Learning to not ask: methodological implications in a fieldwork among Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia
Aurora Massa (University of Trento)
Paper short abstract:
In a context where suspicion and surveillance obstructs the ethnographic research, my assuming the double position of being object of observation as well as the subject of investigation allows me to understand the multiple meanings of mistrust
Paper long abstract:
This paper analyzes some methodological implications of my fieldwork with Eritrean refugees living on the Ethiopian border with Eritrea. The political oppression experienced by the refugees and the tensions between the two Countries wrapped my investigation in an atmosphere of suspicion and surveillance and in the constant rumours of being watched by the secret police, or being part of it. The data gathering was precarious and challenging: government institutions tried to monitor the research, hindering my access to even the basic information, and refugees rarely answered my questions, diverting the conversation or explicitly lying. The advices of my Eritrean friends about the thorny question in which my research was getting stuck were quite unanimous: to know what I was looking for I should be part of their group, I should learn to not ask and to speak about myself. Nevertheless, if the context of mistrust obstructed me from "doing" the anthropologist, my scientific prerogatives made no possible being just part of the group. Therefore, I assumed the double position of being object of observation as well as the subject of investigation. Accepting partially the reversal of roles allowed me to understand how mistrust, suspicion and lies were not only a protective veil from my inquiring eyes, but they were also a characteristic of the most intimate relations. Rather, they defensive as a way to protect themselves, as a historical and political habitus, as a way to stay in a world that, with its suffering and violence, would be unbearable.