Tag Archives: Fieldwork

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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Writing in and from the Field

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Ieva Jusionyte as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Ieva is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Latin American Studies at the University of Florida. She is the author of Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border (University of California Press, 2015). Ieva is currently conducting fieldwork for a new project about emergency services on the U.S.-Mexico border, funded by NSF and the Wenner-Gren Foundation.]

This morning, as I am sitting down to write this blog entry in my rental apartment in Nogales, I peer through the window: The sun has illuminated the dark brown border wall that coils over the hilly landscape and reminds me of the spiked back of a stegosaurus. Six months ago I arrived in Southern Arizona to begin fieldwork with firefighters and paramedics for a new ethnographic project about emergency responders on both sides of the line, as the international boundary which abruptly separates Mexico and the United States is locally called. Though ethnographic fieldwork takes many forms – I am conducting interviews, participating in the daily activities at the firehouse, volunteering at a first aid station for migrants, teaching prehospital emergency care at a local fire district, and engaging with the first responder communities in Arizona and Sonora in multiple other ways – my primary activity continues to be writing.

I have always been a morning writer. When I was working on the manuscript of my first book, Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border (University of California Press 2015), I would shut the doors of my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house in the forested suburbs of Vilnius, Lithuania, where I was fortunate to spend my research leave, and would sit at my large desk, facing the barren trees outside, until noontime. I did it every day of the week for several months during a long and cold winter. The manuscript was complete and sent off to my editor on the eve of spring.

The bollard-style border wall between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora. Photo by Ieva Jusionyte.
The bollard-style border wall between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora. Photo by Ieva Jusionyte.

But during fieldwork keeping a regular writing routine has been difficult. The topic of our research inevitably shapes how, where and what we write, and my study of fire and rescue services under heightened border security is no exception. Often I spend the entire day on shift with the crew at the fire station, riding along with them to the scenes of emergencies. Other days there is training, community events, long drives to do interviews at more remote fire districts. Having a background in both journalism and in anthropology affects how I go about conducting research. Instead of dividing my time into chunks for doing fieldwork and writing up fieldnotes, I tend to pursue the story as far as it takes me before I finally sit down to reflect on the new material. I think of it as combining the in-depth view of an anthropologist with the fervor of an investigative journalist. It can be exhausting. Continue reading

The Privacy Paradox: IRBs in an Era of NSA Mass Surveillance

[This invited post was written by Daniel O’Maley, who recently graduated with a PhD in cultural anthropology from Vanderbilt University. His research focuses on the global Internet freedom movement and the link between digital technology and new forms of democratic participation. You can read more about him and his research here]

Increasingly, our lives are mediated by the Internet and other digital technologies. For anthropologists like myself, this presents new opportunities for research, but the digitization, exchange, and storage of personal data also generate new privacy concerns for our participants. During my research on Brazilian Internet freedom activists, I learned about both the potentials of the Internet, as well as the way that digital technology can, and is, being abused to violate civil liberties. What I call the “privacy paradox,” refers to the situation in which the U.S. government at once defends research participants’ privacy through Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) while it simultaneously violates their privacy on a massive, global scale through mass surveillance national security apparatus.

The privacy paradox become apparent to me in July 2013, just a month after the Snowden leaks that exposed NSA mass surveillance, when I sat down to interview a high-level official of a Brazilian IT firm. Before the interview, I detailed the measures I was taking to ensure that his personal data would be protected and I explained that this was required by Vanderbilt’s IRB per U.S. law. Upon hearing this, the IT official looked at me incredulously. Over the previous two months the front pages of newspapers had been plastered with articles detailing U.S. government surveillance projects with codenames like PRISM, XKeyscore, and Stellar Wind that used the global telecommunications infrastructure to collect personal data on people around the world. My interviewee was well-versed in issues of privacy in the digital age, so to hear me state that the U.S. government was concerned with his privacy was laughable.

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Pseudonyms 2.0: How Can We Hide Participants’ Identities When They’re on Pinterest?

It has been standard practice in anthropology to change the names of the people and places we analyze, but recently scholars have been questioning the necessity and even possibility of keeping participants anonymous, especially when they already have a social media presence. In this post, I share what I did to anonymize my research site and participants, and I do my best to start a discussion about the broader issue of anonymization now that detective work can be as simple as plugging a few search terms into Google.

