ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

(P63)
Moralities, 'sensitive issues' and ethnographic experience: challenges in times of polarisation
Location Science Site/Engineering E005
Date and Start Time 04 July, 2016 at 14:00
Sessions 2

Convenor

  • Patricia Scalco (University of Helsinki) email

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Short Abstract

This panel explores footprints we leave behind and particular challenges attached to anthropological research on 'sensitive issues', broadly defined, in environments of increasing polarisation and of friction between disputed understandings of liberal/conservative agendas and lifestyles.

Long Abstract

The last decade has seen an increase in polarisation articulated in economically, religiously and ethnically charged discourses. The realm of the private/intimate, permeated by secrecy and taboo, is increasingly recognised as a powerful dimension of cultural and political phenomena and thus reconfigured into a legitimate ground of anthropological interest with important ethnographic challenges (for example Kulick and Wilson 2003, Mahmood 2005). Taking these elements into consideration, this panel invites contributions from anthropologists to reflect on the limits and limitations of conducting ethnographic fieldwork on 'sensitive topics' or issues commonly situated in the 'backstage' (Goffman, 1959), in contexts of socio-political polarisation and friction between notions of liberal/conservative lifestyles. The proposed theme intends to stand as a provocation to reflect on how ethnography of politically/morally charged or supposedly less accessible realms of human experience may reshape our understanding of anthropological fieldwork. What footprints do we leave behind and what are the particular challenges and possibilities for anthropological research exploring sensitive issues/intimacies in environments of politically charged polarisation and potential conflict between liberal/conservative lifestyles? Are there particular methodologies that lend themselves to studying the 'backstage' in such ethnographic contexts and do they raise specific ethical issues? How are transgression and taboo reconfigured and negotiated by ourselves and our informants and can ethnographic exploration constitute a particular form of political engagement in these contexts?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

A dispute between “tradition” and “democracy”: what is behind it? Exploring an eighteen-year lawsuit between two groups of servants of the Kamakhya temple complex (India)

Author: Irene Majo Garigliano (CNRS, Centre d’Études Himalayennes, France.)  email

Short Abstract

Carrying out fieldwork with people who oppose each other in a lawsuit needs the anthropologist to be very diplomatic, however unforeseen revelations can result during interviews. The neutral position of the anthropologist may encourage major expressions of each individual point of view

Long Abstract

In the late 1990s a dispute arose concerning the management of the Kāmākhyā temple complex (India). Significant economic interests intertwined with strong ideological positions. The Brahmans having the highest ritual rank, the Bardeuris, defended their “traditional” right to elect among themselves the Dalais (heads of the temple complex). The opposing party, the Kamakhya Debutter Board (KDB) claimed to be a modern organ, rooted in “democracy”, because its declared aim was to extend the access to management to all servants of the temple complex, irrespective of their cast. The two opposed parties invested money and energies in an eighteen-year suit, which was finally settled in 2015 by the Supreme Court of India.

I carried out extensive fieldwork while the suit was pending (2011-2013), interviewing members of both parties. This paper focuses on the interviews I carried out with two men, one committed to KDB and the other to the Bardeuri Samaj (the association of the Bardeuris). These two individuals knew each other and were aware that I was interviewing both of them. This is probably the reason why they were particularly responsive to my questions. The delicate balance I had to maintain in my relationships with them had unexpected results. The passionate accounts the two men gave me allowed me to go beyond the ideological discourses displayed by the two parties (“tradition” against “democracy”) and to explore the socio-political dynamics and economic interests that led to the formation of the two opposite groups in the late 90s.

Mapping the minefield: doing fieldwork in Saudi Arabia

Author: Simeon Magliveras (King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals)  email

Short Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to discuss doing fieldwork in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As a conservative Islamic society, there are limits to what researches can investigate but with an appropriate research model, the human experience can be better understood and explained to the greater public.

Long Abstract

Public secrets are embedded in parts of public life most everywhere. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is no exception. But if the goal of the anthropologist is about greater understanding the human experience, regardless of the constraints placed on the ethnographer, noteworthy work can result. Saudi Arabia is an enigma to much of the world. It is one of the wealthiest countries but also it is a conservative Islamic state. For over a billion people, it is the holy land. Simultaneously, many populist non-Muslim voices characterize Saudi people in very derogatory terms. This paper is not being apologetic for the policies of the Saudi government, nor does it argue in support or against Salafi, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Rather, examines the significant role anthropology can play in understanding 'conservative' Saudi society. This paper argues that anthropology must not fall into an orientalist trap but appreciate the society and it many voices on its own grounds. My fieldwork sheds some light on everyday life in Saudi Arabia even under the restriction posed by institutions and individuals. My research suggests, the type of research question posed frees the researcher in and around sensitive subjects and ethical concerns, whether it be "backstage" or "on stage". Even though doing fieldwork in Saudi Arabia can be a virtual minefield, this paper concludes that anthropology can contribute to a greater understanding of Saudi Arabian society and leave a visible and significant footprint on both outsider and inside Saudi Arabia.

