Affect, Attention, and Ethnographic Research: Thoughts on Mental Health in the Field

This year has seen some encouraging openings in a much-needed conversation on academia and mental health (for example: The Guardian, Chronicle Vitae, The Professor is In). Many of these interventions critically tie their findings to the costs of operating in the academy today. While these conditions increasingly impact all of us, here I’d like to try and tie this talk to anthropology – and specifically, ethnographic research.

In public spaces, personal and professional, it’s surprising how often our year or so of fieldwork is alluded to as the time of our lives. In methods courses as much as published writing, we generally get the feeling the fieldworker is having a great time (when they’re not, it’s often a contained experience, reframed as educational experience). Part of it is probably natural nostalgia. Part may be the very conditions of research (an advisor once warned me to be careful what you work on, as you’ll come to love it a little either way). And part of it may be our fear of the otherwise: we’ve all read Malinowski’s diaries, and stories of enjoyment somehow suggest mutuality, as if our experience means our interlocutors felt the same. The idea is that ethnography entails loving attention, and positive affect – passion, interest, and intimacy – is what prompts, drives, and directs our research. Despite decades critiquing the romanticization of field research, we still talk about it in pretty glowing terms.

Of course, the fact that fieldwork is difficult is an open secret you’re let in on the day you get back from the field. Of course, uprooting and starting fresh somewhere is hard. But beyond the sort of routine discomfort, I know so many researchers whose experience is more intense. Fieldwork rearranges our mental landscape, with sometimes disruptive or disturbing results: depression is a fieldwork story I’ve heard so many times. Isolation, equivocation, and irresolvable FOMO are more or less inherent to the exercise, and may well put us at risk. But here I’m less interested in causes: I want to ask what happens in these moments, instead. I would venture that most of us are drawn to anthropology because we’re invested in the problems and possibilities of our worlds. But for many, depression manifests as precisely a lack of interest; a chemical inability to care. If we are, ourselves, our own research instruments, what happens when our attention escapes our control?

Anthropologists have critiqued the cordoning off of emotion into the personal, the pathological realm. Our experience of feelings like depression are socially structured, and these interpretations vary and change over time. But for extremely understandable reasons, not many write their research process into these results (Martin’s Bipolar Expeditions comes very close). Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling is one example of work that does. Like Martin, Cvetkovich challenges the idea that psychological states are private affairs. Claiming depression as a “public” feeling, she suggests we have good reasons for feeling bad (racism, colonialism, and capitalism among them). In doing so she shifts the experience of depression from diagnosis to embodied critique. Rather than a disease to be cured or limitation to be overcome, depression is put to work as political resource. Cvetkovich’s work is part-memoir, which allows her some leeway – but reading it, I wonder how we might think our work in this way.

If depression weren’t only a personal but a public problem – one so pervasive we might see as tied to the enterprise itself – it might first lead us to make stronger demands on our systems: our institutions could be more thoughtful about the nature of our labor; they could be more respectful of and responsible for our care. But it might also lead us to think differently about the nature of our research, itself. Ethnography is a set of practices and style of writing, but it’s also a mode of inhabiting one’s life. An affective orientation – a specific attunement – ethnographic fieldwork is a way of moving through the world. Ethnography means attending carefully to what’s around you; it entails presence and attention, and interest above all. On good days I joke that I am curious for a living – to me this is the pleasure and privilege of our work. But depression is defined precisely as a problem of motivation and mood. It saps the attention that may be our best tool. In this way depression looks like the undoing of ethnography (which goes toward explaining the specificity of the issue, and the shame). It seems striking, to me, that our way of producing knowledge is tied to a certain kind of energy and even affect; that the pressures to inhabit it may feed into its opposite, compounding an intensity already there.