When anthropologist Cathy Small enrolled as an undergraduate in her own university ten years ago to do the fieldwork that resulted in My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (2005), she knew that she wanted to protect the identities of her participants and institution by referring to them using pseudonyms. She called herself “Rebekah Nathan” (an excellent choice of pseudonym if you ask me) and Northern Arizona University “AnyU” (a play on its initials, NAU).

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To Fieldwork, To Write

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Kim Fortun as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Fortun is Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is the author of Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders (University of Chicago Press 2001), former co-editor of Cultural Anthropology, and is now playing a lead role in the development of the Platform for Experimental, Collaborative Ethnography.]


Sometimes, to do fieldwork is to write. This was the way first fieldwork went for me, in the years in the early 1990s when I was working in Bhopal India, at the site of the “world’s worst industrial disaster,” resulting from a massive release of toxic chemicals over a sleeping city. The devastation was horrific, but debatable from the outset. Dead people and animals were strewn across the city, rows of the dead covered in white sheets paved hospital courtyards. The sounds of coughing and grief were overwhelming, and unforgettable.  Disaster was blatant and flagrant, yet it was still was a struggle to account for in words and politics.

It was years later I was told and read about the sounds and sights of Bhopal in the days just after December 3, 1984. Journalists, activists, academics, poets, and many who were tangles of all these helped with the accounting. Stories about the plight of gas victims were also, always, stories about cover-up and denial. Even the basics – the numbers of dead, the number exposed, the number injured – were (and remain) in dispute.   At the 30th anniversary of the gas leak in 2014, activists were still mobilizing to revise the death record. 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

Anonymity, Ethnography, and Alice Goffman: Welcome, journalists

I think I’ve written and thrown away three separate posts on the Alice Goffman debate trying to find something to say that people will find interesting. I personally don’t find the case to be very interesting, or to speak to core issues of what ethnography is or should be. In my opinion, the takeaway is: Goffman wrote a remarkable book at a remarkably young age, like all books it has some problems, and it is bearing an absolutely incredible amount of scrutiny fairly well. She did hard fieldwork and had to make hard choices writing her ethnography, and some people disagree with those choices. But that’s not an interesting theoretical problem. That’s just life.

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Don’t Trust Your Memory!

While this Slate article uses the recent news about Brian Williams as a hook, I think the advice it gives is very useful for anthropologists doing fieldwork. Whatever you think about Brian Williams, there is more and more evidence that human memories can’t be trusted. This is important for anthropologists who often rely upon their memories as a research tool. The article gives some good advice for avoiding that problem, much of which most anthropologists are probably already doing (keeping notes!) but it helps make clear just how important these practices are.

After decades of well-documented, prominent cases of memory distortion, people whose professions put a premium on facts and truth—journalists, politicians, business leaders, judges, lawyers, and public figures—should be aware of these limits. In fact, they have a responsibility to understand the fallibility of their memories and to take steps to minimize memory mistakes. If you are relying exclusively on your own memory when saying anything of consequence, especially when someone’s reputation is at stake, you must think twice.

I especially like the point that our most vivid and frequently recalled memories may be the most subject to distortion because “each recounting has the potential to introduce new distortions.” Worth keeping in mind!

The Politics (and Stories) of Fieldwork in Cuba: Good job, President Obama, but is this just ‘here we go again’?

(This guest post comes to us from Laurie Frederik. Laurie is Associate Professor and Director of the Latin American Studies Center at the University of Maryland, College Park.  She is author of Trumpets in the Mountains: Theatre and the Politics of National Culture in Cuba, Duke University Press, 2012, and has been conducting research in Cienfuegos and Guantánamo provinces since 1997. -Rex )

The promised opening up or “normalizing” of diplomatic relations with Cuba may or may not mean that much will change for researchers, although tourists and commercial entrepreneurs rejoice in its potential.  President Obama’s statement had significant performative value, a declaration more powerful than a promise, perhaps, given the authority of the speaker. It was exciting for those of us who have been struggling to conduct research on the island for many years, and it inspired a flurry of projected “what if” and “when…” scenarios.