To film or not to film

Author: Nada Al-Hudaid (University of Manchetser)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the engagements of a filmmaker with conservative Shia community in Kuwait

Long Abstract

I went to fieldwork to explore the Kuwaiti Shia religious music production which is mainly men's sphere. As an Arab female student, with a camera, I have anticipated the kind of limitations I may have due to the conservative nature of this religious group so I went ready to tackle it with many tactics on mind. It is only when I was there that new avenues opened up in front of me giving me a glance to powerful female religious activities in art, theater and singing. The last two categories are made by women for only women audience so no recording or photography was allowed in any form. The professionalism of such performances and their impactful voices and acts were too good not to be documented.

In this paper I will explore how entering a very conservative community can be easy in the beginning but become challenging by time due to layers and layers of limitations an outsider with a camera can face. Also, I will present some of the negotiations I had to make in order to keep the camera involved and how this piece of equipment deemed wanted and changed power dynamics between me and those who gave me access which eventually put me in a position to help push the boundaries of their conservativeness. Being trusted is great but it becomes a burden as you develop relationships and people in the field start to see you more than just a researcher.

Vulnerabilities unveiled: the ethical complexities of conducting ethnographic research with people with learning disabilities

Author: Carys Banks (University of Bath)  email

Short Abstract

This presentation explores the following emergent aspect of my doctoral research: the ethical complexities and uncertainties - for both researcher and participants - when conducting ethnographic research with vulnerable people.

Long Abstract

Through my doctoral research I have been ethnographically exploring how government policy is interpreted and incorporated into social care support for adults with learning disabilities in the UK. In this I have been particularly interested in looking at policies focused on empowering people with civil and economic rights and responsibilities over their lives. Influenced by liberal values, which position individuals as autonomous, self-sufficient agents, I am interested in exploring how this 'sits' in relation to the fact that people with learning disabilities have cognitive impairments and so are, in varying ways, reliant on others for support with aspects of their lives.

In my fieldwork and beyond, I have experienced significant challenges - as a researcher and on a personal level - in attempting to come to terms with and make sense of the difficulties surrounding conducting ethnography - a deeply immersive form of research that requires physical and emotional proximity to participants - with highly vulnerable individuals who often experience significant levels of loneliness and social isolation. Here, I am interested in exploring 1) whether in hindsight I can ethically justify using this approach with the people with learning disabilities with whom I worked, who possibly formed strong attachments to me as a person, and 2) whether the emotional impact and ethical uncertainties I experienced at being faced head-on with the intense vulnerabilities of participants should or should not be included within my doctoral thesis, as part of the processes of methodological enquiry, even the findings themselves.

Sensuous knowledge about victims' guilt in Argentina

Author: Eva van Roekel (Utrecht University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the epistemological value to assess on an ethnographer’s dream and guilt unlocking local understandings about emotions. Based on ‘shared’ reflexivity, it suggests conversation about these field experiences with informants and interpretation of emotion by their cultural logic.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the epistemological and methodological value to assess on ethnographer's emotions in the field to further unlock particular local affective attitudes. It mainly deals with alternative ways of learning in the field by reflecting on a transgressive dream and the subsequent experience of guilt, which revealed important local insights into guilt and an every victim's ethos rooted in a cultural junction of psychoanalysis as a worldview and a common therapeutic practice. While conducting fieldwork in Buenos Aires among victims and indicted military officers that were involved in the trials for crimes against humanity that were committed during the last dictatorship that ruled from 1973 to 1983, many uncomfortable emotions attached to violence, suffering and accountability remained unaddressed during the interviews. To unlock particular affective attitudes towards the atrocities, I turned instead to alternative resources, like silence, humour and dreams, to gain local understandings about uncomfortable emotions. In so doing, empathy and reflexivity played significant roles in understanding the other. Other anthropologists have also been fascinated by how reflexivity on ethnographers' emotions plays a significant role in understanding the other during fieldwork (Lorimer 2010: 100; Luhrmann 2010: 213). They emphasize mostly the intersubjective character of emotions, which would validate and legitimize reflexive methodologies. To further unlock local meanings of emotions, I suggest discussions about these emotions in the field with the people we study. This means explicitly mirroring and discussing ethnographer's emotions with informants and trying to interpret these emotions by their cultural logic.

Favela-activism and practices of resistance against state violence in Rio de Janeiro: reflecting on the challenges of an engaged and participatory anthropology

Author: Antonia Gama (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

This paper addresses the challenges of conducting an engaged and participatory ethnographic research within the context of favelas facing forced eviction in Rio de Janeiro.

Long Abstract

This paper addresses the challenges of conducting an engaged and participatory ethnographic research within the context of favelas facing forced eviction in Rio de Janeiro. It draws on a year's ethnographic research I conducted in Vila Autódromo, a small favela located in a gentrifying area of Rio. This favela has been recently brought into the limelight due to an ongoing process of demolition and eviction for the construction of Olympic facilities, which will subsequently be turned into a major real-estate development. Within this framework, residents from this community became mainly divided between two groups: those who want to be evicted because of the high compensations and therefore act in favour of the municipality, and those who grounded in moral reasoning insist in remaining in the area despite all the city's efforts. The ethnographic data also illustrates how the latter group used the researcher's film-making equipment and skills to improve the technical quality of their visual campaigns, and what were the outcomes of that to the researcher's positionality in the field. The paper will contribute to debates on the complex relationship between activism and ethnographic engagement, highlighting the different roles anthropologists can play within contexts of resistance against state violence in Rio's favelas.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.