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 my first Savage Minds guest post, I wanted to write about the encounter that most deeply influenced my time in the field. In the remainder of my time here, I want to write in the same vein about research dynamics I sense to be widespread (and widely impactful), but that we have few opportunities to discuss. I want to think together about some of the sticky issues – some of the nagging and not-well-articulated frictions that might be worthwhile to work through. In this post I’d like to raise some questions about secrecy, and our ethnographic orientation toward the unknown.
[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.