As amazing as Obama’s and Raul Castro’s televised statements were, however (their simultaneity is also notable), real policy change probably has a long way to go.  There has been easing of restrictions before.  Does anyone really believe that Obama can do more than Carter or Clinton?  Does this moment simply mean that a new generation of ethnographers has a window of opportunity they must seize before the next clampdown and/or next election?  I think we all feel that after 54 years, it’s about time and that Obama would be the man to do it.  What remains to be seen is how fast, to what degree, and how the changes directly affect those on each side of the Florida straits.

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A Death in the Field

Serendipity confounds me. I spent most of Monday writing the following reflections on the death of a Bulgarian woman, one of my “key informants,” who unexpectedly passed away two weeks ago while I was in Sofia. You can imagine my surprise when I logged on to Savage Minds this morning to post my short tribute to Ana. I encountered Ruth Behar’s beautiful piece on the passing of Esperanza, her comadre in Mexico and the inspiration for Translated Woman. Behar’s essay moved me to tears, and my own purple prose pales in comparison to her poetic rumination on the way an ethnographer’s life can become intertwined with those whose stories we have the privilege to tell. Journalists would say that I’d “been scooped,” since this post evokes many of the same issues and emotions as Behar’s and she is by far the more accomplished writer and anthropologist. But for Ana’s sake, I’ll post this humble essay anyway. The fleeting immortality of the written word is the only gift we ethnographers have to give.

Sveti Sedmochislenitsi church in Sofia, Bulgaria
Sveti Sedmochislenitsi church in Sofia, Bulgaria

Getting to know people across the barriers of language, culture, and generations provides one of the greatest joys of ethnographic fieldwork. I dislike the term “informant” because of its negative connotations, especially in the postsocialist context where people once “informed” on each other to the secret police. I prefer the term “fieldwork friends.”

I’ve conducted ethnographic research in Southeastern Europe for eighteen years, and I recognize the difficult power imbalances and the hierarchy of privileges that underpin relationships in the field. My position as an American – first as graduate student, then as professor – provides certain advantages that my fieldwork friends lack. Despite these challenges, I’ve forged close relations with many Bulgarian men and women who’ve shared their lives with me over the years.

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Ethnographic Fiction: The Space Between

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Roxanne Varzi as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Roxanne is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Irvine. She is author of Warring Souls: Youth, Media, and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran (Duke University Press, 2006). Her ethnographic research in Iran spans multiple genres, from the ethnographic monograph to ethnographic fiction to the film Plastic Flowers Never Die (2008) and on to the sound installation Whole World Blind (2011). Her current research is on Iranian theater.)

Fiction, for me, like ethnography, has always melded with a deep desire to understand and explain the world around me. As an eight-year old in Iran I wrote stories to either escape or explain the Revolution that had turned my country into an Islamic Republic and had turned my single identity as a dorageh, or two-veined Iranian, into half-American, half-Iranian, forcing me to either choose one identity or to stay in-between. Writing helped me to make sense of the in-between, to make sense of my new life while holding on to the one that was already becoming a dream — unreal.

The past was a place where “Bombs were flying through the air, the sky was ablaze, there was no night.” My American high school teacher read this opening of one of my stories and said, “Write what you know.” She smiled at me and told me to try again. I explained that I had seen bombs and that the sky was ablaze and night or not I couldn’t sleep for days as a child because I was so scared about what was happening in the streets. At least that’s how I remembered it.   I came to see early on that we cannot fully replicate reality—even and especially in ethnography—in film, text or sound (the mediums I work in), nor is fiction purely a figment of its writer’s imagination. Was I writing fiction or ethnography and did the distinction really matter? Continue reading

What archaeologists do

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Sara Perry.]

On Friday my colleague, Dr Colleen Morgan, and I will be co-delivering a paper at the University of Bradford’s Archaeologies of Media and Film conference in Bradford, UK. For anyone not familiar with the still-emerging field of “media archaeology,” this is an exciting event, featuring some of its pivotal thinkers (e.g. Jussi Parikka, Thomas Elsaesser), and a diversity of researchers discussing everything from 19th century stereoscopy to statistical diagrams and animated GIFs. As the organisers stated in their Call for Papers, the conference is a gathering of various interests, all converging on “an approach that examines or reconsiders historical media in order to illuminate, disrupt and challenge our understanding of the present and future.”

