EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution


Under suspicious eyes: surveillance states, security zones and ethnographic fieldwork

Location T-304
Date and Start Time 01 August, 2014 at 09:00


Martin Sökefeld (Munich University) email
Sabine Strasser (University of Bern) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This workshop invites papers dealing with research in sites that provokes suspicion and surveillance during fieldwork, and aims at discussing and theorizing ethical, methodological and political implications.

Long Abstract

Time and again, ethnographic fieldwork has taken place in contexts of suspicion and surveillance. Yet anthropological interest in security zones and areas of heightened control has increased, raising once more questions of control, collaboration and moral practices in precarious research sites. Governments are often suspicious of investigation and try to monitor research through their bureaucratic institutions or secret police. In addition, studies of large companies, power plants, asylum camps, fertility clinics or illicit trafficking are frequently guarded by security agencies. Anthropologists thus have to come to terms with the fact that not only researchers observe and ask questions but also are simultaneously under quite obvious observation and surveillance. This has a number of significant ethical, political as well as methodological consequences, since control and suspicion affect our relations with our partners and interlocutors in the field. They may be pressurized not to interact with or to report on researchers. Participation in fieldwork may incur significant "costs" on our research partners, and mutual trust - possibly the most important "resource" for fieldwork - is often affected or destroyed. In addition, these circumstances may influence options of what can be published.

If we do not want to completely abandon fieldwork in such surveillance states and security zones, we have to seriously deal with the ethical, political and methodological issues arising from suspicion and surveillance. The workshop invites papers that share such fieldwork experiences and discuss their implications.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Foucault in China

Author: Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi  email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses the challenges of research in surveillance regime countries with the help of the concept of self-discipline. It focuses on silences, omissions, and the politics of speech. It also explores the agency of informants and the researcher, and discusses the question of methodology.

Long Abstract

Research in countries with extensive controlling regimes such as the People's Republic of China is a challenge to social anthropologists who are expected to live for extensive periods of time in the field, conduct in-depth interviews and engage in participant observations. Research in regions like Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China raises a number of important methodological and moral issues. First, the presence of secret police and constant supervision raise fundamental questions of how to collect data and how to work with informants and assistants. Second, the researcher is faced with the omnipresent societal fear created by propaganda, surveillance and repressions. This fear significantly influences social relations, ways of communicating and language of communication. Third, awareness of a danger that the researcher brings onto her informants and assistants while in the field, and also later through her publications, results in researcher's self-censorship in terms of questions posed while in the field, the way research data are analyzed and in terms of what part of these data is eventually openly published.

This paper attempts to discuss the challenges of socio-anthropological research in surveillance regime countries with the help of the Foucaltian concept of self-discipline. It focuses on silences, omissions, politics of speech, and technologies of "muting." On the other hand, it also sets to explore the agency of both informants and the researcher. Lastly, it focuses on the question of methods and "scientism" of a research where omissions and silences constitute crucial part of the research material.

Fieldwork under surveillance in Northern Pakistan

Author: Anna Grieser (LMU Munich)  email

Short Abstract

Dissecting my fieldwork in Northern Pakistan, that took place under the not-so-secret surveillance and interference by secret agencies, I want to discern implications of their engagement, which is locally understood as the corrupted authority of the state, striking foreigners and locals alike.

Long Abstract

In Northern Pakistan, mistrust coins everyday life and the patterns of social interaction, at least since the times of the British in the 19th century. Dissecting my fieldwork in the area of Gilgit-Baltistan, I want to make use of the experiences with secret intelligence agencies and their officers, who severely monitored my research and activities in a not-so secret way. As has been argued before, mistrust shapes social relations between local people, and is fanned by the distrust from side of the state and its various institutions, as well as the mutual suspicion between (mostly) non-local officers and local people. Furthermore though, the suspicious state also takes its bearing in regard to foreigners. While foreigners from "the West" commonly enjoy a status between admiration and bewilderment among the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, they are monitored with suspicion and distrust by state officers. Setting off from this basis, I want to relate my fieldwork encounters with the intelligence officers, and how they were fanned by gossip, malignant rumours, power games, sexual frustration and jealousy. Drawing on local reactions towards the officers´ engagement, I want to discuss local strategies to consider and counter, what is locally understood as the corrupted and arbitrary authority from down-country Pakistan which strikes foreigners and locals alike.