But the conclusion of Cvetkovich’s Depression is equally instructive: entitled “The Utopia of Ordinary Habit,” her closing is a meditation on the mundane. Like depression, for Cvetkovich “the everyday” is labeled “private” but is in fact publicly, politically involved. In this way she sees “habit” as a site of potential, a site where political feeling emerges and is engaged. She turns specifically to crafting – routine, repetitive creation – as a practice where such engagement can be seen. Sewing, knitting, and scrapbooking, for example, all show concepts and conditions made tactile; reworked bit by bit into something else. Here Cvetkovich finds her approach to depression as public feeling rather than personal disease: not in big ideas but in their embodied process and practice; in the persistent and unglamorous commitment to daily life. I have questions about her access to sources of healing, but I’m interested in their framing, here. This focus on the ordinary, rather than the exceptional, is of course, the space of ethnography, too. Depression’s infiltration of the everyday may be another way it’s so devastating to the ethnographic imagination. But Cvetkovich’s use of “habit” also signals a way through it, also consistent with what we do: taking up and taking seriously the work of everyday living – not in spite or outside of emotion, but as a way of engaging feeling itself. Her example of “craft” points not to passion, excitement, or even interest – but rather to other affects like commitment and care. Such alternatives might be useful for talking about fieldwork, alongside the ideal of enjoyment I’ve described. They might work as more reasonable expectations, and sometimes more accurate descriptions of our work as “research instruments” in the field.

These are all loose ties and tenuous suggestions. But what I want to do here (and here, and here) is speak more plainly about some of the emotion tied to ethnography, acknowledge and work toward expanding its range. I think doing so offers possibilities for thinking our work better, but also finding subtle shifts (rather than also-needed institutional overhauls) that might encourage our practice, and sustain us in doing it well. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the same!

Cvetkovich, A. 2012. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham: Duke University Press.

Martin, E. 2009. Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Alix Johnson

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

4 thoughts on “Affect, Attention, and Ethnographic Research: Thoughts on Mental Health in the Field

  1. Dear Alix,

    Thank you for writing this post – I could relate with this on so many levels. In the past (and perhaps even now), I have been reflecting a lot on the role of emotions – particularly, grief, loss, and empathy – in ethnographic fieldwork. I have myself engaged with them in my work on domestic violence; not only how the violence you encounter on field affects you, but also how dealing with loss personally in a way radically humanizes (for the lack of a better term) the fieldwork encounter.

    This is more so since in several NGOs, this emotional dimension tends to be underplayed to a very large extent by a focus on numbers and outcomes, while the violence, loss and grief does affect everyone – and, I think, plays a crucial role even in motivating people to continue on in these fields (akin to a sort of emotional labour perhaps, but of course, more complex).

    On a theoretical note, I found the work of Arthur Kleinman, Veena Das and Renato Rosaldo very inspiring – particularly Rosaldo’s recent work on grief. And I do agree with you that as professional practitioners of ethnography, we do need networks in institutions that recognize the emotional and mental health aspects of ethnography. In a very small way – something I hope to write about on Savage Minds later – some of my peers and I have started what we call a “peers and beers” support group, to deal with stuff ranging from writer’s block to emotions of fieldwork. I do think many of us are engaged in such collective efforts, but yes, more needs to be done.

    Thank you once again, for this post, and all the very best!


    p.s., I am re-plugging a post that I had written on emotions during my fieldwork in Dharavi, Mumbai, last summer:

  2. Proshant, thanks so much! I really appreciated the writing you posted – in particular, the link you make between emotion, ethics, and honesty. I’ve also loved Das and Rosaldo, and will have to check out Kleinman’s work. Looking forward to seeing more on this from you!

  3. Hey Alix. I am glad you found it interesting! Hopefully, I should be work around that theme a bit more in the coming months – will find a way to keep you posted on it. And good luck for the future!

  4. Alix –
    Thanks for sharing a fascinating piece. Like some ethnographers, my time in the field was one of the most emotionally intense periods of my life, probably only matched by the end and immediate aftermath of a bad marriage. On the whole though, my experience in the field was really positive, and I mourned deeply when it was over, struggling to reintegrate to life in Chicago after living in Brazil.
    Nevertheless, your general point about how the emotional stresses of fieldwork are actually a form of embodied critique strikes home, as my difficulty returning — in retrospect — was a kind of protest of the return to a life that was so regimented, dominated by instrumental and career concerns, and stoically disciplined by the day-to-day practice of academic careerism. I had really not thought that deeply about it until reading your piece.
    Thanks for this — a lovely bit of wisdom to read.

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