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.
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?