Learning to not ask: methodological implications in a fieldwork among Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia

Author: Aurora Massa (University of Bergamo)  email

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

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.

When suspiciousness is part of culture

Author: Márton Bisztrai (Eötvös Loránd University)  email

Short Abstract

Israeli officers, Islamist activists and censoring local intellectuals. All are actors who have been following my research since 2006 in a religiously mixed town in Palestine. Their suspiciousness is an ethical and methodological question, but especially a context and driving force of the reality.

Long Abstract

Research among Christian Palestinians is loaded with the double circle of suspiciousness. The external one is represented by the risk admitting "I'm Going to the West Bank and study Palestinians' life." in front of an immigration officer when entering Israel. It also includes distrust from the Palestinians towards "the foreign who could be a spy with these strange questions." My academic interest on the Christian-Muslim relationship in the West Bank obviously amplified the mistrustful atmosphere.

Another circle of suspiciousness exists too. Christian Palestinians often explained their position "being trapped between Israel and the Muslims". But others denied this interpretation and prohibited my research about identity and general values among university students, because they were "afraid of the results and my interpretation". Behind the rejection lies an everyday strategy that I was taught among the first: Count everything and always keep the three steps distance! This is the internal suspiciousness. In the physical and mental border situation - where Christians live in their narrowing security zone - "a too long step" to any direction is dangerous.

At the beginning situations like the mentioned ones are frustrating and automatically cause ethical and methodological dilemmas. But from the perspective of an embedded researcher these are important reflections on culture.

In my paper I will discuss that on one hand control and suspiciousness limit the anthropologist's margin but on the other hand the existence and different forms of suspiciousness are relevant "information" about the social milieu, and an important context around our research partners' reality.

Undercover ethnography: studying refugees and returnees in the Angola and Zambia borderlands

Author: Pedro Neto (ICS-ULisboa)  email

Short Abstract

This paper will address the methodological, ethical and political challenges found during fieldwork research on Angolan refugees and returnees along both sides of the shared border of Zambia and Angola.

Long Abstract

The research on Angolan refugees and returnees led me to fieldwork at the Meheba Refugee Settlement, Zambia, and along both sides of the shared border of Zambia and Angola.

Getting an entry permit to Meheba as an Angolan research visa proved to be impossible. Without any local official support or authorizations, negotiating access to such fieldwork settings turned out to be a complex and often dangerous task. As such, in order to pursue my research, carrying out an undercover ethnography proved to be the only viable solution.

This paper will discuss the ethical, political and methodological implications of an undercover ethnography in a post-conflict region.

What are you really looking for? Doing ethnography under the (feeling of being under) surveillance

Author: Anna Zadrożna (Yeditepe University)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper I ask how (the feeling of) being under the surveillance influences the ethnographer, her research process and the knowledge she produces as a writer. I reflect on how to find a balance between the representativeness of research, ethics and safety.

Long Abstract

Reliability and trustworthiness during the fieldwork have been one among the main research problems since ever. In particular areas of conflict or heightened political tensions the question of trust may become an ethnographer`s nightmare: seen as a spy, an agent, or simply a suspicious person, the ethnographer may become a subject of investigation. Even if she/he is not really being tracked or controlled, the feeling of being under a suspicious eye certainly brings discomfort to her/his work.

In this paper I ask how (feeling of) being under the surveillance effects the ethnographer and her fieldwork. How it influences her relations with the informants, her behavior, and the knowledge she produces? Basing on research carried out in western Macedonia and Istanbul I broach issues such as: (political) correctness towards various institutions, loyalty towards the informants and ethnographer`s own comfort and safety. Considering the ethnographer herself as captured within different institutional networks and dependencies I contemplate the intersection between ethics, "truth", representation and knowledge. Are there spaces and issues that should be silenced or "carefully represented"? Who decides on what can be written or not? Why was my field sensitive and problematic?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.