, “adds flavor” to the NGO’s work. Jagdish offered his interpretation: because we (the front-line staff), like curry leaves, are chewed up and spit out once the taste or flavor is gone.

Sanjay smiled, and nodded: “Yes, that’s what I meant! A combination of the two!”

I wrote in the previous post why I found this metaphor so intriguing. It demonstrates the reflexivity of the front-line workers – how they are positioned hierarchically compared to the ‘offices’ – and is also a reflection on the kind of ideas and epistemologies they bring forth in their everyday intervention work in the basti (communities). Continue reading

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.
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Filming Empathy – Part 1

In their essay “Whatever Happened to Empathy?” Hollan and Throop1 cite the ambivalence that Franz Boas felt about the usefulness of the concept for ethnography:

On the one hand, Boas seemed to champion empathy when acknowledging that the ‘‘needs of anthropological research have led many investigators to adapt themselves as thoroughly as may be to the ways of thinking of foreign tribes and peoples . . .” And yet, on the other hand, Boas remained decidedly suspicious of such empathetically based approximations of other lifeworlds, given his views on . . . the problems inherent in inferring similarities based on observed likenesses in outwardly perceptible behaviors and effects.

Another way of putting this might be to say that a little empathy aids in interpretive understanding, but too much empathy gets in the way of rational explanation. Maybe this is the case. I certainly think that studies of nonhuman animals tend to suffer from either a total lack of empathy or a surfeit of anthropologizing that refuses to recognize difference. I’m less certain how important it is to insist on recognizing difference when dealing with other humans. Talal Asad famously criticized Ernest Gellner for his insistence on difference in his article on “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology” in the book Writing Culture. In that essay Asad points out that the refusal of empathy insisted upon by Gellner takes place in the context of a history of unequal power relationships between the two sides. But to the extent that we take “the culture concept” seriously, surely we must be wary of the potential of empathy to erase the differences we wish to explain?

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NGO-graphies: On Knowledge Production and Contention

NGOgraphies logo

The NGOs and Nonprofits Special Interest Group held its second biennial conference before the AAAs last week. It’s designed to give anthropologists and practitioners working in and with NGOs a chance to engage with each other in a more intimate, focused way before diving into the chaos of the AAAs. Entitled “NGOgraphies,” this year’s conference explored the dual meaning of the term, coined by Steven Sampson and Julie Hemment in 2001, which refers both to critical ethnography of NGOs in general and to analysis of the human geography of NGOs in particular. The conference attracted 112 attendees from 13 countries, and session organizers were encouraged to use alternate formats to engage participants, ranging from workshops to roundtables. Rather than a general report on the conference, this post is a reflection on some of the specific conversations and lines of thought the conference generated for me.

When I circulated the call for papers for my roundtable panel What Is This ‘Local Knowledge’ that Development Organizations Fetishize? to the NGOs and Nonprofits Interest Group listserv in May, I got the following email in reply:

Dear All,

I might have been interested in participating, but will likely be traveling overseas for humanitarian work at the time. I have worked for international NGOs and aid agencies for 30 years, as I do now. However, I must say that the title of the session troubles me. As a long-time member and leader of such organizations, I have never known our community to “fetishize” local knowledge. I think the term is disrespectful to my colleagues and their work and insights. This seems like some sort of construct or perception of research-based academics.

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A Case for Agitation: On Affect and Writing

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Carla Jones as part of our Writers’ Workshop seriesCarla is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her research analyzes the cultural politics of appearance in urban Indonesia, with particular focus on femininity, aesthetics and Islam. She has written extensively on self-improvement programs and middle-class respectability during the Suharto and post-Suharto periods in Jogjakarta and Jakarta, and is the co-editor, with Ann Marie Leshkowich and Sandra Niessen, of Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress (Berg, 2003). Her current work situates anxieties about Islamic style in the context of broader debates about visibility and wealth.]

 

We are living in affective times. At least according to the many journal themes, conference panel titles and other measures of anthropology’s current interests, affect is in the air. This feels relevant for thinking about writing. Feeling seems central to the reasons we write, even if we rarely say that out loud. Feeling in the mood to write, feeling ready to say something, feeling safe to say it, feeling passionately about it, feeling proud of it once we’ve said it, these all undergird the conditions for writing. These feelings contrast with the objectivity of a social science based in data and facts, and we have a now decades-long critique in the discipline about the fundamentally political and subjective nature of knowledge production. But these are also largely positive feelings.