Colleen and I are talking on the last day, in the last block of parallel sessions, in a line-up of speakers who appear to be the only other archaeologists at the event. While I’ll delve into the details of “media archaeology” in a subsequent post, it is notable that archaeologists effectively never feature in this stream of enquiry. Rarely do archaeologists or heritage specialists attempt to overtly insert themselves into the media archaeological discourse (Pogacar 2014 is arguably one exception), and neither do media archaeologists typically reach out to archaeology for intellectual or methodological contributions (but see Mattern 2012, 2013; Nesselroth-Woyzbun 2013). Indeed, the media archaeological literature has explicitly distanced itself from archaeology, with the editors of one keystone volume writing:

“Media archaeology should not be confused with archaeology as a discipline. When media archaeologists claim that they are ‘excavating’ media—cultural phenomena, the word should be understood in a specific way. Industrial archaeology, for example, digs through the foundations of demolished factories, boarding-houses, and dumps, revealing clues about habits, lifestyles, economic and social stratifications, and possibly deadly diseases. Media archaeology rummages textual, visual, and auditory archives as well as collections of artifacts, emphasizing both the discursive and the material manifestations of culture. Its explorations move fluidly between disciplines…” (Huhtamo and Parikka 2011).

I’ve been curious about this trend of archaeology-free media archaeology for a while now, particularly after attending Decoding the Digital last year at the University of Rochester (see Matthew Tyler-Jones’ excellent review of the meeting in two parts: I and II). At this conference, one of the attendees with an obvious media archaeological bent lamented the difficulties of studying abandoned virtual worlds wherein direct identification of human beings was essentially impossible (for all that was left in these worlds were fleeting digital traces). The implication was that few methodologies were available to negotiate this seemingly hopeless interrogative exercise.

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“An anti-nominalist book”: Eduardo Kohn on How Forests Think

Earlier this month I sat down with Eduardo Kohn to talk about his amazing book How Forests Think. We started out discussing his intellectual influences and ended up ranging widely over his book, the status of Peirce as a thinker, what ‘politics’ means, and a variety of other topics. Thanks to the hard work of our intern Angela, I’m proud to post a copy of our interview here. I really enjoyed talking to Eduardo, so I hope you enjoy reading it!

Wisconsin and the Amazon

RG: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk. I really enjoyed How Forests Think. When I started it I was a little on the skeptical side, but I ended up thinking it was a mind-blowing book. I thought we could begin by discussing the background for the book and your training. I see the book as mixing biology, science studies (especially Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour), and then some sort of semiotics. It seems like there are a lot of influences there. You got your PhD at Wisconsin, so how did that work out? Can you tell me a little about your background?

EK: The way I got into anthropology was through research, by which I mean fieldwork.  And I was always trying to find ways to do more fieldwork. I saw Wisconsin as an extension of this. When I was in college I did some field research in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I had a Fulbright to go back and do research after college, and only then did I go to grad school.   Although How Forests Think aims to make a conceptual intervention in anthropology, I think of our field as a special vehicle for engaging intensely with a place in ways that make us over and help us think differently. Continue reading

The Ethnographic “Shooting Ratio”

One of the questions I get asked most often by graduate students doing ethnographic research is about how much data they need to collect. I think this is especially troublesome for those who are doing fieldwork somewhere far away, where limited time and funds mean that they will unlikely be able to make a return trip after they return from the field. But even those doing research closer to home want to know “How much is enough?” In answering this question I draw on my experience as a documentary filmmaker.

A “shooting ratio” is “the ratio between the total duration of its footage created for possible use in a project and that which appears in its final cut.” For a Hollywood film, where the scenes are planned in advance, this might be four to one. That is, shooting four hours of footage for every hour of the final film. Now that films have largely gone digital, producers no longer need to worry about the cost of expensive film stock, but it still costs a lot to have actors and crew out for a day and nobody wants to waste too much time shooting the same scene over and over again.

For documentary films, however, it is different. Continue reading