I want to suggest that one of the motivations to write is also irritation. This may seem contrary and cranky. I don’t mean for it to. For me it is empowering. I increasingly find that the nudge that takes me from mental idea to written word is much more than a deadline. It is a feeling that might be impolite. I find I am most in the mood to write when I am agitated. Continue reading

Anthropology as Theoretical Storytelling

[This essay is part of the Fall 2015 Savage Minds Writers’ Workshop series.]

Anthropologists are storytellers. We tell stories: other’s stories, our own stories, stories about other’s stories. But when I think about anthropology and storytelling, I think also of something else, of anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

What is anthropology as theoretical storytelling? Several things. A discipline engaged in explaining, understanding, and interpreting cultural worlds as well as in developing theoretical paradigms large and small for making and making sense of cultural worlds. This is not something new to anthropology. Looking across generations of anthropological scholarship, theoretical storytelling appears repeatedly. From Zora Neale Hurston’s tales and lies to Muchona the Hornet to the Balinese cockfight to Rashīd and Mabrūka and Fayga in Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments and on and on. Stories stay with us. People stay with us. Esperanza. Adamu Jenitongo. Uma Adang. Gloria. Miss Tiny. Charles and Morley and Nick Thompson. Angela Sidney. Valck. Mr. Otis. Bernadette and Eugenia. Tashi Dhondup. And so many more. Anthropology as theoretical storytelling may be a method of narration by both ethnographer and subject, a means of organizing writing, a way of arguing certain ethnographic points, and an ethnographically-grounded way of approaching theory. This is not then a singular approach or description, but a term that captures a range of anthropological sensibilities and strategies. Continue reading

Anthropologies #21: Weather changes people: stretching to encompass material sky dynamics in our ethnography

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the Anthropologies #21 series.

Heid Jerstad brings our climate change issue to a close with this thoughtful essay. Jerstad (BA Oxford, MRes SOAS) is writing up her PhD on the effects of weather on peoples lives at the university of Edinburgh. Having done fieldwork in the western Indian Himalayas, she is particularly interested in the range of social and livelihood implications that weather (and thus climate change) has. She is on twitter @entanglednotion –R.A.

For most people, the climate change issue is a bundle of scientific ideas, or maybe a chunk of guilt lurking behind that short haul flight. The words have fused together to form a single stone, immobile and heavy. Change is a bit of a nothing word anyway – anything can change, and who is to say if it is good or bad, drastic or practically unnoticeable?

But what about climate? It is a big science-y word, neither human nor particularly tangible. Climate is about a place – engrained, palimpsested, with time-depth. That big sky, those habits – the Frenchman advising wine and bed on a rainy day, the Croatian judge lenient because there was a hot wind from the Sahara that day. This is weather I am talking about, seasons, years, the heat, damp and sparkling frost.

People care about the weather. We consider ourselves used to this or good at observing that. My home has more weather than other places – it is colder in winter, the air is clearer and brighter – because it is mine. My sunsets – this is eastern Norway – are vibrant and fill the sky, my sky will snow in June with not a cloud, my nose can feel that special tingle when it gets to below -20˚c. The north is not gloomy in winter – the snow is bright white, the hydro-fuelled streetlights illuminate empty streets and windows seal the warmth in.

What is your weather? It would be safe to assume it is part of the climate and I would go out on a limb and say I think you care about it. Am I wrong?

When the weather matters to people, the task becomes one of bridging this caring and the climate change science and projections. Looking at the impact of these weather changes in different areas of life is, then, going to make up a steadily larger part of useful climate change research.

Mead famously convened a conference with Kellogg titled ‘The Atmosphere: Endangered and Endangering’ in 1975, and Douglas published Risk and Blame in 1992. In the new millennium Strauss and Orlove (2003), Crate and Nuttall (2009) and Hastrup and Rubow (2014) brought edited volumes to the debate. It seems to be fairly well established, then, that climate change is a matter for anthropologists, as phrased by the AAA statement on climate change: ‘Climate change is rooted in social institutions and cultural habits. … Climate change is not a natural problem, it is a human problem.’ What then, can anthropologists do, about this problem? Continue reading

Embracing Impostor Syndrome

Cat posing as a meerkat
image source

It seems a fair amount of academics, especially women, suffer from impostor syndrome, “a constant fear of being discovered to be a fraud and a charlatan.” Self-doubt is surely a universal human trait, but we vary in our ability to suppress, ignore, and/or manage such feelings. What is perhaps somewhat unique about impostor syndrome among academics is that “it’s the successful who tend to suffer from it: In order to feel like you’re faking it, you need to have already reached a certain level in your discipline.” As Kate Bahn puts it, it’s “a twisted version of the Socratic paradox—the more you know, the more you feel like you know nothing.” I once calculated that for every book I read I find myself discovering at least ten new books or articles I feel I need to read. That means that if I read a book a week there are about five hundred and twenty new books on my list by the end of the year, each of which feels urgent and essential for my own intellectual development. One’s awareness of the vast body of knowledge we don’t know is actually part of what makes us “experts” but the price we pay for this expertise is a kind of self-doubt. It is always possible that the next book will contain the golden nugget we are searching for.

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VISUAL TURN IV: People and Stuff– A Conversation with Keith M. Murphy (2/2)

In a previous post, I described the process of an ‘Ethnocharrette’ – essentially a strategy that incorporates aspects of design methodology into anthropological practice. As part of a longer series thinking about how art/design modalities are increasingly commonplace in anthropologies that aren’t designated as visual anthropology. I wondered if this attention to art and design in anthropology is ‘new’ or simply new to me given my recent collaboration with two artists? Is there something of a “visualisation of anthropology” underway? I discussed these questions with Keith M Murphy, author of Swedish Design: An Ethnography. This post is the second half of our conversation. Continue reading

VISUAL TURN III: Anthropology of/by Design — A Conversation with Keith M. Murphy (1/2)

Encounters with art and design by an anthropologist and curious non-expert in visual culture.

Since starting to work alongside an artist and a designer, I’ve become more aware of ethnographic practice inflected by art and design. There seems to be a growing number of institutional spaces, degree programs, courses, workshops and books devoted to exploring different combinations of art/design aesthetics and ethnography. While audience and aims vary, one can’t help but wonder what it means for there to be a kind mushrooming of art/design inflected methods and outputs (Design Anthropology, Anthropology Design, Design Ethnography, Sensory Ethnography to name a few and see for instance a last year’s ANTROPOLOGY + DESIGN series on Savage Minds). While visual anthropology has an extended history, and anthropologists have long been interested in the intersections of aesthetic and cultural production, is there something of a “visualisation of anthropology” (Grimshaw & Ravetz 2005) underway? Is an attention to art and design in anthropology ‘new’ or simply new to me? For those of us not designated as ‘visual’ anthropologists, are we being asked/invited/demanded to engage with different modalities for fieldwork and scholarly output?

I decided ask an expert. Keith M. Murphy is an anthropologist of design. His new book Swedish Design: An Ethnography is just that. It is a rich description and analysis of how everyday things (furniture, lighting) are made to mean through processes of design within the context of larger cultural flows. Like some of the iconic objects he describes, Keith’s writing is sharp, uncluttered and politically aware. Continue reading

Visual Turn II: Teaching to Take Stock

Encounters with art and design by an anthropologist and curious non-expert in visual culture.

Earlier this year I was reading the Internet and came across Duke University Press’ list of “Best books of 2014”. Scrolling through, I was held by the title Syllabus: Notes from An Accidental Professor. Cartoonist and author Lynda Barry’s work Syllabus is not easy to pigeonhole into a genre. It is one part how-to manual, two parts graphic novel and a dash of memoir. Its form mimics the inexpensive composition books she asks her students to work in for the semester. Drawn in by her use of images (pardon the pun) I ordered a copy. Continue reading

Committing Crimes during Fieldwork: Ethics, Ethnography, and “On The Run”

At this point the debate about Alice Goffman’s book On The Run looks something like this:

  1. Goffman writes a successful ethnography.
  2. Journalists are peeved that Goffman followed social science protocols and not journalistic ones.
  3. Journalist verify that Goffman’s book is accurate.

  4. Journalists remain peeved that Goffman followed social science protocols and not journalistic ones.

Although I’m sure no one feels this way, I think this is a success for everyone: Goffman is more or less vindicated, her discipline demonstrates it can withstand external scrutiny, and journalists do what they are supposed to do and take no one’s words for granted. In this clash of cultures, I think both sociology and journalism can walk away with their dignity intact.

There are still some outstanding issues, of course. One is Goffman’s claim that police checked hospital records looking for people to arrest — something I’d like to deal with later on. Here, I want to focus on the claim not that Goffman was inaccurate in her reportage, but that she broke the law during her fieldwork.

This criticism comes from law professor Steven Lubet. Having loved Goffman’s book, I thought it would be easy to dismiss Lubet’s critique — especially the part where Lubet asked a cop whether details of Goffman’s book were true and the cop is like: “No we never do that to black people” and I was like: “Well I’m glad we got to the bottom of that, since police accounts of their treatment of minorities is always 100% accurate.” But in fact Lubet’s piece is clearly written and carefully argued and I found it very convincing. That said, how much of a problem does it pose to Goffman’s book? Continue reading